Agony aunt

October 1, 1999

Q) My new students seem to write down every word that I say during lectures. Should I discourage this as I cannot believe it is productive for them?

Liz Beatty

Director of the centre for higher education and development

Coventry University

A) The notion of explaining to students how to be an audience is quite foreign to most lecturers yet it is crucial. To begin with you need to ask what the notes are for. Are they a way of staying active and alert during the lecture? Is this just a habit picked up at school, or is note-taking the starting point for further study, or for revision purposes later? Where do the students keep their notes? Different lecturers have different expectations of their students but most fail to make them explicit. Some lecturers want verbatim note-taking, others want students to listen rather than write. How are the students to know? While some students are very good at picking up unspoken cues from their lecturers, others are virtually cue-deaf. They are in passive mode and will wait to be told exactly what to do.

You need to hold a discussion about lecture process right at the start and let them in on your personal style. Of course, some of your lectures may lend themselves to notetaking and others may not. Again, let students in on this, do not expect them to second guess all the time. Sometimes you might say, "take note of this" when you want them to record a particular reference or formula. Just to complicate matters furthers, remember that some students listen better when they are note-taking while for others it is a huge distraction. Acknowledge this openly so they can at least be informed about what they are doing.

Many lecturers now issue lecture notes either before or after lectures and if you do this (bear in mind the resourcing implications) it can be useful to leave spaces such as wide margins for students to jot down key points. The best lecturers understand that lecturing is a two-way communication but it is very easy, particularly for new lecturers, to be totally focused on content rather than the structure and process of the lecture. Do not just ask yourself : "how much can I cover in this session?" Think about pacing and the way you give out information. There is nothing more annoying for students than lecturers who put up overheads then whip them away again before anyone has had a chance to read them, never mind take notes.

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