A group of students sitting with their laptops and notebooks, listening in a lecture theatre

Purposes of lectures

Lectures are common on most undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes, particularly in the arts and social science disciplines. Lectures have been such an important part of academic study that “lecturer” or “senior lecturer” is a job title for many teaching staff.

In a lecture, lecturers speak to a group of students (often large numbers of students) for a fairly long period, usually about 45 minutes, and students are expected to listen and take notes. In most cases the lecturer will use some kind of visual support, often PowerPoint or other presentation programmes.

Interaction in lectures

Lectures vary in the degree of interaction between lecturer and students. Some lecturers will ask students to keep questions until the end of the lecture – this enables them to manage their time effectively. Other lecturers allow students to ask questions at any point during the lecture – this makes time management more difficult, but it does make it easier for students to follow the lecture, because they can check their understanding or ask for clarification at any time. Other lecturers make learning more interactive by setting students short tasks during the lecture. For example, students may be asked to discuss something in pairs.

Increasingly, lecturers are using technology to make their lectures more interactive, and to get feedback from students. Polling software allows lecturers to set multiple-choice or short answer questions, so they can check how many students are understanding particular points, and if necessary they can re-explain them. A ‘Live chat’ app running in the background makes it possible for lecturers to collect questions from students and choose which ones to respond to.

Using lecture recordings

Many universities now produce audio or video recordings of lectures, and make these available to students, usually through their VLE (virtual learning environment), which is a web-based learning platform. These recordings are intended as a resource you can return to, for example, if you want to check your understanding, or if there’s something important that you forgot to note down.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t need to attend the live lectures, because it’s much easier to concentrate and understand information in a live lecture than it is on a recording. Watching a 45-minute lecture on video, and understanding it, is very demanding.

If your university doesn’t automatically record lectures, you can ask the lecturer permission to make a recording on your phone or other device. Most lecturers will give permission – but you must ask.

Purposes of lectures

In some cultures, lectures are used to provide students with information, or explain ideas, that they may be tested on. This may be the case on your course, but another important purpose of lectures in the UK is to give an overview of a topic or issue, to create a starting point for students to read in more detail on specific aspects of that topic or issue. They might also be asked to discuss aspects of the lecture or write an essay related to the topic or issue.

Some lectures might follow the development, over time, of thinking on a particular issue or phenomenon. In others the lecturer might present, analyse and evaluate a range of different current perspectives on an issue or phenomenon. In the sciences a technique or procedure might be demonstrated in a lecture, and students expected to apply that technique or procedure in some practical work they have to do. In all these cases, instead of memorising the content of the lecture, the students are expected to go away and do more learning related to the lecture.


Now we’d like to hear your thoughts.

Universities often post examples of lectures in different disciplines on their websites. See if you can find a link to a lecture in the area you are planning to study and post it in the comment area below. Add a brief explanation of the focus of the lecture.

If you can’t find a lecture in your subject, have a look at this presentation from TedTalks and share your thoughts on the focus you think this presenter took. If you are not familiar with TED Talks, they provide an excellent resource to use if you want to improve your listening skills. Many of the talks are given by academics like Faith Osier, and the language and discourse structures are similar to those of academic lectures. There are over 3,000 talks on a wide range of topics, so you are sure to find some that match your interests.

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