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  • Writer's pictureIan Gibbs

Exam Tip #11: Perfect Notes

After I graduated, I burnt all my notes.

Honestly. Four years’ worth of studying, up in smoke in less than thirty minutes.

But even though their ashes are now feeding the flowers in my father’s garden, I still remember what they were like: word for word copies of what my lecturers wrote on the board with the occasional anarchic illustration added in the margin for comic relief.

When I was a student, nobody told me about how to make effective notes for revising and passing exams.

As is sadly too often, that information came when it was too late. But it doesn’t have to be the same for you.

If you already have a system for note-taking that works, great. m

Use it.

But if, like me in my student days, you don’t, you might like to consider a version of the Cornell Method.

The beauty of the Cornell Method is you get to kill two birds with one stone: you get to take notes AND prepare for your exam at the same time.

The structure is as follows: you divide your page into four areas: a thin (one or two lines) title area at the top, a slightly larger (three or four lines) summary area at the bottom, and a body area in the middle.

This area you divide into two columns: a wider one occupying about three-quarters of the space and the other narrower one occupying the rest.

For some reason, most references suggest having the narrower one on the right. I prefer it on the left. It’s your choice but it’s this narrow column that makes this method work.

While the wide column is for the bulk of your notes, the narrow one is for helpful and important comments, questions and prompts.

The idea is that, after your class, you should be able to cover up the wider column (the one with most of your notes) and be able to use what you’ve written in the narrow one to revise.

The notes you write in the main column are the regular notes— the stuff your teacher/lecturer/textbook present to you.

The notes that go in the other one are little messages to your future self. Stuff like ‘This is important’, ‘Learn this definition’, or ‘Guaranteed to be on exam paper’.

There are some very good reasons why you might want to adopt this method.

Firstly, it makes revision easier because you’ve already done some of the work. You’ve identified the key points you need to learn.

Secondly, it makes you think actively when taking notes. You have to evaluate the notes as you write them down instead of just mindlessly copying like I did. This is a great way to learn.

Thirdly, as you’re immediately making the comments in the narrow column, you don’t have to rely on your memory to evaluate your notes when you finally get around to reading them two months later. It’s all fresh information fixed onto the page.

Leaving your future-self useful comments that are clearly set out and easy to find is a good habit to develop.

When it’s revision time, you will be able to instantly find the important stuff without having to struggle to remember the key concepts that you need to revise.

Look back at the notes you’ve made so far during your course. Would it be easy for someone else to look at them and easily understand the key points of each class?

If your notes are just a mishmash of writing without any clear emphasis on anything, revising from them is going to be much harder than if you’d taken the opportunity to write down a few helpful pointers and comments at the time.

If it’s not too late, making revision-friendly notes will save you time, help you learn and avoid that frustration of going over old notes unable to remember what the point was.

Tip 11: Take notes in a format that will help revision, not hinder it.

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