The building blocks of argument

Written arguments take skill and experience to craft. They rely on a coherent grasp of data, as well as logic and diverse techniques of persuasion. As such, it is a skill that takes some time to master. It is especially difficult to teach. Often, students are asked to learn about argument through studying existing texts. It can be dreary! In the spirit of playfulness, I propose an alternative.

Accident Investigation: Jack and Jill

In this post, I will share a writing guide I have used with students for almost a decade. I wrote it at around 2am in the morning when I was having a fit of insomnia-fuelled creativity, so that may account for the playful approach. I was trying to think of illustrative examples I could use for students to learn from which would not draw on just another boring essay topic. I also was looking for a scenario they could engage with playfully, and consider different interpretations of events.

So I chose a nursery rhyme.

Jack and Jill went up the hill

To fetch a pail of water

Jack fell down and broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after!

This nursery rhyme was a substitute for a case study or example for students to use in constructing an imaginary argumentative essay. The subject of the essay was to be ‘Are hills dangerous?’ as this was an incredibly open question which could be interpreted in a wide variety of ways.

Developing a Thesis

So why is Jack and Jill a playful example to use in showing students how to develop a thesis, or argument? First of all, it links back to childhood rhymes and nonsense play – as such it highlights and challenges the austerity and seriousness of tone in academic writing. It also emphasises that developing an essay tries not only on specialist prior knowledge of the subject, but on further research. To direct that research, the lack of detail in the nursery rhyme invites curiosity and investigation: what hill did Jack and Jill climb? Why were they there together? What caused the fall? Were both of them equally hurt?

In my guide I present students with a range of possible theses they might improvise based on the question:

Thesis A Hills are dangerous environments, as evidenced by the accident and injury experienced by both Jack and Jill.

Thesis B Hills are not dangerous places when compared with urban environments where the majority of the population live; but they may pose risks due to being unfamiliar.

Thesis C Hills are dangerous places, but the resourcing of adequate emergency services such as first aid centres and search and rescue operations is sufficient to mitigate the risk to the public.

Thesis D Whether hills are dangerous or not, the regulation of public access to the natural environment is an infringement of people’s rights to leisure.

You can find my most recently updated student handout for download here.

Using existing games to provoke learning

In a previous post I have described how games can be used to enhance learning in three ways; as a simulation of real situations, as a carrier of thematic information, or as competitive skill practice.

One of the ideal scenarios in using existing games for educational purposes is the appropriation or adaptation of excellently designed and mass produced games. These make your life as a trainer or educator much simpler, as you don’t have to become a professional game designer in adddition to your existing work.

This week I have been playing Brass: Birmingham to consider whether the theme of the game or the skill practice required to perform well in the game are in any way matched to the learning needs of business management students. My conclusions so far? The theme gives some historical context appropriate to learning about entrepreneurship in the industrial revolution, but the game is too long and complex for simple adoption in a learning context.

So what’s the problem with complex games? In short, time.

A number of university courses and professional development programs now use simulations and serious games as a way to deliver engaging content. So lengthy amounts of classroom time can be effectively devoted to game-playing. However, research on the effectiveness of simulations has suggested that they need to be quite close in experience to real-world possible events. So crisis simulations held in a board room, stock market simulations that students engage with via a trading platform and so on help prepare students for the possible ‘reality’ the simulation mimics. They do not demand a leap of imagination to apply. By contrast, abstracted resource management games such as Brass:Birmingham, do.

Playing for Social and Ecological Value

Here at Seriously Learned, a lot of new development work has been going on over springtime – and this will be reflected in a website product update soon! Now a member of ANTZ Network, Seriously Learned is committed to supporting organisations in the discovery of their social value potential, with a range of new game-based training opportunities in collaboration, social valuation and diversity to support this.

The other development I’ve been working on is a comprehensive overhaul of suitable games for developing awareness and practice for ecological sustainability. This is a burgeoning area in scientific communication, so there are lots of new opportunities to review your resource use and develop more sustainable practice through play!

How can we play for value?

When we play games, those games introduce us to different models of what is valuable, along with rules of behaviour regarding how such value is distributed or produced. Something as simple as a board game can communicate who can take resources and when, and in playing we learn how far these mechanics can be trusted when other players develop different strategies to compete. Games encode value in their core mechanics, and through a repetitive ‘loop’ of behaviour (e.g your ‘turn’) different actions can be more or less effective in ‘winning’ – achieving the game outcome.

This ‘gaming loop’ is what attracts us to gameplay, as it corresponds closely with our neuro-psychological learning loops. Playing the game successfully according to its values makes us feel good. So games that introduce different values are a great way of considering how we can still enjoy success through different patterns of behaviour.

In this way, we can use games as a starting point to reflect on which of our behaviours matter to achieving value, and what kinds of value. For example, many social minority groups face a penalty in the workplace because their behaviours don’t fit in with expectations, and as human beings we are programmed to see difference as a possible threat as well as a possible advantage. This is at the root of unconscious bias. But we can train ourselves to be more accepting of diversity and to recognise its value through acknowledgment of characteristics that do and don’t matter!

When we know what behaviours do and do not matter, we can embrace alternative innovations and practices, both social and ecological!

Can play improve wellbeing at work? Check out these 4 areas where it could…

Workplace wellbeing is a difficult target to reach, but Laine & Rinne have summarised key areas which need to be considered by those brave enough to try. The list below shows how play has the potential to help with each of these.

1 – Health

While being in good health is a combination of lifestyle and luck, both promoting good health and recovery from illness can be supported by play activities. Research has highlighted how play can help mentally prepare us for coping with pain and illness, supporting the development of resilience and even enhancing recovery times! The old favourite that laughing is great medicine also holds true, so five minutes of fun as a regular habit could help to decrease absence due to sickness. Try out quick and silly party games like Asmodee’s Dobble or Ridley’s Avocado Smash!

2 – Stress, role conflict and the meaning of work

We’ve all had days where we feel torn in two, wearing too many hats or overwhelmed in trying to be the person everyone needs us to be. Play can help develop core strategies to protect against this, including reframing conflicting goals and meanings. Reframing is a hugely transformative technique that requires acknowledging the location of the conflict as part of who we think we are or want to be. That conflict can then be explored playfully and productively in conjunction with an awareness of our goals and identity. Exploring conflict and stress playfully as a productive exercise can highlight different ways of thinking about roles and our temporary or long term commitments to them.

Play-based techniques can also help reorient employees to what they find meaningful in their work through a focus on their core motivations. After all, we rarely need motivation to have fun! However, this type of intervention usually requires the use of applied play toolkits such as LEGO Serious Play, or facilitation using tools such as conversation cubes.

3 – Personality & Social Relations

While play wont change your personality, it can help you get a better understanding of others. Developing good relations can rely on knowing the different personalities within your team. When we play games we have opportunities for catharsis, a release of tension or built-up emotions. It doesn’t have to be anything as aggressive as beating the boss at paintball, either! Engaging in team games can develop trust and support bonding through shared experiences of success or failure. Some workplaces might be more suited to regular outdoor sports, but any type of social game from charades to Secret Hitler or Pandemic can engage groups in a fulfilling collaborative or competitive social experience.

4 – Uncertainty & change

Change and uncertainty can often be frightening. They threaten our plans for the future and push us outside of our usual practice. Adopting a playful attitude, however, can help build resilience in the face of change. When we play, we remain prepared to change our game without excessive fear of the consequences and maintain a flexible attitude. Building a culture of such flexibility by encouraging playfulness in the workplace can help organisations and individuals face uncertain futures with greater confidence. Helpfully, the genuine promotion of any type of play activity will do this, provided leaders genuinely support creativity and play as a beneficial mechanism!

Are we Homo Ludens? Huizinga’s 5-point definition of play.

Homo Ludens is a text frequently cited yet less often read with respect to games and culture. Establishing the concept of the ‘magic circle’, many subsequent studies of games use this work of historical analysis to convey authority and gravitas to the field, and Huizinga’s key message is still a compelling one: that to play is necessary to human life and culture.

This post will shortly be available as a video on the Seriously Learned Youtube channel, meanwhile you can hear Laura talking about Huizinga on BBC Radio 3 here.

Who was Johan Huizinga?

Johan Huizinga was a linguist and historian based at Leiden University when he wrote Homo Ludens in the 1930s. He was particularly interested in the behaviours of courtly life in the medieval, renaissance and late baroque periods, and noted their tendency towards play. However, in scholarly circles in the Netherlands he was a controversial figure and branded a detached recluse for concentrating on telling tales of a beautiful and idealised past, rather than addressing the contemporary dangers of Fascism and Nazism. Nonetheless, anti-Nazi actions he had taken in the 1930s and later criticism of the occupation of the Netherlands had him detained in 1942 and he was subsequently refused permission to return to Leiden. He died in 1945.

Colie (1964) was instrumental in foregrounding Huizinga’s contribution to English-speaking scholars in the post-war period. She highlights that Homo Ludens is not a theory of games, but rather a theory of the function of play in human culture. Colie implies that Huizinga’s work on play is important for recognising that as social beings we don’t only come up with rules to get along together, but also allow for spaces where we can break those rules in order to explore alternative ways of organising.

What is play?

In Homo Ludens, Huizinga points out that Ancient Greek culture distinguished between paidia – lighthearted or child’s play, and agon – sport or games, but to the Romans, all was included in the term ludus – play. By exploring the challenges and contests in Greek sport and identifying the linguistic approach to play in Germanic and Romance languages, as well as Sanskrit, Sinitic (Chinese) and Native American (Blackfoot), Huizinga sides with the Roman characterisation of both types of activity as the same. He identifies that play incorporates descriptions of nature and human action, pretence and limits, freedom of movement and of competition. Most frequently, Huizinga identifies play as comprising a pledge to undergo some kind of risk and tension, even to the degree of deadly seriousness as in violent sporting matches.

The 5 characteristics.

Huizinga outlines five characteristics of play;

Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life”

1. Play is voluntary

The voluntary nature of play is in contrast to the involuntary nature of the things we must do for survival. This is obvious in tasks such as washing or tending crops but less obvious when we start to consider ‘playful’ activities such as craft or artistry which require toil or training. Huizinga debates this in the distinction between the musical (arts) and plastic (crafts) to argue that while performance is a type of free play which may rely upon expertise and training, the training or crafting of skill or a piece of art is work. In this distinction, the showing of a painting might be play, but the production of it is labour.

2. Play is Rule Ordered

When we enter into play, we agree to play by explicit or implied rules, which are often different to those we normally follow. These rules are rules of behaviour as well as of material significance. For example, the idea of taking turns, and that everyone shall have a turn to act or speak is a frequent unwritten rule of most conversational games. The use of physical tokens to represent action is another frequent rule, along with details such as how many tokens a player has and how actions through them may be performed.

3. Play happens within fixed boundaries: the ‘magic circle’

The setting aside of play as a distinct practice is closely related to the understanding of the specific order and binding rules of play. When we agree to the restriction of rules, we also agree that these restrictions will only apply for a time and/or place. We allow ourselves the freedom to step outside of that space or time, whether loser or victor, and return to a different set of rules of behaviour. Those who breach the boundaries are contemptuous, spoil-sports or barbarians, and are swiftly excluded.

4. Play is different

When we play, we are distinctly aware that what we are doing is not ‘ordinary life’, though we might mimic everyday activities. We inhabit a different ‘mental world’ where there might be consequences to what we are doing, but those consequences usually adhere to different rules. This is one of the main reasons why play can be so satisfying, as we sometimes need to enter a space where the rules are different to everyday life – fairer or more clearly specified, in order to explore why some practices have been successful or unsuccessful.

5. Play is not useful or in a material interest

One of the important elements of play is “what is at stake”. Although gambling and risk-taking are identified by Huizinga as key to understanding the tension and excitement of play, play is nonetheless non-purposeful. Huizinga compares professional and amateur sports in this respect, highlighting that once the playing of a game is subservient to a material interest it no longer can be understood as pure play. However, in conjunction with the concept of the magic circle, it remains possible to identify play as having serious and material consequences without necessarily invalidating its status. Importantly, although satisfaction is key to play, Huizinga’s definition does not rely solely upon a psychological perspective of play as producing a ‘feeling’ of engagement (or flow) as a definitive factor.

Play and Culture

Huizinga explores a wide range of social activities in Homo Ludens that we might not identify as play. These include ‘sporting’ activities such as duels to the death or verbal ‘battles’ such as public debates. He also points out the importance of play to ceremony and performance. Both dance and music are play performances, though we would not often think of these as we do games.

Gifts: Conspicuous consumption and destruction

A significant type of play identified in Homo Ludens is drawn from Mauss’ work on gift-exchange, which shares similarities with Veblen’s work on conspicuous consumption.

one proves one’s superiority not merely by the lavish prodigality of one’s gifts but, what is even more striking, by the wholesale destruction of one’s possessions just to show that one can do without them.

This highlights how the practice of giving away high-value items conveys a message regarding the wealth and virtue of the gift-giver, and places an obligation on the receiver to reciprocate, or in the case of the destruction of property, to compete.

This type of competition compares with boasting or slanging matches, and is labelled a ‘squandering match’ by Huizinga. The expression of excessive politeness is a comparable reversed game to that of the boasting match, in which each participant strives to be more courteous than the other.

Knowledge: play to learn

Just as there are forms of contest based on chance, dexterity or physical ability, Huizinga points out the common occurrence of knowledge contests in history and myth. Knowledge contests also remain so central to contemporary life we don’t even recognise them as such – though we call them ‘tests’ and ‘qualifying exams’! In Homo Ludens, Huizinga focuses on the role of wordplay and riddles in schooling particular types of thinking or expertise.

The answer to an enigmatic question is not found by reflection or logical reasoning. It comes quite literally as a sudden solution – a loosening of the tie by which the questioner holds you bound. The corollary of this is that by giving the correct answer you strike him powerless. In principle there is only one answer to every question. It can be found if you know the rules of the game.

While this resembles being quizzed in front of a class, the riddle-question can also push the limit of knowledge by motivating participation in the challenge. Huizinga presents the example of the ‘superlative question’ game, such as “what is sweeter than…” where each answer become the next question. To answer “I don’t know” is to lose the game, so it motivates scholarship. If we take a different version of this question, such as “what is smaller than…” our eventual result today would be to study advanced mathematics or particle physics!

Law: the courtroom as a ‘magic circle’

the lawsuit can be regarded as a game of chance, a contest, or a verbal battle

When we consider the seriousness of a court of law, Huizinga’s assertion that we can identify law as a type of play seems an extreme one. It relies upon the recognition of  historical and cultural approaches to justice which rely upon the setting aside of a context in which a trial may be fairly conducted. The pursuit of justice must be set apart from other social activity in order to establish principles of fairness, and as such it utilises the characteristics of a play contest. This setting-apart of the courtroom also applies to the judge and other roles within it – as these individuals must set aside personal attitudes and concerns. This presents some explanation, Huizinga suggests, for the peculiar use of costume or regalia in the legal profession.

Play and War: worlds apart?

Its principle of reciprocal rights, its diplomatic forms, its mutual obligations in the matter of honouring treaties and, in the event of war, officially abrogating peace, all bear a formal resemblance to play-rules inasmuch as they are only binding while the game itself – i.e. the need for order in human affairs – is recognized.

If we look to ancient civilization it is not difficult to find a link between violent sports and the training of skills for war. From ancient strategy games to contemporary computer games, the theme of warplay is a popular one. Unlike the moral panics which propose that warplay encourages violence, Huizinga proposes that the limiting rules of play are fundamentally necessary to distinguishing between human engagement in war, an aggressive combat between equals, and animal violence in the pursuit of survival.

Implicit to Huizinga’s writing on this seems to be the proposal that war without limitations is a challenge to all human civilisation; war without limitations is not an activity that may be claimed by homo sapiens without placing that very categorisation in jeopardy.

We might, in a purely formal sense, call all society a game if we bear in mind that this game is the living principle of all civilization.

Is everything play?

Since Huizinga, other influential scholars have presented definitions of play which make different distinctions. Caillois’ Man, Play and Games (1961) reintroduced the distinction between ‘play’ (imaginative fantasy) and ‘sport’ (skill-based games), while some psychologists have proposed a definition of ‘unstructured’ play as the individual experience of creativity or improvisation.

Purposeful play, or the appropriation of play-like characteristics to activity which is not different to “ordinary life”, for Huizinga, is false play. In the final chapter of Homo Ludens, Huizinga expresses concerns about the use of play to conceal political or social agendas or to promote ‘barbaric’ tendencies such as the infantilisation, subjugation or oppression of others.

Overall, Homo Ludens highlights how many cultural activities incorporate play-like characteristics, and also indicates that new cultural practices can emerge from playing with existing norms and formats. Yet Huizinga makes no assumption about the quality of play activity; suggesting that it can be debased to meaningless repetition, or can be elevated to ritual or sacred status. Where play offers scope for development and improvisation of culture, it may be seen as a productive force. Yet some characteristics of play may be employed to inhibit the development of collective culture, and the victories achieved through play are empty ones.

SCOS 2018 Tokyo

This summer I was privileged to attend the Standing Conference on Organisational Symbolism to present the collaborative work I have been developing with colleagues elsewhere in Europe on how the playing of games support learning in entrepreneurial communities. The broader theme of the conference was Wabi-Sabi, or the Japanese aesthetic philosophy which privileges imperfection, impermanence and restraint. This aesthetic is most commonly associated with the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, yet is also significant throughout Japanese culture.

A number of presentations explored how this particular aesthetic manifests in an interest in setting aside differences in power and position in the interests of employee well-being, whether through the promotion of particular values or activities which might often be excluded from everyday business. The long association of Japanese manufacturing and lean production methods might initially seem to contradict such messages, and a range of scholars explored how contemporary types of organising often focus on extreme mechanised and documented perfection, enforced by technological surveillance systems. However, AGILE methodologies were also questioned as unsuccessful revolutions in employee management, too successful to live up to the romantic aspirations of their founders.

As yet, there are few conclusions to the questions provoked by these cultural conundrums. However, the range of studies presented there are likely to contribute towards ongoing theorising about the impact and potential of cultural awareness in both the practical organising of business and the study of its operations. If I took away one useful message from this event, it was that thinking about how cultural business practices can be represented by artistic themes can be highly thought provoking!


Crowdfunding and capabilities

My recent project to investigate the implications of using a crowdfunding model to promote more dignified workplace relations managed to raise pledges to the tune of almost £400, highlighting a very simple beneficial feature of crowdfunding – the potential to develop support for an idea through co-operation with like-minded others. Though this fell short of the target financial figure, this exercise has been both promising in terms of the future of the project (for which I will re-scale the initial stage and return to supporters about whether they would still be willing to contribute in combination with seeking other funding support), and in terms of my own capability development.

Westermann-Behaylo, Buren and Berman (2016) write about the possibility of capability enhancing practices to promote win-win outcomes between diverse stakeholders, and the potential for contributions to human dignity by pursuit of reciprocity rather than stakeholder tradeoffs.  Capabilities are a foundational concept in the work of Amartya Sen and are understood in conjunction with functionings. Functionings describe a wide range of activities, including the basics of healthy living, having a good job, or even the feeling of self-respect. While Sen defines development as the enhancement of functionings, capabilities are the opportunity to achieve functionings. In existing studies of poverty-stricken economies or regions, some activities such as the support of micro-finance are already acknowledged as contributing to enhanced capabilities. If these capabilities can support improved functionings then there is a strong case for their contribution to human dignity. However, where areas struggle to acquire investment, these practices are a more obvious response to poverty alleviation than we might expect in economies where credit is easier to come by. Yet crowdfunding is not only about the raising of money, but also about establishing networks and communication practices. Consequently, I will still be looking for a further opportunity to test this theory with examination of the real experience of crowdfunders…. watch this space!

Crowdfunding and meaningful work

Crowdfunding is a fascinating financial innovation through which individuals or groups can use an online platform to raise funds from a diverse range of supporters. It comes in a wide range of types, and increasingly platforms are specialised for hosting particular kinds of projects, distinguishing start-ups from community or charitable causes. In the USA there is now even a specialist platform for raising funds for research projects.

I’m interested in crowdfunding as a social innovation, based on some work I did for my masters project 10 years ago. When interviewing self-employed entrepreneurs, the contributors to that project all agreed that they hadn’t become entrepreneurs for the earning potential, or even for better work-life balance. Instead they talked about how being an entrepreneur felt; the self-satisfaction of their achievements, being part of a local business community, and being respected by others, feelings they had found absent from waged employment. Independence was key to these individuals, but they also admitted a need for a community of support. These factors (and others) closely matched research on the search for dignity and meaning in work, often hindered by ‘management’ practices or individuals in conventional wage relations.

With the advent of crowdfunding, I began to wonder if the mechanics of the financial innovation could also support this search for dignity. Meaningful work is not only to be found in employment, but also in voluntary work, and either type of project can build a community of supporters through a crowdfunding platform. One successful project near me has been the transformation of Star and Shadow, a project to develop a cinema and community space which relies on crowd sourced funds and work. Individual photography projects and innovative technological start ups successfully obtaining crowdfunding also seem to follow the same path to build a community for whom the project is meaningful – and often as more than an investment.

I, too, am using crowdfunding. As an attempt to fund further research into this phenomenon. Because if crowdfunding is a route to dignity and meaningful work, that’s a message which needs to spread. If you are interested in following or donating to the project you can find it on Kickstarter here.

Halloween as a basis for Universal Income

The appeal of Halloween today, according to the views of costume-rental businesses, comes from the fact that it is one of the few major (Anglo-American-Abrahamic) festivals which allows us to treat ourselves. It’s a perfect opportunity for consumerism. However, it is also a festival premised on giving charity to others, who challenge us to extend our hospitality not only to friends and family but to ghosts and ghouls.

Gift-giving is distinct from charity in that gifts carry an obligation to the reciever. Throughout history this has been intensely entwined with obligations to the provider (for example through hospitality in the provision of food, drink and lodging to passing soldiers, pilgrims or other travellers) as a matter of honour.

Policies regarding state welfare payments are frequently contested due to differing views on whether they should be understood as charity, economic mechanism, or gift. The extensive critiques of the application of the UK welfare system in recent years have highlighted how these state ‘gifts’ can be accompanied by toxic obligations which nullify their value. Horror stories of those with terminal illness or accessing church and charity-run food banks on state support attempt to bring to government attention that our collective hospitality is failing, and this is a cause for shame. Unlike the householder who fails to stock enough apples and sweets for the trick-or-treaters, however, governments react hardly at all to their house being egged.

Universal basic income attempts to promote a different model of welfare akin to promising all trick-or-treating monsters the same reward regardless of the quality of their costume. It’s promotion lies not only in its potential as an economic mechanism, but also in the characterisation of such payments as hospitality rather than an obligation-conferring gift. 

Although today’s Halloween festival is one that in our society is not compulsory, it’s cultural significance as a mechanism for allowing ourselves to give freely to unknown others is one we should examine more closely. The spectre of generations in poverty and stifled economic growth may otherwise haunt us for much of the future.

What to do in Lectures: a guide

It’s that time of the year again and campus is filling up with fresh-faced undergraduates wondering just what they’ve let themselves in for. The more confident second year undergraduates are returning from their holidays, looking forward to seeing friends and perhaps a little worried about the fact that their second year is beginning and the work ‘counts’ now (as it contributes towards their degree classification). So for both the newbies and the experienced students now is a great time to get prepared for the sessions ahead. But, really, what are you actually supposed to do in lectures?


I’m going to ramble about this, but for those who’d prefer a one-page graphic guide I have taken inspiration from my friend Matt over at Errant Science and made you a comic. First of all, let me introduce you to my comic self…



Hi there!

In a traditional lecture, an academic will spend most of the time talking to you about a specific subject in which they have expertise. We like to talk! But while we talk, what do you do?

The point of having a lecturer is that they are a subject expert, and as such they have lots of information and expertise that it would take you years to read up on. Think of them as being like a knowledge funnel, condensing all of that information down into a smaller space (and time). The problem is, that in many university degrees (and almost certainly in the lecture) you won’t be using that information straight away, so it can be hard to absorb.

You might have heard about learning styles – the idea that some people learn better by listening, or reading, or drawing…. that’s actually now been shown to be incorrect. Though you might have a preference for the way you like to be taught, you mostly learn the same as everyone else – by problem solving. Human beings are hard-wired problem solvers. But when the problem isn’t immediate, it can be hard to understand what you should be doing while your lecturer is there at the front rambling away!

But actually, everybody there does have a problem to solve – how to get a great degree! Often, this also includes an ambition to get the knowledge you need for a great career afterwards too. And to attack these problems requires a more focused approach in your lecture. Your immediate problems to focus on are:

  • How can I pay attention throughout this lecture (especially if I’m really sleepy)?
  • How can I transform this lecture into a record I can learn from?
  • How can I identify the most important information in this lecture?
  • How can I work out what areas I understand and where I need to ask questions to make sure I will do well in my assessments?
  • How do I come up with the right sort of questions?



For most students, the wonder of technology seems to promise an answer to many of these questions – after all, the lecturer has provided powerpoint slides or notes that you can download, right? Also, it’s pretty easy to use your smartphone to record what they say!

Unfortunately, powerpoint is not a great resource to learn from, especially as it’s a pretty poor format for communicating complicated or non-linear ideas. Also, as it’s such a boring format, it’s more…. likely….. to………..zzzzzZZZZZ

Oh, is that the time? Sorry, I was snoozing there for a second.

The best thing you can do in a lecture is use techniques to help you engage with what is being said. One such technique is taking notes! Taking notes will help you pay attention and create great personalised records for you to learn from. If you use a method such as the Cornell Method presented here, it will also help set up your learning activities to do after the class time is over.

The Cornell Method relies upon you taking written notes, but helps you use a standard format to organise the page to encourage you to 1) create a summary of what you hear, 2) pinpoint key ideas and concepts by looking for verbal or non-verbal cues such as repetition or gesturing, as well as flag points you don’t understand so you can ask questions about it at an appropriate time, 3) collate your key messages together from each page in preparation for your follow-up work.

Organising your page according to the Cornell Method is really simple.


In Part 1, the main section of your page, you should aim to make comprehensive notes on what is being said according to what you hear from the lecturer (which may or may not reflect what they have put online). You won’t be able to capture every word, so abbreviate and focus on things that are repeated, emphasised with gestures or tone, or which seem to form the central or most significant points of the discussion.

In Part 2 of your page, the side column, you can note slide numbers or references, so if a section of the lecture refers to a specific reading or theory you could mark this next to the section you have written on it. This makes it much easier to review these notes later. You could also put question marks next to parts that confuse you, or that you might need to investigate further.

In the bottom section of your page, Part 3, you should leave blank during the lecture to give you space to go back and review your notes after the lecture is over. This will help you see the ‘bigger picture’ and may help come up with questions you need to ask your lecturer or tutor. It’s also a really useful space in which to summarise the lecture or section of your notes so you can find relevant material to prepare your assessments or revise for exams!