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5 Tips for more effective study notes

By Charlie Hale on 24 May 2018Study tipsNSWblog

Notes. The foundation of every great ATAR. And to some extent (or another), we’re all aware that study notes are essential for exam success. But what a lot of people underestimate is the art form that is making a really great set of notes. Done wrong and they’re probably doing more harm than good.

So we’re here to clear the air and provide 5 points on exactly how to use notes to make sure they’re working for you.

1. Pretty notes don’t equal great grades

We’ve been doing this whole exam thing for a while and we’ve seen notes so pretty they bring a tear to the eye and notes that look like a dog's breakfast, wherein owner of said dog got straight band 6’s. Point is, your notes don’t have to sparkle to work.

It’s a common trap that people fall into. They spend huge amounts of time formatting their notes, colour coding, adding in numerous diagrams but not actually interacting with the actual content. Sure, pretty notes give you an awesome sense of accomplishment and yes colour coding can do wonders when it comes to memorisation, but in reality, the 6,543 hours you spent trying to get the bullet points to align is totally wasted.

The most important thing about creating notes is that you interact with the content in them rather than getting caught up in the notes themselves. Remember, the HSC papers don’t examine you on what you can write under a heading, it’s about answering a question. And the only way you can smash that is by actually answering questions.

A good rule of thumb is to spend about a quarter of your study time on making notes, a quarter on memorisation and half the time on practice.

2. Stick to the syllabus

The best way to make your notes effective AF is to structure them according to the syllabus. It makes sense, the syllabus is how you learn the content and the syllabus is how you get asked about the content.

The more you can think about the content in terms of the syllabus dot points the better position you’ll be in throughout your exams. This clear and logical structure also makes your memorising similarly clear and logical.

So break notes down into each topic, then each syllabus point then each sub dot point. We have a theory that even if you remember the heading and none of the actual content you’ll still be 60% of the way there.

3. Make them purpose built

The purpose of notes isn’t just to make notes. The purpose of notes is to make sure you know the content so you can dominate the exam. Problem is, most exams require more than just a recall of information. The information needs to be structured into essays and responses to answer a question. So, there are two parts to this:

1. Know the content

If your purpose is just to jam the knowledge into your head then you have no business making your notes any longer than is absolutely necessary. Short, sharp and to the point. No full sentences. No unnecessary words. Only the gold.

2. Apply the content

Once you know the content, your purpose is to apply that content. So it’s useful to use full sentences and actually use the words you would in an answer. For example you wouldn’t just learn your Discovery essay in dot points. You’d learn it in full sentences so you can just smash it out on the day. Same goes with all other subjects.

It allows you to move faster if you know the content AND exactly how it’s worded to answer the question.

4. The act is greater than the result

Some people think that simply having notes is the same as making notes. Don’t listen to these people. The act of actually creating your notes is when the content sinks into your brain. You might not be consciously learning what you’re writing in your notes, but subconsciously, a lot of it will be sinking in.

This is why we are hesitant to encourage the following note-making behaviours:

  1. Overly using technology. I love copy/paste as much as the next guy but it doesn’t help you when writing notes. Write it yourself.
  2. Splitting the effort with your mates. A topic each! But I guarantee you won’t know their topics as well as your own.
  3. Paying for notes. A waste of money, you may as well stare at a textbook for several hours.

Spend time creating your own notes, that’s when the magic happens. Trust us.

5. Notes are evolving

Following nicely from the last point, don’t fall into the trap of writing your notes once and patting yourself on the back and then only looking at them again the night before your exam. Your notes are a constantly evolving process from now until exam day.

The best students write their first set of notes (which is always way longer than it needs to be) and then they revisit them and cut down, simplify and mold them even further. It’s this process of refining your notes that leads to the best retention rates. You’re actually reading through your work and deciding what’s important, what’s not worded properly and what can be represented better.

You’re interacting with the content, which brings us full circle, back to my first point. Go forth and write.

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