To make a success of your degree it's essential that you engage in lecturers and seminars. A vital part of the academic experience, discover how to prepare for, and get the most from, this valuable contact time

What are lectures and seminars?

  • Lectures introduce you to the main topics on your course. For many degrees, this involves up to three hours of teaching per module, per week, split across one or two sessions. They involve little direct interaction between lecturer and student - often based around a presentation; they're typically given to large groups of students in a theatre setting. Attendance is compulsory and, for some courses, vital in completing a module. Although presentation-led lectures are usually uploaded online afterwards, you'll gain a better understanding of the content by attending and having it explained to you.
  • Seminars are the interactive accompaniment to lectures. You'll be encouraged to apply your knowledge of the lecture content and additional reading to complete group work, participate in discussions and ask your tutor questions. These sessions are held in smaller groups, typically in a classroom setting. For each module you'll be required to attend a one-hour seminar per week to consolidate and evaluate the lecture material.

How should I prepare?

Preparation for lectures and seminars is the key to a successful degree. Being well prepared  empowers you to contribute, and helps you avoid feeling lost and overwhelmed.

This includes knowing exactly where and when your lectures will be. Check your university email account in advance of sessions, as lecturers use this to let you know about any additional preparation, as well as to notify you of room changes, rescheduling and cancellations. It's a good idea to send push notifications to your phone.

'Check the lecture topic (what do you know about this already?) and how it fits into the overall module programme,' says Dr Amanda Tinker, academic skills coordinator at the University of Huddersfield. 'Familiarise yourself with the lecture topic by engaging in any required reading or check your recommended reading list and identify sources that seem relevant. Save any optional, detailed reading for later, as you just want to become acquainted with the topic.' Try to go to lectures with an open mind.

When it comes to seminars the first rule of preparation is to attend your lectures. You'll struggle to participate in seminars or understand discussion topics without doing so.

'Revisit, read and review your lecture notes,' advises Amanda.

You'll be assigned additional reading and tasks to complete ahead of the seminar which, as well as your existing lecture notes, count towards your seminar preparation. These materials include a variety of thoughts and opinions around a particular topic, and are designed to engage your critical thinking skills.

'Identify key themes, interesting questions that you might ask in the seminar and any areas where it would be helpful to have further discussion, clarification or examples to illustrate. Think about what you hope to achieve by participating in the seminar and consider how you might best contribute to the discussion and activities to improve both your own understanding and that of others,' adds Amanda.

How should I act during lectures and seminars?

You need to show up to lecturers ready to listen. Amanda agrees, 'it's important to be an active listener during lectures, so try and connect what you are seeing and hearing in the lecture with what you know already, using your 'inner voice' to critically reflect and consider questions - do I agree or disagree; do I need further clarification to help me understand?'

While tempting, don't write down everything that's said in lectures - you may miss out on important information while writing down something minor. Lecturers often provide handouts or upload presentation slides after the lecture, so spend the session listening and writing down only the most important words and phrases. To help with this, Amanda suggests 'a Cornell note making style can be useful during lectures to organise your note making both during and after the lecture. 

Split your page into two columns (the first narrow and the second larger) with a section at the bottom of the page. You can use the larger column to make notes during the lecture, the narrow column for keywords, comments and questions and the bottom section for a summary after the lecture. Other note making styles include linear or bullet point notes, or you may prefer to be more visual and use a mind map.'

Lectures are designed to introduce topics and provide new information, which can be a lot to take in - so don't hesitate to ask questions if the opportunity arises (usually at the end of a lecture). Alternatively, lecturers will be happy to stay behind - or arrange a meeting on another day - to discuss anything you're struggling with.

To get the most out of your lectures, use your contact hours wisely. Don't become sidetracked by using them as social events - stay focused on what you're being taught. Sitting in the front row, for instance, makes it harder to chat to friends and you're unlikely to be distracted by latecomers.

When attending seminars you need to be prepared to participate and engage with tutors and classmates.

As seminars are held with the aim of kick-starting discussions, be vocal and raise any interesting points or thoughts you have - participation is key to making these sessions worthwhile.

Try not to feel nervous - the relaxed seminar environment and small attendee numbers are designed to boost your confidence and ultimately enhance your learning. By getting involved, you'll enrich your understanding of the content and may even learn something new from hearing the different perspectives of your classmates. Group work and group assignments are often a feature of seminars - discover 3 tips for successful group work and learn more about the 6 steps to a successful presentation.

'Acknowledge and respect the opinions of others, even if you disagree, and be open to your own opinion changing as you hear different viewpoints or learn something new,' says Amanda. 'As you discuss, have the confidence to make eye contact with everyone in your group, not just your lecturer. Seminars can feel quite daunting at first but remember that they are there to help you explore, try things out and even make (but learn from) mistakes. Don't be afraid to participate in even the smallest of ways as, by doing so, your confidence will grow and so will your learning.'

As you would after a lecture, you should revisit your seminar notes while you're still switched on. Adding any thought-provoking points that were raised in discussion to your notes will come in handy for giving your future assignments more depth, when revising for exams, and generally improving your understanding of the topic.

General tips include:

  • aim to turn up five to ten minutes early. This helps you to locate the lecture hall or room in plenty of time and allows you to find a seat and get set up. It also gives you ten minutes to chat with friends before focusing on your studies.
  • switch off your phone or put it on silent to avoid unnecessary distractions.
  • when contributing to seminars ask open ended questions, such as 'do you agree?', 'what do you think?' or 'did you find that too?' to encourage discussion among your peers.
  • if you're shy seminars can feel a bit intimidating. To help combat this set yourself a target of contributing once during the session or by planning your contributions in advance - jot down the points you want to raise and what you want to say.

How do I get the best out of online lectures and seminars?

Unless you've opted for distance or online learning the majority of your lectures and seminars will be held on campus and in person.

However, for those of you studying from home here's how to get the best out of online lectures and seminars.

Firstly, grant them the same importance as those held in person. While studying from home gives you more flexibility it doesn't mean you should skip this vital contact time.

You prepare for, and participate in, virtual lectures and seminars the same way you would in-person classes. It's not enough to just log on and listen. You need to do the required reading, take effective notes, ask questions and review what you've learned afterwards.

Here's some additional tips:

  • Get your tech set up. Lectures and seminars can last for one hour or more so where possible use a computer or laptop rather than your phone. To participate your device will need a working camera and microphone. Also check that you have a stable internet connection.
  • Choose a suitable space to work. Ideally, this will be conductive to learning and free from distractions. Using headphones blocks out background noise and helps you to concentrate.
  • Some online lectures will be live, while others may be pre-recorded. Draw up a timetable of live lectures for the week and attend each one. Watch pre-recorded lectures as soon as they become available - this way you'll avoid having a backlog of unwatched material to catch up on.
  • During live lectures and seminars remember to mute your microphone when others are talking to avoid disrupting them. This also minimises audio feedback. Behave appropriately and be mindful of when others can see or hear you.
  • Discover whether and how you can slow down the lecture or pause it to make more detailed notes.
  • Find out where recordings will be saved. The beauty of online lectures and seminars is that you can re-watch them if you need to.
  • Discuss the lecture or seminar with your peers. Go over any points you're struggling with, debate differing opinions and talk through the assignments set. This can be done on online discussion boards, by setting up a group WhatsApp or through a Microsoft Teams or Zoom call.
  • Speak up if it's not working. If you don't think the lecture content is engaging enough tell your lecturers. Suggest methods that might help you to participate more such as polls, quizzes or opening the comment or chat box to encourage discussion. If you're really struggling, react immediately. Don't suffer in silence. Contact your tutor, book a one-to-one, or see if your university has a study skills team.
  • Be kind to yourself. There will be occasions when things go wrong - your broadband might go down or your laptop could stop working. Accept that sometimes these things are beyond your control. Remember, most sessions will have slides and notes available that you can catch up on.

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