Lectures will probably be less familiar to you than any other learning situation in the university; they differ from high school classes most obviously in terms of size, but also in terms of function. At first, these two features of lectures might feel problematic to new students.

In some first-year courses, you may be one of several hundred students sitting in a big lecture theatre, listening while the lecturer talks for 45 minutes, often about things youíve never heard of before. Some students find it very difficult to learn in this situation, where they are anonymous and feel distant from the lecturer; they might end up feeling bored or frustrated. Some find it tempting to bunk lectures, knowing their absence will not be detected.

Although lectures can be easy to skip and hard to follow, it is very important to attend them! Think about what lectures are for, and this will give you some ideas about how to get something out of them. Start by considering what the lecture can do for you that canít be done in any other way:

  • Introduce you to new fields of study, new concepts, new terminology
  • Provide you with a lot of information (usually synthesised from various sources) in a relatively short space of time
  • Reveal to you the lecturerís own position and point of view in relation to the subject matter of the course
  • Give you an overview of the course, including important dates (tests, due dates for assignments), requirements and administrative issues.

Lectures are, by definition, not interactive, although some lecturers will allow time for questions during or after the lecture. Lectures are delivered by the lecturer, to the audience. This implies a degree of passivity, but there are ways to be an active listener, which will enhance your learning experience in lectures. The following sections will offer some ideas about what to do before, during and after the lecture to achieve this end.


Although you are not expected to "perform" or "participate" in lectures in the normal sense of these words, or in the same way that you would in your tutorials, you should still prepare yourself for your lectures. The most important thing to do is to focus your mind before the lecture. Here are two possible steps in this process.

  1. What is the topic?

Read this riddle:

The beginning of eternity

The end of time and space

The beginning of every end

And the end of every place

Without an answer or title you can gaze at these lines for hours (or give up in frustration) without being able to say what they mean. It makes no sense, although you "understand" each word and the whole thing is perfectly straightforward on some levels. Now, if you knew before you saw the riddle, that this was a verse about the letter "e", your reading of the verse would be more like this:

The beginning of eternity

The end of time and space

The beginning of every end

And the end of every place

With this new information, you would understand each word and phrase in relation to this title with the greatest of ease on the first reading, because you would be mentally prepared to take advantage of every clue.

This principle also holds for your lecture preparation. Try, before each lecture, to remind yourself what the topic of the lecture is. You could find this out by looking at the course outline the lecturer gave out at the beginning of the course. The course outline might have the title of each dayís lecture listed, or it might be blocked out in weeks, or according to the different sections being handled by various lecturers. In any case, it should be possible for you to use the course outline to orient yourself and know in advance the topic of the dayís lecture. As in the riddle example given above, you will then be able to make sense of the new information delivered in the lecture in relation to the topic.

You could also consult the notes you took in the previous lecture or lectures. You could find out, for example, if the new lecture will be a continuation of the section handled previously, or a new section. Being aware of the context will allow you to ask yourself the next important question.

2. What do I already know about the topic?

Having said, in the section above, that lectures are the place where NEW information is provided, it might seem strange to suggest that you ask yourself what you already know about the topic. It can be explained by referring to the way human beings learn. Although there are competing theories about it, it is generally accepted that learning builds upon what is already known.

It is easier to learn something that can be connected to something you already know, or something that you have experienced. By the time you reach UCT you have already accumulated a multitude of skills and vast quantities of general and specific knowledge. It is important that you use what you already know to create a "hook" for the new knowledge to hang on to. You could also think about it as using what you already know about the topic as the foundation, which will support the new understandings you will build up, using the new information in the lectures.

Once you know what the topic of the lecture is, spend a little time thinking about what you already know about this topic. Do you recall having studied this or a closely related subject at school? You may have read something in the newspaper, heard about it on the radio or seen a programme on television that referred to some aspect of this topic. You might also be able to exchange ideas and experiences with a fellow-student or read over a relevant section in the textbook or course reader in anticipation of the new topic. Your lecture notes from previous lectures might also help you to realise what you already know about the topic.

Knowing what the topic is, and recalling what you already know about the topic will help to focus your mind, and allow it to take in the new knowledge in the lecture. In this way your experience in lectures will be part of building up new understandings, instead of simply overwhelming you with unfamiliar and apparently disconnected facts.

Some practical hints

From a practical point of view, there are some useful preparations, too.

Try to arrive early for your lectures, so that you have time to organise your writing materials and your mind before the lecture starts. If you miss the introduction to the lecture you are probably missing the main point which would have helped you to make sense of all the subsequent details.

Arriving early also means that you can choose a seat from which you will be able to hear the lecturer clearly, and that will allow you a clear view of the board or screen. This means that you can concentrate without being distracted by people coming late, or the struggle to see or hear the lecturer. It is also possible that the lecturer will respond to your reactions if s/he can see you, and this could be very useful. For instance, if you were looking worried or puzzled, the lecturer might repeat an important point.

Make sure that you get any handouts that are distributed at the beginning of the lecture, and glance over them if you have time before the lecture starts.


Note taking in lectures is difficult, but the difficulty is more complicated than just not being able to write fast enough to write down everything the lecturer says. This is why it is important not to give in to the temptation NOT to take notes. If you are a new student, struggling with note-taking, there are many excuses that seem attractive:

"My own notes are, in any case, inferior to what is written in the textbook, so why bother?"

"Iím sure the handout will remind me of what happened in the lecture"

"I have my sisterís notes from when she did the course last year, and they look pretty good. Why do the same work twice?"

"Iíve never heard half of these words before - itís impossible for me to write them down!"

These commonly heard responses to note-taking presume that it is the job of the student attending lectures to copy down faithfully whatever is said in the lecture. Is this true?

We have said that lectures are occasions on which lots of new information is provided, new ideas are introduced and new concepts are explained. This means that simply listening to the lecture is hard work. On top of this, many students believe that they have to record all this new information in its entirety. This is not only hard, it is impossible. It is also, luckily, misguided. Even the most complete set of notes, that captures every word uttered by the lecturer (for example, a full transcription), is not the best set of lecture-notes. This is because it is not possible for knowledge that is in the lecturerís head to transfer itself in a solid block to your head. The way you will gain knowledge is by processing what you hear in lectures, finding a place for it in your own scheme of knowledge, by somehow making it your own. This is why a tape-recording of the lecture (something that often seems to be a perfect solution!) is actually not as good as a set of good notes that you have made for yourself.

The notes you take in lectures will provide the "raw material" with which you can construct your own new understandings. They will also provide the "raw material" for many of the things youíll be asked to produce, like assignments, essays and test and exam responses. The quality of your written work and ultimately your success in your courses will probably be related to how well you have taken notes in lectures.

Note taking is important, and lack of skill in this area can have bad consequences, BUT do not panic if you canít come up with a brilliant set of notes in your first week of university. It takes time to get used to the pace of the lectures, the unusual accents you will be hearing and, perhaps, the level of language you will have to keep up with, especially if English is not your first language. Note-taking is a skill that will improve with time and practice.


Note-taking is best thought of as a creative process, during which you recreate your understanding of the concepts, ideas and information in the lecture, so your notes will not look the same as anyone elseís. Although you will develop your own system, there are some common note-taking strategies.

1. Select the keywords and main ideas. Donít include anecdotes, jokes, little stories and illustrations. How to detect the main ideas is, of course, the difficulty, but the lecturerís outline (sometimes displayed on overhead projector, or board) can help. The language used in the lecture can also alert you to main points.

You will know that something the lecturer repeats, or writes on the board, is a main point. Sometimes he or she will restate the same idea in a couple of different ways; this is also a sign that this is an important point. A point that is illustrated by an example or two is probably also important. A rhetorical question is often also a sign that the lecturer is going to make a significant point. Sometimes the structure is revealed in the language, for example, "Today we are going to discuss the three major philosophical approaches to knowledge. Firstly ...." This will help you to select the main points, and arrange the supporting ideas around them. If you miss the main point, take down whatever you can and then try later to reconstruct the main point.

2. Abbreviate. Use accepted abbreviations like i.e., e.g., viz, etc. And create your own. If your lecture is about the revolution, and this word occurs in every sentence, you might write "rev" or even just "r". Make sure that you can decode your own notes later on!

3. Organise. Your organisation will probably be related to the structure of the lecture, which can usually be seen in the lecturerís outline or preamble. She might say, "Today we will deal with the three major causes of ...", so you will know that there will be three major sections. There are several ways of organising your lecture notes. People do have individual learning styles, so the "best" style is the one that best suits your own learning style. See the section on note-taking for more information on taking notes in lectures and from books.



It is always advisable to read over your notes after the lecture. Reflect on any questions they raise for you and use the opportunity to add to your notes and anticipate what is to follow in the coming lectures. Discuss any issues that arise with your fellow students or in your tutorials.

Organising your notes

You may work very hard on your lecture note-taking skills, and you may produce impressive notes in the appropriate style, but if you lose them, or canít find quite the ones you want, you will not be able to use them when you need them. Retrieval of your notes is just as important as their creation.

There are different methods for keeping track of all the new information you are gaining. If you are taking notes on loose, lined sheets of paper, or an examination pad, then you should file them each evening in ring binders, preferably one for each course you are taking. There are many details to be considered here: For example, in most courses you will have lectures and tutorials every week. Do you divide your ring binder into two sections, one for lecture notes, and one for tutorial notes? Or do you file everything chronologically, in the order in which it happened? This would mean that this weekís tutorial notes would be filed with this weekís lecture notes, last weekís tutorial notes with last weekís lecture notes and so on. There are advantages and disadvantages to either system and it is up to you to decide on the one that suits your purposes. You may decide to divide each ring binder into sections representing different sections of the course, different lecturers, the four academic terms, or whatever, using coloured plastic or cardboard dividers. Whatever you choose to do, make sure that you are CONSISTENT, and that you label sections, dividers and binders properly.

It is very easy to spend a lot of time setting up a system for your notes, and tempting to spend money on beautifully coloured ring binders, plastic sleeves and so on, but remember that the point of making notes, filing them and retrieving them is to use them to construct and demonstrate your new knowledge in essays, assignments, tests and exams.


No matter which faculty or department you are in at the university, lectures will not be the only formal learning opportunity offered. You will be required to attend some other class, which will be smaller than the lecture, and have some different purposes. These classes might be any of the following:

Tutorials are typically small discussion groups which meet to discuss matters arising from lectures, work not covered in lectures, essays or other tasks that have been set or some aspect of the readings. Tutorials are generally referred to as "tuts", and are led by a tutor, who may be a senior post-graduate student or a member of staff. Tutorials are usually the same length of time as a lecture, i.e., one period, or 45 minutes long.

Practicals differ according to faculty, but in general, a practical is an opportunity for students to test and apply their understanding of the concepts and ideas introduced in lectures. "Practicals" are called this because they are the place where the "theoretical" knowledge gained in lectures and readings is put into practice. In the Science Faculty, practicals would take place in a laboratory, and students might work in pairs. In the Social Sciences and Humanities, students attending practicals would do individual work in the presence of tutors, who would help and supervise the exercises.. Practicals are usually much longer than the normal lecture or tutorial period, often about 3 hours long.

Workgroups/ workshops are an opportunity for students to work in small groups, focusing on certain sections of the work. The purpose here is to develop skills, as well as to work on the concepts related to the course. These workshops or workgroups occupy a longer time than the 45 minute period, usually a double period.


All of the smaller group learning situations referred to above are included in your curriculum because of the idea that learning is an ACTIVE, rather than a passive, process. In the section on Lectures, we said that taking notes during the lecture is the beginning of this learning process, where you work out where this new knowledge fits into your own existing schemes of knowledge. As you place and integrate this knowledge, you are making it your own. You are creating your own understanding of the concepts and ideas.

This view of learning is called the "social construction of knowledge" and it is worth thinking about. You will probably agree that humans have to learn almost everything they know - as we grow we learn our language and our behaviours from those around us. But there must be more to it than just taking over what those older than us already know. If we ONLY learn exactly what is passed on to us, then how do new ideas and discoveries come about? This puzzle can be answered if we change our idea of what learning is to include not only the things we receive from others, but also the unique way in which we receive and use that information. At school, where you probably had to learn lots of facts and get them right in examinations, the idea of "constructing" your own knowledge might not have been very useful - in fact, it might have landed you in a bit of trouble! University is, like school, a place where knowledge is stored and transmitted to new students, BUT it is also a place where the creation of new knowledge is highly valued as well. This means that part of your job as a student is to listen, learn, read and understand the knowledge being presented to you in lectures and books, but it is also important to question and challenge that knowledge and try to work things out yourself, making new connections with your own previous understandings. One of the most fruitful ways of doing this is by discussing ideas with your fellow students, and this is why the small group learning situations are very important to your development.

You will learn most from active participation in your tutorials, but many students avoid this for various reasons:

  • Most new students feel terribly shy and nervous about speaking up in tutorials, even though there might be only 15 students in the group. Remind yourself that everyone else is probably as nervous as you are, and try to contribute. This will get easier as you get to know the people in your group, and as you get used to the idea of learning from your peers.
  • You may feel it is a waste of time to listen to other relatively uninformed opinions, and that youíd rather just go to lectures to hear the "right" ideas.
  • Perhaps you feel you have some good ideas, but donít want to talk about them in the tutorial because they would be unpopular with your peers; or you might not want other people to copy, or "steal" your ideas, especially if you are all busy preparing for an essay or assignment.

In order to get past these reasons for NOT participating actively, remember the benefits to be gained by the interchange of ideas:

  • Your own ideas may be challenged in a discussion, pushing you to rethink; you may come up with a much better argument because of the opposition or support of your fellow students;
  • As a result of discussion, you may be able to think of good arguments to refute or oppose the ideas of others.
  • You will develop the skill of listening carefully and analytically to the arguments of others, and verbalising your own ideas will help you to formulate your written assignments and essays more convincingly.


Getting all the details of your tutorials, practicals and workshops sorted out will be a big job. It will probably be confusing at first, as your tuts, pracs etc will take place in different venues and in different time-slots from the main lectures in the course. Your times and venues will also be different from those of many of your fellow students, as the groups do not all meet at the same time. You will not always be in the same small group as your friends, so donít rely on them for this information. Go to the departmental notice-boards, the departmental office or your lecturer to find out which group you are in, and when and where they meet. Once you have this information, fill it in on your timetable (see "Organising your time" in the section on Preparing to Study).

Attendance is usually compulsory at these small group meetings, and the tutor or supervisor will take the register. If you do not attend the required number of tutorials, you may be refused a "dp", the "duly performed" certificate that allows you to write your final examinations (see p. 3 of the Introduction to this book).

There will always be some preparation for tutorials and other such meetings. This might be the completion of a reading task, a writing assignment or something else. It is very important to do the preparation properly so that you can get the benefit of the discussion. Going to a tutorial without having done the preparation will contribute to the feeling of not wanting to say anything, and make your participation in the discussion less useful than it should be.

Your tutor or facilitator or supervisor will probably have "consultation hours" every week. This is a time when she or he will be in an office or other appointed room, and available for individual discussions. If there are things that you donít understand and that you feel you canít bring up in the tutorial, then go and see your tutor during this time to talk about it. If you always have another lecture or meeting during the consultation hours, then ask the tutor if you can make an appointment to see him or her at some other time.

(Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)

Preparing for the classroom

Taking notes in lectures

Paying attention in the classroom