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Categories: Studying Techniques

Less is more when it comes to making study notes 

By  Lysette Offley

less is more - volcanoWhen it comes to making study notes, less is more.

Ever noticed how hard it is to retain information if it’s coming at you too fast to absorb it?

It’s as if it’s ‘not going in’ your brain to start with, and if it ain’t in there, you’re hardly going to be able to recall it later, are you! ☺

We’ve evolved to learn exceptionally quickly, especially if our very survival depends on it. And in a situation where you’ve got to act fast to save your life, you only need, indeed, you must only pay attention to a few bits of information – albeit the most important bits.

Failure to do so could lead to a very swift demise!

So, if we have a natural talent for learning small but crucial bits of information quickly and easily, doesn’t it make sense to use that innate ability when we are revising for an exam?

Well, you can!

Remember – less is more

When you make your study notes, ensure you don’t cram too much information on a page. That’s the first thing. Your brain will be perfectly happy with hundreds of sheets of study notes as long as you have few enough bits of information on each.

The other thing to bear in mind is how you make those notes. Don’t write proper sentences. Simply pick out the keywords and arrange them on the page in a logical pattern, which demonstrates the relationships between them. Less is more, remember.

And as you write down those keywords, make sure that the first word is the most important word, which by remembering it will trigger the recall of all the relevant information pertaining to it.

Don’t worry about not remembering the other stuff. You’ll find you can. Your brain is exceptionally good at filling in the missing blanks. It’s a meaning-making machine! We’re forever making sense of information given to us, and we do a very good job of it, even when some of the bits of information are missing. That’s why less is more – every time.

If you think about it, when you give someone directions, you tell them the key points – landmarks, junctions, places where they have to make a decision. You don’t have to describe every inch of the way. In fact, if you did, you’re more likely to confuse them. The links between key landmarks will be obvious to them, just as it will be for you when you attempt to make sense of your study keywords.

So! Back to your studies. Arrange the keywords so there is a rational sequence or relationship between them, which takes you from the first point, logically, to the next and the next and the next.

Use the serial position effect so that the bits that are more difficult to remember go at the beginning or the end. And keep rewriting your notes if necessary until you’ve found a way of organising them that helps you to remember them.

So, for example you wouldn’t write:

Dependents – CHANGES

Married person may become the single parent

Divorcee may get married again

May have children later in life

Because it would be more difficult to remember than:

Dependents – CHANGES

1. Single-parent      Divorce


2. Remarriage         Divorce


3. Older parents

And just notice how I have used numbers, space and colour to identify the patterns and relationships between the words. I’m not kidding when I suggest you simply write on a sheet of paper, the keywords for only one small chunk of information you are learning, something like the example above.

If you have read and understood the information in a small section of your course manual, then by extracting the keywords, as above* it will be easy to memorise. What’s more, it will be like falling off a log to remember what this chunk is all about, in your exam, or indeed with a client.

*You’ll find that the keywords will amount to approximately 10% of the words in a chunk of information. Yep! As little as that!

In this way, your studying will no longer be about a pointless box-ticking, exam-passing exercise, but will instead be about learning and retaining useful information, which will continue to serve you well in your professional career.

Meanwhile, just in case you need any more convincing of how well your brain makes sense of information when you provide it with just the barebones of what it needs, here’s an extract you’ve possibly seen before:

less is more


I rest my case!


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Less is more when it comes to revision notes

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Lysette Offley

Genius Maker & Founder of Genius Material and The Genius Principles. Working with professionals who need exceptional academic & professional development.

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