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Understanding lectures

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Lectures are an essential aspect of student life. They serve as one of the main ways to deliver content knowledge to students. Although they may not be as effective as other methods of university study for learning new ideas, such as seminars, they are used because they are efficient: it takes less time to talk to a hundred students in a lecture hall than it does to talk to the same students broken down into smaller classes.

The process of lecture comprehension

Understanding a lecture is not simply a matter of attending the lecture and listening. You need to prepare for the lecture by doing some pre-lecture activities; you need to be active during the lecture by listening for the main points and making notes; and you need to do follow-up work after the lecture has finished to consolidate (strengthen) your understanding. Each of these stages is described in more detail below, followed by a summary of the whole process.


It is difficult to understand a topic you do not already know something about. As a result, your lecturers will expect you to prepare for their lectures. In general, this will involve reading about the topic ahead of the lecture, and possibly studying some of the key terms (vocabulary) related to the topic, which can often be quite specialist. It can be useful to try to think of questions you want to be answered during the lecture.


The most important task during a lecture is following the main ideas. Good lecturers use special language signals, called lecture cues, to help with this. Speakers often give unimportant information, including digressions, and it is necessary for you to be aware when your lecturer is doing this. Your lecturers will expect you to take effective notes of the main points, which means using symbols and abbreviations to increase speed, as well as making sure your notes have a clear structure so that you can use them later. You may have questions during a lecture, in which case you should make a note of these to answer later.


When the lecture has finished, your task has not. Your notes may be messy or incomplete. Abbreviations you understand now may be incomprehensible when you return to your notes later. It is therefore important to improve your notes after a lecture, by adding more detail, writing some full words where you have abbreviations, and by discussing with others and comparing what they thought were the main points. If you had any questions during the lecture, you should try to find answers to these.


The following flowchart summarises the process of lecture comprehension.


Read about topic in order to get a general understanding.
Think of questions you want the lecturer to answer.
Study topic-specific vocabulary.




Listen for main ideas of the lecture. Listen carefully for lecture cues which will help you follow the structure. Avoid noting digressions.
Make notes of the main points. Use abbreviations and symbols to save time. Make sure your notes have a clear structure.
Also note down any questions you have which occur to you during the lecture.


Compare notes with other students to add missing information.
Check your notes and improve clarity, e.g. by writing full words for some abbreviations.
Try to find answers to any questions you had during the lecture.


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College of Saint Benedict, Saint John's University (2013) Lecture Note Taking. Available at (Access Date 19 August, 2013).

NHTI (2013) Study Skills - Lecture Notetaking. Available at (Access Date 19 August, 2013).

Next section

Read more about lecture cues in the next section.


Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 21 September 2019.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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