Lectures and seminars are an essential part of academic life for most undergraduates. But what are they about and how can you make the most of them?

What are lectures and seminars?

Lectures give insight into a topic by introducing major themes and issues that provide a departure point for students' own study. In many subjects, they take place once or twice weekly for each module that you're taking and last for between one and two hours. They're often based around a slideshow presentation that's delivered to large groups of students in a lecture theatre.

They're usually compulsory, with attendance sometimes monitored through an electronic sign-in system. However, turning up is highly recommended even if it's not required.

'Your lecturers are usually the ones creating your modules and setting your exams, so all of the content and recommended reading is tailored,' explains Michelle Reid, study adviser at the University of Reading. 'Also, where else will you get the opportunity to hear from some of the leading experts in your subject?'

Seminars typically centre on the material presented within the lecture, plus set readings and independent tasks. Like lectures, they usually take place weekly for each module and last for one hour. However, they're compulsory, involve smaller groups of students and offer much greater interactivity with tutors.

While the exact format of seminars varies by subject and teaching style, you'll undertake group work, discuss theories and issues in greater detail, and ask and respond to tutor questions.

How should I prepare for the lecture?

Sandy Sommer, associate tutor at the University of Sussex, explains that lecturers often provide students with reading lists that contain specific materials to prepare. This ensures that students understand the topic's basic concepts before attending. 'The speaker then builds upon these ideas and provides further information,' she adds. 'Without preparation, some learners can feel a bit lost and might not be able to take in all of the information.'

However, doing too much research can be ill-advised - especially if you've not received any guidance regarding readings. Michelle warns that you may waste time heading in the wrong direction, and recommends that you briefly:

  • Look at the title - Consider what you might expect from the lecture, how it fits into your module and what you already know about the topic.
  • Read any hand-outs or notes provided in advance - Think about the overall structure of the lecture, which themes or important sections you need to listen out for, and if there are any unfamiliar technical terms.
  • Identify what you want to get from the lecture - For example, discover whether you're looking to gather background information on a wider issue or learn more about a key topic for an assignment.

How should I act during the lecture?

Rather than making too many meaningless notes, you should listen to your lecturer carefully. Anika Easy, learning adviser at the University of Leeds, recommends only jotting down the most important words, phrases and your own questions, in whichever note-taking form works best for you.

It's difficult to listen, understand and write notes simultaneously, and many students find that their concentration wanders. To combat this, Michelle suggests that you listen out for signposting or emphasis in your lecturer's voice. Phrases such as 'the next theme is…' or 'this is a crucial theory…' can help you to refocus and get back on track.

If you miss or don't understand something, and cannot find the solution independently through your readings or research, follow it up with your lecturer. 'Students are often intimidated within lecture settings and may wrongly assume that everyone around them understands the content,' explains Debbie De, teaching fellow at Aston University. 'It's perfectly normal to have questions and not understand everything.'

The audio recording of lectures is becoming more widespread. The University of Leeds and Aston University have this systemised, with the latter hosting them on an online channel called 'Aston Replay'. Extremely useful for revision purposes, the service is particularly popular with students whose first language isn't English. Students can pause lecture recordings, focusing on specific concepts and items of vocabulary at their own pace while accessing other learning resources.

'Having access to recordings removes pressure from making notes on every aspect of a lecture,' adds Debbie. 'It also means that, instead of focusing on the recording settings of their mobile phones or laptops, students are able to concentrate completely on the lecture.'

How should I prepare for the seminar?

It's important to revisit your lecture notes immediately after leaving the theatre, ideally using active learning strategies. These involve making the information meaningful to you rather than simply attempting to absorb or memorise it, which helps you to consolidate your understanding and close any knowledge gaps.

You could start by comparing notes and chatting about the lecture with friends over a coffee, before condensing your notes into spider diagrams, mind maps or a summary. 'The Cornell method, or three-column approach, is a great time-saving technique after lectures,' says Anika. 'Ten minutes and you're done. These double as your revision notes too.'

You'll be given readings and tasks to complete ahead of the seminar which, alongside your existing lecture notes, become central to your preparation. 'These materials tend to include a variety of viewpoints and perspectives of a particular topic, and are aimed to engage the students' critical thinking skills,' explains Sandy. 'Students are expected to get to an informed opinion based on these materials.'

How should I act during the seminar?

The most important advice for seminars? Get involved. Participating in discussions allows you to deepen your understanding of the topic - plus hear and understand others' perspectives. While many students fear speaking out, having nothing to say, being put on the spot or being left out in group work, such anxieties are often misplaced. Getting to know your peers much better will improve your confidence and ultimately enhance your learning within the seminar setting.

Sandy recommends using your reading materials or notes as a starting point for discussions. 'Your opinion must be justified,' she says. 'Be open-minded, accept other people's opinions, and be prepared to adjust your own if others present a convincing evidence-based argument.'

Like with lectures, you should revisit your materials after the seminar. 'Adjust notes previously taken to reflect what was learned, find additional evidence for your opinion, and reflect on whether you felt sufficiently prepared,' advises Sandy.

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