~ Start with good notes

You can’t build a good house if you don’t have good foundations, and good study notes are the foundation of all revision. Here are a few things that good study notes aren’t:

  • photocopied pages of the textbook, with appropriate passages highlighted
  • anything you’ve downloaded from the internet
  • selected pages of your exercise book that you think might be useful
  • a revision book that you’ve bought
  • a couple of scrawled pages that you can’t really read
  • anything based on a curriculum and exams other than the specific one that you’re studying for
  • artistically beautiful, at least not as a priority

You can’t build a good house if you don’t have good foundations.
As you might have guessed from the above, producing good revision notes is hard work. They can be so valuable that one Irish Leaving Cert student sold his for nearly €3,000, after initially asking only €40 per subject.

But chances are that those notes weren’t nearly as useful for the person who bought them as they were for the student who wrote them, because good revision notes are usually quite personal. Different people learn in different ways; one person might favour long lists of dates and facts, while another would prefer mind-maps, while a third works best with cartoons. The style of your notes isn’t the important thing; it’s that they are thorough, comprehensive, and tailored both to your exam and to you. It may be that you never read through your notes from end to end more than once or twice. That’s fine; it’s the process of creating them and working with them selectively that is valuable for you to learn from.

~ Have a summary of your notes

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One key reason why you may not read through all of your notes from beginning to end more than a couple of times is because you should also create summaries.

A good set of notes for an A-level subject may run to tens of pages. A summary of your notes will only be a page or two, covering the things that are most important for you to know.

Take some time out to streamline your existing notes.
Your summary might look completely different to that created by a friend studying the same subject, because it will focus on what you think is most important and what you need to spend the most time revising – i.e. the things you think you are most likely to forget. It might also look different because the summary should also be tailored to how you absorb information best. Is it with lots of different colours and images? Is it a dull page of black-and-white text? Is it through some other medium, such as pictures? You could record your summaries as .mp3 files and play them back to yourself if it works for you.

The idea of a summary is that you have created something that is much more portable and digestible than your overall notes. Someone else could look at it, pick out a sentence, and ask you to explain it – and then you would draw on information contained within your longer notes. By the time your revision is well under way, you shouldn’t need to refer to the main notes nearly as much as you refer to the summaries. The summary is also what you can take with you just before your exam – the bus to school, for instance – and read through it, instead of trying to pick out what’s most important in an enormous file of notes that you mostly know back to front.

~ Notes are only worthwhile if you’ve created them yourself and digested them properly.

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By now it should be clear: you don’t create notes and then use them for revision.

The process of creating your notes – and from them, your summaries – is the first step for effective revision. That’s why trying to make things easier for yourself by using store-bought revision notes, photocopying from your friends or downloading notes from the internet is counter-productive. You might want to use these things in the process of creating your own notes, for instance to make sure that you haven’t missed out anything important, but they aren’t a substitute.

Even if you borrow someone’s notes, be sure to make them your own. This is also the difference between highlighting notes on a page, as compared to copying them out by hand or paraphrasing them for yourself. Highlighting a point requires very little brainpower, and is unlikely to help you remember it. Paraphrasing it, with a brief explanation as to why it’s important, requires a lot more engagement and therefore makes you more likely to remember the point at that crucial moment in the exam. Furthermore, if there are points or ideas that you’ve so far regurgitated, and not necessarily fully understood, paraphrasing and thinking them through can help you work out the areas where you need to spend more time in actually understanding what you’re learning. Highlighting, or copying and pasting, won’t help you do this in the same way.

Many students fall into the trap of thinking that they are writing revision notes as if they are creating their own textbook. That’s not the case; your work isn’t going to be published, so it doesn’t matter if you miss out a few things that you think are intuitive, or phrase things in a way that might not make sense to anyone but you. You’re making these for yourself to learn through the process of creating them, and then to refer to further on in the revision process.

~ Don’t always test yourself in the same way

While it makes sense to write your notes and summaries in whatever way suits you, it doesn’t make sense to test yourself on your notes in the same way. After all, the exam is not going to be written in precisely the way that suits you, and there may be some unexpected surprises compared to previous years as well.

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Even the family pooch can come in handy – try reading out your notes to a patient audience!

Think of the example of a vocabulary list when you’re learning a foreign language. You might instinctively go through all the words in the same order each time – but the danger of doing this is that you don’t learn what the words mean, you just learn the order. Instead of knowing in the exam what the vocabulary means, you’ll end up having to go through the order of the list to figure it out, which could cost you valuable time. Similarly, if you always start at the beginning of your notes and work through to the end, it’s likely you’ll end up much better versed in the start of your notes than the end, which you might only have covered when you’re tired, or not got around to covering at all.

This is one reason why it’s useful to be tested by friends and family, and ideally not just by one person. Different people will approach quizzing you in different ways, which can be very helpful in making sure that you’re looking at the subject you’re studying from all appropriate perspectives. This is where your summaries come in handy: you can give these to friends and family and ask them to quiz you about the content, and why you’ve included it. They don’t need to know anything about the subject or what the most important points are in order to do this, as you’ll already have worked out your priorities in creating the summary.

~ Make sure you revise the why as well as just the how

Revising facts can be dull, but it’s also relatively easy. Rote memorisation – whether it’s of quotations, formulae, species names or anything else – is something that most people can do without trying too hard, and it’s also something that’s easy for other people to test you on. They might just need to ask something like, “what is the formula for this?” or “which quotation expresses this idea?”, which is the kind of question that friends and family members who don’t know your subject are likely to default to.

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Languages are about more than reciting verb tables, and history is about more than a list of dates.

If that’s all you’re going to be expected to do in the exam, then this is all well and good. But for most exams, you’ll be expected to do rather more; you’ll be expected to demonstrate not only memorisation and repetition, but also understanding and analysis. For some people, that part is straightforward when they have the facts to hand, but it isn’t that way for most of us. It’s best to ensure that you revise not only the facts, but also the reasons why those facts are useful to you.

For instance, if you were revising for a History exam, you might memorise the dates of the reigns of kings and queens and the major battles during that time period – but all of that will be useless if you can’t explain what the consequences were of those particular people ruling, and winning or losing those battles. You’re likely to be expected to use your own judgement to assess the relative importance of different factors, and to use the facts that you have memorised to justify your opinion. Having a timeline memorised is undoubtedly useful for this, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all. Picking a date and a fact and asking yourself why it matters can be one way of encouraging yourself to revise more than just the raw material of what happened when.

~ Make full use of resources, e.g. past papers

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Try cross-referencing your notes with what you find online.

In this article, I've spoken a lot of the importance of creating and using your own notes. While our own thoughts, words and ideas should be your priority, rather than repeating the thoughts of others, that’s not to say that other resources can’t be useful. The obvious example is past papers, which should be a central component of your revision strategy, even if the exam structure has changed since the most recent past paper. Past papers help you get a feel for the exam and the time you will have available to answer each question; there’s no point in being able to give a flawless answer if it takes you three times as long as you’ll actually have in the exam. They help you pick up on areas that you might have neglected, or ones that you might be approaching from a different angle. Once you’ve created your notes, you could spend half your study time or more on past papers to good effect.

But there are other resources that could also be valuable. For example, while you should never rely on online notes, it can be helpful to compare them to your own and see what other people have thought was worth focusing on. Seeing if you can figure out why they’ve prioritised some things and dismissed others is a good way to get into some deeper analysis of your subject matter. For top marks, see if you can spot any inaccuracies in their work!

check out my other posts on tips to stay focused in class, things you need in your locker, revision tips you OUGHT to ignore and changes you should make in your new school year