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Effective note taking
for GCSE students and above

Making effective notes is a powerful tool in learning. Effective notes are notes that stimulate thoughts and ideas, and trigger memories with the minimum of writing. Most of us find this incredibly difficult, and constantly have to refine both our ideas (and notes) as a result.

As with all human endeavour, the most important piece of equipment at your disposal is your brain, so use it. Good notes begin by being alert, both physically and mentally. Concentrate on what's being said, and avoid talking to others, day dreaming or any other distractions. If necessary (and if possible), move to another part of the work area, or try and have the distractions reduced (i.e. talk to the teacher).

Try to think about what you're going to write. It's often said that in a lecture at university that notes pass from the lecturer's set to the student's set without passing through the head of either. Avoid this - instead, try to think about why you're being given the information, and how that information relates to the whole topic, and label different aspects accordingly. For example, typical components of learning a topic may be:

In this way, the structure of your notes can act to give you a more well rounded viewpoint.

Notes are useless if you can't understand them after they have been written. Like all things, notes need to evolve. Leave space in your notes to enable supplementary information to be added at a later time. Emphasize important points, either by surrounding them with blank space, so the eye is drawn to them, writing them in different colours, or by using highlighting pens - whichever you think is more appropriate. However, do exercise care with highlighters, or else all your notes appear important and so lose their effectiveness. As a compromise, consider using different colours - I'd recommend no more than 3 - to give different degrees of importance.

When making notes, always use notebooks or paper of consistent size, and file them systematically in a folder - scraps of paper are easily lost. A frequently asked question is, "How should I arrange my notes?". The most frequent answer is "Any way you like". Whilst this is true, it's less than helpful. As a start;

You could consider heading each new set of notes for a lesson by:

You could consider heading notes from a book by:

Learn to use abbreviations, such as mathematical symbols. That way, you can spend less time writing and more time listening, reading and thinking. Some standard abbreviations are given in the table below:

thereforeD Therefore
leads toD Leads to
less thanD Less than
greater thanD Greater than
is equal toD Is equal to

Review your notes from time to time, and start to see the relationships between the material from different topics (and even different subjects).