Getting The Best Out Of Lectures

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Lectures - What to expect?

It’s where my lecturer just stands and talks at my classmates and me, whilst we take notes, right?

Usually a lecture is a fairly one-sided activity with your lecturer outlining the important points of the subject, introducing you to the matters of debate and key thinkers in that area. Within law of course, this will involve coverage of the main authorities in this specific field. Some lecturers do like some level of participation with their audience but this is entirely a personal thing. Your lecturer will make it clear which format he/she will be adopting.

What’s the point of them?

  1. to outline the basics of a subject and provide the students with a foundation of knowledge
  2. to cover just an aspect of the topic and encourage students to undertake further independent reading
  3. to expand on complex concepts that students have already encountered during private study

Important point to remember is that lectures are not the sum total of knowledge you need to acquire in that particular subject area. It is a starting point. They are insufficient to provide you with a detailed and meticulous understanding of the topic discussed; they only give you:

  • the most elaborate or significant points
  • the main structure of the subject
  • the way it will develop

Remember lectures are designed to provide a framework of information that should be supplemented by your own study. They are not a substitute for the required reading that must be undertaken (ideally) prior or after each lecture.

Three steps to success

Yes 3 steps! Thanks to Rouju

In their Legal Skills [1] book, Finch and Fafinski detail a three-stage process for getting the most out of lectures:

At the lecture: Listen, think and note what seems to be the main points made by the lecturer. Check the handout and supplement this with your own notes rather than rewriting what is provided. Highlight anything that the lecturer identifies as a particularly important point.

After the lecture: Read through your notes to ensure that they make sense and that they are complete. Make a list of key cases that you need to read, key commentators whose views you need to discover and note anything that puzzles you as an issue to follow up in your own reading.

Before the next lecture: Find the relevant chapter in your textbook that covers the material covered in the previous lecture and use this to supplement and expand on your lecture notes. Read cases and articles to gain a greater depth of understanding. If possible, glance over the subject matter of the next lecture to have a chance to think about how this links to material you have already covered.

How do I take notes?

Don’t manically write down everything in the hope it will be useful later on – you need to be selective. There isn’t one right way and what works for your friend might not make any sense for you.

Types of method

  • classic linear approach (sentences, headings, subheadings etc)
  • flow diagrams and arrows (e.g. to indicate the logical relationship between a couple of points)
  • mind maps (allow to visualise ideas, concepts and links between them)
  • type directly into a laptop (advantages of speed, legible notes)

Wouldn’t it be easiest to record a lecture?

Perhaps, although remember you’d have to potentially go back and write notes afterwards. You need to gain permission before recording any speaker.

What should I write down then?

  • Do not write everything the lecturer said verbatim! Listen and think.
  • Be selective – note only key points.
  • Develop your own system of abbreviations or symbols in order to follow up your notes more effectively. Please, note that this is informal, so avoid using these in your essays or examinations.
  • Organise your material by structuring your notes (headings, sub-headings) and number your pages.
  • Highlight cases, names of judges, statutes, etc.
  • Review the notes after the lecture and supplement them with independent reading.


  1. Emily Finch & Stefan Fafinski, Legal Skills (OUP, Oxford, 2009)

Thanks to Alex Antoniou, PhD Research Student at The City Law School for this contribution.