I have been through plenty of trial-and-error when it comes to how to succeed in my degree. For instance, I spent the majority of my first year not really understanding the structure of university work, what I needed to do to improve my grades or how I needed to change my academic habits after leaving school. When do I do my readings? How do I take lecture notes? What even are seminars?
However, as my fourth year begins, I’ve found a system that really works for me and finally understand how to tackle the university workload. Though everyone is different and my methods may not work for you, I hope this ‘Ultimate Guide to’ series can serve to offer clear, practical advice to tackle various elements of your degree and save you the stress of figuring it out alone. Here are some of my top tips to make great notes and get the most out of your lectures.
Though waking and making it to your 9AM lecture is an achievement, the early start becomes somewhat pointless if you are mentally still in bed (we’ve all been there). The truth is that you get as much out of lectures as you put in. If you are checking your phone or switching between your notes and your online shopping throughout, you may miss crucial information and probably will get lost in the content. We all get prone to distraction sometimes, but I try to keep my phone in my bag, close all unnecessary tabs and make sure I have eaten breakfast.
Another aspect of lecture preparation I struggled with during first year was readings. At least in my case, nobody really told me when to do them, so I would aim to read everything before the lecture even if I didn’t always understand the content. However, I now aim to read all my required reading before the seminar but after the lecture. This means that my lecture can act as a foundation of knowledge that the readings then build upon, providing vital context to ensure I get the most out of the content I read.
Handwritten vs typed up notes.
While it can be argued that writing handwritten notes helps with information recall and may work for some, I prefer to make notes digitally. The primary reason for this is that I can type much quicker than I can write, and the pace of lectures means that the speed you can note down information matters. Digital notes can also be saved and backed up, whereas paper is vulnerable to split coffee or being forgotten on a desk in the library.
I use Microsoft OneNote to take notes and organise all my work related to university, which is available for free to students here (Microsoft 365 (The University of Manchester). I create a notebook per semester, section per module and then page per lecture, which keeps everything organised and cohesive. I love OneNote because rather than frantically flicking through pages upon pages or clicking through different documents to find a certain piece of information, my whole library of digital notes can be searched by keywords instantly. This is ideal when put on the spot in a seminar. I also like how you can draw digitally on the page, which is great if you prefer more visual notes.
Remember the purpose of lectures.
It may sound simple, but realising what I needed to get out of my lectures was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. As a humanities student, my degree is mainly assessed through essays, and lectures act as a starting point to help write in an informed, contextualised way. Bearing this in mind during lectures will help you to write better essays.
If you have been given the essay questions for your module in advance, try to match them up with the corresponding lectures. Write the question at the top of your notes page and write your lecture notes as if answering the question with the information given, as this provides a crucial starting point for essay planning. I find this helpful when I have a large workload, because I can prioritise certain lectures and not worry as much about others if I know I won’t be writing about that content.
If you do not know your essay questions yet, focus your lecture notes around the content you find most interesting and inspiring and would most like to write about. This can help you then devise essay questions or narrow down your subject matter.
During the lecture.
In an ideal world, I would go to my lectures, listen, write down some key information, then go home and rewatch them at my own pace with ample time to pause and type up detailed notes. However, this is not very realistic given the intensity of a university workload, so I try to avoid this unless I really struggled content of a lecture and feel like I need to rewatch it to understand.
Instead, try to note down as much information as you can during the lecture, but accept that you won’t be able to write down every word, and probably won’t need to. As I mentioned earlier, focus on content will be most useful to you later, including key background information, dates, or statistics. It may be useful to develop your own shorthand or code for words or topics that come up often, to save time when noting down information.
If your lecturer is using any visual aids like a PowerPoint, see if you can open this up on your own laptop next to your notes. I often do this to copy and paste key quotes or images into my own notes, saving having to write them down in full.
After the lecture.
One thing I found strange about lectures when I started University were how silent they are. There’s often no time to ask questions or interact at all with the lecturer, who in many cases will speak uninterrupted for the whole session. I realise now that this is because questions, debate and conversation is instead encouraged during seminars or group workshops, rather than lectures. Bearing this in mind, it can be useful to keep a list of questions or comments that you may think of during the lecture than you can talk about later.
All of this being said, if you’re really struggling with lecture content, don’t be afraid to reach out to your lecturers for support during an office hour or by email. They are there to help, and understanding your lecture content is a vital first step to success.