Getting the most out of lectures

Getting the most out of lectures is about more than effective note-taking. It’s also good to practise active listening and be prepared to review your notes.

Before the lecture

Have you looked back over previous lectures? Doing this will help you start to question how new information fits in with what you have already learnt.

How prepared are you? If your lecture slides are available before the lecture, look through them so you know what to expect. You might want to print them up so you can write on them during the lecture. Or, download to your laptop so you can type notes in the notes pane.

Does this lecture introduce concepts or information that are complex or new to you? You will find it easier to follow if you’ve got a basic understanding already. See our Alternative formats page for ways of finding out information without too much complex reading. For example, watch a documentary on BoB (Box of Broadcasts), listen to a TED talk or search Dogpile or Qwant for videos or images.

What questions could you ask? Having these in mind will help trigger active listening during the lecture, as you’ll be listening out for the answers.

Look up new vocabulary and consider creating a glossary. Searching online for your topic plus 'Glossary of terms' should yield results. See 'Glossary of business terms', 'Ecology Terms' and 'Film Terms Glossaryfor some examples.

During the lecture

Consider using recording or note taking apps. Sonocent Audio Notetaker is effective at combining lecture slides, notes and audio in one place. We have a small number of free Sonocent licences that we can offer to students on a 'first-come-first-served' basis. If you are interested in finding out more, please email

Experiment with different note-taking techniques to find ones which suit you. See also this YouTube video on the five best ways to take notes in class.

Do you try to write down everything the lecturer is saying? Students often say that identifying what is important in a lecture can be difficult. Listen or look out for the following:

Verbal clues

  • Phrases such as: a major development… what this means is …. what is important is… on the other hand… evidence of this is …. there are X main points…
  • Definitions.
  • Superlatives (the best, most, biggest…).
  • Introductory remarks. Lectures often begin with a useful overview of the key ideas or themes of a particular topic. This helps you grasp the ‘big picture’.
  • Verbal ‘signposts’ that indicate something important is about to be said. Lecturers often signal key information with phrases such as: “There are four main aspects”, “This is important…” or “To sum up”.
  • Repetition. Important points will often be repeated, especially in introductions and conclusions.
  • Final remarks. Most lectures conclude with a summary, a restatement of the main ideas and an indication of how the topic connects with upcoming material.

Non-verbal clues

  • Changes in the lecturer's voice such as volume, speed, tone and emphasis, which often indicate important information.
  • Pauses, which might indicate a new topic or point.
  • Exaggerated body language such as gestures to emphasise important points.

After the lecture

Do you review your notes? This will improve your recall and understanding. It may involve editing, reformating and adding to your notes, testing your recall then reviewing again later on. See Reviewing After Lecture from Simon Fraser University for useful suggestions. Are there any gaps in your understanding? If you were trying to explain this lecture to someone else, which parts would you struggle with? Try to follow these up with a bit more research.

The Cornell note-taking method lends itself well to reviewing. Be creative: use colour coding, diagrams and mind maps, questions, summaries, Post-It Notes - whatever works for you.