Perhaps one of the greatest unknowns moving toward first-year uni is simply what it’s like on a day-to-day basis. Naturally, a big part of university life is the academic side (for some more than others!). Throughout high school, you’ve probably become accustomed to certain type of class – and perhaps even a certain type of learning. There will quite likely be some differences, though, once you step foot on a university campus.
In reality, the distinction is more complicated than “high school class” versus “university class”. The reason for that is that there isn’t just one type of uni class. There are lectures, tutorials, labs, demonstrations, seminars, lectorials, workshops, and a bunch of others. You won’t necessarily experience all of them – some class types are faculty-specific. For example, if you’re studying a Bachelor of Arts, you might be less likely to have a lab.
In this article, we’re looking more closely at what a university lecture actually involves. If you’ve been to a VCE or HSC revision lecture in the past, you might have some idea – but uni’s a little bit different! We’ll just note here that a lot of the information below will depend on your particular university, so take it all with a grain of salt (or a pile of sugar, if you’re Homer Simpson)!
The basic structure
Lectures tend to range from 1-3 hours in length. Anything shorter or longer than that would be quite unusual; even a three hour lecture is a bit of a marathon!
First, you’ll (hopefully) rock up to the specified venue at the specified time. Initially, the lecture theatre might be a little tricky to find. At some unis in particular, campus can feel like the world’s trickiest hedge maze in the first few weeks, but you’ll get to know where to go in time (don’t worry, by the way – everybody’s in the same boat!). It’s fairly likely a different lecture was immediately before your one in the same lecture theatre, so make sure you don’t go in too early. Walking in to an unrelated lecture with like three minutes left isn’t an overly pleasant experience.
It’s the same thing with lecture venue. Try to make sure you have the right place, because the consequences can be pretty embarrassing. For example, you might have successfully found Building 10. But if you walk in to Theatre 6, Building 10 instead of Theatre 16, Building 10, you might find yourself in the middle of a lecture about something you’ve never even heard of. The logical thing to do here is, simply, leave, but if you’re sitting in the middle, this can be a bit embarrassing (I’ve known students to stick it out the entire lecture even though they know it’s not the one they were looking for, just to avoid having to leave mid-lecture).
Once you’re in the lecture theatre and found a seat (like a movie theatre, you’ll soon work out which seats in a lecture theatre are your favourite), you might have to wait a few minutes for the lecturer to arrive or set up their materials (usually a PowerPoint presentation, but this depends on the individual lecturer’s style). During the lecture itself, you have a few options. Many students take notes on their laptop (and, depending on level of investment, may also browse Facebook or similar concurrently). I never – not even once – opened my laptop in a lecture; I’ve always had a strong preference for hand-written notes. I hand wrote all of my notes through high school, so it’s what I’m used to, and I also think it helps with memory retention.
Basically, though, the lecturer will speak through certain concepts, and you’ll take notes (or not) as you deem fit.
Are lectures interactive? Is there audience interaction? Sometimes – but this depends on the lecturer.
So, is it true, what they say? Are lectures really optional?
Depends. Sometimes, yes; sometimes, no.
Whether attendance at your lectures is compulsory or not tends to be unit-specific, so it will probably change from subject to subject. It’s important to check this, of course, because you don’t want to fail a unit just because you didn’t rock up to a lecture or two. It may also be the case that attendance is compulsory to a degree – for example, you might need to attend 75% of lectures throughout a semester.
If your lectures are not compulsory, that doesn’t mean you should never turn up. Some lectures are recorded, which makes things easier (as you can listen to them from home or elsewhere, and theoretically not miss any content), but a) sometimes technology is unreliable, and b) you might miss things the lecturer has said unrecorded. I barely went to a single lecture in my first year, and barely missed one thereafter. My personal view is that I got a lot more out of being at the lecture in person, and it was also easier to keep motivation throughout. It depends on the person, though – you might be way more comfortable at home!
In general, lectures tend to be more optional than tutorials. But again: check with your particular unit!
Best preparing for a uni lecture
Sometimes, pre-reading is expected. If you turn up to a lecture having not done the specified reading, you might feel way out of your depth, which obviously isn’t fruitful (or pleasant!).
This is where solid organisation comes to the fore. If you miss the readings on one week, you might not bother turning up to the lecture. But then, if you haven’t been to the lecture(s) from Week 1, why would you do the readings for Week 2? And so on. Next thing you know, you might have ten or 15 lectures to catch up on!
I’d also suggest having – or developing – some sort of consistent note-taking system. For example, my notes were always in blue pen. If I knew things were particularly relevant to an upcoming assignment, I wrote them in red. In black, I would write comments to myself and general notes. That way, I could easily look back on my notes and know which things were of most importance (red), and could easily distinguish my notes from my comments.
Overall, perhaps my best lecture advice is very simple: pay attention. There’s just no point going to a lecture to sift through your Facebook feed. Or, as seems very popular, watch NBA games. If you’re going to make the effort of physically attending the lecture, or if you’re going to make the effort of listening retrospectively online, you might as well make it count. Not paying attention will come back to bite you. I promise.