Turning up, tuning in & not dropping out: Learning to love lectures part 2

In my previous post, I explained what a lecture is, why we still use lectures to teach history, and what you should expect when you turn up to class. In this post, I’ll go through some practical ways of getting the most from your lectures – whether you need to show up at all, how to prepare, what to do in the lecture theatre and how to stop everything leaving your head the minute the lecturer stops talking…


Your first choice is whether or not you’re going to turn up – if the lecture is at 9 am after the big student club night, on the far side of town/campus, it’s raining and you’re just not sure you’re that bothered. You’re not sure what the lecture’s on today. You can catch up from someone else or using VLE support…

Well, yes, you can, but there are several reasons for making the effort to go to that lecture:

  • Lectures give you an overview of the course content direct from the lecturer – i.e. the person setting and grading your assessment.
  • You will sense the different historiographical approaches to a subject, in particular which ones you need to consider when writing essays.
    • Your lecturer might prioritise particular approaches, which will become obvious in the lectures.
    • Even when lecturers put handouts and PowerPoints online, they may ad-lib a point or make an emphasis in the actual lecture that isn’t clear from the supporting materials.
  • Although no lecture will tell you everything about a subject, a good lecture should pique your interest and get you thinking.
  • You get to pick what you’ve found interesting in a lecture – if you use someone else’s notes, then you’re getting what they found interesting.
  • You see how other people react to ideas and themes.
  • You remind yourself who else is doing the module – and pick up on the freshest campus gossip during breaks…
  • Up-to-date practical information about the module is often announced in lectures first.
  • Don’t rely on recordings! Not all lectures are recorded and even when they are, the technology can fail (discussed below).
  • Lecturers notice who is there and who isn’t! It never hurts to be known as someone who shows up…
    • On a selfish note, as a lecturer, I find my lectures are better when I’ve got an audience to bounce off. It’s not that I’ve prepared any more, or the content of the lecture changes. It’s about the atmosphere in the room – like when actors talk about the buzz of being on stage as opposed to being on telly, dah-ling. Lecturing to an empty room just isn’t the same, even when students swear they’re watching online later. So, if you want good lectures, be a good sport & show up – your lecturer will appreciate it.

Before the lecture

You won’t be expected to have done extensive reading before a lecture – unlike seminars, where skipping the reading will put you at a glaring disadvantage. However,there are some things you can do before arriving in the lecture theatre so that you don’t get too bamboozled by new ideas and concepts.

  • Look at where the lecture sits within the module – lecturers think carefully about the order of lectures when they’re designing the course. Is this particular lecture going to be important for understanding later ideas and concepts?
    • On my European Reformation module, the lecture on the Pre-Reformation Church comes before the lecture on Martin Luther, so students find out what the Church was like before Luther got going. That’s a fairly blunt example, but lectures are rarely entirely stand-alone, so use the schedule to get a better sense of the lecture’s place in the wider scheme of things.
    • Some modules will run  lectures and seminars entirely separately, for others seminars will develop ideas raised in lectures in more detail. Find out what approach your module uses. If picking stuff up in a lecture can stop you looking like a stunned guppy in seminars – one of student life’s great challenges – then that lecture’s an excellent use of your time.
  • Some lecturers put handouts online before the lecture, although this is not particularly widespread in history, in my experience – if they are available, you can use them to familiarise yourself with the key ideas.
    • if you are registered for learning support, make sure your lecturers are aware, and that they know if they need to get handouts to you in advance.
  • There will usually be some key reading indicated to support the lecture, typically from textbooks – if you’re really interested, and want to familiarise yourself with key terms and concepts, this is the best place to start.
    • This doesn’t need to be extensive, and you shouldn’t try to cover absolutely everything, in case you go off on a tangent – cover the basics, but let the lecture guide you, and do your in-depth reading after the lecture.

Timing, timing, timing

Most history lectures are scheduled for an hour, but in reality last for 50-55 minutes, to allow people the time to get between classes on a large campus or between buildings.

  • You will in all likelihood have some lectures early in the morning or later in the day.
    • Don’t moan at your lecturer for this, they have pretty much no say over the timetable whatsoever. Do find out if they’re happy for you to take in coffee or tea etc., if that’s going to help.
  • UK universities typically operate a system where the lecture starts at five past the hour, to allow people to get to class in time for the start of the lecture.
    • This does not mean you wander in at five past the hour. Lecturers do not take kindly to people ambling in after they’ve started, and you might not get easy access to handouts or a good seat. Get to the room on time and make sure you’re settled before the lecture starts.
      • If timetabling issues mean you’re likely to be rushing in at the last minute on a regular basis, let your lecturer know. They’ll be a lot more understanding if they know there’s a reason why you’re banging in as they’re trying to get going, rather than assuming you’re chronically late.  After all, lecturers note who’s late and who’s on time, as well as who is there & who isn’t…
    • Some people use the five minute wait as a warm up to the lecture – I use music, YouTube clips, videos etc to set up the theme.
    • If you’ve got a question to raise with the lecturer, it’s usually best to do it after the class rather than before – lecturers won’t be clock watching and can give you more attention.

Getting seated

Sadly, you don’t get to reserve seats in advance – the start of a lecture is more budget airline scramble than first class amble – but lecture theatres vary massively in terms of size and layout, so ask yourself:

  • Where will you get the best view of the PowerPoint?
  • Where will you be able to hear the lecturer most clearly?
  • Do you need the light from a window or will you be distracted by what’s going on outside the room?

Bear in mind:

  • Sitting in the same seat, or the same area of the lecture theatre, can aid your information retention – you can trick your brain into taking in more than you realise…
  • Sitting with your friends is great, unless they distract you – whilst lectures are a social occasion, they’re still a learning environment, and you should respect that.
    • Don’t think the lecturer can’t see you interacting with your friends – they can. People whispering are just as distracting as people talking openly. Most lecturers have absolutely no problem stopping the lecture and naming and shaming people who have distracted them from their lecturing task. You’ve been warned!


You will need to develop your listening skills – you need to concentrate for a long time, and not all lectures (or lecturers) will be equally as engaging. There’s a simple rule here – think through your lectures.

  • Learn to listen actively:
    • You are not just a sponge soaking up information, you need to process it, identifying the main points and noting them down.
    • Ask yourself questions about the content of the lecture as you go along.
    • Many lecturers start with an outline of the structure and key points in the first five minutes:
      • Use this to guide you through the lecture.
    • Look out for lecturers changing sections, or referring to points on the handout.
      • Try to anticipate what’s coming next.
      • If the lecturer repeats something, or makes a point about a summary, recognise that that’s important.
    • Pick up on their oral clues:
      • If they’re saying ‘my next point is…’ or ‘finally…’, you can use this to identify sequential sections of an argument.
      • ‘A good example of this…’ indicates an example or case study – judge how much detail you need to take in.
    • You will probably start to flag about a third to half of the way through the lecture:
      • If you do lose your place, try to get back into the lecture by using the PowerPoint slides and the handout as a guide.
      • Don’t just rely on the PowerPoint, though – you should be focused on what the lecturer is saying, not the pretty pretty slides…
      • Consider how the lecturer’s discussion fits in with what you’ve read and understood elsewhere.
    • Note down points of interest or questions raised and come back to them in a Q&A, or after the lecture or in the lecturer’s office hours.
    • Help yourself stay alert physically by sitting up straight, staying hydrated & watching the speaker

Bottom line? Listening is always more important than mindless note-taking.


This is a tricky one – what do you do if you’re struggling to follow someone because of their delivery? Some lecturers speak quickly, or quietly, sometimes the acoustics in the room cause problems. You might not want to cause a fuss, but equally, don’t suffer in silence unnecessarily. Be a bit sensible about this. Let your lecturer know if you’re having problems hearing them, or if there’s a problem with the room that they can fix. Don’t heckle them, but don’t be shy – most lecturers will be as accommodating as they can be if you’re polite about it. After all, they want you to hear what they have to say. Win win.

Beautiful picture from Copernicus
Beautiful picture from Copernicus
  • On a similar note, do tell your lecturer if the tech fails – I was halfway through my lecture on the Scientific Revolution before my first years told me the projector had bust in the first five minutes, and they’d not been able to see my beautiful images of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus (see left).


The activity most associated with attending lectures is taking notes. You tend to remember things better if you’ve written them down – and it’s a way to keep alert & awake! You don’t need to write down everything – your focus should be on understanding the key ideas, not copying everything.

  • Work out what works best for you:
    • Do you want to use a laptop or take handwritten notes?
      • Will you be tempted to check Facebook or Twitter if you’re using a laptop? Be honest…
    • Is it enough for you to annotate a handout?
    • Is there a system of abbreviations you can use – or might you forget what things stand for?
    • Will a diagram or image be more helpful than a list?
    • Will you be able to find details (like dates and names) in your textbooks?
    • If the PowerPoint is put online, do you need to transcribe the details on the slides?
  • Use headings and bullet points to break things up.
  • Don’t guess at quotations – double-check them for accuracy later online or with the lecturer.
  • Mark points you want to follow up as you go – and make it clear which are your own ideas and which are coming from historians/the lecturer.
    • Put question marks next to bits you don’t understand first time round.
  • Leave space to fill in other points or ideas later.
  • Use colour to differentiate points – you can do this when you go through your notes later.
  • Don’t worry about spelling at this stage, but do try to get the important words and phrases down.

Handling handouts

These will vary massively from lecturer to lecturer – most history lecturers produce a either an electronic or a hard-copy handout, but it’s not universal. You will get used to different styles and approaches – I go for bullet points and key quotes, some of my colleagues prefer to print off the PowerPoint slides. Learn to love the differences!

  • Find out when and where handouts will be available online or in hard copy.
  • Keep handouts with your lecture notes, and use them in revision.
  • If you can, annotate the handout during the lecture.
    • I see students using highlighters and coloured pens to link things on the handouts to their own notes – using the two together can be really helpful.

Recording/Taping Lectures

Some universities have provision for lectures on larger courses to be recorded and put online later. So why should you bother turning up at all?

  • Don’t rely on recordings – the technology can fail.
    • You get more from experiencing a lecture than just watching it on a screen.
    • It’s usually only the big lecture courses which are recorded – you don’t want to find out in your second or final year you’ve no idea how to get the most out of a ‘live’ lecture.
  • Use the recordings as a backup, to go back over things you’ve missed or need clarifying, rather than as a first point of contact.
  • If there isn’t a university recording, always check with your lecturer that they’re happy for you to record lectures personally – there may be copyright issues involved.
    • Transcribing a lecture word for word just uses up time – use the same principles of active listening when using recordings.

Key point: a recording should only ever be a backup, not a substitute for the real lecture.

 After the lecture’s over

If you want to get the most from a lecture, you need to put in a bit of time after the lecture too. Otherwise, you’re far more likely to forget everything you’ve managed to hear in the first place…

  • Dedicate some time to going over your lecture notes, ideally within a day of the lecture.
    • Try to get in to a routine, so you’re less likely to skip this stage.
    • Think of this as long term revision and clarification.
  • Start by writing down the key points you got from the lecture without consulting your notes.
    • A good alternative is to discuss the key points with some classmates over a coffee to see what they picked up – did they highlight the same points as you?
    • If you’re asked to work in study groups for the module, going back over recent lectures is a good way to use the first ten minutes of your study session.
  • When lectures and seminars are linked, the time you spend going over the lecture counts as part of your seminar prep.
    • Think about what the lecturer flagged as important, and keep this in mind as you do your seminar reading.
  • Go back over your notes, but don’t just copy them out.
    • Fill in gaps where you missed details, or made mistakes in the rush to get things down.
    • You may have identified some areas you want to expand, either from your own reading or by asking your lecturer.
    • It might be useful to put your notes into a different form – a diagram or spider chart perhaps, or a set of revision cards.
  • Most importantly – remember where you’ve put your notes! Develop a useful and consistent filing system.
    • Make sure you have lecture notes in the right order, with the lecture title & date clearly marked.

Finally, a few quick troubleshooting tips

  • Try to come to lectures well-rested, having had something to eat, but not so much you just want to nap.
  • Use  active note-taking to keep your focus and concentration – if you’re thinking critically about your notes, you’re less likely to drift off than if you’re mindlessly transcribing.
  • When you do miss something, leave a gap and fill it in later, either by comparing notes with a friend, or asking the lecturer.
  • If you feel totally lost, note down questions to follow up and visit your lecturer in an office hour.
  • Use handouts and other people’s notes when you’ve missed things – but concentrate on developing your own note-taking style, particularly during your first year.
    • if you don’t seem to be able to take good notes after the first term or so, find out what academic skills support your institution offers.
  • Approach each lecture with an open, inquisitive mind, and try to focus on the things you’ve learned during it, rather than worrying about all the things you missed.
  • Lectures are your starting point for a topic, not a one-hour long idiot’s guide! You should be prepared to leave the lecture theatre with more questions than answers…

Any  brilliant lecture-experience tips? Please let us know in the comments



About drskbarker

Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

2 thoughts on “Turning up, tuning in & not dropping out: Learning to love lectures part 2

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