Understanding Lectures at University

Understanding Lectures as a Second Language Speaker: Techniques for Success

As your university learning starts with the simple lecture, being able to understand lectures and academic language at university is very important. 

In this article we look at techniques that can help you, even if English is not your first language.  You may not understand everything in every lesson but you can still help yourself and improve your listening skills.

Techniques to Help Understand Lectures

Note-taking skills:

  • take effective notes during lectures,
  • including how to identify and record important information
  • how to organize notes

Vocabulary building:

  • academic vocabulary
  • develop strategies for learning and retaining new words.

Listening comprehension:

  • practice your listening skills,
  • listening to recordings (e.g. lectures, discussions, or interviews)
  • answer comprehension questions

Active listening:

  • ask questions, clarify information, and make connections between different ideas.
What is Active Listening?
  • Being fully present in the conversation
  • Showing interest by practicing good eye contact
  • Noticing (and using) non-verbal cues
  • Asking open-ended questions to encourage further responses
  • Paraphrasing and reflecting back what has been said
  • Listening to understand rather than to respond

Improve your listening skills

Before the Lecture - Pre-listening Strategies
  • scanning the lecture slides,
  • reading the syllabus or course outline,
  • and looking up unfamiliar vocabulary.

Example: We have a lecture about SWOT analysis. How can we use pre-listening strategies?

  • SWOT means strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
    • What do these mean?
  • SWOT analysis is used for assessing a business, for planning and strategy
    • What do these mean?

We now know something about what we are about to hear

During the Lecture - Note Taking

Be prepared:

  • Make sure you have all the necessary materials before the lecture, including pens, paper, and any textbooks or handouts.

Use a consistent format:

  • Choose a note-taking format that works for you and stick to it throughout the lecture.
  • This will help you organize your notes and review them later.

Listen actively:

  • Pay attention to the lecturer and try to understand the main points.
  • If you don’t understand something, don’t be afraid to ask for clarity.

Focus on key ideas:

  • Don’t try to write down everything the lecturer says.
  • Instead, focus on the main ideas and supporting details.

Use abbreviations and symbols:

  • Develop your own shorthand for common words and concepts to save time and space.

Write clearly and legibly:

  • Make sure your notes are neat and easy to read. Use bullet points, headings, and subheadings to organize your notes.

Review your notes:

  • After the lecture, review your notes to make sure you understand the material.
  • Fill in any gaps and clarify any unclear points.

Compare notes with classmates:

  • Compare your notes with those of your classmates to ensure you have not missed anything important.

Use technology:

  • Consider using a laptop or tablet to take notes if you are comfortable with technology.
  • This can be a faster and more efficient way to take notes.

Remember, note-taking is a personal process, and what works for one person may not work for another. Experiment with different techniques until you find one that works for you.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your professors for feedback on your note-taking skills, as they may have additional tips and suggestions.

After the Lecture - Post-listening Strategies
  • review the notes,
  • summarize the main points,
  • discuss the lecture with peers or the instructor


Spend 5 minutes preparing for a short lesson on SWOT analysis

Prepare to take notes

  • Listen to the video
  • Note what you think is important
  • Discuss this with other students

Create a summary

  • with a partner or a group
  • Create a summary, in your own words
  • Include all the important information

So we will

  • watch and listen to a short video
  • take notes

Then, we will discuss what we think is important

  • work together to re-write the notes
  • complete the work by finishing with a small summary


If you can’t access YouTube then download the video from this link – SWOT analysis lesson.