Making useful study notes
There is a lot of information to process while learning, so it is vital to make organised study notes. This allows you to keep track of everything, and easily access information again later when it’s time to apply your knowledge through assessed tasks and further study.
The aim in making study notes is to summarise and synthesise material in your own words, and to draw connections between new and known information.
This tutorial provides tips on how to make effective notes when studying, and how to use them for revision.
The best strategies and styles of notes to use are the ones that work for you! So experiment to see what you feel comfortable with. Some people like a complex system to help them stay organised, others find complexity overwhelming and prefer to keep things simple. Pick an approach that you find helpful and easy enough to maintain throughout your studies.
Getting the most out your time
To get the most out of your class or study session and retain the information you learn, you need to make notes actively. That involves engaging with the material and noting down your own thoughts, understanding, and questions, as well as the answers to your questions once you find them.
Active note-making also requires preparing before class, and summarising, reflecting, and revising after class. View the tips for each of these stages below:
Everyone makes notes differently, but there are some key strategies to consider using which can make your notes more efficient and effective:
- Try to be as clear and concise as possible so that your notes will be easy to read and understand later on.
- Leave plenty of space so you can add further information and clarification when you learn more.
- Highlight important points, particularly core concepts, key theories, and assessed task instructions.
- Plan how you will store your notes for easy retrieval of information. For example, plan how you will organise your files and folders so that you can easily find the notes you need.
- Return to your notes as soon as possible to check for clarity:
- Rewrite what you have written to make it easier to understand.
- Add more details if needed.
- Annotate or summarise the information captured in any diagrams or images.
- Ask your lecturer or tutor, or your classmates to help you fill in any gaps.
- There are some additional strategies depending on the type of class you are attending. Here are some strategies for lectures, practical classes, and pre-recorded classes:
There are a variety of styles and systems for making study notes. View the slides below to explore some of the options available:
Note-making styles and systems
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An effective way to remember and understand the material you study is to re-read your notes frequently, and actively revise your notes to consolidate your learning. Active revision can help with memorisation, but more importantly it lets you practice applying the information, which is a crucial skill for assessments as well as for professional practice.
Notes are a powerful revision tool, but only if you use them. There is no point making notes unless you review and revise them afterward, so make sure you do! If you are having trouble finding time for revision, see our tips on the How to manage your time tutorial.
Do not simply read your notes. As you revise the content, ask yourself questions, and constantly think about how you will use the information after you graduate and are working in your chosen field.
- Summarise the main points.
- Make additional notes for clarification where necessary.
- Make connections to material learned in other classes, and outside of class.
- Make a list of points that you need to learn more about, and research each point.
It can help to keep your textbook or weekly readings handy while you revise your study notes so that you can look things up for clarification. If your lectures are recorded, you can also revise your notes while listening to the lecture again in case you missed anything, or simply to consolidate your learning using both the text and the audio/visuals.
How and when you revise your study notes can be flexible, but the most important thing is to do it frequently. Revising your notes frequently will help shift the information from your short term memory into your long term memory. Short daily revision is essential for organising your notes, and then revising at regular intervals after that will help you retain the information.
- Within 24 hours of writing your notes summarise and clarify the content you learned in that class/study session. If there are any points you do not understand, ask your lecturer or tutor.
- At the end of each week revise what you have learned throughout the week. Draw connections to previous weeks and across units, and begin researching knowledge gaps.
At regular intervals in your learning revise your notes to keep the information fresh in your mind and build a cohesive understanding of how the topics relate to each other. For example, after each theme or module, revise your notes from each class to consolidate your understanding of that topic; and at the end of each semester, revise content from all previous semesters to understand how different aspects of your field fit into the bigger picture of your profession.
Revision does not have to be time consuming. You can revise your study notes in shorter revision sessions by using the summary section of your notes to gain a quick overview of the class material. Comparing all of the summaries is also an efficient exam study strategy, as it can give you an overview of your learning throughout the semester, and help you identify which materials to revisit for further information.
A further strategy leading on from this is to take content from your notes and turn it into flashcards, or an index book, for easy on-the-go revision. But remember to keep your approach active. Even when you are dealing with short chunks of content, always ask yourself questions and think through how you would apply your knowledge in an exam or professional context.
Making and using effective study notes helps you get more out of your time, makes revision easier, and makes it easier to access and apply knowledge for your assessed tasks and professional practice.
For notes to be useful as a study strategy, you need an active approach, and you need to make and use them frequently throughout your degree.
The key features of effective study notes are:
- Your notes are concise
You do not need to write everything down. Aim to concisely record the key points covered in the class. Using headings and dot-points can help make your notes easy to read again later.
- You have included your own thoughts and evaluation
Expand key points by adding your own understanding and interpretation and evaluation of the content, and define terms and concepts in your own words.
- You have noted questions and answers
You can compile questions before class as part of your preparation, as well as during class as they occur to you while listening to the content. You may like to note them alongside the relevant content, or have a separate section for questions. If you can’t find the answer, contact your lecturer or tutor, or use your unit forums to ask. Make sure you note down the answer.
- You have drawn connections
Make note wherever you can regarding how the content relates to weekly reading(s), content from other classes, and other units.
- Your notes have a summary
Include a summary section at the end of the notes to recap the main points learned, and highlight the most important information. It is good to write this directly after the class if possible, but that is not always practical. Aim to write it within 24 hours of the class at the latest.