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University lectures (the focus of this handout) can be challenging because of their fast pace, variety across disciplines, dynamic nature with student discussions, and diverse lecturer styles. Your lecturer may blend words together, use words you are not sure how to spell, use “uh” in the middle of sentences, or abruptly restart sentences.

Understanding lectures can be easier if you know what to expect and know what to listen for. Below are common characteristics for lectures and strategies for improving listening comprehension.

Classroom styles

Different classroom styles present information in different ways. Some classrooms assume students know nothing and introduce information whereas other classrooms assume students come prepared and discuss information. Lecturer speaking styles also affect how information may be presented. The table below represents endpoints of two spectra; your classroom and lecturer may have qualities from both columns.

Traditional classrooms

  • Lecturer presents information
  • Lecturer demonstrates solving problems
Flipped classrooms

  • Class discusses information
  • Students solve problems in groups
More formal lecturers

  • Speak a majority of the time
  • Use academic terms
  • Use mostly grammatical sentences
  • Use visual aids (e.g., PowerPoint)
Less formal lecturers

  • Invite interaction from the class
  • Use slang and idioms
  • Use incomplete sentences
  • Speak without notes

Knowing whether the information or the delivery of information is challenging will help you determine which listening strategies to try.

Listening strategies

Two processes are involved in listening. Top-down listening uses background knowledge and contextualizes words to aid comprehension. Bottom-up listening uses sounds, words, and other small units to create meaning. These processes are complementary; listening for only the big picture but not the details is as ineffective as trying to understand every single word your lecturer says.

Top-down listening strategies

Before lecture, review and predict lecture topics.

  • Review assigned material
  • Consider how new information will relate to previous lectures

During lecture, identify the organization pattern (i.e., problem/solution, literature review, etc.).

  • Note the number of main topics being covered and how they are related
  • Listen for phrases that introduce, summarize, or shift topics

After lecture, continue to engage with the topic.

  • Review your notes for any information that is incomplete
  • Go to friends or go to office hours with questions about information you missed

Bottom-up listening strategies

Focus on stressed words.

  • Listen for longer, louder words (usually nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs). These words carry the most important information.

Pay attention to repeated terms and pauses.

  • Take these as cues for possible key points in the lecture

Keep going.

  • Avoid trying to understand every word. In spoken language, not all words are important nor are they always grammatical.

Sample UNC lectures

Works consulted

Salehzadeh, J. (2006). Academic listening strategies: a guide to understanding lectures. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


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