How to take notes in class that will actually help you learn and remember the details

By YP Junior Reporter Henry Lui
  • If you’ve spent countless hours transcribing your class material into notes and find nothing’s sticking, perhaps you’re doing something wrong
  • These tips will help you become a master notetaker
By YP Junior Reporter Henry Lui |

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How is it that those shady memory wizards in your class can magically remember everything they need to know for an exam and you can’t? No matter how late you stay up revising, you just don’t seem to be able to absorb any information? Perhaps you’re doing it all wrong. 

Memorising content is tough, but it doesn’t have to be if you do it right — here are a few simple techniques that I used during my IB studies to help me improve the effectiveness of my note-taking, which didn’t involve wasting time making up songs or coming up with nonsensical stories.

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Methods matter

Note-taking isn’t a “one-method-fits-all” affair; it’s important to choose a format that best suits the subject you’re dealing with. Note-taking software, such as Microsoft OneNote, tends to be best for subjects that contain a large volume of information mixed with photos and other digital material. 

Higher level IB history was one subject that required me to go for the digital option due to the sheer amount of content on the syllabus and the extra bits of information that I occasionally needed to insert into particular sections. This sort of software allows you to reorder things as you wish and search through your notes quickly. 

Conversely, I resorted to old-fashioned pen and paper for higher level economics as there were a lot of diagrams that I needed to draw by hand and all the information I needed was already in a single textbook. This way, you don’t have to worry about losing your digital notes; besides, revising from a computer without going off-task requires a lot of discipline that many students (myself included) don’t have. 

There are benefits to both formats and it’s a good idea to try different ones for different subjects.

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Read smartly and selectively

There may be times where you might choose to casually read a textbook (maybe not), but be sure not to let your browsing go to waste. Using a pencil or highlighter to point out key bits of information for future reference will help speed up the note-taking process later. This is also particularly useful in English Literature, where you can mark lines in the novel that you can use in an analysis afterwards. It goes without saying that you should only jot down information that relates to the area you’re studying which will aid your understanding of the topic. 

Putting the content in your own words also helps as it makes sure you understand the information in front of you; simply copying text from the book does nothing to help you remember it.

Condense, condense, condense

Using complete sentences in your notes is highly counterproductive as it prevents you from using your brain when you revisit your notes later. Mindlessly reading the sentences you jotted down will less likely help you remember the content in the long run.

Instead, you should stick to keywords, abbreviations, and symbols that help trigger your memory without spelling out the whole idea in full. You can see an example of this below.

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1 Original Text:

Social and Cultural Explanations for the Chinese Communist Party’s Rise to Power

  • Nation-wide rejection of European imperialism in the 1900s, exemplified by the 1911 Wuchang Rebellion and the 1919 May Fourth Movement
  • Sinification of Marxism-Leninism and use of Nationalist ideology
  • The KMT’s abandonment of the United Front, and the public outcry that ensued
  • Chiang Kai Shek’s unpopular “trade land for time” policy with regards to the Japanese invasion and retreat to Chongqing

2 Condensed Text

SocCult Explain

  • 20th Cent X imperialism (’11 WCReb, ’19 May4)
  • Sino MLism + Nat
  • KMT X UF + “land 4 time” RTCQ

As you are unlikely to get from the first stage to the second on your first attempt at note-taking, it may be worth producing two sets of notes, the first in short sentences and the second completely condensed, if time permits. I produced my first set of notes in the lead-up to my Year 12 and Year 13 mock exams, and the second set in the first two weeks of my final exam study break. Not only will you be forced to review all the content in your notes this way, you will also be putting extra effort into making them simpler, which will help you retain the information in your brain for longer.

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