A-levels, study strategies

How To Take Notes At A-Level To Earn An A*


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.

As a parent of a child who is starting their A-levels you can help them learn how to take notes in their A-level courses. You can help them fill the gap in their knowledge by teaching them how to take quality notes so that they capture the ideas being taught in the lessons. This is a skill set that they will use both in their A-level and in their university courses.

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Graeme Matthews shares the six strategies that you need to know so that you can be successful in your A-level studies. Get organised. Learn note-taking strategies. Learn how to manage your workload. Learn how to study for EOU tests. Learn how to study for final exams. Learn how to improve your mindset.

If you are interested in helping your child become more successful in their 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 their A-level courses your child needs to think about whether they want their system to be paper or digital.

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

A digital note-taking system involves the use of a tablet such as an iPad and a note-taking app. Your child needs to check with their 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 their notes on a laptop using a word processor such as Microsoft Word or mind mapping software is not going to work because they will not be able to keep up with the lesson. What your child needs is a tablet so that they have the ability to write on the screen when they 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.

Help your child pick a note-taking system:

  • Help them decide whether they want to have a paper or digital note-taking system.
  • Help them set up their note-taking system.
  • Help them keep it organised on a consistent basis.

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

At GCSE level, your child’s 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 your child needs involves copying down what has been written on the whiteboard into their exercise books. 

At A-level, the lessons are idea-driven and it is assumed that your child will learn the content during their 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 used by your child in their GCSE course will not work in the A-level course.

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

Help your child understand the different teaching approaches used in their GCSE and A-level courses and how this influences their choice of note-taking systems:

  • GCSE courses are content focused and A-level courses are concept focused.
  • The note-taking system they used in their GCSE courses is not going to work in their A-level courses.
  • They need to choose a note-taking system that allows them 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 My Child?

There are many different types of note-taking systems that your child 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 your child uses to take notes in their 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 your child tries different note-taking systems, finds one that works for them and their style of learning and then perseveres with it until taking notes becomes second nature to them.

Help your child pick a note-taking system that works for them:

  • Help them learn about the Cornell and Mind Mapping note-taking systems.
  • Help them try each note-taking system and decide which note-taking system works for them.

Master The Art Of Note-Taking

Once you have helped your child determine what note-taking system they want to use in their A-level courses you need to help them implement it. You need to be their accountability partner and encourage them 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 you teach them to your child:

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 your child creates a master set of notes as the course progresses throughout the term. After they have completed their set of notes they complete one of the following two tasks. If they are using a paper note system they scan their notes in case something happens to the originals. Then they place their notes in plastic sheet protectors and file them in the appropriate section of their lever arch folder. Or if they are using a digital note system they back up their notes on a cloud drive just in case they lose their tablet.

Help your child master the art of note-taking:

  • Be an accountability partner for them and encourage them to maintain their note-taking system.
  • Help them create a master set of notes using the five steps to create a master set of notes.
  • Help them organise and back up their 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. Ask your child to practice taking notes in various situations where their grade is not going to be impacted. For example, have them 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 for your child it saves them time in the long run. When they are studying for their EOU, UCAS or final exams they will have a comprehensive set of notes they can use as a reference. They will not have to re-read the textbook, re-read handouts and other resources they obtained from their teacher and wonder why they highlighted certain sentences. They 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 your child will notice that they will be able to recall ideas and topics more easily because they wrote a master set of notes. This is because creating a set of notes helps consolidate what was learned in their lessons and commit it to short term memory.

Help your child practice the art of note-taking:

  • Ask them to practice taking notes in a situation where their grade is not going to be impacted.
  • Discuss with them that although it takes longer to create a master set of notes they are saving time in the future because they will not have to re-read their textbook and other resources they were given in the lesson.
  • Effective note-taking is a skill that they 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 Chemsitry Revision: 5 Study Skills Used By A* Students.

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