by Graeme Matthews

April 23, 2019

Learning how to take notes is one of the sixth form essential skills that every A-level student needs to know so that they can earn a high grade in their A-level courses. However, learning how to take notes is a skill that a lot of A-level students don't know because they were never taught it as part of their GCSE coursework. So they attend their A-level lessons and try to capture the ideas being taught in the lesson by rapidly scribbling down what is being written on the board by the teacher which has a negative impact on their course grade.

Learning how to take quality notes so that you capture the ideas being taught in the lessons is a skill set that you will use both in your A-level and in your university courses.

If you are interested in learning how to become more successful in your A-level studies then keep on reading this blog post.

How To Take Notes: Paper or Digital

When thinking about what note-taking strategy to use in your A-level courses you needs to think about whether you want your system to be paper or digital.

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A paper note-taking system involves college ruled paper, pens, coloured pencils and a ruler. It doesn't involve you writing down notes in a spiral-bound notebook as this will not allow you to effectively organise your notes after your lesson has finished. At the end of each lesson, you put your notes into your day folder and take them home with you. 

A digital note-taking system involves the use of a tablet such as an iPad and a note-taking app. You need to check with your teacher to make sure that the use of a tablet is allowed by the teacher as some teachers allow and other teachers don't allow the use of technology in the classroom. Typing your notes on a laptop using a word processor such as Microsoft Word or mind mapping software is not going to work because you will not be able to keep up with the lesson. What you need is a tablet so that you have the ability to write on the screen when you are taking notes. 

Both paper or digital note-taking systems have their advantages and disadvantages. Paper note-taking systems are cheap to purchase, flexible and easy to set up and maintain. However, if they are not maintained properly they can quickly get out of control and just become a stack of papers. Digital note-taking systems are more expensive to set up, easier to maintain and easier to organise. However, they are not as flexible as paper note-taking systems and may not be ideal in all circumstances.

How to choose a note-taking system:

  • Decide whether you want to have a paper or digital note-taking system.
  • Set up your note-taking system.
  • Keep it organised on a consistent basis.

How To Take Notes: Capture The Ideas Being Taught In The Lesson

At GCSE level, your lessons were content-driven. The teacher typically headlines the topic at the beginning of the lesson, completes a few sample questions on the whiteboard and checks for student understanding. The students copy down the notes on the whiteboard into their exercise books and then complete a worksheet that reinforces the concept being taught in the lesson. Homework is another worksheet or a few questions from the end of the chapter which consolidates what they have learned during the lesson. The lessons are extremely structured and the concepts are taught at a slower pace so enough time is allocated for each of the students to complete their assignments. The note-taking skills you need involves copying down what has been written on the whiteboard into your exercise book. 

At A-level, the lessons are idea-driven and it is assumed that you will learn the content during your own time. The teacher headlines the sub-topic in the specification that will be taught in the lesson. They then discuss the associated concepts being taught in the lesson using PPT presentations as a teaching aid along with handouts which are handed to the student during the lesson. Any key points from the lesson are written on the whiteboard by the teacher as they are talking with the students. Towards the end of the lesson the students complete sample questions and check their answers against a mark scheme which is displayed on a SmartBoard.

What is important to understand is the different teaching style that is used to teach a GCSE course and an A-level course. A GCSE course is content-driven whereas an A-level course is idea-driven. Because each course has a different teaching style it requires a different note-taking system. The note-taking system you used in your GCSE course will not work in the A-level course.

What is needed is a mind shift in the way that you approach your note-taking in your A-level courses. You need to understand that the intention of your note-taking in A-level courses is to capture the idea or concepts being taught in the lesson whereas for your GCSE courses it was to capture the content of the lesson. Once you understand that there is a different teaching style used in A-level courses you can pick a note-taking system that works for you.

Make sure you understand the different teaching approaches used in your GCSE and A-level courses and how this influences your choice of note-taking systems:

  • GCSE courses are content focused and A-level courses are concept focused.
  • The note-taking system you used in your GCSE courses is not going to work in your A-level courses.
  • You need to choose a note-taking system that allows you to quickly capture the ideas being taught in the lesson rather than trying to capture all of the content of the lesson.

What Type Of Note-Taking System Is Best For Me?

There are many different types of note-taking systems that you can use to take notes. Two popular systems include the Cornell Method and Mind Mapping. Both of these methods are favoured by A* students because they allow them to capture the ideas being taught in the lesson by the teacher quickly and easily. If you need more explanation of what is involved in using either of these note-taking systems then make sure you click on each of the links. 

It doesn't matter which note-taking system you use to take notes in your lessons. It isn't a case of one system is better than the other or that one system works for everyone. Rather, what is important is that you try different note-taking systems, finds one that works for you and your style of learning and then persevere with it until taking notes with it becomes second nature to you.

Pick a note-taking system that works for you:

  • Learn about the Cornell and Mind Mapping note-taking systems.
  • Try each note-taking system and decide which note-taking system works for you.

Master The Art Of Note-Taking

Once you have determined which note-taking system you want to use in your A-level courses you need to implement it. You need an accountability partner to encourage you to focus on creating a master set of notes! There is an art form to taking notes where the objective is to capture ideas taught in the lesson, ideas presented in a textbook and ideas presented in class handouts and create a master set of notes. It can be broken down into five separate steps. Read through these steps and make sure that you understand them before trying them out:

1. Read the section of the textbook assigned by your teacher and take notes. This is best completed using the SQR3 method. First, survey the textbook looking at chapter headings, sub-headings, tables and figures. Write down any questions that you have about what you have read on Post-It notes and stick them into the margins next to the text. During lesson make sure that your questions are answered by your teacher. After the lesson, read the section of the textbook and note how many of your questions were answered by your teacher or you can answer after reading the text. 

2. Read through the resources you received in the lesson and write any questions that you may have on Post-it notes and place these in the margin. Make sure that you get these questions answered by your teacher at the start of your next lesson. Highlight any key terms and definitions and important ideas.

3. Read through the notes that you made during lesson. Ideally, this should be as soon as possible after your lesson has ended. If you can't read your handwriting or if you are unclear about something in your notes then see your teacher for clarification before the end of the day.

4. Create a master set of notes using your note-taking system using the notes and questions from the textbook (step 1), the highlighted areas from the resources (step 2) and the notes you made during the lesson (step 3). Use the specification as a guide to help you do this. Each sub-heading in your notes (Cornell method) or strand (mind mapping method) should correlate to a sub-topic in the specification for your course. 

5. Test your notes! When completing your homework you should be able to complete your homework by only referring to your notes and not using the textbook or other resources. If you find that you can't do this because some of the concepts or ideas are not present in your notes you need to add notes on these concepts or ideas to your master set of notes.

The idea is that you create a master set of notes as the course progresses throughout the term. After you have completed your set of notes you complete one of the following two tasks:

If you are using a paper note system you scan their notes in case something happens to the originals. Then they place your notes in plastic sheet protectors and file them in the appropriate section of your lever arch folder.

Or if you are using a digital note system you back up your notes on a cloud drive just in case you lose your tablet.

How to master the art of note-taking:

  • Work with an accountability partner that will encourage you to maintain your note-taking system.
  • Create a master set of notes using the five steps to create a master set of notes.
  • Organise and back up your notes.

Practice The Lost Art Of Note-Taking

Effective note-taking is a skill that can be can be learned and is one that can be improved through practice. Practice taking notes in various situations where your grade is not going to be impacted. For example, take notes when listening to a podcast, watching a documentary or when being a guest in a different class at school. 

Although setting up and maintaining a proper note-taking system is a time-intensive effort it saves time in the long run. When you are studying for your EOU, UCAS or final exams you will have a comprehensive set of notes you can use as a reference. You will not have to re-read the textbook, re-read handouts and other resources you obtained from your teacher and wonder why you highlighted certain sentences. You will not have to look at scribbled notes in a spiral-bound notebook and wonder what they meant months after they were written in the lesson. 

By taking the time to create a master set of notes you will notice that you will be able to recall ideas and topics more easily because you wrote a master set of notes. This is because creating a set of notes helps consolidate what was learned in your lessons and commit it to short term memory.

How to practice the art of note-taking:

  • Practice taking notes in a situation where your grade is not going to be impacted.
  • Understand that although it takes longer to create a master set of notes you are saving time in the future because you will not have to re-read your textbook and other resources you were given in the lesson.
  • Effective note-taking is a skill that you can use in university.

In order to see how effective note-taking strategies are linked to revision plans used by A* students read the blog post A-Level Chemistry Revision: 5 Study Skills Used By A* Students.

I hope that you found this blog post helpful and that it gave you some tips and ideas on how to be more successful in your A-level studies.

Please leave a comment below!

About the author 

Graeme Matthews

Graeme Matthews has a B.Sc and an M.Sc in Chemistry and a PhD in Adult Education. He has been teaching a combination of university level, college and A-level chemistry for over 23 years. He has taught over 10,000 chemistry students in his teaching career. He has a proven track record of helping students earn an A* on their A-level chemistry exams so they can attend the university of their choice.

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