Note-Making Pro Tips!

(these are some notes on making notes. Huh.)

After the runaway success of my Essay-Writing Pro Tips blog a few days ago, by which I mean four Canadian people stumbled across it by searching for essay advice on Google, I thought I’d follow it up by writing about how you can improve your revision notes to help you get the best exam results your measly little brain can manage.

Now, this is strictly for revision notes, those that you make in the weeks (or hours) before a test, as a means of reinforcing your knowledge and understanding of key concepts, through the means of writing them out, and producing a set of concise notes you can glance over on the bus on the way in. Class notes, ones you make in class while a teacher is talking, are a whole different thing, and will not be covered here. Sorry about that.

1) Use colours. LOTS OF THEM.

This sounds like a primary school tip, and one that borders on the demeaning, but who really cares how dumb the advice is as long as it works? I can tolerate judging people’s character on their appearance, at least Dorian Gray was eloquent when he did it, but living in a society in which we judging people based on their note-making methods is frankly suicide-inducing.

Colours are a visual way of grouping ideas together, like friends on Google+ (whatever the Hell that is); in Geography, colours are useful for highlighting similar processes, so you could underline all the processes of erosion in red, and transportation in blue; in English, you can group all the examples of the theme of death in Dracula together by highlighting them in fancy purple. Whatever it is, this is a very easy way to create links between ideas, and any subject that is examined by essays or long-answer questions will give you more marks if you show these links.

2) Diagrams are good too

This is more obviously relevant for mathematical subjects, or ones that are process-heavy, like Geography, as they are another way of visually representing information. It also makes a break from continuous writing, and can help break up long sections of writing on a page; it’s much harder to motivate yourself to read a page of notes if it’s all words.

Even in stuff like English or History, Venn Diagrams could be used to show the connections between the reasons for Gatsby and Daisy loving each other, or the links between the pre-WWI arms race and the post-WWII Cold War arms race.

3) Use narrow-ruled paper

The paper I use has 44 lines on it, a far larger number than the 33 that is on most sheets of A4. This small change will mean that you ultimately use fewer sheets of paper to write your notes: a ten-page revision pack becomes a seven-page pack with no effort other than finding where said paper lives in your local stationary shop. This will make the notes less daunting to read over, in much the same way that breaking up text with diagrams will.

You may argue that each page will appear more full of information, and so will discourage you to read all of it as it looks so dense, but this doesn’t make sense; if you see a page of notes, you brain sighs at the fact that it’s a page of notes, it doesn’t care how many lines or words are on that page. Fundamentally, your brain will not be able to spot the difference between 44 lines of notes on a page and 33 lines on a page quickly, whereas you will very easily see the difference between two reading packs, where one it three pages shorter than the other.

4) Be an arsehole

Let’s be honest, you’ll only ever read these notes over in a meaningful way when you’re stressing about an exam and are generally feeling kinda crappy. The odd sarcastic note to yourself to “remember this, bitch” will help relax you before an exam – you’ll laugh at yourself, and it’ll give you a bit of perspective, so what if you fail this exam, you’re still a funny guy!

However, the arsehole approach only works if you’re a satirist, nihilist or sadist (like me!) so if your idea of ‘funny and relaxing’ is drawings of fluffy unicorns and smiling ice creams, doodle them at regular intervals to help draw attention to points that you struggle to remember. Find something that you find amusing and memorable, and stick it alongside concepts that are hard to remember, whatever that initial ‘something’ is.

5) Say every word as you write it

This last one should really only be reserved for externally-assessed exams and whatnot, as this will double the time it takes to make your notes, but will really help you remember the concepts therein. I find that the act of making notes reminds me of and clarifies me about topics I had forgotten, moreso than reading over my notes the next day, so this is a great method of ensuring that the initial note-making process is as memorable as possible.

This won’t work is you use notes exclusively as a tool, whereby you produce them a month before an exam and then read over them every day until that exam; there’s nothing wrong with this approach, and to you I would suggest using cue cards or producing a set of questions and asking a family member to test you on them in a random order verbally, just to ensure that the notes you’re reading over are actually sticking in your brain.

Ultimately, making notes needs to be a thing you do, in a manner that works best for you; I find that writing out a textbook’s worth of notes with sarcastic messages to myself in a rainbow of colours helps me get A*s, but this list should serve as a starting point for you to try making some notes now, before you hit an exam that’s really important. I’ve found that you should have a method of note-making perfected by the time you hit exams in Year 11 and beyond, so that way you can get your head down and work, so hopefully these ideas will help you start to develop your own note-making methods.


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