If you’re studying A-level Chemistry and really struggling to take notes without copying the whole text book out, I have something that will help. My independent study workbooks will guide you through the topics and instruct you what to make notes on. They challenge you to apply your knowledge as you go so that you’ll learn the content in an exam-focused way and produce a set of notes that will actually help you answer the exam questions.  They’re available here.

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Important: Don’t write something down if you don’t understand it

When you’re making notes I want you to keep one really important rule in mind: Don’t write something down if you don’t understand it

You will regularly come across things you don’t understand – totally normal, you’re learning, if you already knew everything there would be no point studying.

But you’re not going to learn by mindlessly writing something down without having a clue what it means.

As you’re making notes, think about what you’re writing down and be honest with yourself about whether or not you really understand it. Being able to follow the gist of something isn’t the same as understanding it.

Each time you come across something you don’t understand you need to deal with it. You might be able to sort it out there and then, or need to get more advice from your teacher or tutor and come back to it later.

But don’t just write it down and kid yourself that you understand it. For both A-level Chemistry and Biology you need to be able to do something with the material you’re learning, rather than just parrot it back to the examiner.

With all that in mind, here’s how to make notes.

How to make notes without copying the text book out

We`ve all sat down with our text book ready to have a really good note making session and ended up copying out whole sections of the book. For my AS revision, I pretty much did just end up copying my textbooks out. This is clearly not what you want to be doing – not least because it’s so time-consuming. But the fact is making notes is hard – as you read through your book everything seems so important, and most of it is, so you need to practice honing in on what belongs in your notes and what you can leave out. Definitions? Absolutely need to go in your notes. That long-winded analogy that helped you understand something? Can most likely be left out.

Here’s a method for taking notes that will help you be a bit more selective and produce a great set of concise notes that are genuinely useful. 

1. Focus

Whether you are making yourself a nice set of revision notes or just taking notes to help you understand the content as you study it in class the whole point is to make sure you learn what you need to learn for the exam. The specification tells you what you need to know. Admittedly some specifications are more comprehensive than others – the AQA Chemistry ones are great but the Biology ones are awful – but when you are planning in taking notes it’s a good idea to use your specification as a guide to make sure you get notes on everything you are expected to know. 

I often recommend using the specs as a ‘question’ sheet – use each point on the specification as a question and make sure you make notes that allow you to `answer` it. 

Your specification will also help you figure out what you can leave out of your notes. If your text book includes an in-depth analysis of the carbon footprint of a titanium extraction plant but your specification doesn`t even mention it then it’s not worth you spending 20 minutes getting the all the details down. That`s not to say you shouldn`t even read it – you absolutely should – just don`t bother writing it all down. Perhaps just make note of 2 or 3 of the key messages. 

If you haven`t been given a specification you will find it on your exam board`s website. 

2. Read before you write

If you try and make notes as you read you are going to massively struggle to figure out what is important. This is because until you get the gist of what the text is trying to tell you everything seems important enough to be written down. It’s doing this that means you end up writing down the paragraph-long analogies and examples that you don’t really need. 

Another problem with writing as you read is that it is very easy to go into ‘zombie-mode’ and write down everything without even thinking about it meaning that you end up learning nothing! I did this regularly and could easily end up with 2 sides of notes but no clue what I had even written! 

What you need to do is read the section you are going to take notes on before you even pick up your pen. Don’t just skim read it; make sure you read it, understand it and figure out what the most important points are before you start writing. If you don’t understand what you’ve read you need to use other resources to help you figure out what is going on. Maybe use a revision guide which might give you a simpler explanation, ask a friend or find a youtube video.

Then, when your happy you know what is going, on you should read through the text again but this time you should make your notes (don’t forget to use your specification as a guide). You will find it so much easier to do it this way as you will know where the text is going. 

I know this sounds like it will take longer than note taking as you go the first time but you will most likely find it’s quicker as you’re not wasting time noting down unnecessary information. Plus going through it twice and really thinking about what you are writing will help you commit the information to memory more easily, which is what you want, right? 

3. Break it down

Let’s say you are making notes on Chemical bonding. Your text book will have a great big chapter on this and you know from what we’ve talked about above that you need to read it before you start making your notes. 

But you don’t need to read the whole thing it one go and then come back and make notes on it all. It’s far better to break it down and read/note take on one section before you move on to the next. This is what I mean. 

Imagine you were making notes on this article. What I would suggest you do is read from one bold heading to the next bold heading. For example, read all of the text that comes between 1. Focus and 2. Read before you write. Then come back and make notes on all of that section. You can then move on to tackling the text between 2. Read before you write and 3. Break it down. 

Breaking your text down into sections between the bold headings works well when you’re studying with your text book as well as they often use these to mark the start of one topic of the end of another but really you can break it down in any way that makes it meaningful to you. 

4. Be careful with highlighters

If you like to highlight important points be aware that the highlighting comes with the same problems as note taking, as in its too easy to end up colouring in the whole book. If you’re planning on highlighting instead of/as well as note taking then you should still follow these steps. Put your pen down until you have finished reading the section.