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Making revision notes - how to achieve your learning objectives

CII Blog

When you study, should you highlight? Should you summarise the study material? Should you create revision notes? The accepted wisdom in scientific circles is: no, no and no. But if that is true then why haven't all the publishers of revision notes and study guides gone out of business?

Personally (and I will say this is very much a personal view, because the science doesn't support it) I am on the side of the revision note and study guide printers. I think all three of these techniques are important but what is equally important is that the results you'll get depend upon the way you use them.

I have spent about 20 years mentoring groups of students through the CII exams. Almost without exception, a highlighter makes contact with the page before a person had finished reading the end of the first line of text and, by the time they've finished the first chapter, every word except the occasional "and" "the" and "it" has been painted with the highlighter pen.

Highlighting is about selecting key words and ideas. The problem is that students find selecting the key words and ideas difficult because they start highlighting as soon as they start reading - before they have given themselves any form of basic grounding in the subject. My suggestion would be:

With no highlighter in hand:

  1. Read the chapter learning objectives and skim read the chapter then take a short break;
  2. Take the end of chapter test.

The learning objectives and test will give you a good idea of what is the meat of the subject which should then make it easier to pick out key words and phrases on your second pass through the chapter, with highlighter in hand.

I would then use the highlighted key words and phrases to form the core of my summarised revision notes. I always like to bear in mind that, the more I highlight, the more extensive my revision notes are likely to be. In essence, the more I'll have to remember.

Why not just revise from the highlighted sections of the book? After all these summarise the subject and so should make it easier to learn. Again, I am on the side of the revision note writers. A good set of hand written revision notes allows you to:

  1. introduce information from other sources;
  2. present information in a manner that you understand rather than in the "one size fits all" manner of the study book;
  3. represent information in a manner that makes it easier for you to study and remember. Text books are invariably written in a linear fashion like this blog. You may find that bullet points, different coloured highlighting, mind-maps or one of the many other forms of note taking might work better for you. You could, for example, decide to summarise the whole course on an MP3 player so you can listen to it in the car or on the train.

Personally, I am a big fan of Mind-Maps though I used them as a platform to build my own method of note taking. I found I need a bit more information than is contained in a proper Mind-Map so I tend to write very small and add extra information to each limb of the map. I would recommend that anyone who is studying for an exam give Mind Mapping a try.  The attached link will take you to the Wikipedia entry which includes a sample Mind Map

I find about half the people I have mentored over the past 20 years stick with linear notes but the other half will find some other form of representing the information works for them. The key thing is that, if you're going to give a new method of note-making a try, make sure you've time to change to a more conventional method if it turns out to be a mistake.

You'll notice that I mentioned earlier that your notes should be hand-written. Although there's not been a lot of research done on the subject, a couple of articles suggest that hand-written notes are ultimately more memorable than typed notes. Most of the studies that have been undertaken have been with children but one recent study has looked at university students. It found students who took notes long-hand rather than on a computer tended to understand the content of the lecture better and remembered more.*1


*1  "The Pen is mightier than the Keyboard" P. A. Muller & D. M. Oppenheimer "Psychological Science" vol 25, June 2014 p 1159-1168