How to write good study notes
You know how there’s always one kid that brags about having 100 pages of notes for one subject?. Yeah well, feel free to tell them that it’s really not something to brag about. In fact, it’s pretty much the call sign of terrible notes that they probably spent ages on and are going to get no value out of 😕 .
Well, the truth is: bad study notes are only going to drain your time and make studying harder so let’s take a little look at how we can do these notes right.
1. Structure your notes by the syllabus dot points
It’s pretty standard advice to structure your notes by the dot points in the syllabus for each subject because it means you will:
- Cover every piece of content that could be asked in an exam
- Have a solid structure for your notes that makes sense
Basically, you start by following the course structure and prepare to write your notes by the topics (there’s usually around 2-6 topics in a subject). Next, you go down to the content section of the syllabus and use the dot points of each topic as the headings and subheadings of your notes. Then, you fill in the information (definitions, explanations, descriptions, facts etc.) under each of those headings.
Don’t forget that the syllabus content is usually split into three parts - outcomes, students learn to and students learn about - and you need to make sure your notes cover all three sections. Confused? Check out how you can break down and read the syllabus over here.
2. Include examples in your notes
This isn’t exactly groundbreaking advice (like... examples are pretty standard) but it’s amazing how many points you don’t think need examples when they really do. This is because there are two types of examples you want to be putting into your notes.
- Evidence you will need for your exam.
This one is pretty obvious and is going to be things like quotes and case studies. For example, when you’re looking at the bioethics of Islam in Studies of Religion, you would want to include quotes from the Qur’an that demonstrate where each teaching has come from such as “And no person can ever die except by Allah’s leave and at an appointed term” Qur’an 3:145 as evidence for Islamic teachings on the bioethical issue of euthanasia.
- Examples that help your understanding of an idea.
So then there are the examples you just need in your notes to help you make sense of complicated ideas. It’s especially useful in subjects like maths, chem, physics and business where you have formulas because while you need to memorise a formula, you also really need to understand when and how to actually use the formula. But any subject that has complicated ideas (like the difference between reliable and valid research in CAFS) should come with an example that has forced you to ‘get’ the idea well enough to apply it to an actual situation.
3. Write notes in your own words
This one is super important. Always write your notes out in your own words instead of copying out a definition or an explanation from a textbook, online or your teacher.
You can copy information and literally not have to think about it at all which on one hand sounds great but on the other hand, it is defeating the whole purpose of writing notes. By putting the information into your own words, you actually have to process it in your mind and understand it which will go a long way in you remembering the content.
So if you’re trying to write notes on visual text analysis and you want to include an example from class (because you know examples are good) then don’t copy your teacher if they say “the sordid eclecticism of the post-modern landscape heightens the power of the above mentioned image”. It’s so much better to just write out that same idea - so you get all the value of the analysis - in simpler words that you’ll understand: “the mix of imagery in this landscape makes the whole scene more powerful,” and then make it more specific and fancy later on when you’re actually writing the essay.
4. Write yourself exam tips as you go
The good thing about the HSC (or maybe it’s a bad thing…) is that you will sit multiple assessments before you final exams. That’s a lot of learning opportunities for you and one way you can make your notes insanely useful.
Say, for example, you sat a CAFS exam and you were answering a question on the social impact of technology and you made a great argument about entertainment technology. BUT, you lost a mark because you didn’t actually write out a definition of entertainment technology like “Entertainment Technology includes technologies that provide families with entertainment options including experiences, venues and games.” That’s pretty rough and an annoying way to lose a mark so go back to your study notes and under the Social Impact of Technology option write a note like: 👀 ALWAYS DEFINE KEY TERMS WHEN ANSWERING QUESTIONS 👀 .
Seriously, every time you finish an assessment, exam, practice paper or practice question and miss some marks, go back to that content in your notes and write yourself a few exam tips for next time.
5. Visualise complicated information
Sometimes, information just works better when it’s visual and as a bonus, it’s usually a lot quicker to include a diagram/chart/table/graph than to actually write out a whole explanation.
Let’s take something like Geometric Progressions from the Mathematics course. So, if you want to write some notes about geometric progressions, you would probably start with a definition right?
Something like this:
That’s definitely right but it’s going to be a lot clearer for you to try something like this:
Visuals tend to stand out more in your memory and the process of making the visual pretty much guarantees you will have a bang-on understanding of the idea. Now, this can be kind of annoying if you type your notes and aren’t a visual design gun but there’s an easy solution. Draw out your diagram, table or flow chart, take a photo of it on your phone and then just insert that photo into your notes. Super easy.
P.s. If you liked the look of that geometric progression info, check out the full video for free here.
6. Always go over your notes and work on condensing them
Writing study notes honestly feels like a massive chore that you have to just get through. Do you feel a bit of relief every time you finish a set of notes? The bad news is that you really aren’t just writing notes for the sake of ticking a box. Notes aren’t a ‘set and forget’ kind of deal 😕 . You have to constantly work with them and engage with them to actually improve your knowledge, understanding and critical thinking. Bummer, right?
So once you’ve written the notes for a topic, you’re going to need to just keep going back to them and writing summaries and then super summaries. The more times you go over them, the more you will be able to pick out the most crucial bits of information and arrange all the content into a really punchy, memorable and useful summary that will actually get you through an exam.
When you’re making these summaries, always keep the exam in your mind and ask yourself ‘What will I be using this information for?’ ‘How would I answer a question on this topic?’ or ‘How would I use this information to answer a question?’. You’ll be able to cut through a lot of the bull and end up with a really good grasp on each topic.
Notes are like Studying 101 but that doesn’t mean we always think about the best way to write and use them. They are probably going to take up a decent chunk of your time over the next year so if you want them to actually make your HSC easier, remember to: follow the structure of the syllabus, include examples, write them in your own words, include exam/application tips, get amongst some visuals and keep reworking them. Happy note-writing, guys.