“How do I listen to a lecture, in real time, and pick out what is important?”


The thing about lectures is that there’s a kind of “trade-off” going on between picking out important information, actually processing them (which is the crucial part), and taking note of them.


And that’s fine. There’s beauty in limited attention. If you look at life as a vinyl record, attention is the needle that determines the sound of your whole experience.

Source: npr.org

And we can “bias” this needle to help us “absorb” lectures more effectively — but the solution is not intuitive at all.

You have to think “outside of the lecture” before you can be proactive.

Specifically, you need to determine what to get out of the lecture before you even start attending.

So much like Textbook reading, effective lecture note-taking should ALSO feel like an extraction activity — with a couple of twists.

Step 1. Infer your lecture objectives from the headings

First, if you have access to lecture materials (or better yet, a primary textbook) before the actual lecture, you can infer what’s important straight from the headings.

As you know, I like to turn these objectives into questions before the processing phase.

Example: If one heading says “Prokaryotes,” then you might as well ask the ff. questions…

  • What are prokaryotes in the first place?
  • Where do they come from?
  • When are they discovered?
  • How are they different from bacteria?
  • How do prokaryotes function?
  • etc.

It’s a basic “What, Where, Why, How, When” type of inference. Whichever makes sense, of course.

Do this until you feel like you’ve covered all of the “big headings” — because that’s where the big ideas will come from. EVERYTHING ELSE would mostly be elaborations of the main idea. (RECALL: Ideas form a “table” with a top and legs)

Step 2. Use each objective as a “compass” for extracting information

Process incoming information based on the current objective.

As you attend the lecture, think of each question as a compass.

Without the objectives, you are blindly absorbing information and thinking that you need to memorize everything.

So once your professor starts talking, it’s safe to assume that you are already discussing the first item in your checklist.

  • If your current objective is “What are prokaryotes?” then that’s what you need to get out of your talking professor
  • If your current objective is to “explain how the auditory system works,” then you need to know the *mechanisms* more than the *definitions*.
  • If your current objective is to “list the classifications of urine samples” then you obviously want to learn about the list items.
  • If your current objective is to differentiate Anatomy and Physiology, then you better learn the difference between the two in the next section of the lecture.

Do note that the raw information will not always tell you these explicitly, and if you inferred your questions instead of taking them from a set of textbook objectives, then it’s likely that it will NOT be presented in order. 

So your professor will not ALWAYS say “this is the difference between Anatomy and Physiology” or “these are the classification of urine samples.”

You will have to make conclusions by yourself by taking in the raw information and thinking about these relations.

That’s how you do encoding, after all.

Eventually, as the discussion continues, you may find that the professor is already discussing the next item but you didn’t meet a current objective because you didn’t understand.

Therefore, based on the objectives, you have a knowledge gap. And you want to record these knowledge gaps for later learning. 

Here’s what to do in that case…

Step 3. Take note of knowledge gaps — because you can’t (and shouldn’t) record an entire lecture

Record knowledge gaps in question form for convenience.

Then, you may want ask your professor to clarify these when the opportunity arises.

But even if you don’t get that opportunity, the worst you’ll have is the ability give more thought to these gaps when you get to read your textbook. 

Or if you have this kind of teacher, at least you have a record of your knowledge gaps…
  • Example objective from textbook:
    • Explain how the auditory system works to perceive sounds
  • Situation:
    • Professor discusses cochlea and pitch discrimination, but somehow you didn’t fully hear *how* the cochlea discriminates pitch.
    • You also didn’t understand what pitch discrimination is.
  • Knowledge gap notes:
    • What is pitch discrimination? How does the cochlea discriminate pitch?

In our prokaryotes example, here’s what that looks like:

Not everything is important to write down in lectures!

I want to remind you of one thing:

You don’t need to write every detail from the lecture when you take notes.

So long as you extract what’s the objective all about — in your own words — you’re gonna be fine. Remember that if you’re studying a fundamental topic, you will still NEED to learn from your textbooks, anyway.

That’s because effective note-taking is NOT about just capturing and memorizing tons and tons of facts from lectures.

It’s about mentally encoding information before/during note-taking.

And effective studying, in general, isn’t about note-taking…

It’s about the cognitive processes that you use during your study session.

A coherent study workflow helps with that. Plus, you get to make studying more efficient because you can eliminate wastes in your process.

Learn more how to create a study workflow that helps you absorb new topics in less time in my free email course, How to Study Effectively.