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Much of the information you need to know in college classes is given in lectures. One of the main differences between learning from texts and learning from lectures is that in lectures, the professor controls the pace. You usually do not have the ability to pause the professor, go back, or slow down, like you do when reading or learning independently. Recorded lectures, on the other hand, give you these abilities, but may not grip your attention in the same way as a lecture that is unfolding in real time. Because lectures are such a unique way to learn and such a crucial key to success, it is important to use effective strategies to maximize your attention during lectures and your retention after lectures. Whether your professor stands behind a podium and reads off of a PowerPoint or leads a class discussion through Zoom, try some of these effective strategies to ensure you get the most out of lecture-based learning.

Before class

  1. Read assignments and do problems before class, not after. Don’t be fooled by the common myth that it’s not necessary to read before class if your professor goes over the material in class. Reading the material first primes your short-term memory such that the information you learn in lecture is easier to remember because a) it’s connecting to something you already know and b) repetition is often important for effective learning. By reading before class, you can make better connections between the text and the lecture, better identify the main ideas in the lecture, and already have background on the information presented in class.
  2. Briefly look at the syllabus to anticipate focus of lecture and learning objectives.
  3. Review your notes from the previous class. Taking just five to ten minutes to do this will refresh your memory and provide a foundation for new material.
  4. List questions you have prior to the lecture. These could be questions from the previous class or from the reading. Listen for answers during the lecture, and ask questions if necessary.

For live (synchronous) video lectures, technical issues can affect your viewing ability. Check your Wi-Fi signal before the lecture begins, and consider asking roommates or family members to pause any streaming or downloads that might weaken your Wi-Fi signal. If problems persist, try closing out of other browser tabs for the duration of your class. If you’re having trouble with internet while off campus, ITS provides Guidance for off-campus internet service.

During class

Situate yourself for success. For in-person classes, if it helps, try sitting near the front of the class to stay engaged. For Zoom lectures, it is important to find a quiet area free from distractions, though this can prove difficult for many students. Try using headphones to help alleviate noisy spaces. In both in-person and Zoom lectures, you can improve your ability to focus by limiting use of your phone and social media during the lecture. Research shows that multitasking simply doesn’t work, and it will keep you from getting the most from your lecture.

Take good notes. It’s important to take good notes during class to have a solid resource to use to study for exams and to help yourself stay engaged during lecture. Check out our entire resource on taking notes in class for specific strategies and examples. For now, here are a few quick tips:

  • Organize your notes so that you can easily and quickly go back and find information in the future.
  • Focus on the main concepts and facts instead of trying to record everything.
  • Abbreviate, paraphrase, and use bullet points to stay concise and save time.
  • Record questions or areas of confusion to investigate after class.
  • Pick a style that works for you and be consistent.
  • Choose a method: handwritten, digital, or digital pen? There are benefits and drawbacks to each of these, so carefully consider which one works best for you.

Stay focused. If your professor follows the syllabus when teaching, match your notes to objectives and questions from the syllabus. If you lose focus or feel lost during part of the lecture, indicate in your notes where this occurs with a symbol (such as a star or question mark). This will help you know where you need to follow-up and get help later. For online lectures, try wearing headphones. You can also take advantage of functions specific to videos, if your professor makes recordings available to you. Use the ‘pause’ function, for example, to take notes and watch videos at your own pace.

Actively listen. Your professor may give verbal and nonverbal clues that information is important. Be on the lookout for definitions, examples, lists, superlatives (“most important,” “best,” “significant”), repetition, and voice or volume change. Make note of important information such as exam dates, homework assignments, or study suggestions.

After class

Test yourself. Ask yourself or a partner questions about the lecture and then try to answer them in your own words. Research shows that students who engage their brains in asking and answering questions outperform those who simply review their notes. Self-questioning is an active strategy that allows you to determine what’s important during a lecture and think about the information deeper and in different ways. Create higher-order thinking questions to push your brain to deeper thinking.

Summarize. Go over the main points of the lecture in your own words. Explain what you learned and the main concepts to a classmate.

Revisit your notes. After class, fill in any gaps you may have missed during class and write down anything you didn’t get to in class. Investigate and answer any lingering questions or areas of confusion from the lecture. Reach out to your professor, TA, or a classmate or attend office hours or peer tutoring if you need more explanation or help. If the lecture was on Zoom, see if you can access a transcript if a transcript would help.

Create a study guide. Write a new set of notes that includes key points from the reading. Start by listing main concepts from both lecture and reading, and then fill in supporting details. Underline important vocabulary and concepts. Look for and note relationships between ideas.

Need additional help?

The UNC Learning Center is a great resource! Both peer tutoring and academic coaching can help you work towards your goals. Peer tutors help you review and understand course content, and our academic coaches can help you:

  • Create an effective and realistic study plan
  • Decide how you want to use the strategies described in this handout
  • Stay on-track with your study plans

Works consulted

Dembo, M. H. and Seli, H. (2013). Motivation and learning strategies for college success: A focus on self-regulated learning. (4th ed.) New York: Taylor & Francis.

Holschuh, J. and Nist, S. L. (2000). Active learning: Strategies for college success. Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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