Studying IR #3: A guide to lectures

Lectures are a main part of university life. A collective experience of suffering for most and a wellspring of knowledge for those few weirdos. Since you won’t be escaping them anytime soon, you might as well try to live with them. Here’s some tips on how to get the best out of university lectures.

Be prepared

Like with most of what life may throw at you, it never hurts to plan ahead. Though Helmuth van Moltke famously said “no plan survives first contact”, it’s better to have a plan than charging in gung-ho (unless if you’re Genghis Khan or have 24/7 air support).

Consider the time of the lecture, because this will determine your level of attention. For diurnal people, morning lectures are ideal times as you will have maximum attention. Since your attention will likely wither after lunch, avoid after-lunch lectures. For nocturnal people, you may believe morning lectures should be banned under the Geneva Convention. Hence, opt for lectures in the evening.

However, since it is unlikely you will have control over the timing of your lectures, it works to maximize your advantages and minimize your disadvantages. If you’re a nocturnal person that has to attend a morning lecture, get to bed early the night before; vice-versa, if you’re diurnal, reserve your attention span for evening lectures. Managing your mental resources is an important skill to learn.

Then, consider the materials to be delivered in the lecture. Refer to the syllabus and make sure you have done the minimum assigned reading. Those reading lists aren’t there for show; it’s there to help you get a basic understanding of what will be delivered. This way, you aren’t completely clueless about the material. If you have questions about the readings, save them for the lecture and ask then. This also works in your favor; your professor will likely judge you to be more attentive.

Finally, prepare your logistics. If you dehydrate easily, bring a jug of water. If you have high metabolism or can’t think well while hungry, bring some sugar or inconspicuous snacks. Basically, whatever you need to do to endure sitting for around 2 or more hours. Don’t forget your equipment too. If you prefer typing notes, make sure your laptop/tablet/Apple Pen is charged; if you prefer handwriting, make sure your pens are loaded. If your prof allows recording, then make sure your phone/voice recorder is charged.

During the lecture

Ideally, you should sit up front as this allows you to view the board or record the lecture (if you’re the type to like to listen to lectures afterward). Being in front also increases your alertness. There’s also a correlation between sitting in front and getting better grades. This only matters if the lecture hall or classroom is designed with traditional row seating format. More modern classrooms tend to adopt a cluster format to encourage team-based work and more interaction.

As the lecture goes on, don’t expect to be able to write/type down everything the professor says (unless you have superhuman scribing skills). Besides, not all they say is important (you don’t need to note how many cats they have at home); what matters more is you being able to understand what they say and you writing down what they say in a way you can process after the lecture.

Develop your own note-taking style and ask questions as they go along. Learn to spot important phrases, like:

  • “There are three main…”. This a list of concepts you may want to write down.
  • “Though X says this, Y argues like this…” This signals an argument within the field of study, which you only want to record the most general details.
  • “Although X says this, I interpret…” This signals the prof’s own interpretation of someone’s argument. Handy if you’re taking a test later and as an additional view when you’re reading the assigned text. You can also consider this a subtle invitation to argue with the prof, which may net you bonus points for being active.
  • “Y is understood/defined/described as…” This signals a definition, which you ought to note.

Depending on your prof’s style, they may go through an entire lecture without a break or schedule some short “question breaks”. Use the question breaks to clarify stuff; it’ll also help you build rapport with the prof.

After the lecture

Once the lecture is done, you now have around 24 hours to review the materials and your notes before they evaporate from memory. After-lecture revision is something many students (me included, sometimes) forget, yet it could save you from sleepless cramming the night before the test (which doesn’t work).

The point is to go through your notes and re-arrange them in a manner you understand. I myself suggest the Feynman technique, which basically forces you to explain what you have learned as if you are teaching someone else; but you can find your own style. Another way, especially if you’re more of the creative type, is to sketch a bunch of diagrams or make your notes as graphic as possible (bonus points if you manage to make a coherent comic out of the material). Another way that I like to do is to take my written notes, go over them, and use them as materials for a blog post—which basically what my Le- Notes series essentially is; a collection of lecture and reading notes. Or just do whatever suits you.

Hopefully, these general tips help you get the most out of lectures and make them more bearable. Well, you kinda have to deal with, since lectures make up 80% of your college life.

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