Lectures and taking notes


A wit once remarked that "A lecture is a process in which information passes from the notes of the lecturer into the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either." (Gilstrap and Martin, 1975)

These guidelines aim to help you avoid that dull and futile situation by helping you learn how to be a more active participant in lectures.


1. Making the most of Lectures

Lectures are used for two purposes:

  1. to give an overview of the subject, which means you will need to fill in the detail, and
  2. to give detailed information on a topic, which means you will need to fill in the background.

These guidelines cover:

a. Preparing for lectures
b. During lectures
c. After lectures

a. Preparing for lectures

Find out how your lectures relate to your course as a whole. Do the seminars or tutorials prepare you for the lectures, or do they follow up the lectures? Will you be able to discuss the lecture content in seminars? See your course information booklet or ask your tutor.

Doing preparatory reading will make it easier for you to follow the lecture. When the lecture is part of a series, you should revise your notes from previous lectures.

b. During lectures

Listening in lectures

During the lecture it's more important to listen than to make notes. If you listen effectively, you will have a better understanding of the content, which will help you write clear, helpful notes that will make sense to you later on. If you have trouble concentrating, you should try sitting near the front, so you are removed from distractions. You may find it helpful to record the lecture on a cassette recorder, but ask the lecturer's permission first.

Signposts to structure

While you listen to a lecture, try to focus on its structure. Sometimes the lecturer makes it clear at the start of the lecture with a list of headings or a summary. Note this down so you have a sense of where the lecture is going.

The lecturer may use verbal signposts, for example: "I shall now discuss..." or "My next point is..." Note the change of topic in your notes. Other signposts to listen out for are phrases like: "On the other hand..." or "Turning to..."

Using handouts

Some lecturers issue handouts to summarise important information and help you follow the lecture. To get the most benefit from them:

  • Highlight key words
  • Add notes in the margin
  • Add colour to highlight and categorise information.

c. After lectures


Don't be afraid to ask the lecturer for clarification either in the lecture, or afterwards.


Use seminars and tutorials to clarify material from the lectures.


Review your notes while the lecture us still fresh in your mind.


2. Taking notes

You will have to do a lot of note-taking at university, much more than you have ever had to do at school or college.

Note-taking is a skill which you will need in order to be a successful student. It's also a skill which your future employer wants you to have: to be able to summarise what has been said or written, in a clear, concise form, with no important facts left out.

We cover six aspects of making notes:

a. Be selective
b. Mind maps
c. Cornell system
d. Recording lectures
e. Using notes
f. Making notes as you listen

a. Be selective

Note-taking does not mean writing down everything you read or hear. Your notes should be a clear summary of essential points in a text or lecture. Be selective about what you write down.

Notes should help you to:

  • Fix information in your mind, and
  • Revise.

Here are two ways of taking notes. Which do you prefer?

b. Mind-mapping

If you're a Visual Learner you'll find patterns easier to use than lists of ideas, so you may want to use mind maps (which are also called spider digrams).

Mind maps can help you to connect information in a variety of ways. You can use them for:

  • Making notes,
  • Planning essay answers and
  • Revising.

Start in the middle of a page with the subject title or topic, and add major points along a line from the centre, with additional ideas branching out from the main points. Use connecting lines to link up ideas/points from different branches. Like this:

an example mind-map[D]

There are dedicated software packages (e.g. Inspiration and MindManager) which you can use for mind-mapping on your computer.

c. Cornell Method

If you are an Auditory Learner, you may prefer to use a system like the Cornell Method, an example of which is given below:

Cornell Method


Use large loose-leaf notebook

Write legibly

Capture general ideas not illustrative ones

Leave blank lines to show end of topics

Use abbreviations to save time

summary column

leave a 7cm left margin

key words

after the lecture, go over your notes and jot down key ideas or key words in the summary column

d. Recording lectures

You may find it easiest to record lectures on audio cassette and make your notes from the tapes afterwards.

Get permission: most lecturers will let you record, but it's a courtesy to ask first

Put your cassette recorder near the lecturer: you won't get clear sound if you put your cassette machine at the back of a large lecture theatre.

e. Using your notes

Whichever method you use, it's important that you do something with your notes. You need to go through them while the lecture is still fresh in our mind, within 24 hours, and make sure you tidy them up and summarize them.

Use highlighters and coloured pens to highlight key points and to link relevant facts and ideas.

Make it a rule after each lecture to:

  • Tidy up your notes
  • Make them more legible if you need to

Summarise your notes

Write down the main points to make it easy to revise for exams later.

If you use the Cornell system, you can overlay your pages so you only see the left-hand margin, and read the essentials of the lecture from your summary notes.)

Fill in your notes

Fill in from memory examples and facts which you didn't have time to get down in the lecture

Clarify your notes

If any parts of the lecture were unclear, ask the lecturer, tutor or a fellow-student about them, or check your text books

Highlight your notes

Make the key points stand out:

  • Underline them,
  • Highlight them in a bright colour, or
  • Mark them with asterisks.

f. Making notes as you listen

Apart from the date and title (if it's given) don't try to write anything at the start of a lecture.

Listen to find out what the content is going to be.

Write down key words / ideas. You don't have to write in complete sentences.

Use abbreviations to help you

The most common abbreviations are:

eg for example

nb note well

ie that is

cf compare

etc and the rest

& and

= equals

> greater than

< less than

C19 nineteenth century

dot - dot dot therefore

dot dot - dot because

> return to the list of quick-reference guides


Further reading

Your next step should be to print out and work through the study guide Getting the Most from Lectures

There are further helpful tips about lectures in the section on Being an Active Learner on Arts.Net

University of Southampton

last updated on October 16, 2008
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