Revise Better: 5 Steps to Create A-grade Notes

The Revise Better Series: Being host of the Tracklist for the Dean’s List show on IIUM.FM for the past semester has taught me a couple of things about what makes certain students excel. Since it’s Revision Week once again for IIUM students, in this series I will share some of the studying patterns I found in Dean’s List students over the next few days. I hope they’ll benefit, insyaAllah.

Today’s pattern: Make Your Own Notes

Browsing through the campus’s Facebook group, I noticed a couple of students selling their study notes for some change, and was surprised that there was actually a market for them.

While I understand how tempting it is to buy ready-made notes (saves time, shortcut, etc), I truly believe that you are doing yourself a disfavour by doing so.

Before I get into how you can create your own comprehensive notes, let me explain to you why you should do so.

In short: Someone else’s notes are only summaries of what they have understood. There’s only so much you can learn from that.


The Explanation: When rain falls at the peak of a mountain, the first recipients of the water are the trees and animals who live at the top of the mountain. As they are the first point of contact, they are able to absorb a substantial amount of water before any other living things residing on that mountain.

As the rain stops falling, the water from the peak slowly makes it way down to the bottom of the mountain. Along the way, other flora and fauna soak up even more water, leaving less and less water for those at the bottom of the mountain.

When the water finally touches the base of the mountain, not much is left for those living there but a trickle.

Such is the nature of notes.

The textbooks we learn in schools today are summaries of great texts. Hence, the notes a student makes based on textbooks are summaries of summaries. And when we make notes based on someone else’s notes, we are essentially making summaries of summaries of summaries.

(Inception or whaaat?)

So why set ourselves up to get only a trickle of water from the rainfall of knowledge? Why set camp at the bottom of the mountain, when we can actually make the climb, join those at the peak, and have greater access to oceans of knowledge (and with a good view to boot)? Why pay others when you can do it yourself?

Because you don’t know how? Don’t worry, I’ll teach you how.

And if you take ten minutes off to plan your schedule well for this week until your finals, and commit to making your own notes, I guarantee, biiznillah, that you’ll feel the difference in your level of understanding.

Ready? Let’s go!


Step 1: Read all the course materials, whilst highlighting and jotting down things that go through you head

The first step to making notes is not to make notes; it is to read comprehensively. Clear your table (and your schedule), brew yourself some tea or coffee, and with a Bismillah, spend the next few hours reading your course materials.

Note: This will be the longest time you will spend on a step, I promise.

Set the intention to learn (click here for the intention and du’a for studying by Imam Al-Haddad), and immerse yourself in just reading and understanding the text. Go through the materials in order, highlight key points that jump at you, and make small notes to yourself at the margins when a thought crosses your mind.

Don’t understand a concept? Google it up, read more about it, then write what you now know in the margins.

When you do this, you are essentially attempting to understand the entire text as a whole, and not as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The further you go into the text, the more you will capture patterns and see the bigger picture; the more this chapter and that chapter connects and makes sense.

The more you immerse yourself into the ocean of knowledge, the more you will experience first hand its beauty.

By the time you close your reading materials, it is very important that you have actually understood all that you’ve read. If this is so, say Alhamdulillah, then go ahead to step 2.


Step 2: Take a break

Research has proven that our brain actually processes information at a subconscious level, and that going to sleep after learning new material is most beneficial for recall.

So once you are done with reading through all your course materials, go to bed. Let your brain do its work.

Not sleeping at all is baaaaaaaad.


Step 3: Start creating your base notes

Depending on your preference, you can start making your notes either in the mind maps or bullet points format. I personally do both – first in bullet points (to make clear the order of things I’m reading), and then in mind maps (to see connections better).

No matter the preference, there is a certain system to follow.

Remember all the highlighting you did on the course materials? Transfer the main points and their sub points over onto your mind maps / bullet point notes.

While doing this, remember to include your personal notes if it’s important, what your lecturers mentioned in class (you did write them down, right?), and real-life examples that can help you understand the main notes better.

Sounds like a lot of work, but it’s actually not much if you have really understood the course materials.

For example, my notes on the Agenda-Setting Theory looks a little like this:

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 5.56.35 pm

All it contains are the term, its definition, a little elaboration, and the real-life example of Al-Jazeera and North Korea which will help me remember what the entire theory is all about.

Again, this should not take you as much time as reading in Step 1, because you’re just looking through key points, connecting, and writing them down on paper.

If it’s taking too long, it means you didn’t really do your Step 1 properly. In which case, go back. Try again.


Step 4: Create a cheat sheet

Cheat sheets are what I refer to when I talk about a single piece of paper that has only the key terms for the entire course. They are done by going through your base notes, and then extracting only the key terms. That’s all there is to it.

While your base notes contain definitions, elaborations, and examples, cheat sheets should only have one thing: the key terms.

Cheat sheets are like the keys to unlock certain rooms of information in your memory. They are extremely handy during examinations; spot they key term, bring out the correct key, unlock the door and voilà! All the things you have revised for are there for the taking.

Step 5: Staple your cheat sheet on top of your base notes

Hey presto! Your own A-Grade notes!

Ok actually you don’t have to staple them. I just needed a step five :P

What’s important to remember is that the make-your-own-notes system works because during the entire process, you’ve actually read through the course materials not once, but twice, and actually made an effort to really understand the subject.

Once you understand the subject, remembering the definitions and key terms should be easy-peasy, insyaAllah.

If you found this article beneficial, please share it with friends, and come back tomorrow because I’ll be sharing different methods that can help you memorize key concepts better, insyaAllah :)


  • Revise Better: 5 Creative Ways to Memorize (Link)
  • Revise Better: 10 Remedies for Exam Day Anxieties (Link)

All the best, and happy studying!

P/s. Just so we’re clear, I personally believe that you can buy the notes of other students, but you should only do so with the understanding that they are additional study material :)

Fadhilah Wahid
My name is Nur Fadhilah Wahid. I am a seeker of knowledge, a Muslimah in progress, and a writer. I believe in the magic that can happen when like-hearted and like-minded individuals come together :)

5 thoughts on “Revise Better: 5 Steps to Create A-grade Notes”

  1. thanks for this. really need this. I’m not really good in making my own notes may be lack of reading and playing with my own imagination to do it). always refer to my friend’s note. may Allah bless you sis :D

  2. Salam Fadilah.
    OMG this is totally the way I did my notes. Except for the sleeping part, which I think I need to inculcate into my routine now.
    Thank you for sharing such an article.

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