Taking Notes In Lectures

Possibly the simplest clue to dyslexia in a student is their answer to the question 'Can you take notes in a lecture?'. The answer is usually some variation on 'no'. Sometimes it is ‘Oh my word, not a chance’. Sometimes it is 'Yes, but I can't read them afterwards'. It all amounts to the same thing. What it means is that they don't leave a lecture much wiser than when they entered it.

Dyslexics are weak at processing language. This is not limited to the written word. They also have a weakness in absorbing and storing information in lectures. They are not so good at 'extracting value' from lecturers 'talking at them'.

Sometimes this is partly the fault of the teacher. Academics often believe that subject knowledge is the only criteria that determines their competence. Teaching skill is sometimes not considered a requirement. Some students have to endure lectures that are three hours long. No-one learns well in that situation and dyslexic students find it particularly difficult.

The issue is how much information or 'value' does the student get from the lecture? And what can they do to get more?

The first suggestion is sometimes a little intimidating for the eager-to-learn-and-remember dyslexic. Try not writing at all. 'But then I won't remember any of it!', they say. 'How much of it do you remember at the moment? is the next question. 'Very little', comes the reply.

The attempt to make notes, however futile, is often a long-practised and deep-seated habit. It's like clinging onto a flimsy piece of driftwood in a raging sea. It won't save you, but it's hard to let go. But once the student has relaxed and accepted that retaining everything is not possible – or reasonable to expect – and that relaxing, enjoying the lecture and allowing the brain to catch what it catches and miss what it misses, often more is retained than before. And more understood.

Long lectures are not good for imparting lots of detailed information. What they should be used for is giving an overview, or explaining important points, or providing direction. If the student sets out to achieve some of these objectives – rather than trying to retain great clumps of detail – they will begin to get better value from the experience.

Some students are able to audio-record their lectures. They usually find, though, that they don't have time to listen to them all the way through. Imagine having to attend all your lectures twice and you'll understand why. A strategy for dealing with this is to be alert to which sections of the lecture are particularly significant – an important theorist or significant event – and mark this on the recording, perhaps by re-starting it at that point and making it easy to find. Then these sections can be reviewed later.

Another successful technique is to spend a little time after a lecture to quietly make notes on what is immediately retained. This can be done alone or with one or two fellow students. The key is relaxation. The brain works better when it isn't trying too hard. Just sit, pen in hand, and let the lecture wash through the brain. Note what comes to mind. Don't try to actively remember, just note what the moment presents. Often most of the salient points will be 'captured'.

Reading in advance of the lecture can also be a big help. If the course is well organised, the subject of the lecture will be available in a course overview or on a VLE. Try finding the relevant chapter in a course reader or text-book and scan-read it (see Reading Tips). Read the first and last paragraph in the relevant section and anything else that grabs your attention. That's usually enough to prepare you better for the lecture and helps you follow it.

Also, you can prepare a template for the lecture. Take a single page of A4 and put headings on it from the reading. Just four or five bullet points on the main issues you'll encounter. You might then like to add to that during the lecture. Don’t try to add much, just a further four or five phrases – a date, a theorist's name, a movement or the name of a theory.

Finally, if you don't already receive them, you can ask the lecturer for notes to the lecture. Of course, if you already do, you're probably not reading this piece. Many lecturers feel, wrongly, that writing in the lecture leads to better absorption of the material for all. That's to misunderstand what it means to be a right-brained learner (of course, not having the burden of providing notes makes the lecturer's life easier). Making learning easy for everyone should be the objective and some people learn much more easily when they have notes in advance of lectures.

You can always ask..

Written by Simon Hopper