How to pay attention in lectures

Lectures can get the better of you, no matter how much you want to pay attention. Actually, wait…No matter how much you need to pay attention.

Yes, at times it can feel like so much hangs on the lecture, but you still can’t manage to keep focus on the words.

photo by Tadeeej

photo by Tadeeej

Okay, so lectures aren’t quite that important (I’ll come back to that in my last point). Still, it’s useful to pay attention to them, whether or not you think they’re the best way to learn about a topic.

Here are my tips to stay switched on and in tune with your lecturer for an hour or two:

Get rid of disruptions

It’s easy to be distracted when something more enjoyable is there to entertain you. Commit to a move away from temptations. Switch off those moreish phone apps, ignore your social networks, and even move away from your mates if they take up too much of your attention in lectures. Whenever temptation is still within your grasp, you’re more likely to reach out and grab it.

Prepare beforehand

Ten minutes is all it takes to have a quick look online for a basic rundown of what you’ll probably encounter in the lecture. The lecture may end up being different, but your preparation will get you thinking about the subject in advance and help you focus on the content when you get in there.

Hopefully you’ll have a list of prior reading, handouts, and other information for you to prepare from. Once you start working with the subject matter, you’ll be less likely to switch off in the lecture.

Eat and drink wisely

If you attend a lecture too full or too hungry, you’ll suffer for it. No matter how busy you feel, find time to get the nutrients you need. Listen to your body and you’ll have a better job listening to your lecture.

Engage in your head

When you don’t get it, your brain can start to switch off. Don’t let it! Note what confuses you, write down questions you have, think whether this part of the lecture is crucial to understanding everything else.

If you’re just bored at a certain point, make sure you note the basic idea/concept down for later so you don’t miss out completely.

Get comfy!

Dress so you’re not too hot or cold in the lecture theatre. If you need to wear more/less outside, prepare for that instead of suffering in the lecture!

What if the seating arrangements are uncomfortable? Bring something to sit on, or find a different seat, or take less stuff with you, and so on. Your surroundings may not be the first thing you consider when it comes to lectures, but it can make a big difference to your attention.

Record the audio on your phone/music player/dictaphone

This should be done for your own personal use only and, even then, you should probably ask the lecturer in advance if they are happy for you to record their lectures (if they aren’t already recorded for you!). I don’t recommend this method as a regular thing, because you can get caught up in listening to the lectures more than doing your own work. Use as a failsafe only.

If you do, you can listen again at higher speeds on an iPhone or software like Windows Media Player and VLC Media Player. I used to listen at 1.4-1.7 times the speed and now frequently listen to podcasts and lecture recordings at 2 times the speed. An hour long lecture in half the time? Yes please!

Focus on your own thoughts rather than the monotonous voice

No matter how interesting the topic, a monotone can send you to sleep. I found the best way to stay awake was to think about my own reactions to what was being said in the lecture. I reframed each sentence or idea in my head so it felt like I was doing a lot of the talking.

That way, I felt more in control of my own focus. If the subject was boring that was one thing, but some topics suffered more from the voice than the content. At these times, focus as if you’re in control, like when you’re reading a book or doing private research.

This took a bit of practice and it did mean I might miss a bit as I went along, but it’s better than missing the whole lecture!

photo by

photo by

Relax or take a nap before the lecture

We all need time to relax, to wind down, and to find calm. I love powernaps and it’s worth finding out how much time works for you. We’re all different, meaning I like about 18 minutes and you may prefer 15 or 20. It’s worth finding your personal sweet spot. Many of the people I’ve spoken to who didn’t think powernaps worked for them found that they worked a lot better when they found the right length of nap for them.

If you don’t want to nap, it’s still worth taking time out to relax. As a recent Mind/Shift article on mindfulness states:

“Recent brain imaging studies reveal that sections of our brains are highly active during down time. This has led scientists to imply that moments of not-doing are critical for connecting and synthesizing new information, ideas and experiences. Dr. Michael Rich, a professor at Harvard Medical School put it this way in a 2010 New York Times article: ‘Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body.'”

The lecture isn’t *that* important

If you’re worried that you need to hang on every last word of a lecture, your stress levels are bound to shoot up and your concentration levels drop to the floor. Lectures help to frame a topic, make you aware of debates, and give you some of the academic nuts and bolts on your learning journey. Lectures are not for rote learning, even if there is a necessary element of it in some sessions. You are unlikely to fail miserably for missing a single, crucial point in a lecture. If it’s so important, the information will be elsewhere and will likely be repeated again.

Some lectures are a slog, no matter what you try. Don’t beat yourself up about that. If it’s all too much, try to understand why. If it’s down to something you can change, try to make that change for next time. If it’s out of your control, either let it go or speak to someone who can help deal with the issue.

How do you cope with difficult lectures? What is the worst you’ve had to endure as you tried desperately to stay focused?