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Achieve exam success by taking better notes

Top tips for note making that will help you to learn and retain more knowledge

03 May 2019

Even in this digital age, A-Level and BTEC students sit paper-based exams where they are expected to display detailed writing skills based on their knowledge of the subject.

With learners being increasingly dependent on interactive, screen-based knowledge gathering, there is the risk that they are losing the skill of writing their thoughts fluently and the art of expressing and evaluating a subject effectively.

In 1895, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted some of the first experiments on memory, recall and spaced learning that still hold up today. He developed the forgetting curve, which shows how information is lost quickly over time if there is no strategy or effort to retain it.

Much more recently, research by Princeton University and the University of California found that if you need to remember something, you should write it down. They state that “writing notes by hand is much better for long-term memory of ideas, or conceptual information”.

The need for learners to be attentive and inquisitive in class, and to make good notes, is imperative, especially now that vocational qualifications are no longer just hands-on training courses but a balance of academic study, practical skills and the personal development required by students to enter into the changing world of work.

Rather than simply writing notes, learners need to re-read them, review, reflect and connect the dots within the topic. Better organisation of notes will lead to better knowledge retention.

Preeti Vohra, an IT Lecturer at Activate Learning’s Reading campus, explains:

“I realised that when students first join our Technology faculty, they are often not used to descriptive writing, and note making does not come naturally to them. I identified that note making was an area that required additional focus and effort.”

“I found that out of 25 students, only four learners actually wrote meaningful notes. The rest had focused on less relevant information with the very minimum text being written.

“A good way to improving note making is to share. I asked the cohort to exchange and compare notes with each other, add information which would make it more meaningful and include any missing information to their original notes.

“This also helped students to include more appropriate headings and questions within their notes.”

Following Preeti’s intervention, eight learners received distinctions and merits in the 2018 summer Unit 1 Principles of Computer Science exam.

Preeti’s top tips for note making are:

1.Analyse notes thoroughly
2.Review the notes on the day itself and keep reviewing them
3.Highlight the key terms and make a side section of key terms
4.Include important examples
5.Questions and any doubts should be written while making notes and followed up later