The greatest difference between school and university is in lectures. The lecturers have only 14 lectures a week in which to give you enough material to keep you occupied for the other 154 hours of the week. Therefore, the material comes at you pretty fast.
It follows that, whereas at school you probably expected to understand what the teacher said as it was said, here there may be great chunks of the notes which you will not understand until you have worked on them later, line by line if necessary. Even then, there may be some parts of the course that only become really clear as you revise the material.
It is important to try to understand as much as possible of what is being said as it is said. Apart from saving time later, you may otherwise miss vital explanations and insights. So you may want to adopt some or all of the following strategies:
- Ask questions during the lecture rather than let something pass by. If the lecturer is speaking too fast or too quietly, or writing too illegibly for you, it is likely that others are having the same difficulty;
- Don’t be afraid to ask what you fear is a silly question. Nine times out of ten, most of the rest of the audience will be impressed (if only with your bravery) and many of them will also want to know the answer. And it is just possible that the lecturer has made a mistake;
- Try to appear responsive: look up when you have finished writing and are ready for more – this helps the lecturer pace the lecture; look puzzled when you are puzzled, so that the lecturer will know when more explanation is required.
The usual convention in lectures is that you receive a handout (either for the whole course or for the individual lecture), but it is simply an outline of what will be covered. You are expected to take your own detailed notes on what the lecturer says and writes on the board or OHP. Here are some important trivialities to think about before lectures begin:
- Write clearly; lost subscripts on a variable, for instance, can cause hours of frustration. Also, some economists love to use obscure Greek symbols, some of which are practically indistinguishable: accurate representation is essential. Neat and accurate notes also make revision easier;
- Write the page number and lecture number on each sheet; if you drop your notes or get into a muddle photocopying them, you will find that one page of economics can look very like any other. Numbering your pages will also help with an overall orderliness that can be a great time-saver;
- Leave wide margins; you will certainly need to annotate when you go through your notes later;
- File your work (annotated lecture notes and supervision material) in an orderly way; this will save a lot of time when you come to revise;
- Get to grips with one lecture in a particular course before going to the next (this will save an immense amount of time, as well). In addition, you will get much more out of the lectures, which will in turn save time when you go through your notes later. Try setting aside a slot each day for going through your lecture notes – not just reading them, but making sure you understand them. As soon as you fall behind you will have to make an enormous effort to catch up again;
- Use your vacations. The Cambridge term is very short (only eight weeks), so we are all (lecturers and students) expected to work in the vacations. Allocate part of your vacation to going through your lecture-notes from the preceding term (especially if you didn’t manage to go through them after each lecture), as well as catching up on recommended reading for which you had no time during your frenetic termtime schedule.
One final point. You may think that the lecturer is talking to you as a group, but the lecturer actually sees you as a large number of individuals. Extend to the lecturer the normal courtesies of an individual conversation; behave as if he/she is talking to you personally. Don’t, for example, spend the lecture chatting to your neighbour or reading the newspaper. This is distracting for both the rest of the audience and for the lecturer. It is a sure recipe for a poor lecture. And, to save yourself embarrassment, leave your mobile at home or turn it off before the lecture – if you don’t, you could become the centre of unwelcome attention from your 179 fellow-students, not to mention an unimpressed lecturer.