Making useful study notes – Research & Learning Online

There is a lot of information to process while learning, so it is vital to make organised study notes. This allows you to keep track of everything, and easily access information again later when it’s time to apply your knowledge through assessed tasks and further study.

The aim in making study notes is to summarise and synthesise material in your own words, and to draw connections between new and known information.

This tutorial provides tips on how to make effective notes when studying, and how to use them for revision.


The best strategies and styles of notes to use are the ones that work for you! So experiment to see what you feel comfortable with. Some people like a complex system to help them stay organised, others find complexity overwhelming and prefer to keep things simple. Pick an approach that you find helpful and easy enough to maintain throughout your studies.

Getting the most out your time

To get the most out of your class or study session and retain the information you learn, you need to make notes actively. That involves engaging with the material and noting down your own thoughts, understanding, and questions, as well as the answers to your questions once you find them.

Active note-making also requires preparing before class, and summarising, reflecting, and revising after class. View the tips for each of these stages below:

This may seem like you are using up more of your time, but it actually saves you a lot of time later on, and makes your note-making a lot more efficient and effective.

Before class, research the topic and think of questions that you want to learn the answer to. Having some understanding of the topic before class allows you to engage with the content more actively during class, and makes it easier to participate in class discussions.

To research the topic:

  • Check your unit information to find out what the class is about.
  • Complete any weekly readings. See Reading and note taking for information regarding making notes about your readings (as opposed to classes).
  • If you have not been assigned weekly readings you can search for your own by conducting a keyword search in Library Search.
  • If slides or other class materials are available to you in advance, read through them so you know what to expect, and highlight any sections that you want clarified.

Throughout your preparation write down any specific questions you have.

Do not rely solely on coursework materials like slides and handouts, as that may lead you to make passive notes, where you are simply copying down information that is presented to you without engaging with the material. Always aim to think critically about the content.

Listen out for verbal cues, and look for visual cues. Where content is emphasised by your lecturer or tutor either in speech, or visually in the materials they provide, it is likely to be of particular importance. Make notes about why it is important, and how it relates to any assessed tasks you have coming up.

Make connections between new and known information. How does the content you are learning relate to what you already know? In particular, make notes about how it relates to content from previous or upcoming classes, or other units you are undertaking. The more connections you can make, the greater overall understanding you will gain in your field of study.

Write down questions as soon as you think of them. In a classroom or live study situation, you may not always have the opportunity to ask questions immediately, and it is easy to forget them later. So, write them down as soon as they come to mind. That way you can ask when you have the chance to do so. And once you have the answer write it down in your notes too!

After class, or at the end of your study session, identify and reflect on the key points you have learned, and how this content relates to the overall context of your course (including other classes and units).

Clarify anything you do not understand. It is common to think of additional questions afterward, or simply realise that you want more clarification on a particular topic. When this happens, make sure you reach out to your lecturer or tutor, and add the answers to your notes for ease of reference later on.

Make a list of references or ideas to follow up, and do it! Undertake additional reading, and engage with each topic as much as you can to learn more. And if any of the content you studied was specifically relevant to an assessed task, make a separate list of action items about the task. Use your notes to plan what you will do next.

Note-making strategies

Everyone makes notes differently, but there are some key strategies to consider using which can make your notes more efficient and effective:

  • Try to be as clear and concise as possible so that your notes will be easy to read and understand later on.
  • Leave plenty of space so you can add further information and clarification when you learn more.
  • Highlight important points, particularly core concepts, key theories, and assessed task instructions.
  • Plan how you will store your notes for easy retrieval of information. For example, plan how you will organise your files and folders so that you can easily find the notes you need.
  • Return to your notes as soon as possible to check for clarity:
    • Rewrite what you have written to make it easier to understand.
    • Add more details if needed.
    • Annotate or summarise the information captured in any diagrams or images.
    • Ask your lecturer or tutor, or your classmates to help you fill in any gaps.
  • There are some additional strategies depending on the type of class you are attending. Here are some strategies for lectures, practical classes, and pre-recorded classes:

Whether they are in-person or online over video conferencing software, the struggle in lectures can often be to stay focused. There is a lot of information covered in a typical lecture. In addition to the active note-making tips provided above, remember that the real value of this style of class is that an expert is explaining the material to you live, so use your time with them wisely.

You may prefer to type your notes if you find that faster, but do not fall into the trap of simply typing out what your lecturer is saying verbatim. Always strive to summarise the main points, and apply your own critical thinking to ensure you understand the material.

Noting and asking questions in lectures:

  • Note down questions as soon as you think of them, so they are well formed and ready to ask when you have the opportunity to do so.
  • Don’t be shy! Your lecturers want to hear and answer your questions, and other students will be glad to hear the answer too.
  • Always take part in any activities like polls and quizzes, and add any questions they raise for you to your notes. These activities are designed to check your knowledge, so they naturally also help you identify gaps in your understanding and further areas of interest.

In tutorials and hands-on classes like labs, pracs, studio, and clinical classes you are actively participating and have a lot to do, so you may not have time to stop and make notes for yourself.

  • Where you do have time to quickly jot something down, do so as briefly as possible by using dot-points and shorthand.
  • Where you do not have anytime at all to take notes, write a quick summary of the main points directly after the class.
  • If you have produced something or written anything on a whiteboard, etc. during group-work or pair-work, taking a photo is a quick and easy way to capture that.

Pre-recorded videos are an increasingly common style of engaging with coursework. Live classes are also frequently recorded so that students who are not able to attend in person can still participate, and so that everyone has access to the material for revision purposes.

  • As with live classes, try to be as active as possible in your note-making. Do not fall into the trap of passively watching the video.
  • Pick an environment conducive to study:
    • Sit at a desk.
    • Remove or reduce distractions.
    • Use headphones for clearer audio.
    • If possible, use a device with a large screen, such as a laptop or desktop computer.
  • If you realise you have not been paying attention, stop, take a short break and then come back to it. It is good to stretch or go for a quick walk during the break.
  • Compile a list of questions and post them on your unit forums. This is especially important for pre-recorded lectures because there is no opportunity to ask questions during the class.

There are a variety of styles and systems for making study notes. View the slides below to explore some of the options available:

Note-making styles and systems


Click the fullscreen icon for the best viewing experience.

An effective way to remember and understand the material you study is to re-read your notes frequently, and actively revise your notes to consolidate your learning. Active revision can help with memorisation, but more importantly it lets you practice applying the information, which is a crucial skill for assessments as well as for professional practice.

Revise actively

Do not simply read your notes. As you revise the content, ask yourself questions, and constantly think about how you will use the information after you graduate and are working in your chosen field.

  • Summarise the main points.
  • Make additional notes for clarification where necessary.
  • Make connections to material learned in other classes, and outside of class.
  • Make a list of points that you need to learn more about, and research each point.

It can help to keep your textbook or weekly readings handy while you revise your study notes so that you can look things up for clarification. If your lectures are recorded, you can also revise your notes while listening to the lecture again in case you missed anything, or simply to consolidate your learning using both the text and the audio/visuals.

Revise Often

How and when you revise your study notes can be flexible, but the most important thing is to do it frequently. Revising your notes frequently will help shift the information from your short term memory into your long term memory. Short daily revision is essential for organising your notes, and then revising at regular intervals after that will help you retain the information.

  • Within 24 hours of writing your notes summarise and clarify the content you learned in that class/study session. If there are any points you do not understand, ask your lecturer or tutor.
  • At the end of each week revise what you have learned throughout the week. Draw connections to previous weeks and across units, and begin researching knowledge gaps.

At regular intervals in your learning revise your notes to keep the information fresh in your mind and build a cohesive understanding of how the topics relate to each other. For example, after each theme or module, revise your notes from each class to consolidate your understanding of that topic; and at the end of each semester, revise content from all previous semesters to understand how different aspects of your field fit into the bigger picture of your profession.

Revise efficiently

Revision does not have to be time consuming. You can revise your study notes in shorter revision sessions by using the summary section of your notes to gain a quick overview of the class material. Comparing all of the summaries is also an  efficient exam study strategy, as it can give you an overview of your learning throughout the semester, and help you identify which materials to revisit for further information.

A further strategy leading on from this is to take content from your notes and turn it into flashcards, or an index book, for easy on-the-go revision. But remember to keep your approach active. Even when you are dealing with short chunks of content, always ask yourself questions and think through how you would apply your knowledge in an exam or professional context.

Summary

Making and using effective study notes helps you get more out of your time, makes revision easier, and makes it easier to access and apply knowledge for your assessed tasks and professional practice.

For notes to be useful as a study strategy, you need an active approach, and you need to make and use them frequently throughout your degree.

The key features of effective study notes are:

  • Your notes are concise
    You do not need to write everything down. Aim to concisely record the key points covered in the class. Using headings and dot-points can help make your notes easy to read again later.
  • You have included your own thoughts and evaluation
    Expand key points by adding your own understanding and interpretation and evaluation of the content, and define terms and concepts in your own words.
  • You have noted questions and answers
    You can compile questions before class as part of your preparation, as well as during class as they occur to you while listening to the content. You may like to note them alongside the relevant content, or have a separate section for questions. If you can’t find the answer, contact your lecturer or tutor, or use your unit forums to ask. Make sure you note down the answer.
  • You have drawn connections
    Make note wherever you can regarding how the content relates to weekly reading(s), content from other classes, and other units.
  • Your notes have a summary
    Include a summary section at the end of the notes to recap the main points learned, and highlight the most important information. It is good to write this directly after the class if possible, but that is not always practical. Aim to write it within 24 hours of the class at the latest.