13 exam notes preparation steps I wish I knew earlier

Taking notes is not only crucial when attending a class but also while going through a book, reading a blog post, viewing an online course or YouTube Video. Trying to write down and summarize the information helps to focus and forces you to really understand the key points. Here are 13 steps to take the perfect notes:

I developed this method of going through study material to be thorough and make it as easy as possible to review the material later. I refined the steps over time and found that this process is not only very effective but also has the potential to earn you some money if you do it right.

1. Find out what to expect from the material

This first step is probably the most important. Time is precious so when you are about to read a book or take a course it is crucial to know what you want to learn. Prepare some questions about the material you are trying to find the answer to. Read the table of contents or course description to find out if you get the answers from the study material you are about to consume. Who is the author? Does this person know what he/she is talking about? Check reviews about the course material or book to see what others have to say about it. Even though this first step might take add little more time to your study it will eventually pay off. The best book you can read, the best online course you can take and the best lecture you can attend are the ones you don’t. When you can determine whether learning material in whatever form is worth your time and then decide not to spend hours or days going through study material that brings no value to you will end up studying much more effectively.

2. Make sure you have your utensils ready

There is not much you need but you should make sure it is ready to go once you start diving into a topic. Get a notebook and a pen (I always use the same Pen – my personal “Best study pen”. You can read more about it in my article about the best font for study notes. Make sure your desk is uncluttered and you have enough (and the right) light (like explained in my study and light article). Next thing I always prepare is my questions template (Excel) and an empty mind map with the topic I am going to study in the center.  I use FreeMind which is free – if you are new to mind mapping just a short intro: You put facts, keywords and study result in one visual sheet with the main topic in the center. From there you branch out deeper and deeper when you develop your research. Just try FreeMind, it’s quite intuitive. That’s about it, of course, a laptop is required as well, preferably with an extra screen to have your question adn mindmap visible at all times.

3. Create an outline and mind map

Before you start going into the details of a topic it is crucial to have an outline. If you are reading a book or taking an online course this is easier because usually the table of contents already provides a solid structure that you can use as a base. For a topic that you need to research on the internet it or on YouTube this requires a bit more effort. I usually start by checking who is the most respected author or expert in the field and if he/she has already written a book. If I can afford easily get it I will because the time I save to have the information in 1 collection beats an endless internet research. If a book is not available to me or too expensive at least the table of contents is usually available. This way I have a structure and know what to search for on the web. If nothing is available typing the question into google and then looking for the section “People also asked” gives me valuable hints and directions what is included in my study topic. Another helpful resource is answerthepublic.com. Type in your search term and get all possible combinations of questions and keywords. I always put my outline into a mindmap.

4. Read/listen/watch the first chapter or paragraph

Now that everything is the place the real study cycle begins. Read the first paragraph (or chapter if it isn’t too long) or watch the first lesson of your online course. If you are reading a book it is a good idea to read it out loud. For really complex things I even record my own voice so I can listen to it again while I am in the car or having some waiting time on the bus.

5. Make notes on paper

Write down important facts and try to summarize what you have just read with your own words. Do not just copy parts of what you read to your paper and do not highlight anything with a marker (that does not help – it even hurts as you can read in this article). I always read a sentence or 2 and then try to summarize it with my own words. If I cannot do that it usually means I didn’t get what the sentences were trying to say. If I would have just highlighted some keywords in shiny yellow I would have tricked myself into believing I have learned the facts just by making them stand out. There are a lot of note taking techniques out there but since you are basically taking notes for each separate chapter and then process the information into other formats the way you write them down is not that relevant. These notes are not to be kept or reviewed later on. I always found it to be a real pain to study with my own handwritten notes because of my terrible handwriting. Writing down the summary of a paragraph is just a helper for the following steps and to force you to think of your own words and physically write it down which improves your probability to recall it later.

6. Update your mind map

Find the right topic on your mind map where the chapter belongs. If it is new, create a new entry and link it to the center or subtopic. Do not put everything you have written down on the mind map. Try to find 1 or 2 keywords that best describe what you have just learned. This map is going to be a visual representation of the whole topic. For longer or more complex sections I always put the page number or timestamp of the course next to the keyword so I can always go back to it.

7. Create a (set of) practice questions for the paragraph

This of all the methods I try has been proven the most effective way to study for an exam with single and multiple choice questions. I always prepare my own practice questions list and have created thousands of questions over the years. Sometimes those questions are as simple as: “Which of the following is true about data?”. After doing this for a while I realized that many of the real practice questions are more embedded in a little story, sometimes to let the question appear more vivid and sometimes to distract the reader from the correct answer. So whenever it makes sense I create a little situation or story. This helps a great deal to remember it rather than short questions asking for one word. Example: “Your boss asks you to get rid of sensitive files on a USB Stick for him and suggests to format it. You tell him it is better to encrypt the stick. Who is right?”. Isn’t that easy to remember? An argument with your boss surely is (hint, you are right, formatting does not delete data, it just deletes the link to it like removing the table of contents of a book, encrypting it and throwing away the key is much more secure)

8. Write the correct and wrong answers

Now write down the correct answer to your question, if possible without reading the paragraph again. And now (at least for me) comes the hard part. Create at least 3 wrong answers. Of course, these answers should be closely related to the correct answer so that it is not too easy.  This requires that you have fully understood the question and are able to create false variations of the answer which still sound plausible. Here is an example for the Data question from the previous step:

  1. When data is structured it becomes wisdom
  2. Data usually not related and without meaning in itself
  3. Data is created when information is turned into knowledge
  4. Data provides responses to how and why

This example shows that answers with a little more flesh are usually better because they need you to really read and understand all of them. This trains you for a mistake I often make during an exam which is jumping to conclusions before I have read ALL the answers.

9. Create an explanation for the question

Now go one step further: Explain why the correct answer is the right one (and if it makes sense why the false ones are not correct e.g. if they are an answer to another question). In our example the explanation for the correct answer 2 could look like that:

Data is usually not related. Meaning is applied by interpretation and linking relevant data together. Data then evolves to information which turns into knowledge and creates wisdom. (In this case, the last sentence explains already why all other answers are wrong).

I prefer usually to just explain the correct answer. This gives me the opportunity to put all explanation in a kind of glossary which basically are my written study notes. Here is the basic structure of my excel sheet – you can download the full template here. I usually create 2 tabs with the following information:

QuestionAnswerCorrectExplanation
ID
Which of the following is true about data?Explanation1
When data is structured it becomes wisdom
Data usually not related and without meaning in itself1
Data is created when information is turned into knowledge
Data provides responses to how and why

The second tab contains all explanation which I then link to each question. This gives me the opportunity to reuse explanations and refine them during my study when related questions show up.

Explanation IDTextKeyword
Explanation 1Data is usually not related. Meaning is applied by interpretation and linking relevant data together. Data then evolves to information which turns into knowledge and creates wisdom.Data

The way I use this excel sheet to test myself is that I import it to my self-written, cross-platform App or my website. This App has several testing methods, exam simulations and creates reports of my study progress. There are quite a few editions with my question banks available on www.quizzerwiz.com if you want to take a look. I am currently working on a version where everyone can import an excel list of questions and study and I am looking for testers. Please contact me if you like to try it out with your own question list(s).

10. Write down open issues

If you are going through a chapter and you struggle to understand some details write this down on a separate list. If this knowledge is not crucial to continue with your study material do not engage in researching this. First of all that will throw you off the rails by potentially leading you to other topics which lead to other topics and so on. Second, you might find the answer to it later on. If by the end of the book these details are still not clear you can extend your research. If you were taking an online course it is even much easier, just ask the author (On Udemy you are part of the community and all the other students usually are eager to help you out).

11. Continue with the material (Step 4)

Go back to step number 4 and continue going through your study material. If you follow this process you usually only need to go through the material once, after that you have an extensive question list to test yourself, a glossary of explanations as well as a global overview in form of a mind map (which I usually print out so I can always take a look at it). If you made the effort to record your own voice you even have a full audio of the study material.

12. Compare expectations to your study notes

After you have finished the course or the book it is important to check whether it answered the questions you had before starting to go through it. If it did it is always nice to leave a positive review for the author on Amazon, Udemy or the App Store. But any kind of review is fine. I usually do not get upset about a negative review if it is constructive and helps me to improve my material. 

13. Define follow up material

If the book or course was just enough to take on the exam well done! But that is usually not the case. Either your expected questions have not been answered or there are still some open issues where you feel insecure or need some deeper understanding. Do a research and try to find the next book, course or whatever material to fill in the blanks. Knowing what I still need to know always gives me the feeling I am in control of the topic and the learning process. This way I can always estimate how much I still nedd to learn and when I am ready to take the exam.

With this process in place, you will have the perfect study notes from any material. Over time I went a step further (and so can you) and now I offer my study material on iTunes, Google Play, Udemy, and other platforms. Not only can I help others but make a solid side income along the way. You can read more about it in my article here.

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