What is a university lecture like?

lecture at uni

What to expect from your lectures

If you’re looking ahead to uni, your mind is probably fizzing with ideas about what it might be like. The messy nights out in Fresher’s Week, decorating your room in halls, late-night library sessions and of course  all the lectures. 

As you might expect, studying at uni is a whole different experience from school or college. So what's it actually like to attend a uni lecture? And how do in-person and online lectures compare?

To find out, we caught up with some uni students to get their take on it. Read on for tips from history student Toby and geophysics student Zuza, who share their thoughts on what lectures are really like, including what to take, how long they are and what they involve.

The Student Room also tagged along with economics student James into his 9am lecture – watch a video of what that was like below (or read the transcript by clicking the spoiler link). And for a bit of a glimpse into the future, don't forget to try the quiz further down this article for an (obviously 100% accurate!) assessment of what you'll be like in uni lectures.


>> JAMES: Hi, my name's James, I'm a first year undergraduate economics student at UEA and I want to show you what a lecture's like today, so follow me. 
[camera follows James into the lecture theatre. Highlights from the lecture shown]

So that was a lecture, I hope you enjoyed that. Let me answer some questions you might have.

>> TEXT: What has surprised you most about lectures?

>> JAMES: I'd say that lectures are less formal than I thought they would be and that when you're in lectures you cover more content than you would do at college and that content moves a lot faster.

>> TEXT: What are the lecturers like?

>> JAMES: So the lecturers are very approachable. Different lecturers have their different methods. You can always contact them after lecture but sometimes you can email them and you can use an app to also ask questions.

>> TEXT: How many lectures do you have a week?

>> JAMES: So I have six lectures a week and they all last around 50 minutes. That's also accompanied by seminar groups and workshops where we will work in smaller groups on what we've already done in lectures.

>> TEXT: What three tips would you give students?

>> JAMES: So my first tip for students would be to prepare before the lecture. My second tip would be to make sure you stay engaged while you're in the lecture. And the third one to bring a spare pen because someone always forgets a pen!

>> PETER: My name's Dr Peter Dawson. I'm a lecturer at the University of East Anglia.

>> TEXT: How did the lecture go?

>> PETER: I think the lecture went really well. I think the students were engaged throughout and they liked the real-world examples we introduced to really get across the concept.

>> TEXT: What techniques do you use to deliver your lectures?

>> PETER: Things like audience response systems, whether these are the handheld devices or devices which are available through mobile phone technology, really engages the students and they feel part of the lecture. It also gives me immediate feedback in terms of whether I feel they've caught the concept, they understand the concept and if they haven't we can then go back and then revisit some of those concepts again.

>> TEXT: What are your top three tips for students in a lecture?

>> PETER: So my top tips for getting the most out of lectures are: number one, try and do some preparation before the lecture; number two, review the material that you've got and number three, most importantly, never fall asleep during the lecture!

What is a university lecture?

A lecture is pretty much the uni equivalent of a school lesson, but it's going to feel very different from what you're used to.

You'll have a lecturer leading the session, going through a particular topic. There may be a lot of students attending the lecture (particularly in first year lectures, when everyone on your course will often be doing the same modules) and the pace of delivery can be fairly quick.

So, a big difference from school or college will be that you'll have a lot less interaction during a uni lecture. Most of your time in a lecture will be spent listening to the lecturer and taking notes.

What do people take to face-to-face lectures?

Toby takes a laptop to his history lectures (as do the majority of the other students there) to type up notes as the lecturer is talking.

Some other students still prefer to bring pens and paper, he says. He’s also noticed some students bringing recording equipment (such as microphones that plug into their laptops) to record lectures.

Universities have differing policies on letting students do this - you would need to check with yours before going down this route as you may need to get permission.

Geophysics student Zuza also prefers to use a laptop in lectures, but she also has a hardback, water-resistant notebook for fieldwork, and she takes pens and paper to her more maths-focused modules so she can work through problems more easily.

One thing you might want to avoid is taking notes or audio recordings on your phone. It depends on the lecturer, but many don't like seeing people on their phones during lectures, as they don’t know if you’re paying attention or flipping through Insta. Stick to a laptop or notepad to be on the safe side. 

What’s expected of a student in a lecture?

As a student, how much you're involved in a lecture will largely depend on the subject and the person who's presenting.

For some lectures you might find there's not much expected of you: you'll simply need to turn up (or tune in if it's online), listen and take notes. The challenge can be keeping your mind on the topic at hand - especially if it’s not your favourite module.

Other lectures might be a bit more interactive. As well as the presentation aspect of the lecture, there could be activities to help your learning, or the opportunity to ask (or answer) questions.

Either way, you're going to want to avoid distractions (switching your phone off is a good shout), and you'll need to focus on making notes that will make sense to you when you read them back later on.

Some people type out bullet points, others colour code their written notes or use other visual approaches. There’s no single correct approach, but you’ll quickly find your preferred way of digesting and remembering the information.

What's different for online lectures?

You may also have some remote learning as part of your course, with lectures and classes taking place online. These lectures usually use software like Microsoft Teams or Zoom in order to create video meetings with the whole class, meaning the lecturer can still teach the whole class at the same scheduled time.

While there's not a lot of difference in the content of either an in-person or online lecture, you may find they're quite different experiences. For an online lecture, it can be beneficial to create a dedicated workspace in your own home, since it may make it easier to focus. 

One big advantage with online lectures is they are often recorded – meaning you have unlimited playback of any important bits! You can also raise questions via the chat function, so you can do away with any public-speaking nerves.

How long do lectures last?

Generally, lectures will last one or two hours, though they may be immediately followed by an interactive seminar to discuss the content of the lecture (more on seminars later!).

If there is a particularly complex topic to cover, or a guest lecturer, it may be a longer session, but an hour is fairly standard. 

How many lectures might you have each week?

This is where lectures vary massively from subject to subject. As a second year history student, Toby has three lectures a week, one for each module. Some subjects will have many more than this.

But it’s worth remembering that fewer lecturers doesn’t necessarily mean less work – that ‘free time’ in your schedule is intended for you to fill with independent study.

By final year, many students will only have one or two lectures a week, but you will be expected to spend the rest of your week studying and researching your dissertation.

How many people will be in your lectures?

This can vary a lot depending on your uni, your course and even your modules, but it can be anywhere from around 15-200 students.

Toby went from being in lectures of around 180 people in first year to a maximum of 40 in second year.

Zuza’s lectures more than halved in size between first and second year as people started to specialise in different modules.

What happens if you miss a lecture?

While you should generally make an effort to go to all of your lectures, it’s not the end of the world if you miss one.

Toby said that it’s polite to email your lecturer if you can’t make it, but Toby and Zuza agree that missing the occasional lecture shouldn’t be an issue, especially if you catch up with the presentation slides and reading material online.

Some lecturers upload slides for all lectures at the beginning of the semester, while others post them just before or after the session. Again, universities will have differing policies around missed lectures, so you'll need to check your own when you start.

Do you have to prepare for each lecture?

For both Zuza and Toby, the most important thing to do ahead of a lecture is your reading. You'll have been provided with information about the lecture in advance, and perhaps sent the slides the lecturer will be using.

You can use this info to prep, making it much easier to follow the flow of the lecture.

Can you access lectures online?

On Toby's course, the face-to-face lectures aren’t posted online in full, but slides are made available. This is something he finds particularly helpful as a history student, when there are so many tricky spellings to master.

Some lectures are recorded for remote participants and available online afterwards, so check with your university. Online lectures are often recorded and available to re-watch any time.

“UEA is really good in terms of making learning accessible and recognising invisible disabilities,” Toby says.

“They often post resources that people listen to, which is good for people with dyslexia or other learning difficulties. We sometimes get 80-page resources to read, so it’s really helpful to have large-print and audio versions available online.”

Do you get homework at university?

Generally, you won’t get ‘homework’ as such – instead, you’ll be asked to read resources or book chapters to help you prepare for your next lecture.

You may also be set a couple of problems to think about before your seminar so that you can work through them together.

“At school, we always had homework that was handed in and marked,” said Zuza. “At uni, that won’t happen - you have to hold yourself accountable.

"You don’t really go home and get away from learning at uni, because you’re always doing it, but it’s made me way more responsible and improved my time management. And after the first semester, it gets much easier!”

What is a university seminar?

A seminar is more similar to a typical school lesson. You will be split into smaller groups (often around 20-30) and given exercises and questions to work through.

Depending on your subject, these can be very varied, comprising everything from small group activities to presentations and debates.

They will usually provide a deeper dive into that week’s lectures, and the lecturer will often be supported by one or two PhD students, who will act as teaching assistants to help students solve problems.

What is a university tutorial?

A tutorial is a one-to-one session with a lecturer, and they will usually be requested by the student rather than being part of the standard timetable.

For instance, a tutorial could involve working through an example problem with a lecturer, though you may also want to use the time to clarify your understanding of a complex topic, check you’re on the right track with an essay or catch up if you’ve missed a lecture.

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