Making Notes

It can be very satisfying to write out a set of notes for a topic or subject. It takes many hours and you usually have many pages of writing to show for the effort you have put in. You may even have even used lots of lovely colours, pretty flashcards and other fancy stationery. But you will probably not have been very productive.

One reason many students write notes is because it’s easy, comfortable work. Writing notes can take a long time but that doesn’t mean it is much of a challenge. This is nicely demonstrated by the common case of the student who simply rewrites the entire syllabus in their own (usually inferior) words.

Writing and reading notes like this is a waste of time. It is a very passive form of preparation. You will not learn quickly. In the time it takes you to copy out the syllabus, you could have accomplished much more.

Concise Notes

You can turn note-making into a form of active preparation by making concise notes. Short and sharp.

Concise notes require more thought to produce. This is a good thing, since it’s very hard to write concise notes without a high level of engagement.

The result is that you will learn more quickly and end up with a resource that you can study much more easily. Remember: notes are merely a supplement. Their purpose is not to contain all information.

Writing concise notes also equips you with a greater ability to produce concise answers. Concise answers are always better.

This brings us to another idea: you should write notes in a way that resembles how you will write your answers in an exam. This is why model answers from past papers and versatile units are such a good study material. If your exam is handwritten, your notes should be handwritten.

Ultra-Concise Notes

For each topic or unit of study, write a separate set of ultra-concise notes. These should ideally be one page long, and contain only the most critical information. I wrote only ultra-concise notes for most of the exams I’ve taken. Read through your ultra-concise notes just before an exam and you will refresh your memory for the entire topic.

Ultra-concise notes also allow you to perform a very effective study technique. This is how I rapidly learned important information when preparing for exams.

I would read through my notes once, then try to write them out entirely from memory. Do this several times throughout the study period and by the end you will know the critical information extremely well. This is a much more efficient way to learn than simply reading your notes.

Practical Steps for Writing Concise Notes

If you're struggling to make your notes more concise, try the following exercise:

  1. Take a set of your existing notes, or write out a new set in your usual style.
  2. Now you're going to split them in half. Label each piece of information 1 or 2, depending on how important you think it is. 1 means more important. 2 means less important. There should be an equal number of 1s and 2s.
  3. Get rid of everything labelled 2. You've now made your notes 50% more concise and kept the most important information.
  4. Repeat as many times as necessary. Try until you get to just one page of notes for an entire topic or subject.

This procedure guarantees more concise notes, but it isn't how you should write all of your notes. It's simply a way to build a habit of recognising that some information is more important than other information. It forces you to prioritise your exam material and pick out only the critical parts.

By developing this skill for prioritising information, you will also obtain much greater clarity over your subject. Eventually, your default approach will be to make concise notes. Any other kind of notes will feel wrong.