Revision Notes: What’s wrong with them and how to do them better
Many students choose to use revision notes as their primary study technique when they're preparing for GCSE and A-Level exams.
However, I see a lot of mistakes being made in how students create revision notes and then go on to memorise their course content from them.
In this article I'm going to answer these questions for you:
- Are revision notes useful?
- What do people get wrong about how to make revision notes?
- How do you make revision notes so that you remember them?
Revision Notes: What's wrong with them and how to make them better
Are revision notes useful?
Whether revision notes are useful is determined by:
- How you make them in the first place
- How you use them once you make them
Over my six years as an academic coach (and through my previous teaching career and my own student life) I've seen many people making mistakes with revision notes. These are some of them.
Common mistakes that make revision notes less useful
- Making them into a work of art – revision notes are not meant to be super neat. They're a working document for just you. If you're focusing on making them neat, you're not focusing on your learning.
- Getting them done before you start testing your recall or doing past paper questions – many students feel that revision is a linear process where you firstly do your notes, then you practice your exam technique by answering past paper questions. Students who do revision in this way invariably struggle to get the grades they deserve in their exams.
- Focusing on one topic or subject before moving on to a different topic or subject – this is not how our brains are geared up to memorise. You need to mix things up and spread them out to learn in the most effective way possible
- Parents creating revision notes for their children – I had one family who were members of The Extraordinaries Club where the mum and dad spent the entire Christmas holidays making revision notes for their son because ‘he didn't have good enough notes'. The thing is – the son was learning nothing while they were creating the notes for him. Actually creating the revision notes is part of the learning process.
Are revision notes useful? Yes, they can be but only if they're created and used in the right way.
So, what is the right way to create revision notes?
How to make revision notes so that you can remember them
I created a video and basic guide to writing revision notes here – do check that out for things like how to layout revision notes and how to use colour in them.
1. Write your notes in your own words
You will learn nothing by copying from your class notes or textbooks to create your revision notes – this is a really passive activity and doesn't require you to engage your brain. The harder you're thinking the more you'll get out of creating your notes.
Instead of copying, read your class notes or textbook, one small section at a time. Once you've read a paragraph or short section a couple of times, close the book or cover it up and try to write what you've just read in your own words.
Then, read the original explanation again to check whether you've included everything that's important. If you've missed anything out, add it into your own notes.
This may feel like it's taking way longer than just copying, but it's actually going to help you learn whereas copying is like having the information go in through one ear and out through the other.
2. Cover one small section before moving on to a different subject or topic
One of the biggest revision mistakes students make is focusing exclusively on one single topic or subject for too long before moving on to something else.
All the research shows that effective revision results from what are called spaced practice and interleaving.
What do these words mean?
Basically, you need to spread out your revision of a topic over days, weeks and months, mixing it up with revising other topics and subjects. But, you need to keep coming back to the topics you covered before to prompt your memory or finesse your understanding.
3. Test yourself
If you've spent a couple of hours revising in an evening, hopefully covering three or four different topics or subjects, you need to go back and test yourself. Try testing yourself:
- Before you pack away for the day
- Before you start your revision session the next day
- In another couple of days time
- Next week
- Next month etc.
(You can get more information about how to space out your recall practice in the Leitner box section of this blog post).
How to test yourself
- Cover your notes so you can't see them
- Write down everything you can remember that they say
- Check whether you got everything
- If you missed something out, try again aiming to include the bits that you missed
- Repeat until you consistently get everything right the first time
You can also ask a parent, sibling or friend to test you.
4. Don't forget your past paper practice!
The whole point of creating revision notes is to help you remember what you need to know to answer exam questions.
You will learn a huge amount by doing past papers e.g. which definitions exam boards are looking for and which pieces of subject-specific vocabulary the examiner is looking for in order to be able to give you the marks.
These are all things you can add to your revision notes as you do past papers.You will learn a huge amount by doing past papers e.g. which definitions exam boards are looking for and which pieces of subject-specific vocabulary the examiner is looking for in order to be able to give you the marks. Click To Tweet
So, don't leave all the past papers until you've completed your revision notes. Use the Revision Power Hour technique to do past papers, and brush up your exam skills, as you're going along.
5. Treat your revision notes as a working document
Finally, and most importantly, remember that your revision notes are a working document.
You may go back and add in a definition that's easier for you to remember, or closer to what the exam board is looking for.
You may cross-things out.
You might re-write sections to make them clearer or easier to remember.
The last thing you should be doing with your revision notes is treating them like a sacred work of art, valued for what they look like over and above how useful they are to you as a learning tool.The last thing you should be doing with your revision notes is treating them like a sacred work of art, valued for what they look like over and above how useful they are to you as a learning tool. Click To Tweet
Are revision notes useful?
Yes, so long as you create them and use them in the right way. However, if you're a GCSE student I would suggest that other revision methods are better at your stage of learning, such as flashcards and mind maps, as they more naturally break down the content you're learning into bite-sized chunks.
As you move on to A-Levels, revision notes become more useful as the subject matter is more complex, but remember to use mind maps to explore links between ideas and flashcards to help you learn things off-by heart.
Do you need more revision help?
If you need more guidance about how to revise, such as how to:
- Break your revision down into bite-size chunks so that you can effectively space it out and mix it up
- Choose the revision techniques that work best for you, your subjects and your level of study
- Create a revision plan that prioritises the topics that will make the biggest difference to your overall mark