Effective exam note-taking

Jan 13, 2021
We learn in different ways, but the art of note-taking is critical in achieving examination success. Sophie Campbell, winner of the Samuel Smyth Memorial Prize, gives her top tips for effective note-taking.

Effective note-taking, when mastered, is a powerful tool, and it is not limited simply to our studies but has application for our day-to-day working environment. 

Much has been written on the subject over the years by experienced practitioners. However, I would like to focus on effective note-taking for exam success.

Taking effective notes is the foundation for building your knowledge on each subject. Taking notes can help retain information to memory, challenges our understanding, and essentially becomes a reference point from which we build knowledge and expertise on each topic. Even more importantly, effective note-taking helps identify gaps in our understanding which we can use to guide our future study. 

A knowledge gap analysis is critical as you move through the various examination levels, as they build on cumulative knowledge from the previous years. Taking notes will allow you to pinpoint knowledge gaps more efficiently, taking pressure off as you approach the exams because you will already have a list of areas that require greater focus. 

The following are my top tips for effective note-taking:

1. Preparation is key – Be prepared for the live webinars by creating notes from the self-study sessions. Your prepared notes will allow for more efficient note-taking during the live webinars, which recap and reinforce what you have previously covered. During the live webinars, you won’t have time to complete notes from scratch, therefore, by having base notes available, you are able to efficiently add or amend if the lecturer goes into more detail in certain areas or gives additional examples.

2. Method – In the open book exams, taking structured, precise and meaningful notes is crucial to refresh your memory when you are under time pressure. Pre-COVID-19, during class, I annotated on printed slides. This method was time consuming as you had to incorporate the slides and annotated notes into one document. Now that classes are held online, I find that using a split screen and taking notes in a word document much more efficient.

3. Structure – Be consistent with your structure by choosing a format that works for you and stick with it so that your notes are all structured the same way. That way, regardless of which standard is examined, I can quickly locate the information I need. For example, in financial reporting, each standard starts with an introduction to the standard and finishes with disclosure requirements. 

4. Cheat sheets – Ensure that your notes are self-explanatory yet concise as you may need to use them during an exam to refresh your memory. An example of this is using ‘cheat sheets”, a document in bullet point or tabular format that detail key information for a particular topic.

5. Don’t zone out – Think as you write. Ask yourself if your notes cover the objectives in the learning journals and if you have an understanding of each topic covered. If not, add the topic to your knowledge gap list for you to come back to at a later date. 

6. Stay up-to-date – Keep your file up-to-date by printing your finalised notes after the live webinars and use sticky note labels with a short description for ease of reference. This allows for quick access during the exams. 

7. Ensure understanding – Use your notes in an exam style scenario when completing questions from each session. I often take further notes on areas missed or, if my notes are unclear, I will go back to the lecture to address any gaps in my knowledge and ensure my notes are updated to reflect same.

Everybody has a different approach to note taking. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find what works best for you. Once you find a method that suits you, you will be able to make the most of your notes and be more successful in your studies.