Effective note taking is a stepping-stone to getting good grades. Good notes help you plan and write better essays and form the initial material for exam revision.
This blog post explains 13 common note taking mistakes successful students DON’T make. If you see that you make some of these mistakes – don’t worry! This post will also explain HOW successful students take notes so you can find some tips to implement into your studies today.
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1) They don’t think its ok to take no notes!
Successful students understand the importance of note taking. Being able to summarise what you’re reading is a skill that proves your understanding. A good understanding of the material is vital to achieve high grades in assignments and exams. Starting revision with a good set of notes is like starting a marathon from the half way mark.
There’s a wide range of note-taking methods: from simple to time-consuming. Successful students make sure they’re on this scale somewhere as they know they must take some notes.
2) They don’t go on a highlighter frenzy and turn their textbooks into rainbows
This does not mean that successful students simply highlight their books or underline what they think is important. Just highlighting the text is a MINDLESS activity. Successful students understand note taking must be MINDFUL. Highlighters and underlining can be a starting point to great notes but they make sure they also pick out the points they think are key.
3) They don’t simply copy word-for-word from their books
They don’t just copy their textbooks verbatim as this wastes time that could be spent summarising material and testing their understanding. Successful students know they must write notes in their own words where possible. They write quotes word-for-word, but condense the majority of their material into words they understand. Writing notes in your own words can be difficult initially but it’s a skill you must develop. Summarising the material increases your understanding allowing you to recall information in your exams rather than just recognising terms if you see them.
4) They don’t skip sections of the text they don’t understand
It’s completely normal to not understand a concept the first time you come across it. Successful students don’t skip everything they don’t immediately understand as this could be important for a future essay or exam. They might go back a few paragraphs and try again. They look online for a simpler explanation or an example. They ask their tutor/lecturer in person or by sending an email. They ask someone else on their course. Successful students aren’t afraid to look for and ask for help.
5) They don’t take notes in the same way for every module
Not all habits are valuable. Successful students try different note taking methods for two reasons. Firstly, there may be a more effective method they’re not using that could save them time or improve their understanding. Also, different modules/courses may suit different note taking methods.
A course ending in an exam may require comprehensive notes, mindmaps and flashcards. A course with mainly essays may require skim reading but focused notes on the relevant sections. Modules that require critical thinking and reflection may need a structured method. Successful students try out different methods and aren’t afraid to switch between them regularly.
6) They don’t value perfectionism over effective notes
They would prefer to have effective notes than pretty but kinda useless ones. Successful students want their notes to be clear and look good but they don’t favour this over notes that will help them get high grades.
Have you ever made a mistake in your notes and rewritten the page rather than have to look at the scribbled out section?
Have you ever wasted time adding pretty banners and doodles to your notes?
It’s normal to want your notes to look nice and adding colours and diagrams can be really effective. But successful students choose understanding over pointless perfectionism.
7) They don’t just summarise the text
In many courses students are expected to think for themselves, link between ideas and critique what they are reading. Successful students know the high grades sometimes rely on being able to draw conclusions and evaluate ideas.
They develop this ability by adding their own thoughts to their notes as they go along. They may add them to the end of a section, write them in another colour throughout, or note them in the margins. They make sure they add:
- Strengths and weaknesses
- Examples or case studies
- Reflections and what they've learned
- Links to other material
- Links to their previous knowledge
- Any contrasting theories or models.
8) They don’t spend time on notes then never use them again
They don’t take the time to write notes and then file them away or lose track of them. Successful students understand the value of effective notes for essay writing and revision. They invest time upfront to take great notes then continue using them throughout their course. They revise from them and use them to create summaries, mindmaps and flashcards. They also scan through them when planning essays to find relevant material.
9) They don’t just take notes without thinking about their end use
Successful students use the note taking method that will help them get great essay and exam grades. They think about each module’s format so they can get the most value from their notes. Modules with key themes could benefit from using mindmaps to show links between material. Courses with lots of facts to remember (e.g. humanities or business) could benefit from using the outlining method of hierarchies of bullet points.
Successful students work out which sections are the most relevant for an essay so they can focus their notes here. They take notes that are good enough to revise from so revision is more effective and doesn’t take as long.
10) They don’t only read the course material
They know there is value in reading outside the required text. They may find a concept confusing so they look online or in other books for a simpler explanation. Successful students may come across a concept that is covered without much detail. If it could be useful for an essay then they go and find the original reference to try to understand it better. If a concept interests them then successful students find other resources to learn more e.g. documentaries, articles, books, podcasts…etc.
11) They don’t forget to include references in their notes
They know that writing their assignment bibliography/reference list will be much easier if they’ve already noted the authors. Successful students make direct quotes clear in their notes and always include the author so they can find the full reference (and don’t accidentally plagiarise). In some courses, examiners may take off marks for concepts given without the correct author. Successful students link concepts to their reference throughout the module to cement them in their brains.
12) They don’t forget to file their notes effectively
Successful students know the importance of having clear notes that are easy to find. Without an effective filing system notes may get lost and then can’t be used to help with essay writing or revision.
How successful students file HANDWRITTEN notes
- They mark all notes with page numbers, module/course title and unit or block numbers. If their notes get mixed up they can identify them
- They buy folders depending on the expected amount of material. They could use one folder per module or one folder for multiple modules separated by dividers
- They divide the folder so they can store each document type. Notes could go in one section, marked assignments in another, revision notes in another.
How successful students file TYPED notes
- Again, they mark them correctly with page numbers and titles
- They file them electronically in an identifiable way. A folder structure could look like this: University > Course 1 > Block 1> Notes
- They may print these notes too and file in a physical folder like handwritten notes.
Successful students aren’t afraid to mix up their note taking format. Using a physical folder allows them to keep typed and handwritten notes in the same place.
13) They don’t forget to prepare for their lectures
Successful students understand the importance of engaging during lectures. This isn’t possible if the prep or reading hasn’t been accomplished before. They may not always have time to take detailed notes but they make sure they at least skim read the material and pick out any confusing points or questions they have.
Reasons successful students do the prep/reading BEFORE their lectures:
- They might miss important discussion or points if they spend the whole lecture taking notes
- They can ask intelligent questions rather than questions the material already answers
- They'll deepen their understanding by digesting material they've already seen
- They're free to engage more with the tutor and their fellow students.
Comment below and tell me your favourite note taking method.
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