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Tom Siebold

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Lecture Listening:

Getting the Most Out of Lectures*


I.   Strategies for Better Listening

II.  Strategies to Decipher a Lecture

III. Strategies for Taking Meaningful Notes

IV. Strategies for Decoding Your Instructor


I. Strategies for Better Listening

  1. Maintain a positive attitude.  Try to find areas of interest in each lecture.

  2. Don’t let a professor’s poor delivery sour your view of the content.

  3. Hold back judgment until you comprehend where the professor is going with the lecture.

  4. Remember that effective listening is hard work; employ your mental energy.

  5. Keep an open mind.

  6. Go to class intending to listen and learn.

  7. Take responsibility for getting something out of each lecture.  Remember that you are responsible for the quality of your own learning.

  8. Avoid distracting students.

  9. Sit where you can maintain your focus on the instructor and see and hear as well as possible.

  10. Look at your notes from the previous class to refresh your memory; reviewing notes will help you to make connections.

  11. Arrange your schedule so you go to class fresh and ready to exercise peak mental energy.

  12. Fight against mind wandering.  Remind yourself to stay focused on the lecture.  

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II. Strategies to Decipher a Lecture

1. Listen for verbal signals and cues.  Professors give cognitive clues that indicate the structure and relevance of lecture content:


Listen for words that indicate:

  • Examples - to illustrate, for example, for instance

  • Time - before, after, formerly, prior, meanwhile

  • Addition - furthermore, moreover, also

  • Cause and Effect - therefore, as a result, if…then, this, so

  • Contrast - on the other hand, on the contrary, conversely

  • Enumeration - the following, first, firstly, next, finally

  • Emphasis - more importantly, above all, remember this

  • Repetition - in other words, that is to say, in essence

  • Summary - in a nutshell, to sum up, in conclusion

  • Test Items - this is vital, remember this, you’ll see this again

2. Listen for emphasis.  Emphasized words and concepts are likely to appear on the exam.

3. Listen for ideas.  Good listeners listen for the central themes and concepts; don’t get hung up on facts

4. Record written examples. Write down all examples or statistics the professor writes down; he or she is making an effort to write them because they are important.

5. Pay attention to organization. Consider the way the instructor organizes the material.  If it seems unorganized to you; take some time after the lecture to organize it yourself.  Clear organization leads to better understanding.

6. Listen interactively.

  • Challenge what is being said

  • Anticipate where the professor is going next

  • Mentally summarize what was just said

  • Weight the evidence

  • Apply what has been said

  • Connect what was said with something you already know

7. Ask for clarification.  If you don’t understand a point, ask!  Get over the intimidation and fear of what people will think about your questions; many probably have the same question you do. Remember, you are paying a lot for your education! Get your money’s worth!

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III. Strategies for Taking Meaningful Notes

Below are some questions to consider that may help you take better notes.

1. What is the purpose of the lectures in this course?  Discerning the purpose of the lectures will influence your approach to note taking.

  • Lectures can be the main source of information on which the exam will be based

  • Lectures can be used to highlight/elaborate on the text

  • Lectures can be used to elaborate on printed notes that your professor has handed out or posted online

  • Lectures can be a discussion on readings you were to do before class

2. What will be the relationship between the lectures and the exam? Will the exam cover the lectures or not? If so, organized note taking is crucial.

3. What will be the nature of the exam?  Knowing the nature of the exam will influence what you record in your notes; your notes should set you up for your exam prep review.

  • Multiple Choice – you may need a fair amount of details

  • Short Answer – you may be required to provide definitions

  • Essay – you will need to have main points, themes , and concepts and be able to relate them to other material

4. What is included in the course outline?  There may be clues as to what is important; learning objectives should be reviewed carefully.

5. What is covered in first lecture is key? The first  lecture may hint to what is most important in the course.

6. What is the TAC of the lecture?

  • Thesis – the central point; everything is aimed at proving this idea

  • Arguments – taken together, these arguments prove the thesis

  • Conclusion - summarizes the entire argument and may suggest new avenues for enquiry

Listening for the TAC can help you discern what is most important to record and will provide some organization for your notes

7. What do you know and what is new?  Take notes on what you don’t know.  Record the information and concepts that are new and unfamiliar. You can save time if you don’t write down what you are already familiar with.

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IV. Strategies for Decoding Your Instructor

Study your instructors.  Watching how the instructor interacts with his or her own material can help you decipher between main ideas and supporting information.

1. Listen for verbal cues – voice, pauses, repetitions, slowing down, raising voice, lowering voice, saying things like “I believe the following is important”

2. Note non-verbal cues – writing on the board, eye contact, dramatic gestures (Note: non-verbal cues can be ambiguous)

3. Listen for repeated points or facts.  Repetition can indicate that something is very important and worth noting.

4. Watch for emphasized words and concepts.  These emphasized points will likely be on the exam.

5.  Record key terms.  Write down brief definitions and explanations of key terms for later review (people, places, dates, theories, and concepts)

6. Note illustrations or examples to explain a point.  If the professor is taking great effort to make sure you understand something by illustrating and giving examples, it may suggest that the point in question is critical.

7. Weigh the amount of time spent on a point.  This may suggest it is important.

8. Note changes in the style of the presentation.  Moving from lecture to discussion or questions may suggest the point is important.

9. Pay attention to the beginning and end of a lecture.  Professors will often make key points upfront or as a review or wrap-up.

*Adapted from “Effective Listening in Lectures,” Student Learning Commons, Simon Fraser University.

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