8 ways to to make effective revision notes for GCSE, A Level and IB
No matter what the subject, taking good notes can be incredibly difficult – but it can make a crucial difference when it comes to exam season, or even when you’re just setting up to start revising.
Making sure that your notes are in a easy to use form, and are well organised, can save you a lot of hassle down the line – especially if you are sitting over three or four subjects, such as when doing GCSE’s.
Good notes are clear and concise, but also contain exactly the right level of detail – and have problem areas marked out so that you know where you had difficulties. But, it’s easier said than done, especially if the subject is one that you find confusing anyway.
There are a couple of tips and tricks which can make your life easier:
1. Do you need to type or write notes by hand?
This is probably something you know already, but taking notes by hand versus on a computer can lead to very different results – odds are that this is something you’re aware of yourself.
Studies show that taking notes by hand is more effective at memory retention, but it’s not always feasible, and for some subjects and programs (such as A-Level vs IB, for example), it’s really subjective.
If you’ve already been taking notes on your laptop or tablet, then it might be worth doing the same to make sure that you’re not having to switch styles – but always have a backup, and aim to use a storage service like Google Drive so that you’re never left without your notes.
2. Don’t just transcribe
Trying to write everything that your teacher is saying down often means that you have to scramble or rush, and in the process, miss out on detail or even the important parts of what they’re saying.
If you know that you’re not a quick writer, or that you have to hear something two or three times to really get it, write down keywords – for example, if you’re taking notes for a history class, dates, or key figures.
That means you can also ask more questions later – or even ask for help from a friend or look it up online. Sift through what the textbook is saying for keywords, or use your syllabus alongside a textbook to see what added detail you can find.
3. What method of note taking works best for you?
If you have a note taking method that works best for you, then you might as well stick to what works. But it’s not always applicable across all your subjects – if you do the IB, for example, you will have a range of subjects.
For some, a method like the charts method could work best – this is where you create tables and spreadsheets with key information, divided by headings, and put in formulas, statistics, or key facts.
This can be useful for subjects such as history, where key dates and figures will be important for success, or in the sciences, where statistics and formulas are central to doing well. If you want to know more about different, specific methods of note-taking, there are a few which are widely used – but don’t be scared of mixing and matching them to see if some are better for you.
4. Stay organised – use folders and binders
It can get really overwhelming during revision period if you have loads of notes everywhere, sheets of paper flying out of bags or ten documents open on your desktop.
Staying organised can be a pain, but it’ll make your life easier in the long run. If possible, keep separate notebooks for subjects, or folders.
If you use a laptop or a tablet, make sure you have virtual folders so that you can find your files easily, and label them clearly.
Beware of going too far into over-organisation – it’s usually unnecessary to make a separate document for each unit of your subject, for example, and sometimes being too specific is just another kind of procrastination.
5. Use colour, annotation, post-its, diagrams
Taking notes can be boring, but you can find ways to at least make it a little more fun.
Use highlighters in different colours to draw out key concepts, or have washi tape or post-its that you can use to identify different sections (this is also useful for staying organised).
Colour is also a good way to code what you need to come back to, what you understand quite well or what you think you could benefit from some more revision on – you can even create a key for yourself.
One danger with highlighting is that you can highlight entire paragraphs, just because it all seems relevant – so set yourself a limit if you find yourself doing this.
When you get into revision season, summarising becomes key - particularly at GCSE level, when you’re often doing more than ten subjects and have to make sure you use your time effectively.
This is where summaries come in – they’re also a good way of making sure you hit the syllabus points, particularly for exams like GCSE’s, where the syllabus’ can be used for revision guides too.
Making quick summaries at the end of a lesson, or a unit, are the best way to make sure you’ve hit all the main points, and when you get closer to the exam, the summaries might be all you need to recall the detail too.
7. Be realistic – and don’t expect too much of yourself
When it comes to notes, don’t expect to understand everything in one go, or even that you’ll be able to read a page and remember it immediately after.
By taking clear and concise notes in your subjects, you’ll make the process of revision easier, and you’ll find that when you come across problems, it’s easier to sort them out.
Try not to split your notes across your laptop and paper either - stick to one medium so you know where everything is.
8. Ask questions – and make sure you get answers
If you’re uncertain about parts of the subject, such as a process in biology, or a metaphor in English, make a note of it. If you can, ask for help or clarification immediately – whether that’s in a class, or through looking a textbook (the Internet can be helpful too).
Try leaving a space at the bottom of every page, or every other page, to write down some questions or things that you want to clarify.
People learn differently – some conventional wisdom is that there are four or five different kinds of learners, such as people who are auditory learners, or kinetic learners. If you don’t know what kind you are, it’s not the end of the world – they’re more meant to be guidelines. But, if you find that nothing is sinking in, it could be worth recording yourself reading your notes and playing them back, to see if that helps, or walking around while reading your summaries.
If you want to go high-tech, there are some products which can make your life easier. For example, the Rocketbook Wave lets you write in it, scan the pages using your phone and store them, and then you can microwave it (up to three times) to reuse it.
It’s also important to remember that taking notes isn’t the only part of revision or learning which is important – there’s other steps too, as this article from the Conversation details. After you make some great notes, you have to re-read over them, use them to test yourself and try reading them out to your friends, if you want them to really help you do well.