What to listen for in lectures

There’s a lot of content in university lectures. It’s important to learn how to take cues to determining what’s important to record in your notes. People don’t instinctively listen well, but it’s a skill that anyone can develop using these steps.

Listen actively instead of passively

Active listening  is actively engaging in listening by paying attention to what’s being repeated, what’s new, and raising questions.

Passive listening  is “hearing” what the professor says and copying it down word-for-word. 

By actively listening, you filter the information obtained to help you identify what’s important and what should be included in your notes. Instead of trying to capture every word of a lecture, listen for major ideas and main concepts to review later.

Verbal and non-verbal cues 

Paying attention to your professor’s verbal and non-verbal cues can help you stay focused and capture important content on your notes.   

Verbal cues  

  • Lecture highlights

  • Hypotheticals  

  • Key points and counter arguments  

  • Repetition  

  • Summary/recaps/conclusions  

  • Other words/phrases for attention, e.g., “first…second…”, “note that…”, “however”.

Non-verbal cues  

  • Facial expressions (i.e., indications of confusion, surprises, and other emotions)  

  • Gestures (e.g., raised eyebrows, talking slowly or emphatically)  

  • Eye contact, which may indicate interest, invitation or other expectations  

  • Speed or voice change  (e.g., if the instructor slows down or raise voice to explain a topic, usually it means this topic is important)  

  • Time spent on a topic  (i.e., the longer time spent on the topic, the more important it is)  

  • Handwritten words on the board  

Other strategies to actively engage in listening and note-taking

Avoid  distractions or multi-tasking. 

To help prevent your mind from wandering, try to avoid reading, talking or multi-tasking while the lecture is in progress. Turn your notifications off on your cell phone and laptop, close all webpages and social media. Save conversations with your classmates for breaks instead of during the lecture.

Keep a positive attitude. 

Your attitude can add to or detract from the words of the instructor. Keeping a positive attitude toward the course content, the lectures and the instructor can help you stay engaged and focused. A negative attitude may hold you back by hindering your ability to focus, listen actively, and understand what’s being taught. 

Choose your seat wisely.  

Choosing a seat in the lecture can have a large influence on your ability to focus and listen actively. Whether you prefer sitting at the front of the room or at the back of the room, determine where the best place is for you and where you’ll have the fewest distractions.