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Why You Should Take Notes When You Study

If you’re studying for an exam, you probably know that you should be taking notes. It’s something that everyone does, right? Your teacher asks you to do it in class. You’ve heard that it’s good for your revision, too. So, you do it because it’s what you’re supposed to do. But why is it so important?

I’d argue that having a good set of notes to rely on is one of the best ways to make sure you do well in your exams. It doesn’t matter if you’re preparing for your GCSEs, A-levels or exams at uni! They are going to help you to make sure you’re learning everything you need.

It was my history teachers who taught me how to write down everything I need. They forced me to think about what info I needed and what I didn’t. In particular, I had a history tutor who made me practice summing up textbook passages for hours. It has made me a much better student than I would have been.

I can’t thank them enough for what they did! It prepared me for uni and life. Now, let me do the same thing for you. Keep reading to find out what makes note-taking such a valuable skill.

Hopefully, I can convince you to take notes, too. Then, you can head on over to my other blog post so you know how you can be successful with your note-taking.

You’ll Usually Understand Your Own Notes Better Than Someone Else’s Writing

We all have our own writing style that works for us personally. You’ll have phrases and words that work better for you. Seeing a concept in your own words is a huge help when it comes to understanding it. After all, your friend or teacher’s way of explaining things might not necessarily work for you!

And that’s without even thinking about pretentious academics and their writing style! They pack their sentences with overcomplicated vocabulary, so it takes ages for non-experts to understand. They combine this with complex and compound sentences and awkward grammatical structures that make their work so hard to follow.

Trust me: I know what it’s like to feel lost when reading an academic article. I’ve been trying to find a clear definition of the term “discourse event” for a book I’m writing now. The explanations are either too vague and simple to ask the questions I have, or I need a definition for the definition!

With time and practice, you’re more than capable of working out what these academics are saying. However, it will take quite a bit of your working memory to get there! As I said in a previous blog post, your working memory is quite limited and gets overwhelmed easily.

So, you don’t want to have to figure out a text more than once – especially if you have to do it during revision! It would be a nightmare for your working memory that will stop you from working as effectively as you’d like. Please only put yourself through the stress of reading a complex article once.

That’s where notes can really come in handy. You only need to struggle through the complex text once. Then, if you need to remind yourself of the concept, you can look at your own notes instead!

Not All the Info in a Text Will Be Valuable

It’s rare that you’ll need every single piece of info in a text.

When it comes to academic articles, it’s easy for you to understand why this might be the case. They’re not writing for your specific exam or essay question, so they’re going to talk about stuff you don’t really need. Even if it’s all relevant, it’s likely that they’ll give you way more info than you need. Or, the examples they use might not speak to you personally. That’s fine!

Even when it comes to a textbook for the right subject and exam board, you shouldn’t be trying to learn all the info in one sitting. Your working memory will quickly get overloaded, and you won’t be able to learn any more information. If you try, it will end up bouncing right out of your head again!

So when you’re studying, it’s useful to give yourself a purpose or question you need to answer. Open your textbook and see if you can find the answer to a question such as “What is a metaphor?” You won’t need all the text on the page to help you with that! You can be selective and chunk the information you’re getting. That’s going to help you learn quicker and more efficiently.

Taking notes allows you to be selective with which information you’re going to learn. You can write down the stuff that is useful to your learning goal at the moment and filter out anything that won’t help you right now! That’s going to mean your notes are much more focused if you need to go back to them.

You can always come back to the same text with a different question later on.


Writing Notes in Your Own Words Proves You Understand the Content

You’ve probably heard this before, but the best way to prove that you understand a concept is to explain it to someone else.

There’s a difference between recognising something and truly understanding it. You can usually get by with basic questions like “What is a metaphor” if you recognise the idea of metaphors in a vague sense. However, when it comes to making your own or trying to explain their effect, you’ve got to understand it!

The same is true of anything, really. The cracks in your knowledge start to show if you can’t explain a concept or film to someone else. It might mean you’ve forgotten more than you thought, or you only understood things on a superficial level.

So, explaining your knowledge to someone else is an important part of the learning process. That’s partly why teachers pick up things quite quickly compared to students (although schema also plays a big part in that). We have to know a concept well enough to explain it. Once we do, we keep teaching it to students over and over again, meaning it gets more secure in our long-term memories.

In the absence of a person to explain things to, your notes are your next best option. If you write in your own words, you’re basically explaining a concept to your future self. You have to fully understand it to write it out in a different way, after all!

And I don’t mean just changing a few words around, either. I mean that you have to read the whole piece of information – examples and all – before you try to write it your own way.

If you don’t understand the concept, you’ll quickly find out if you can’t write notes on it.

You Can Tailor the Information to Your Exam

Some textbooks are made with your exam in mind. They give you all the info in a way that helps you to use it on the big day. However, it’s not always going to be that easy.

If you only use resources that are specifically tailored to your exam, you’re limiting the amount of info you have access to. You won’t be able to crack open a book that explains a concept better if it is for Edexcel and you’re doing an exam for AQA. There might be times when you’re doing an obscure exam board that doesn’t have a lot of resources out there for your subject! What are you going to do then?

And that’s without even thinking about branching out to other, non-exam resources. There’s so much value to reading books written by academics in your field. YouTube videos are awesome for helping you to learn new information. Then there are museum visits, lectures, documentaries, and so much more.

In the real world, you won’t always get information that’s perfectly tailored and laid out for the task you need to carry out. It will be made for another task or just out there as general information. One big part of true intelligence is the ability to make connections between pieces of information that might not be too obvious at first glance. It’s about being able to say, “This will help me”, even if it’s not specifically designed to do so.

Taking notes can help you with this. You can extract the information you need from the resource. Then, you tailor it to match your task or exam for yourself. That opens up a whole world of new resources to you and allows you to practice your intelligence.

Early Note-Taking Helps With Revision

When you get to study leave or revision period, things will be stressful. You’re going to want to have all your notes in an easy-to-read format before then.

I talk a lot about working memory and how it gets overloaded. That’s because it’s true! As I’ve said many times before, our long-term memory is so big that we don’t know its limit. No one has run out of storage in their brains in recorded history. However, your working memory – like the RAM in a computer – is tiny!

Everything that you do that takes brain effort will take up some of your working memory. Reading complex articles and trying to sort the important information from what’s less useful takes up a whole lot of space in your working memory. So, note-taking consumes a lot of your time and brain power.

If you start early when you’re not preparing for an exam, you can lessen the load on your working memory during your revision period.

When you have all the time in the world, you can record all the knowledge you need in a way that’s friendly to you and easy to read. Then, during your revision period, you can go back to that instead of other, more complex resources. It’s going to cut down the stress and mental load of revising by so much!

I also recommend using a colour code with a key that you stick to. You might want to choose a different colour for the following info:

  • Important subject terminology
  • Definitions
  • Examples
  • Key facts
  • Practice answers

You might have your own things to colour code, too! The important thing is to stick to the same colour each time. That way, you can quickly scan your notes to find what you’re looking for.


You Can’t Take Good Notes if You’re Not Paying Attention

It’s very easy to idly stare at some words on a page. You’re not actually taking anything in. You just look like you’re working. It makes you feel like you spent a few hours actually studying, even if you got as much done as you would have if you just stared into space.

The same is true of any kind of resource, really. If you aren’t doing something with it, it’s easy for you to dedicate about half of your attention to studying or to shut off completely. You’re not challenging yourself or stimulating your mind. So, it can actually be quite difficult to stay focused.

I just need to say, though: it’s not your fault. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling with this. It’s completely normal and human. Getting upset or feeling like a failure is going to make it even harder for you to study. So, it’s much more important for you to recognise that this is how you’re feeling and find ways to fix it.

One of the ways to make sure you’re fully engaged and paying attention is to take notes. Your mind is much less likely to wander if you have a task to do – if you actually need to use the info you’re learning right now. Note-taking is one way to do that.

When you’re taking notes, you actually have to think through what you’re learning about at that moment. You’ve got to sort the useful information from what doesn’t work for you. It might also bring up some questions about the material that you wouldn’t have thought of if you were just passively consuming the resource.

Another way to get the same effect is to answer questions while you’re studying. That’s where online courses and Kahoot can come in handy.

Note-Taking Helps to Stop Accidental Plagiarism

When you’re writing an essay, it can be easy to accidentally copy the exact wording that your sources use. Again, this is a normal and human thing to do. We tend to regurgitate the last piece of information we read, heard or saw!

However, as human and normal as it might be, it does count as plagiarism if you don’t quote and cite the source. Even if you do that, it’s still plagiarism if other people’s words take up more space in your essay than your own.

That’s why I don’t recommend writing an essay while you’re learning info from your sources. It makes you way more likely to plagiarise. However, it’s also super hard to write an essay if you don’t have the info you need in front of you (or in a secure place in your long-term memory).

This is yet another time when notes can be very valuable.

While you are reading a source, you can do it with the essay question in mind. Put it at the top of your page! This will help you to focus your reading and access the most useful knowlesge. Do this over and over again for each source you want to use. Then, write your essay with only your notes in front of you!

Of course, this will only work if you write the notes in your own words. Just copying out the text on the page in front of you is just going to waste time. You’ll still plagiarise just as much!

Also, it’s really obvious to tell when a student has plagiarised because their writing style is completely different from the text they stole from. Just put things down in your own words first. That will cut down your accidental plagiarism and save you from some serious consequences.

You Can Record Your Questions in Your Notes to Answer Later

I’m quite a forgetful person at the best of times. It’s hard for me to remember all of the interesting and important questions I had in my head when accessing a source. If I don’t write them down, they’re gone forever. That makes me feel frustrated and sad. I remember having a great question I wanted to ask a professor. I just can’t remember what it was! And I know it would have helped me understand things!

Coming up with useful questions about the sources you read is a great way to boost your intelligence. You have to understand a topic pretty well to ask detailed questions! Getting answers to your questions will help you to get the top grades in that subject.

You don’t want to stop reading the resource every 5 minutes to answer your questions, though. That will break up your train of thought and make it harder for you to get what’s going on. Only do that if you really can’t understand the rest of the source without answering the question.

OneNote is a great app for recording the questions you come up with. I love it! It comes with some tags right out of the box that you can use to sort your notes. The “question”, “definition” and “idea” tags are my faves. When I look back over my notes, I know exactly where to go for different kinds of info!

You can also create your own tags. I made one called “extra reading” for when the resource gives me a recommendation.

Of course, if you want this to work for you, you need to look back over your notes and get answers to the questions.


You Can Come Up With Your Own Examples and Make Connections

Lots of resources give you examples of the concept they’re trying to explain. Right now, I’m writing a book to help A-level students get an A*. It has lots of examples of the concepts I introduce them to. These examples aren’t just taken from English, either! They’re from things that the students might actually know or experience in their day-to-day lives.

An example of when the implied reader is different to the actual reader in a text. It reads: One of the most common examples of a mismatch between the implied and actual reader is the My Little Pony TV show. The implied reader is clearly a child, and children do watch it. However, this isn’t the audience that it’s most attributed to. I don’t think I need to say any more than that.
This example from my book helps students to understand the difference between an implied and actual reader in a funny way. It also helps them to see how they can use English to understand their daily lives!

Lots of resources will try to do that. A science text might use balloons at a party to explain static electricity. Or, it might answer the question, “why does microwave food only heat up in the corners?” Writers do this to grip you and help you understand the knowledge better.

They are doing something called “activating your schema” (see my blog post on why you struggle to remember revision for more on that). Basically, if you tie new information to something you already know or experience, you’re much more likely to remember it!

However, not every example is going to work for you. The text might be a bit old or targeted at a different audience. Often, it’s best to think of your own examples.

When you have that “Oh! It’s like this” moment, you need to take advantage of that. Write down your own connections to other subjects and your real life. Tie it to things you already know and understand. That will help you to access the knowledge in your notes way easier.

So, pick up note-taking today. It will help you to study well and boost your grades!

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