Lectures at university can be quite different from lessons at school and college, particularly when you are taught in a big group. This activity will help you to make the most out of lectures.
It’s hard to know what an undergraduate lecture is like until you’ve been to one. Even if you’ve been to a public lecture or sample session as part of visiting your university, it’s not quite the same as the real thing because people behave differently at those events and you don’t often have to take notes.
Lectures are structured in different ways, depending on the course. Some lectures will be formal and take a more traditional style with the tutor standing/moving around at the front of the lecture theatre, talking through a powerpoint presentation. The expectation might be that there is little or no input from the students.
The tutor will not indicate when they are saying something that they think you should take notes on and they will not wait for you to copy information from the slides as might have happened at school or college.
Depending on the course, the tutor may also use a whiteboard or chalkboard so this information will not be available in the slides.
How could this affect me?
Keeping up with note taking, being in a big group and dealing with sensory stimuli can be both challenging and exciting – just like the content of lectures themselves. Many students really enjoy lectures as it’s a chance to learn more about a subject you’re really interested in from an expert in your field.
University lecture theatres vary in size and capacity. There might be students in the lecture theatre with you who are studying the same module but are on a different degree course.
What to do next?
Think about your coping skills
- You can’t really write down everything that is said, even if you have amazing shorthand skills. Though developing your own shorthand and abbreviations isn’t a bad idea (see this Guardian article).
- It’s pointless copying exactly what’s on the slides – they are often uploaded and made available to students through MOLE which is the University of Sheffield’s Virtual Learning Environment Virtual Learning Environment and/or printed as a handout.
- Most lectures are automatically recorded and an audio recording and any associated presentational materials (e.g. Powerpoint slides) will be made available to students after the lecture via MOLE (the Virtual Learning Environment). You might find it helpful to listen again to the lecture, to clarify your understanding of a particular section or to supplement your notes. If so, and if your tutors will not be recording a particular lecture or set of lectures, you may find it useful to record them yourself, either by using your phone or by borrowing a voice recorder from the Disability and Dyslexia Support Service. If you are eligible to apply for Disabled Student’s Allowance, you might receive note-taking software to support you.
- Try to write what you think about the contents of the lecture, reflectively, as well as the main points of what is said.
- Mind mapping, either via software on your laptop or drawn by hand, can be a really useful way of showing how ideas are linked and might suit your way of thinking better than writing down full paragraphs or even bullet points. If you’re a Sheffield University student, the 301: Academic Skills Centre provide information about using mind maps to support your studies.
- Lectures don’t always start on time, but it’s better to assume that they will. If you can, arrive early as you will not miss anything and you can get settled before it begins.
- Sometimes being late is unavoidable – while some lecturers don’t allow latecomers, they should tell you in advance if this is the case. Just come in as quietly as you can – it might feel intimidating at the time, but most people are not going to mind and it’s better not to miss out completely. The same if you need to leave earlier than planned.
- Other students may well arrive late or need to leave early themselves. This can be distracting, but it’s okay to do this at university, as everyone has things going on outside the course.
- If you arrive too early for your session, the previous lecture may still be going on, and/or you can get caught in the crowd of people leaving. If you can, spend some time around your lecture theatres close to lecture changeover time and familiarise yourself with the timings and where entrances and exits are.
- If you have time, go to the loo first! It sounds obvious and embarrassing, but lectures are often two or three hours long and not all of them have breaks (and if they do, there can be queues). You don’t want to be thinking about it throughout the session or having to run out at the end.
- If you are one of the first people into the lecture theatre, you can choose where to sit – you might like to sit on the end of a row near the aisle so you can get out quickly if you need to leave.
“I left lectures, if the commotion became unbearable.” (student, Autism&Uni surveys)
If sitting near the front helps you to concentrate, sit there.
Lectures and seminars tend to have sign-in sheets (some universities are moving to electronic systems, but most haven’t), so make sure the sheet gets round to you and you pass it on to the next person. If you don’t catch it during the lecture, go to the front of the lecture theatre or seminar room at the end.
- There will often be an opportunity to ask questions in a lecture – either the lecturer will ask if there are any questions during the session or there will be specific time left aside for this at the end. Write your question down and save it for later.
- You should only ask a question publicly in a lecture if you think everyone in the session would benefit from hearing the answer. This is quite hard to get to grips with. It doesn’t mean you can’t ask things that are more personal to you and your understanding of a topic or assignment, it’s just that you need to either ask privately at the end of the lecture, email your lecturer or arrange an appointment with them.
Telling the lecturer about your autism
“In first year I missed a lot of lectures and also would sometimes have to leave during one as I would have severe anxiety due to having to sit surrounded by people, not moving and often in a room with no windows and unnatural light. Lecturers were aware this could be the case and so did not mind and knew I was not being rude.” (Fern, final year student, Autism&Uni interview)
It can be beneficial to tell your lecturers know (in person or via email) that you are autistic and how it affects you – even if you think they already know. Read the rest of Fern’s interview and the toolkit section on Telling people at university about your autism, if you haven’t already done so.
Questions to think about
- Do you prefer to read handouts online or on paper?
- Would it be useful to record your lectures to enable you to listen again to some of the lecture so that you can finish making your notes or to re-listen at a later point to help with clarification or revision?
- What helps you to focus on someone speaking, such as a lecturer, when a lot is going on? Is there anything that helped you with this at school or college that you might be able to implement at university? For example, some autistic students find that a fidget toy can help with concentration – some are small enough to be discretely carried around in pockets it’s important that they don’t create a distraction for other people in the lecture.
- Do you feel comfortable asking the lecturer to use the microphone if everyone else says they’re okay without it or the lecturer starts speaking quietly?
- If you need to leave a lecture early, either because you have an appointment or you need to go somewhere quiet for a while, how will you sort that out in advance?
- Do your lecturer and fellow students know that you are autistic? Do you think it might help if they did know?
- Is there a seat or row within the lecture theatre where you would prefer to sit that helps you to maintain your concentration during the teaching session? Can you visit the lecture theatre in advance of the first time you will be in the particular lecture theatre so that you can determine where you feel most comfortable sitting?