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Simple strategies to learn the most from lectures

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Getting the most from lectures can seem an intimidating task, Caroline Stacey outlines the simple steps you can take before, during and after to make sure you’re doing just that

Lectures form a vital part of your nurse training. They are the key taught programme of your course, furnishing you with the knowledge to help you pass your exams and the skills to cope with real life situations on the ward. So, how best to approach them can be a daunting prospect.

However brief or detailed, it’s down to you to fill in the gaps and ensure you come out with the best understanding of each lecture. From preparing properly right through to your own effective debrief, the following, easy to adopt methods are worth taking on board now and throughout your studies.

Preparation is key

It’s helpful to familiarise yourself with the way lectures fit into your course. Is there the opportunity for discussion in seminars? What’s expected of you before and after? Are there any specific learning outcomes? If so, do your best to achieve them and don’t be afraid to ask for further clarification when unsure.

Most institutions will make lecture notes available beforehand. Try to get into the habit of printing them out, leaving yourself plenty of time to read them. Similarly, preparatory reading will be expected of you. Admittedly it often feels difficult to fit in but wherever possible complete it. You’ll go into the lecture with a far-improved understanding and it will also help to highlight anything of particular interest or with which you might need extra help. You could use the reading to put together questions to ask to help you better understand the subject. If the lecture forms part of a series, try to refresh your memory beforehand on previous notes.

Finally, don’t forget the obvious things; enough stationery, arriving on time and in the right frame of mind and although it’s always nice to go with friends, don’t make this your priority.

Listening skills

Try not to get bogged down with note taking. It is important but over and above should come listening and understanding. It’s common to stress about trying to write down everything a lecturer says but it’s not necessary and won’t aid your concentration.

Use the lecture notes you’ve printed as a guide to the structure of the lecture. It’s then a good idea to let this form the basis of the structure of your notes. It can be useful to include memory aids in your notes and wherever possible, avoid over-complicated language. It will only slow you down later on. Headings and breaks in your text can also be used to highlight new topics or areas. Your listening skills come into play here too, listen out for phrases which indicate a new area; “So we move on…” or “Now we will look at…”. Also look out for where examples are being highlighted as these will help to clarify points in your mind and are always worth valuable marks in exams.

The structure of your notes is important, for example you could:

  • Begin with the title, date and time of the lecture
  • Use colour to highlight anything important
  • Leave a gap to fill in later if you miss anything
  • Use images or diagrams to illustrate specifics
  • Make use of margins for corrections or extra information.


Don’t make the mistake of leaving a lecture and instantly forgetting all about it, however tempting that might seem at the time. Putting in a little extra work at this stage will really help to cement what you’ve learned.

Take the time to go over your notes as soon after the lecture as you can. Do your best to fill in any blanks and look up anything which was unclear to you at the time. Don’t be afraid to ask a lecturer for further clarification or examples to qualify points you didn’t comprehend.

It’s probably not going to be appropriate to lug all your past lecture notes along to every lecture. Therefore, getting into the habit of organising them can be helpful. Lever arch files, separated with suitable dividers, are a useful filing solution. Perhaps a file per subject or whatever works best for you. You’ll be surprised as the course continues just how many notes you end up with so setting out with an efficient filing system from the outset might seem mundane but will definitely be worthwhile.

Perfecting the art

The trick with lectures is to not let them phase you. Be confident in your approach and take responsibility for your own learning. The skills you will take on board in managing your time, listening and taking information on board will never be wasted and will see you successfully through your course, your career and your life.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Definitely don't forget to print off lecture notes and take them with you. It's very useful to have made notes beforehand on the topic, potential questions you may have for the lecturer and expand on the notes you made afterwards... make it make sense!

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