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Faculty of Humanities Study Skills Website

Taking Notes in Lectures and Seminars

The following steps are aimed at improving your note taking strategies in lectures and seminars.

  1. Arrive on time! Often it is at the beginning of the lecture that the subject is introduced and the outline of the lecture is set out. If you miss this, you may spend the rest of the lecture trying to work out what is going on.
  2. Make sure you are an active listener. Active listening is a thinking activity. The more you think about the ideas you are noting down, the more you will understand and remember them at a latter date.
  3. Develop a flexible note-taking strategy, which can be adapted to suit the style of the lecture. Have a look at the How to Take Notes section of this website for further information about note taking methods and strategies.
  4. Learn your lecturer's style. Notice how s/he operates. Some lecturers will give you an outline of what the lecture will cover at the beginning and some lecturers may sum up the most important points at the end. Some will distribute handouts, or will post lecture notes online in advance or after the lecture, to which you can add your own comments.
  5. Review your notes after the lecture. You should think about how your lecture notes relate to your notes from the course readings. Look out for the developing themes of the course, and think about how this lecture relates to the previous lectures in your course.

The Department of History also offers some useful advice:

There is often a general misconception that because lectures and seminars represent the majority of contact hours spent with members of staff, they will provide the 'answers' to the problems raised by your reading. They will not. Lectures and seminars are intended to provide introductions to subjects and the debates that surround them, not to carve out definitive tablets of stone. But once again they do this in different ways.

The Lecture

Lectures are rather like an extended review article. They attempt to introduce a new subject in an accessible way, providing an outline of both its principal debates and its various chronologies. At their best they usefully review the latest unpublished research and its effects on previous debates, while also linking up other components of the course. Because of the necessary speed of the lecture (you try doing all that in 50 minutes!) it is imperative that you listen and understand before you take notes. Do not try to write everything down, or even everything you could. Follow the argument(s), and selectively note the evidence deployed.

The Seminar

Seminar classes take a wide variety of forms, which require students to engage differently. However, generally they are intended to examine issues in greater depth than allowed in lectures and, consequently, demand substantial preparation from students to work effectively. As their purpose is to enable students to explore their ideas, the quality and coherence of the discussion varies, and with it your need to take notes. Although the tutor's job is to keep the discussion relevant, what is relevant to you may not be to someone else.

Again, do not write everything down, or just note what the tutor says (s/he may be playing devil's advocate to promote debate). Follow the discussion so you understand its principal themes and then note them down. You may find it easier to write up your notes after the tutorial. Again, here are some suggestions:

  • Do be punctual. It is at the beginning of lectures and seminars that the subject is introduced and the approach to be taken is set out. Miss this and the rest will seem a mystery.
  • Do not rush to pack up and go as soon as you hear the tutor/lecturer start to sum up. The closing remarks often raise important issues that will be discussed in the following class/lecture.
  • Do note down the names of the historians associated with particular arguments or schools of thought. If in doubt ask the tutor/lecturer to write a name on the blackboard.
  • Do not go to sleep when you receive a handout. Mark and annotate it; refer to it in your other notes; so in six months' time you know why you were given it.

Material adapted with permission from Study Skills in History Booklet 2 and the Combined Studies Centre.