Dublin City University
Office of the Dean of Teaching and Learning (ODTL)

Access to Lecture notes: Review and Best Practice

Barry McMullin
Morag Munro

27 Februrary 2003


Part 1: Literature Review
Part 2: Current practices and issues at DCU
Part 3: Guidelines for best practice Part 4: Training recommendations References
Appendix I: Presentation hints


Many students find it difficult to learn from the traditional "chalk and talk" lecture. They struggle to copy down as much information as possible, with little or no emphasis on understanding the material presented. Often, the resulting notes contain erroneous information, or omit the most important points (Baker et al 1986; Locke 1977).

One solution to this problem may be to make lecture notes (and other additional resources) available to students prior to lectures, either in printed form, or electronically. Some suggest that this will allow students to spend more time listening to and considering the material presented, and will therefore help them to take more organised and complete notes (Kiewra 1985). Providing notes to students prior to lectures may also allow more lecture time to be spent on discussion and other interactive learning activities. However, there are reports, anecdotal but widespread, that claim that by providing students with lecture notes, we may encourage students to become passive learners, or discourage them from attending lectures altogether.

A number of approaches have been used to disseminate lecture notes at DCU. Notes have been made available in hardcopy form, both free of charge or at some cost (via the campus bookshop or made available for personal copying in the library). Various electronic dissemination methods have also been used. The notes provided vary in depth from brief lecture outlines or copies of presentation slides (e.g., PowerPoint) to more comprehensive lecture transcripts and additional materials and resources.

The DCU Teaching and Learning Committee (TLC) has considered this issue over the past year. This report presents the outcome of those discussions. In summary, they are as follows:


At the Academic Council Standing Committee meeting on 6 February 2003, an item arose regarding the effect of the availability of online notes on lecture attendance. The Academic Council Standing Committee requested that the DCU Teaching and Learning committee (TLC) consider this issue and report back in due course. The Office of the Dean of Teaching and Learning (ODTL) invited members of the TLC to discuss this issue electronically in the first instance (receiving one response on behalf of DCUSU), and subsequently three TLC group sessions were held to discuss the issue. An ODTL representative also met with the 2002-2003 Student Council to discuss this issue from the students' perspective.

This report documents the outcomes of these discussions:


Today many students are - officially or unofficially - studying part-time. It is inevitable that many of them will miss a lecture due to employment and other obligations, and will need to catch up with the material that was covered. Students also desire more flexibility in the delivery of their courses, and one of their expectations is that lecture notes will be provided to them in some form (Rolfe 2002). Students assert that this will help them to prepare for classes and will allow them to spend lecture time listening to and thinking about the material being presented, rather than scribbling down notes that may be illegible at a later date.

There have been claims however, anecdotal but widespread, that providing students with lecture notes leads directly to a reduction in attendance at lectures, and that this, in turn, leads to a significant reduction in effective learning. Lecture notes in isolation are likely to be a poor substitute for attending and engaging with a real lecture. Printed material, in particular, can only be interactive at a very superficial level. There are also anecdotal reports that there is a correlation between lecture attendance and exam performance.

If we do decide to provide students with lecture notes, then there are a number of issues to be considered. The depth of the notes provided can range from a brief outline of the points covered at the lecture right through to a full transcript of the lecture. There is also a decision to be made regarding the delivery of notes. Should notes be delivered in hardcopy form, or should we make notes available electronically?

Part 1: Literature Review

The value of note taking to students' understanding of lecture material has been recognised for many years. The general consensus is that taking notes can assist learning by providing two functions:

Various studies have compared the relative usefulness of encoding (taking notes), encoding plus storage (taking and reviewing notes) and storage alone (reviewing notes taken by someone else). In most studies students who performed both the encoding and storage functions performed best in examinations (Kiewra et al 1985, 1989, 1991; Hartley 1983).

Note-taking requires students to multitask; students' attention is divided between listening to and observing the lecturer, processing the information they hear and see, deciding what they should record and then writing the information down. Aiken et al (1975) suggest that the note taking activity may interfere with students' ability to listen to and encode information and results in the production of fewer and less accurate notes. Baker et al (1985) and Locke (1977) also report that, when taking lecture notes, many students note points inaccurately or miss points deemed by the lecturer to be important.

A number of studies have shown that the best student performance is achived when students are provided with partial notes, rather than full lecture transcripts or no notes at all (Kiewra, 1985; and Kiewra et al 1988). In other studies those students who generated their notes using partial notes provided in advance of the lecture produced more recall than those who generated notes without partial notes (Annis 1981; Hartley 1983).

Several formats for partial notes have been examined, from lecture outlines, to matrices, to skeletal guides. The skeletal format has been found to be the most successful of these. (Hartley, 1978; Russell et al., 1983; Kiewra, 1985). In this format the main ideas of the lecture are provided, usually including the hierarchical relationships between them (by arranging them in outline or schematic form) and spaces are left for students to fill in information as they listen to the lecture.

Part 2: Current practices and issues at DCU

This section documents some of the problems and concerns raised by the TLC and members of the student council:

Attendance at lectures

A number of those staff who had provided notes reported that lecture attendance dropped off during the course of the semester, but the general feeling was that this was unlikely to be a direct consequence of the provision of notes. Attendance at lectures is likely to be a far more complex issue. Hunter (1999) examines some of the reasons why students do, and don't, attend lectures, and highlights that issues such as class time-tabling, outside work commitments, assignment deadlines, low motivation and poor lecturing/lecture content may all contribute to non-attendance.

Where notes are provided, strategies used at DCU to encourage attendance include:

Student lecture preparation

Although students have claimed that they need lecture notes to prepare for lectures, staff reported that where notes were made available prior to lectures, only the most dedicated students tended to read the notes beforehand. Most students came to lectures no better prepared than if they had not received the notes beforehand.

Student note-taking skills

Many students struggle with note taking, a skill that they may have little or no experience with prior to their entry into third level education. In the rush to copy, there is often little attention paid to trying to understand the information presented, and often the resulting notes contain errors, leading to confusion and difficulties at a later stage (Locke 2001). According to Sutherland et al (2002) this problem is further compounded by the fact that many more students are entering higher education without the "traditional" qualifications, and also because we are admitting more students who do not have English as their first language.

Some TLC members felt that copying down information without necessarily understanding it might have some benefits. It was suggested that, by writing down the information at least once, students may subconsciously familiarise themselves with the material to a certain extent. In chemistry, for example, the feeling was that although students had been known to copy information from lectures erroneously, it was still beneficial for them to gain practice in drawing chemical structures etc.

Note taking is an important skill that students will use throughout their university career and beyond. If we want students to develop note-taking skills, we must give them the opportunity to acquire them; if we provide them with full lecture transcripts then we may be denying them that opportunity.

Intellectual property rights and Copyright

Some staff expressed concerns about intellectual property. This issue has caused concern in the USA, where lecture notes have been sold for profit on commercial websites (Blumenstyk, 1999; Olsen 1999). Some significant protection against such abuse can be achieved by allowing only appropriately authorised users (e.g., members of a particular class) access to online lecture notes. In DCU's case, this is specifically and easily facilitated by the Moodle environment. (On the other hand, it may be noted that MIT has taken a precisely opposite approach with its OpenCourseWare initiative...)

A separate issue is the question of the respective intellectual property rights of DCU and its individual staff members in relation to materials such as lecture notes (does copyright belong to the University or the individual staff member?). Clearly there should be an appropriate, and agreed, balance of rights and interests (see, for example, the University of California Policy on Copyright Ownership). The current lack of clarity may, in itself, be having some chilling effect on development of appropriate teaching materials and resources at DCU. This is not a clear-cut question, and resolution of it was judged to be beyond the scope of the current process. However, it is recommended that the University (through TLC or otherwise) bring forward a formal and explicit policy on this issue as soon as possible.

There were also concerns regarding copyright and the electronic dissemination of externally authored materials. Some staff felt that they were more constrained when making material available via the web than they were if they included the same material in printed handouts. It should be stressed that the replication of any copyrighted material - whether disseminated in printed form or electronically - must comply with the Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000. In general, this means that externally authored materials can only be directly included in lecture notes where explicit written permission has been received from the copyright owner.

On the other hand, hypertext links to externally authored resources can normally be inserted freely. This is in the manner of traditional academic citation, but, of course, the cited material is much more easily and quickly accessible to the reader - particularly where the lecture notes themselves are being read online. Exceptions to this assumption that linkage is permissible would be where a page or site has an explicit policy or "terms of use" which prohibits such linkage, or where the the owner of a page or site explicitly requests that a link to it be removed (for whatever reason). In such cases, the owners' wishes should be respected.

We note that this issue of copyright and linking - especially so-called "deep linking" - has been the subject of some controversy; but there is at least some US case law in Ticketmaster Corp. v. Tickets.com, Inc. which explicitly declares that "hyperlinking [without framing] does not itself involve a violation of the [US] Copyright Act ... since no copying is involved". For further discussion, see this American Library Association Resource on deep linking, Kubiszyn (2000), Golds Solicitors (2001) and Bray (2003).

Delivery mechanisms

Mechanisms in used to disseminate lecture notes at DCU include:

The types of materials presented include:

A number of issues relating to the delivery of notes were identified as a result of consultation with members of the TLC and members of the student council:

Consistency between programmes/modules

Students commented on the lack of consistency between programmes/modules; they did not understand why some notes were provided free of charge at lectures, whereas others had to be purchased at the student bookshop or accessed via the web.


Students reported difficulties printing the notes in student computer labs, specifically, there were problems when trying to print out large volumes of material, and difficulties printing out notes via the WebCT VLE. There were cases where students had requested that their lecturer printed the notes out for them due to these difficulties. There were also difficulties when printing out Microsoft PowerPoint files; some students were not aware that they could print more that one slide per page for example. Finally, students were unhappy about the cost of printing and photocopying (10 cent per page printed in computer labs, 8 cent per page printed in the library and 7 cent per page for phtotocopying in the library).

Information on printing via the GPAS system and printing cards is available via the DCU website. Tips on using the DCU printers are also available.


Full-time students are likely to have access to the student computer labs, whereas part-time students spend less time on campus and some may prefer notes delivered via email or on paper, rather than via the web or DCU network drive. For example, students in the school of nursing who were on placement preferred to receive notes via email as they had access to email, but not web, at their place of work.

Technical issues

Where notes had been electronically disseminated via proprietary software packages such as Microsoft Word and Microsoft PowerPoint, some software compatibility problems (due to different software versions) were reported. This is an important point to consider when making notes available using proprietary software packages.

Virus propagation is also an issue to be considered when making materials (other than web-pages or text files) available electronically.

Web authoring Skills

Some staff felt that they lacked the skills required to produce web-based materials. If was felt that further training in the following areas would be useful:

  • Instructional design guidelines for the web.
  • Web publishing: Basic HTML/basic web authoring packages, file upload to designated web space.
  • VLE use.

Staff also said that they would find it useful to have a contact person whom they could consult if they experienced difficulties when producing web-based materials. Some staff were unclear as to how to avail of the web space allocated to them, again, they felt that training in this area would be beneficial.

Part 3: Guidelines for best practice

This section gives some guidelines for best practice when developing and distributing lecture notes:

Should I provide notes?

The decision whether to provide lecture notes is related to a number of factors, such as the nature of your subject matter, your teaching style and the availability of written and other resources in your subject area. However, we recommend that you provide your students with at least a brief outline of the material that you will cover in each lecture.

This will:

Delivery mechanism

As discussed in Part 2, there are a variety of delivery mechanisms for the dissemination of lecture notes in place in DCU, and it is clear that different methods may be more appropriate to different subject areas and to individual teaching approaches.

As far as possible, it is desirable to make all relevant learning materials available in electronic form (regardless of whether they are also, or even primarily, delivered in printed form). The preferred electronic dissemination mechanism is the web, rather than via the network drive or via email.

Electronic dissemination (whether on its own, or in addition to paper) is recommended for a number of reasons:

DCU recently made a strategic commitment to the deployment of the Moodle Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Moodle allows staff to quickly and easily provide password protected access to lecture notes and other electronic resources (using the existing Novell/LDAP username/password details already issued to each student). If DCU staff wish to provide electronic lecture notes, then Moodle is the natural platform for this.

What to include

As discussed in Part 1, student notes generated using partial notes supplied by the lecturer have been found to be a more effective aid to learning than self generated notes alone or full lecture transcripts.

We recommend that your notes outline the material you will present at the lecture, and include material such as:

Your outline notes can easily be based on, or form the basis for, your lecture slides.

Some points to consider when designing the presentation of your material are given in Appendix I.

How to use lecture notes

There are number of ways in which you can help students to use the notes you provide more effectively, to help students to take better notes themselves and to improve the quality of the materials that you provide:

Tell students how you expect them to use notes

It is recommended that you let your students know at the outset how you expect them to use your notes. In particular:

  • Do you expect them to read the notes before the lecture?
  • Do you expect them to take supplementary notes/annotate your notes during the lecture?
  • Should they be doing extra reading to supplement the material presented?
  • If students miss a lecture, how do you expect them to catch up with the material they missed?

Provide a framework for note-taking

Make the structure of your module clear to students at the outset, and emphasise how the concepts covered in your lectures relate both to each other, and to the overall structure of the course. Di Vesta et al (1972) have shown that providing such a framework helps students to take a greater volume of more organised notes, and that these more organised notes lead to better student performance.

Provide cues for taking notes

Students have to make decisions about the relative importance of the points you make during your lecture. However, the literature indicates that students often do not note many of the points that the lecturer considers to be important (Baker and Lombardi 1985).

Maddox et al (1975) found that using verbal and physical "signposts" to assist students to take notes during lectures resulted in better quality notes and higher student achievement. For example, say "it is important to note", "a key point is that", or even "Write this down!". Pausing before making a point, or changing the volume or tone of your voice can also help students to identify important points. Remember to allow students sufficient time to write information down.

Kiewra (1985) also suggests that lecturers consider "segmenting" their lectures. This technique involves allowing pauses of three to four minutes for every six or seven minutes of lecturing. This allows students to devote their attention to listening during the lecturing period, and to consolidate and paraphrase the important ideas during the note-taking phases.

Encourage students to review their notes

As discussed in Part 1, studies have shown that students who review their notes perform better than those who do not. Encourage students to review their notes after lectures to fill in any gaps, clarify points that are unclear, or to decipher their own handwriting. Let them know if they are expected to supplement their lecture notes with external reading.

Periodically review your notes

Resist the temptation to think that developing lecture notes is a one-off task. Consider reworking your notes each time that you present your course. This can help you to rethink the material that you are presenting so that the ideas seem fresh and new to you, as well as to your students. Student feedback on how they have used your notes can also be used as a basis for revising and improving them. Finally, there may be changes in your field that should be incorporated into your notes each year. Again, integration with the Moodle environment may help here, through facilitating online forums to gather student comments and feedback.

Encouraging attendance

A common worry regarding the provision of lecture notes is that students will stop attending lectures, making the assumption that, because they have the notes, they have all the information required to pass the module.

As discussed in Part 2, it is likely that many factors other than the provision of lecture notes contribute to non-attendance. A detailed discussion of these is beyond the scope of this report, but it is worth endeavouring to make it worthwhile for students to be at your lectures. Although the best students will always turn up, average and weak students are unlikely to attend a dull lecture where they feel that they will gain nothing. If you feel that it is essential that students attend your lectures, then let them know why.

Attendance monitoring has been used at DCU with some success, but this practice is not particularly recommended. Rather than forcing students to come to lectures, we should aim to make them want to be there. In addition, we should also be aiming to provide more flexible access to course resources.

Part 4: Training recommendations

This section outlines some staff and student training recommendations relating to the provision of lecture notes.


Staff training in the development of web-based material is obviously an issue that needs to be addressed. Over the coming year, ODTL will provide staff training workshops and documentation in:


Although note-taking is an important skill that students will use throughout their university careers and beyond, many students come to university with no experience in this skill. A study by Archable et al (1977) attempted to teach students to recognise and record the most important information from lectures and found that that this was an effective method of improving the accuracy of student's notes. At DCU, a study skills working group has been established by Student Sffairs and will examine the possibility of embedding learning skills modules in individual Schools/Faculties for first-year students.

If students are provided with access to electronic slide shows, such as PowerPoint files, then providing them with guidelines on how to print out multiple slides on one page would be useful.


  1. Aiken, E.G., Thomas, G Shennum, W. (1975) "Memory for a lecture: Effects of notes, lecture rate, and informational density." Journal of Educational Psychology, 67 (3)
  2. Annis, L. (1981). Effect of preference for assigned lecture notes on student achievement. Journal of Educational Research, 74
  3. Archable, C, Foxx, R.M., Martello, J, Robin, A, (1977). Teaching Note-Taking Skills to Underachieving College Students. Educational Research 71 (2)
  4. Baker, L., & Lombardi, B. R. (1985). Students' lecture notes and their relation to test performance. Teaching of Psychology, 12
  5. Blumenstyk, G (1999). Putting Class Notes on the Web: Are Companies Stealing Lectures? Chronicle of Higher Education 46 (6)
  6. Bray, T. (2003). "Deep Linking" in the World Wide Web. W3C Technical Architecture Group.
  7. Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000.
  8. Di Vesta, F J., and Gray, S G. (1972). Listening and note taking. Journal of Educational Psychology, 63 (1)
  9. Golds Solicitors (2001). Copyright and wrong in Cyberspace.
  10. Hartley, J. (1978). Note-taking: A critical review. Programmed Learning and Educational Technology, 15, 207-224.
  11. Hartly, J (1983). Note taking research: Resetting the scoreboard. Bulletin of the British Psychological Society 36
  12. Hunter, S. and Tetley, J. (1999). Lectures: why don't students attend? Why do students attend? Paper presented at HERDSA Conference: Cornerstones - What do we value in higher education? Melbourne, July 12 -15
  13. Kiewra, K. (1989). A review of note taking: The encoding storage paradigm and beyond. Educational Psychology Review 1
  14. Kiewra, K.A. (1985). Providing the instructor's notes: An effective addition to student note taking. Educational Psychologist, 20
  15. Kiewra, K.A., DuBois, N.F., Christian, D., and McShane, A. (1988). Providing study notes: Comparison of three types of notes for review. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80
  16. Kiewra, K.A., DuBois, N.F., Christian, D., McShane, A., Meyerhoffer, M., & Roskelley, D. (1991). Note-taking functions and techniques. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83
  17. Kubiszyn, M.A. (2000). Emerging Legal Guidance on 'Deep Linking'. gigalaw.com
  18. Locke, A (1977). An empirical study of lecture note taking among college students. Journal of Educational Research, 77
  19. Maddox, H., & Hoole, E. (1975). Performance decrement in the lecture. Educational Review 28, 17-30.
  20. ODTL/CSD (2003). Virtual Learning Environment Deployment at DCU: Recommendations.
  21. Olsen, F (1999). Colleges weigh legal action against Web sites that publish lecture notes. Chronicle of Higher Education, 46 (14)
  22. Rolfe, H (2002). Students' Demands and Expectations in an Age of Reduced Financial Support: the perspectives of lecturers in four English universities. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 24(2)
  23. Romiszowski, A.J., (1988) The Selection and Use of Instructional Media: For improved teaching and for interactive, individual instruction, 2nd edition, Kogan Page
  24. Russell, I.J., Caris, T.N., Harris, G.D., & Hendricson, W.D. (1983). Effects of three types of lecture notes on medical student achievement. Journal of Medical Education, 58, 627-636
  25. Sutherland, P., Badger, R., and White, G. (2002). How New Students Take Notes at Lectures. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 26 (4)

Appendix I: Presentation hints

Producing lecture notes is time consuming, but it is worth doing well. Weaknesses in your written material can go undetected longer than ideas you present "live" in a lecture situation, where it only takes one student to raise a question regarding something that is unclear to alert you to a problem with your message or its transmission. On the other hand, students are "on their own" with paper or web based materials, and you may not even be aware that the message they received was not the one that you intended to transmit.

This section provides some guidelines for presenting your materials. They are adapted from "The selection and Use of Instructional Media" Romiszowski (1988).

Text composition and design

Visual materials

Consider using visual materials as well as/instead of words to clarify or summarise information:

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