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The disconnect between students and content lectures

On the first day, language learners go in, sit in a theatre-style tiered classroom altogether, unclear about what it will be like to study a content university course.  It’s their first time to do so.  They fear that they will understand little.  And they’re right. They expect that writing downthe slide points will be enough.  And they’re wrong.  Learning how to engage with the lecture content means survival.  How to do this is what we, as instructors, need to help learners figure out.

The ‘authentic’ listening experience

Understanding a university lecture well enough to take effective notes and preparing students to do so using academic English coursebook material are two completely different mistresses.  Despite good intentions, the latter has clearly cut

chunks focussing on one microskill at a time.    A live lecture is rarely organised in the prescribed manner (introduction through to conclusion) nor includes multiple examples of cues and signposts that are told to us should be there.  I recently asked a publisher rep if the lectures (in addition to the podcasts and news clips) on their new release were real or not, as it was a claim that the listening material was authentic.  Their response was that they aimed for an “authentic listening experience”, which was code for “no”. They are scripted, slowed down and clearly enunciated, with the white noise of student coughing, chatter or technology buzzing eliminated.

In fact, lecture content and environment varies from prof to prof, discipline to discipline, class to class.  Accompanying technology and its availability to students is a professor’s personal choice. Though practice material from a good number of coursebooks can be helpful for simplified, digestible, packaged lessons, the application of their points to real lectures needs to be practised if not before, continuously alongside the content-course itself.

Professors are teachers too

In my program, we are lucky enough to have interaction (and to a small extent, collaboration) with the History course professor ahead of time.  She willingly sends us thorough lecture notes a week ahead.  It’s helpful to pull lexis, organisation and content cues from to prepare students for what they should listen for.  We don’t go over the content specifically; we use it to equip students with more authentic (i.e. complex, academic and lengthy) context than what’s in a book.  If this communication is at all possible in your programs, I highly recommend opening that channel. Alternatively, go to the lectures and experience what students experience.  Use that in the next class. I do that too.

Video killed the lesson plan star

For two years I’ve scoured the Internet looking for authentic lectures.  At first, TED was the obvious leader.  Not only were videos on a variety of topics, interactive scripts were available.  Jackpot!  Many are under 20 minutes long–manageable for most EAP classes–use signposts and clear rhetoric. The downside? They’re largely informative (as opposed to argumentative or connection-driven), with content not so academically organised or lexical…and eventually upon seeing the opening TED splash screen repeatedly, students seek it out on their own, watching so many you can hardly continue using them in class without someone having seen something, not altogether lesson-destroying, but certainly annoying if you want everyone to start at the same point.

Some other sites still underused by teachers and students:

YouTube EDU ( – There’s a wide variety of collated lecture series, both old and new, from various universities across disciplines like Engineering, Social Sciences, Math, Business, Education, Humanities, you name it.  Many of them are full length, over 60 minutes. Some include student interviews also.

BigThink ( – a large quantity of white-background single speaker HD videos (not academic lectures but often on academic topics) that are often quite short and accompanied by a related text and links to outside related articles

Academic Earth ( – Real lectures from top universities organised by subject, university, even professor.  Full courses, even.  Excellent stuff. (Thanks to Rona McIntyre for the reminder)

Open Culture ( – I haven’t actually used anything from here myself, though it was recommended to me by Phil Wade.  It looks to have a wide variety of both audio and visual recordings.

What works for me, doesn’t work for you

Note-taking is obviously important.  What’s not so obvious is the way to take notes.  The bottom line is determining why one take notes. Traditionally, it’s helpful to remember content transmitted. But now, if lectures are recorded and made available to students? Surely it’s not.  If it were, video would be useful enough.  I believe it’s largely to

  • recognise connections between various parts of content
  • guide students to digest and manipulate information read in preparation in a new way
  • distinguish what’s important and what’s incidental; and
  • have key information easily available for later use.

So what is effective note-taking?  One thing it’s not: rewriting slide information. So often I see this along with a guarantee they’ve missed so much valuable content as a result.  I tell them, but they don’t believe me.  Next step: prove it.  From this handout, I ask students to copy down the slide information as I read the transcript. Then I give them a short quiz about the content.  Upon multiple failures, I show them the text below and demonstrate that the blue represents what’s on the slide.  Red is discourse.  And black is everything they missed.  Mind-blowing, really.

In an ideal setting, students would have an outline or copies of the slides beforehand. When we compare my, your and Iam Teacher’s note-taking strategies, they’ll be different.  What works for one does not work for another.  Exposing students to a variety of note-taking types is probably the best way to go about it.  Have students try all sorts out and decide on their own what works for them.  The problem is, they won’t know what works for them without repeated exposure and repeated tries.  Let this EAP program be the time for them to figure it out.  Some suggestions:

The Cornell method – a very table-oriented logic, with indexing and summarising on each page

Mindmapping – like a web all tangled up into bubbles going to and fro, it may make drawing connections between various content more obvious.  Though using a sketchbook might be best, one could always try out Mindmeister, an online mind mapping tool.

Colour coding – consistent use of abbreviations and symbols is valuable on its own as part of note-taking, but how about adding colour to show various types of content, context or connections made?

Make it and we will come

I’ve often wondered why no one has approached universities to see if they could make use of their archived recorded lectures across a variety of disciplines for coursebook material.  Maybe it’s because of copyright issues.  Maybe it’s because a lecture from mid-year, out of context, would make little sense to our learners without the benefit of previous lecture content. Maybe it’s that they just don’t want to.  In the end, I can go to YouTube or my own History lectures and create the material from them myself.  But for a change, I’d like to have EAP material for an authentic lecture just given to me.

I think this deserves a collaborative wiki, drop box, or Googledocs and our community of language instructors.  Let’s rectify this situation.  Let’s find lectures online, create EAP materials based on them and share in them in one place so we can all benefit.

Or maybe I’ll just write a book and make my millions.  Guess I should finally get in touch with theround. 😉

For further inspiration about EAP lecture listening and note-taking, take a look at the #EAPchat transcript from April 2.

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Hi Tyson,
Great post! Wish I had more EAP experience to be able to add here, but I don’t. Just wondered if you know about this great source for lectures: Academic Earth.

I’ve only used it for my own interest, long before I started the MA, but I’ve never used it with SS. To my knowledge it doesn’t come with transcripts, so it might be difficult to create materials. But they are real, authentic lectures from leading universities.
Anyway, thanks for the post. I’m sure I have much more to learn from you, than you from me. 😀

phil wade

Hi Tyson,

Great post. Have you tried:

Some of my friends use the Cambridge ones and the Star Lectures look good:



Great post. A favourite topic of mine, as you know. In addition to everything you’ve mentioned here, I think another challenge of teaching listening/notetaking is that the majority of international students (at least in my classes) have never made a habit of listening to anything substantial in English. They might listen to a bit of pop music on their own, but they rely heavily on subtitles for movies and TV, and almost never venture into podcasts. I think using general-interest authentic listening in intermediate (and above) classes is important, even if the students find them difficult. It starts building some of the listening ‘muscles’ they’ll need at university.


i was introduced to the Michigan Corpus of Academic spoken English at a talk today(by @divyabrochier).

they have an audio section here:, with the corresonding transcripts.



A very interesting post. It’s funny how everything always comes back around to these (bloody) copyrights issues! EAP materials based on authentic lectures would be a welcome thing indeed.

I am surprised though that your students still take notes. In our neck of woods (Israel) they just rely on the lecturer to send their PPTs – their PPTs being one of those shocking long text slides variety. When I was doing my Masters’ I was amazed at how MA students (all of them EFL teachers) were absolutely inept at taking notes. They would ask lecturer (those who were not willing to send PPTs) to stop while they were carefully copying down the contents her slides verbatim. Shocking!

Reliance on subtitles for English movies Ellen mentioned in her comment is a familiar thing among my (non-EAP)students too. But when I asked them to choose and watch one of TED videos at home and they were not aware of the new subtitles on/off option they watched it without subtitles and coped admirably.


As ALWAYS, got to open with: AWESOME PICTURE!
Now, down to business.
Many of your pointers are good for any university student and their proffessors! I think the way students take notes should concern them very much!
But what really blew me away is how you brought your point home in such a visual manner! The exercise with the slide showed the students “in living color” what a price they were paying for focusing on the slides!
What a meaty post!

Luisa Formisano

I think that folllowing a lecture is a very real gap at university level and students need a presentation that takes into account lay-out and visualization of content but they need to master language linkers and bridges to build up understanding fluently.The practice should be also anticipated in earlier stages to develop strategies related to integrated listening and writing.
Thanks for your post.

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