I’m often asked by struggling students how to study for tests. I ask how they study, and they always say that they “read over their notes”.
Reading over your notes is not enough.
I have developed a system that works well for most lecture-based classes that I will share with you today. I’ve used it for classes ranging from economics, to history, to biology, so it really can work in most disciplines. I think the only subject that this method doesn’t work well for is math and math-based subjects (like physics) because those require more practice than studying.
So, here’s a step-by-step system to create good notes and then study them.
I set up my written and digital notes to be a form of Cornell note taking. I prefer to have the margin on the right-hand side (it doesn’t really matter) and the main notes on the left. In class, I fill out the notes on the main side.
For some subjects, I will number pages. This is useful when you’re given a unit overview sheet with questions or terms, so you can cite where in your notes you go over the information. I do this particularly with economics so I can easily go back to terms I don’t understand in my notes. I really use the unit overview as an extension of my notes by making the connections between them.
For other classes, I do a cover sheet style in addition to the notes above. This has been instilled in me by my social studies teachers throughout high school. I use this for Government class because we are supposed to, but it is a good way of distilling information and visualizing it for classes with a lot of information, such as a politics or history class.
To take hand-written notes, I use a Pilot G-2 .05 black pen exclusively. I’ve tried switching between pens throughout note-taking but I find that I’d rather spend that time in class thinking through the information and writing it down. I save all the beautifying techniques for review.
To take typed notes, I use Microsoft OneNote. I like the way it runs and how it organizes notes the best of the programs I have and that are free. I think OneNote is very underutilized. The only thing I don’t like about it is that it’s harder to print the notes correctly, and I’ve found the best way to do it is to export it to a PDF.
In class, I try my best to not copy the notes verbatim. In slideshows, I read the information first, and only start writing once I’ve read the slide. There is some multi-tasking involved as you have to listen to the teacher while doing this, but it gets easier over time. In outlines, I’ll type them up ahead of time to be able to listen better to what the teacher is saying.
While taking notes, I save some time by using various short-hand. Here are some examples:
|CON||Connection (to another class, previous knowledge, etc.)|
|RE||Remember/recall (from previous lecture or class)|
|>, <||Greater than or less than –> cause and effect|
|***||Will be on test (teacher says it’s important)|
|f(x)||Function (you’d be surprised how much I use this)|
|AKA||Also known as|
How to Review Notes
So, I have a schedule where I attempt to review lecture notes each day of lecture. So, each day I usually have written in my planner to review Government notes, Biology notes, and Economics notes. This is the most effective way I’ve found to study the notes. Looking over them daily for just five to ten minutes solidifies the information in my brain.
Each time I look over my notes, I start from the beginning of the unit and just skim everything I’ve written so far. Once I get to the part where new notes began that day, I start working with the notes by doing the following:
- Fill in margin notes with pictures, connections, questions, etc. I also write all the terms in the margin next to where it appears. This serves as an outline for me to look through the notes, so I can quickly find what I’m looking for during review and assignments.
- Highlight different types of content in the notes. I use the following color-coding system:
Red = Questions
Yellow = Examples and Connections
Green = Terms
Blue = Topics and subtopics that aren’t really terms
Purple = People
Pink = Numbers and Statistics + Dates to Know
- Fill out any cover pages.
- Look at unit overview and cite where in the notes that term/question answer appears. If you’re required to answer them later, this will make it much easier. Or, you can go beyond and actually answer them and define terms and put them in a Quizlet. Whether you need to go that extra mile depends on how difficult the class is for you.
Creating a Schedule
Like I said, I try to review those three subjects each day because most days are lecture and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But, that doesn’t always happen and this review is lower on the priority list than things that are due.
If you can go through all your notes once or twice a week in a manner similar to this, you will be well-off. Using some of that AP Biology, the repetition of seeing the information you wrote previously, then adding on the new information will create synapses that will last longer.
So, by the time you repeat this sequence, you’ll have went over all the information 10+ times. And you didn’t have to study for hours. It’s great.
From there, you know most of the information and then you can go on to work with practice tests and deeper understanding.
This kind of repetitive style of studying is bullet-proof as long as you take good notes in class. My thinking is that you have to sit there anyway, might as well pay attention.
I hope this helped you with your studying inquiries. Try it out and let me know how it works for you!