Lectures, however good, are valueless unless you actively engage in learning. That means being there, in mind as well as in body!
Here are 14 ideas to help you get the most out of your lectures.
1. Lectures make it possible for you to learn efficiently; there are other ways, e.g. books, but you do need to attend lectures – all of them, not just when you feel like it! OK? We cannot teach you anything if you are not there and staff will not take kindly to repeating material from lectures you have missed! Most will simply say no. So, unless you have a real reason why attending is impossible, just be there all the time, not sometimes, not mostly, by ALWAYS.
Maths, and indeed all other STEM subjects, is highly sequential. That means that if you miss even a few lectures, it may be extremely difficult to re-engage with the course which will have moved on and which will be building on material you have missed. Avoid this situation if possible, but if you have missed more than a two or three lectures, get help (often your Maths Support Tutor is the place to start with foundation or first year courses, and your friends can help with more advanced content – at least let you photocopy their lecture notes – then ask in tutorials).
2. Lectures are to :
- Give the logical structure of the module. (Include a copy of the syllabus in your notes.)
- Give detail and proofs. This will provide a solid base for the module so that methods are not just a series of recipes. Study this material, even if it is not going to be examined explicitly ; it will greatly aid your understanding.
- Communicate the interest of the subject.
- Give explanations and examples.
3. Get to lectures and seminars on time and with your notes. You may be asked to print out notes from a VLE beforehand and bring them along to the lecture. This does not mean that you ‘have the notes’ and therefore don’t need to attend! Also notes do not read themselves – you will need to study them as well. Having the notes may be comforting, but if you fail to make them your own, you’ll learn nothing. Taking good notes is essential. Have a look at these tips from the OU and the Cornell note taking system. Use a method that works for you. Use A4 paper, with holes so you can file things properly and write the date at the start of each lecture.
Taking lecture notes is an essential part of your learning process, so you do need to do it. (It is also a valuable transferrable skill for your career.) In contrast, lecture recording (ask first and note audio alone is useless for maths) and taking pictures of boards with mobiles is of highly doubtful value – what are you going to do with it afterwards and when will you have time to do it? Answers: nothing much and you won’t! There is also an issue that your recording may inhibit other students asking questions and engaging with the class. Many universities routinely use lecture capture and post these on the VLE. This may be useful for some subjects, but for mathematics I think this is of limited utility and it certainly doesn’t substitute for being there, being engaged and taking your own notes.
4. Pay attention to the lecture’s introduction. In lectures staff will not mind being asked to slow down, write larger, summarise the main points again etc. especially if they know you are a committed student. Make sure you participate fully in the seminars and don’t be afraid to ask “silly” questions – they are often the best ones to ask.
5. Sit where you can see and hear properly. Contrary to popular belief, you will not catch anything from the lecturer by sitting in the first two rows!
6. In mathematics, and probably all science and technology subject modules, write down everything the lecturer writes on the board verbatim! Maths is a very succinct language and every bracket and comma means something. Write down some of what the lecturer says in shortened form alongside the formal notes copied from the board. Ask in seminars about anything which is not clear.
7. In more subjective modules, very little may be written down on the board and it will be necessary to summarise the spoken lecture in shortened note form; you do not need to write complete sentences for this – phrases or diagrams may be better. Tidy up and annotate these notes later with comments on e.g. what is going on in a proof or process; you will not have time to completely rewrite (still less type) them, but you should highlight the main results and arguments. Add the date and page numbers when filing your notes.
8. Make sure you understand and can quote formal definitions of all mathematical and scientific terms.
9. Read your last lecture notes thoroughly before each lecture, so that you can understand the subsequent material better. Lecturers are unimpressed with students seeking explanations when they have not even read their previous lecture notes. Do so!
- Put question marks in the margins in pencil against anything you do not understand.
- Read the notes again, and you’ll be able to rub out some of the earlier ?’s.
- Make sure you ask about any remaining ?’s in the seminars or lecturers … or even ask your friends. Your Study Support Tutors may also be able to help with content and techniques that are not too advanced (i.e. final year material).
As a last resort, and only after you have attended the seminars and lectures, you can ask to see the lecturer and/or your tutor (but we will not be impressed if you haven’t been attending and want private help as a substitute – most lecturers will then say no!).
10. When making notes show the sequence of the points and their relationship. Do this diagramatically as a
- Classification tree showing classes, subclasses etc.
- Spray diagram with the main topic in the centre and consequences spreading out in all directions from it. This is good for showing what leads on to what.
- Skills tree, with inner topics depending on outer ones.
- Flow chart. This is very useful for describing logical sequences and is essential for writing computer programs of any complexity. Here is an example flow chart.
11. Take the trouble to learn the lecturer’s and your tutor’s name and title. “Sir” or, worse still “Miss” is not appropriate at university – lecturers are not schoolteachers and are not responsible for your studies. Until you are invited to do so, stick to “Dr Death” or “Professor Strangefeatures” rather than first names. Staff are busy and teach a lot of students so don’t expect them to know who you are at first. When talking to staff, state you name, course, year and what you want as precisely as possible, especially if you are emailing them. Remember: use your university email account. Many staff will not respond to private email accounts since they will not know who they are really talking to and will usually protect your privacy by not answering.
12. In lectures, seminars, tutorials etc or when seeing staff, turn off your mobile phone! … not on silent, not texting people under the desk, but off! It’s very annoying/downright rude to have phones going off in class and it will be very disrupting to everyone’s engagement with the class, especially yours. In fact, why not turn off your phone when you are at university? That way you’ll meet new people instead of texting friends you already know – and some of them will be interesting!
13. Now, I’ll let you into a little secret! Whilst a lot of teaching takes place, very little learning takes place in lectures. Instead lectures provide the scaffolding for learning to take place elsewhere, usually in your private study time or perhaps in your study group if you have one. So you need to allocate at least an equal amount of time for private study, doing problem sheets etc. This doesn’t mean that lectures are pointless – far from it. They provide a structure to the content, a timetable for learning and a social context in which teaching (and sometimes even some learning) can take place. If you do not go to lectures, you will not be able to pace your studies effectively and it will get very scary just before the exams! So just go … and if you enjoy them, that’s a bonus!
14. Study groups can work well provided they are structured and have a specific purpose – even a formal agenda and chairperson if need be. Otherwise they disintegrate into a social event – fine but why pretend this is somehow doing study? Set a time limit and arrive and leave with a set of questions to follow up on.
About the Study Skills for Mathematics pages
These pages were originally created by Martin Greenhow.
Study Skills in Mathematics by Martin Greenhow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.