Life at Uni: Lectures versus lessons

By Gordon Rugg

A lot of things at university look very similar to things in school, but are actually very different. Lectures look like lessons to a lot of new students at university, but they’re very different beneath the surface.

One major difference is this:

  • In a lesson, the teacher is someone who knows the textbooks.
  • In a lecture, the lecturer is often the person who wrote the textbooks.

It’s a rule of thumb – some teachers write textbooks, and many lecturers don’t write textbooks, for various reasons – but it brings out a key underlying point. Lecturers do a lot of things in addition to delivering lectures, and a lot of lecturers are world class experts in their fields.

Student reactions to this vary.

  • Some students view this as an opportunity.
  • Some students view this as intimidating.
  • Most students either don’t know this, or haven’t thought about the implications.

academic muppets

Image from Twitter

I’ll return to this theme in later articles; it’s an important positive point about being at university. Teaching is the central focus of what a school teacher does; lecturing is only one part of what a university lecturer does, and in many cases it’s a minor part of the lecturer’s role compared to research or other activities.

Another “part of the bigger picture” difference is that lessons tend to be more self-contained coverage of a topic, whereas lectures are often just one part of the coverage of a topic at university; the lecture is often complemented by tutorials and/or seminars and/or lab and/or practical sessions where you discuss and/or practise the topics that were described in the lectures. I’ll be writing about tutorials etc in later articles.

Some points you might find useful in lectures:

Lecturers vary enormously in their approaches to lecturing, making generalisations difficult. Having said that, the suggestions below are usually useful.

Turn up on time if you can, because the first five minutes are usually where the lecturer gives an overview of the key points in the lecture, making it easier for you to get your head round the topics.

Don’t assume that more handouts means better student support; as you progress through university, you’ll move from a fair amount of support towards more independence, and more being expected to think and learn for yourself.

Don’t ask whether something that the lecturer has just mentioned will be in the exam; this usually comes across as shorthand for “I’m lazy, and want to do the minimum possible”. This isn’t a good signal, especially if you might some day want to ask that lecturer to write you a job reference.

Listen actively; try to work out what the key points are that the lecturer is making.

Remember that you get marks for showing your knowledge of content from the module that the average person on the street doesn’t know. For some topics, you’ll already have a “person on the street” or a “well-informed amateur” knowledge. The best mark you can expect from that knowledge on its own is a low pass; you get marks from knowing the more advanced stuff. So, if the lecture’s about something like how to make software user-friendly, don’t skip it on the grounds that you already have lots of opinions about this topic; opinions don’t get you marks.

Take active notes; this helps you understand and remember. “Taking active notes” doesn’t mean “writing every word the lecturer says”. It means something more like “note the key points and concepts that the lecturer mentions” and like “note the ways that you can easily show sophisticated knowledge about this when it’s assessment time”. I’ll be writing more about that in later articles.

If you’re lost and puzzled, try looking lost and puzzled. Most lecturers are experienced in reading the audience; if we see that the students are suddenly looking baffled, then we’ll usually re-wind and try a different way of explaining the topic that caused the problem.

If you’re still lost and puzzled, try asking the lecturer about it at a suitable time. Immediately after the lecture isn’t usually the best time for long explanations, but you could catch the lecturer then, and ask if you could book a short meeting to go over the topic in more detail.

Don’t be a snotty little brat. A lot of lecturers will do things to brighten up lectures and/or to illustrate a point more vividly and/or to give you “off the record” information that is likely to be invaluable to you in later life. If one student decides to complain to The System because they think that this isn’t proper lecturing, then the lecturer is likely to revert to the “death by PowerPoint” delivery style for the rest of the module delivery. (Yes, we do get students who think that they should have the deciding opinion on what constitutes “proper” lectures.)

Don’t be a dick. Most lecturers clamp down hard on people speaking while someone else is speaking (whether the lecturer, or a student asking a question) for the simple reason that this makes it difficult for other students to hear. If you find a lecture boring, and you choose to give up on it, then do something silent like watching cat videos on the Internet, rather than distracting students who do want to learn.

Treat the lecture as a shared experience. If you and others are finding a topic difficult, then a polite, constructive meeting with the lecturer can often work wonders. Most lecturers want lectures and courses to go well, too. Cynical lecturers want this to keep The System off their back; nice lecturers want it because they’re nice.

Other thoughts

Your university will almost certainly have large amounts of learning support available if you want to learn more about learning. Surprisingly few students take advantage of the resources which are available, and which can greatly reduce hassle and stress if you’re finding it difficult to cope with a course or a particular topic.

In later articles in this series, I’ll be looking in more depth at the opportunities that universities offer. A lot of students are unaware of those opportunities, or mistakenly believe that the opportunities involve a lot of extra work, and/or are only available to a handful of supergenius students. In reality, if you understand how those opportunities work, you have a good chance of achieving things that you never dreamed of, while having a lot more fun along the way.

On which positive note, I’ll end this article.


You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about university life in my books with Marian Petre:

The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research:

A Gentle Guide to Research Methods:

Related articles:

There are a lot of other articles on this site about academic life and education, including topics that students often have trouble with, such as the differences between academic writing and other types of writing. They’re tagged under “education” and/or “craft skills”. We hope you’ll find them useful; if you’d like to see more on some particular topic, let us know via the comments section, and we’ll see what we can do.



7 thoughts on “Life at Uni: Lectures versus lessons

  1. Another difference is that in schools, at ages 14-18, there is often a dynamic where the teacher acts like a tutor to help you pass your exams: in a rough sense, it’s you and the teacher versus the [external] examiner. In universities, the lecturer also writes the exams, so the students return back to what is like early in secondary school: the teacher is also the examiner of your work. Hence the question “Will this be on the exam?”, while annoying for any teacher, has a slightly different vibe to it when asked in year 13 vs 1st year university.

    On the subject of watching videos on the Internet, the study linked to in here suggests that laptop use has a noticeable negative effect on your neighbours: I’d suggest: if you don’t find the lecture interesting, sneakily read a book 😉

    • That’s interesting. Usually the students who bring a laptop into my lectures are keen students who use the laptop to take notes, so I don’t have many problems with them distracting the other students by Web surfing or playing games. That might be because Keele is a campus university, so lugging a laptop between lectures in different buildings can be non-trivial. Smartphones appear to be the device of choice for students who don’t engage during a lecture here. I don’t know how this compares with other places.

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