How to Listen to a Philosophy Lecture



Jeff McLaughlin, Ph.D.

Thompson Rivers University



If you are a new student or a returning mature student it can sometimes be difficult to get the most out of attending class. At one extreme your approach to class might be trying to write down every single word that your professor utters. This is a bad strategy since it doesn’t allow you any time to digest any of the material and copious note taking fails to delineate between the mundane and the essential. At the other extreme you might just sit back and try to absorb what you hear. Of course, this is problematic since the moment you leave the room, you’re bound to forget everything. – Of course, this doesn’t stop many students!  The following brief commentary is probably obvious to most but it doesn’t hurt to get a reminder!


Complicating the matter of trying to get the most out of a lecture is the issue of classroom dynamics. You might be in a class where no one talks or there might be one person who drones on and on (besides your professor!). In both situations you may be apt to tune out and try to just make it through a very long hour.  The room might be hot or cold or there might be someone sniffling and sneezing beside you. You might be in a bad mood, tired, hung over, sick, or plain bored. Your instructor might be dynamic or dull. She might just read from the textbook or use overheads or write on the blackboard. You might even luck out by having the instructor present you with handouts or prepared lecture notes. If she does, make sure you write the date on them and if possible insert them into the general area in your own notes for quick retrieval. Accordingly, each course you take will be different from another, and each class in each course can be different from another so you want to aim to be consistent in your own approach to create a personal rhythm that works best for your needs.


Steps to increase what you get from the class lecture.


1. Come with sufficient paper and pen – of course, but also don’t forget to bring the text book, a highlighter pen to identify passages in the book or in your own notes that are significant. If you are not planning on keeping the text book, or want to keep it clean, use a pencil to put light marks in it. You may also want to have a hole-puncher with you just in case of handouts.


2.      If there is assigned reading do it before class, not during! If you do have an opportunity to read everything before class, at least glance at the material so that you are not completely lost as to the topic of the day.

3.      Read the materials for the class, after class as well. You may find that the lecture helped you get a clearer picture of what was being said in the book. This is especially the case with older works that are not written in ‘modern English’. Furthermore, in some classes, it may be more useful to read the text after the lecture so that if you didn’t understand the lecture, it might make more sense to you in the book and vice versa.

4.      Ask yourself questions while you are reading.

5.      Ask questions in class

6.      Related to 3, 4 try and answer these questions yourself then compare your notes with what the instructor has to say. This does not mean that you should ask your question then answer it outloud!(as this will make your classmates groan); rather you might phrase it along the lines of: I wasn’t sure what the author meant by blah, but it seems to me that it means I on the right track? This shows a) you’ve been reading, b) thinking about what you’ve been reading c) keen enough to want to know more...


When taking notes be sure to capture the following:


Main theme of the lecture.

Main points, feel free to use arrows or flow diagrams to link the points up to each other (or to previous lectures).

Make reference of any pages or passages instructor refers to.

See how these notes fit in with last lecture and how they might suggest where the lecture will be going next class.

Rewrite your notes, trying to put them into your own words.

You may consider summarizing them again (esp. if studying for a test).

Write objections, or further defend the points that you have written down.

Try to accomplish these tasks on the day of the lecture so that it remains fresh in your mind.