‘I’m taking notes’. ‘I always revise from my notes’. ‘I learn better when I take notes by hand’. ‘I always colour-code my notes’.
These are phrases we’ve all heard time and time again – probably even thrown around ourselves in a lunch-time conversation about revision. In fact, I doubt there is a single student who has reached sixth-form and failed to encounter the great mystery of ‘note-taking’. We’ve all heard about it, we’ve all been told the most and least effective ways of doing it, but do any of us really have any confidence in what the ‘note-taking’ process actually involves?
For years during my time in senior education I wondered just why – and how – people make notes. I would watch them confidently typing away on their laptops, scrawling endless streams of information over pages in bursting notebooks, but I never quite understood the seeming obsession teachers and students alike seem to have with note-taking. Many students spend many hours creating beautifully-crafted pages of notes, and swiftly forget about them when it comes to revising for their exams. Many students make notes which are so illegible and incomprehensible that they have no fear of losing them, or even throwing them away, and simply resort to textbook learning in the run-up to their tests. If this rings a bell, then I can assure you, you’re not alone.
So, why do we take notes in the first place when most of the information we need is contained in a text
book? First off, note taking is a great way of helping you concentrate. When you’re listening to a
teacher talk, it’s all too easy to zone out and miss half the class. Recording what the teacher is
saying while they’re saying it will ensure that at least some of this information goes in. And if you
didn’t understand the first time, you can read the notes back and remember what you were stuck on. When
you’re taking notes from a text, the note-taking process, if done effectively, will make you realise
exactly what it is that you don’t understand. It will even help you to understand it. When you’re
reading a difficult text it’s all too easy to get to the end of a page without having understood a
single word. With these top-tips on note taking, I’ll guide you through the problems all students
encounter when trying to take notes, and I’ll offer some simple and effective solutions to solve your
note-taking crisis once and for all.
STEP 1: Paraphrase
It’s easy to fall into a pattern of copying word-for-word the material you are taking notes from, be it
an A-Level chemistry textbook or a lecture in Latin Literature. My first tip for note-taking is to
PARAPHRASE. Get into the habit of taking notes in your own words, using language you understand. If you
copy down exactly what the textbook says, the information will go in one ear and out the other. When you
write in language you understand, you will firstly realise when you don’t click with a concept because
you’ll find you can’t paraphrase it. Then you can ask the teacher for further explanation. Later on,
when you read the notes back months later, they’ll be written in a language that’s accessible to you.
This way you won’t be stuck in the ‘re-learning’ process we’ve all been through in the week before the
STEP 2: Summarise
At the end of a page, chapter or section of the book you are studying from, think back on everything
you’ve learnt from the chapter, and write a short summary. This way when you go back, you will remember
the key features of the chapter, and won’t have to read the whole thing all over again. Simple, eh?
STEP 3: Key words
Writing in your own words is invaluable. But remembering the key-words is just as important, especially for science subjects. If colour coding has always been a mystery to you, here’s where it may actually come in use! Every time you see or hear a key term when reading – this may even be a term you simply just don’t understand – note it down in a separate section of your notes. When you read the key words back, they will act as a summary of the text in themselves, because key words often contain all the information you need for a whole chapter… And if you don’t understand a word (it sounds obvious, but…) look it up! Once you’ve noted it down, it only takes twenty seconds to search it on google and jot down the definition.
STEP 4: Organisation
I cannot stress enough the importance of organised note-taking. It doesn’t matter if you take notes by
hand, or on the computer… contrary to what your peers or teachers may say, no method of note taking is
better than the others! It’s just about what works well for you. If you have bad handwriting, it might
be better to switch to the computer for your notes. If you’re bad about losing sheets of paper (as I
am!) this might also be the best option. If you’re taking notes by hand, make sure you keep all the
notes for one subject in one place. It may sound obvious, but the hours I’ve spent organising my notes
in the past remind me that it’s all too easy to get into bad habits. Make sure each of your subject
notes are in one place – be that a folder, notebook, whatever. If you’re taking notes on the computer,
do the same thing! Organise them into folders to save yourself doing it later!
STEP 5: Referencing
If you’re taking notes for an essay, I cannot stress enough the importance of referencing as you go. When
I open a word document to take notes for ANY essay, I always start by writing the title, author and
publisher of the book, the location of publishing and the date of publishing at the top of the document.
That way, no matter what system of referencing I end up using, no matter where the book ends up (be it
lost, or back at the library), I can always reference without stress. Every time you write a quotation,
or take any kind of note, just write the page number at the start of the line. It’s so intuitive, but
it’s so easy to forget, and I promise it will save you hours of grief in the long-run!
STEP 6: Good, regular habits
The most important thing about note-taking is to get into regular habits and regular routines. Find
methods that work for you and stick to them. It’s never helpful to make half your notes by hand, and
half of them on the computer – it only makes life more confusing. Make a system that suits you! That’s
the great thing about note-taking: no one can tell you how to do it, and no one can tell you their way
is better than yours.
STEP 7: Taking Exam Notes
Making notes before exams is definitely an effective way of learning. But the number of times I’ve heard someone say ‘I spent so much time making notes and never had time to learn them’ is really frustrating. First of all, taking notes, if done in the ways I’ve outlined above, IS a form of learning, and a really effective one at that. Secondly, if you’re scared of taking too long writing your notes, solve this by writing notes across the year. Then all you have to do before exams is fill in the gaps. When planning your revision, make sure you leave enough time in the planning stages for note learning. And don’t procrastinate by making pretty notes! Keep an eye on how long you’re taking for each section of your learning and stay efficient. If colours help you learn, that’s fine, but illustrating your notes probably isn’t going to get you very far.
Another solution is to get yourself into a regular habit of learning your notes straight after you make them. People often use note-taking revision as a way of revising without using much brain-power. Note taking can be a mindless activity when you simply copy off reams of text, you can work for hours and achieve nothing. Follow the PARAPHRASE and SUMMARISE steps I’ve outlined above and test yourself after each page of notes to see what you’ve actually learned! Note taking done properly will change the way you learn.