BlogStudyHow to Write Effective HSC Study Notes for Any HSC Subject

How to Write Effective HSC Study Notes for Any HSC Subject

We’re sure you’ll agree when we say the hardest part about making HSC study notes is getting started!

While some scribbled dot points on the back of an assignment sheet may have worked in the past, learning how to write concise, effective study notes is one of the best bets to stepping up your study skills. Especially if you’re heading into the HSC!

So, what are you waiting for? Check out this definitive guide to writing effective HSC study notes!

Challenges to Overcome When Writing HSC Study Notes
Step 1: Plan Ahead
Step 2: Work Out a System
Step 3: Write!
Step 4: Store Your HSC Study Notes
How to Write HSC Study Notes for Specific Subjects

Challenges to Overcome When Writing HSC Study Notes

A lot of the time, when students write up their study notes, they simply just jot down point after point while following the syllabus outline.

This is a great approach and it helps to ensure that you’ve got all the content needed for each relevant topic — but there are a couple of challenges.

Challenge #1: How do you know if your notes are effective?

Let’s say that you’ve been building up your study notes over the course of a term.

You’ve been re-writing and revising your notes over and over again, but by the time you finish your exam and get your results back you think, “Oh no my notes suck. how did I not know that? How did I miss that point?”

The problem with this method of study is that you only figure out if your notes are effective AFTER you’ve actually sat the exam.

This is obviously the worst time to find out that your notes aren’t quite cutting it.

Challenge #2: Application

You can spend plenty of time memorising and revising your HSC study notes. However, when you get into the exam, the questions asked may be very different to what you’ve been preparing for.

As a result, you may struggle to apply the notes that you have written up to the questions presented.

This may cause some issues as the real KEY SKILL you need to acquire when taking your notes is the ability to apply them into solutions and responses.

But how do we combat these challenges? We’ll take you through the key thing you need to do when writing your notes once we’ve gone through some logistics.

Step 1: Plan Ahead

Firstly, you need to figure out how you want to format your study notes. Different styles work for different people, so make sure you pick the right format for you!

Some people prefer organising notes into weekly revision, others write in sections based on syllabus points. Generally it’s best to group information based on central topics, concepts or themes — splitting English notes up into prescribed and related texts is one example!

To write or type notes?

One of the most common questions we start with is “Do I write or type my study notes?”.

Deciding whether to take your notes traditionally or go the more digital route can be tricky, as typing notes often seems easier, but writing them by hand feels more like ‘study’.

Usually it’s a good idea to mix the two together — if you type your notes, do handwritten summaries or vice versa. Here’s a quick pros and cons table for both!

But remember, the HSC Exams are handwritten (at least for the time being…), so you want to make sure you’re used to handwriting!

 ProsCons
Handwritten Notes
  • Muscle memory - your hand gets into the habit of writing certain words and makes it easier for you to recall them

  • Actual muscles - manually writing notes helps strengthen your hand and wrist , which will come in handy during written exams

  • Memory retention - research has shown that you are more likely to remember information you've written by hand over typed notes

  • Creativity - having free reign of the page gives you the ability to be way more creative with your notes (think mindmaps and diagrams)
  • Formatting - sometimes you start writing notes and don't realise until half way through that you've set it out really weird

  • Undo - sadly, once you make a mistake your only hope is liquid paper, which can make for messy notes

  • Single copy - written notes can't really be duplicated, so if you lose these you'll have to start all over again
  • Typed Notes
  • Editing - word processors make it super easy to edit your notes as you go or all at once at the end

  • Links - having digital notes means you can collect as many links and resources as you want within them, which is really useful for collecting extra resources

  • Copies - digital notes mean you can make as many copies as you want and download them to other devices, so you'll always have your notes handy

  • Apps - there are a whole bunch of different note-taking apps out there to help boost your study skills
  • Spellcheck - technically it's a con, as relying on it can lead to silly spelling errors in your written work

  • RSI - typing and looking at laptop screens for long durations can seriously strain your wrist, neck, back and eyes


  • Layout

    After the digital vs. handwritten question comes the issue of layout.

    For general note-taking, there are a lot of ways to go about it — and a lot of different study styles to try out!

    Check out our article on study styles to find out which study style you should be using!

    You can bullet-list key concepts and information relating back to them, mind map how certain themes relate to the topics studied, create information tables, or draw diagrams for more interactive information — it’s really up to your personal preference!

    But here are three ideas to get you started!

    #1: Full Sentence Paragraphs

    “After it is revealed that Mr Darcy was the reason for Jane Bennet’s separation from Mr Bingley, Elizabeth Bennet is enraged, as she had been ‘delighted at the prospect of their relationship’. When she confronts Darcy her language is highly emotive and she often employs hyperbole such as ‘ruining, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister!’, though she remains otherwise literal. This is in stark contrast to Darcy’s speech patterns, as he replies with figurative language, such as the metaphor ‘her heart was not likely to be easily touched’. This contrast helps highlight their conflicting opinions.”

    Using full sentence paragraphs is a good technique for subjects such as English and the humanities where you know you’re going to have to be writing a lot of essays!

    It helps you get into the habit of constructing full, sophisticated sentences, however it does tend to be more time consuming than most other methods. It can also be hard to digest at a glance.

    #2: Dot Points

    • Mr Darcy was the reason Mr Bingley left Jane
    • Elizabeth is enraged, she had been ‘delighted at the prospect of their relationship’ (emotive)
    • Confronts him; he’s ‘ruining, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister!’ (hyperbole)
    • Darcy is figurative; ‘her heart was not likely to be easily touched’ (metaphor)
    • Contrast in their speech = conflicting opinions

    Dot points are great for quick and easy note taking, as they allow you to pull out key ideas and information and reproduce them in an easy-to-read format.

    The only problem with dot points is that you have to find a balance — too little information in each point can leave you with gaps in your knowledge, but too much defeats the whole purpose of using dot-points!

    #3: Mind Maps

    HSC Study Notes - Mind Maps

    Mind maps are great for figuring out how different ideas and information connects and how you can link them together, as well as being a really good way to add some visual learning to your study.

    However, they can only hold so much information without becoming ineffective bubbles of text! The one above was made using bubbl.us which is a great online tool!

    Dot points tend to be most popular, but some people prefer colour-coded paragraphs, mind maps, fact sheets or diagrams.

    For some subjects or topics you can even follow specialised patterns, such as when writing notes for your English texts.

    Try formatting English notes like this for easy reading:

    Technique: repetition (“I will”)

    Example: “…I will make her know  it… or I will never see her again.”

    Effect: emphasises the character’s conviction in their opinion, as well as personal investment

    Learn more about how to use TEE tables here!

    It’s also a good idea to figure out what study styles you can incorporate it into your note making for more effective study.

    Check out our article on the 7 Different Study Styles for more info on different study styles and how to use them to your advantage!

    Step 2: Work Out a System

    It’s important to consider how much you plan to be writing and how much time you’ll need to allocate for it.

    For example, below is the syllabus for 2/3 unit maths. By splitting the syllabus into sets of two dot points per week, you can easily cover all the content in one 9-week term!

    HSC Study Notes - System

    Of course, you have to factor in other subjects as well, and different course loads and content styles.

    A good rule of thumb is to:

    • Write weekly study notes for the very content-heavy subjects (Modern History, Economics, Legal Studies etc.)
    • Write topic-by-topic notes for others (Multimedia, Visual Arts, Maths etc.)

    Don’t be afraid to write notes more frequently for subjects or topics you find trickier!

    Writing up a schedule for how you plan to tackle each subject’s syllabus points can be super useful in working out your time management.

    Example Schedule

    • 4pm Home – BREAK
    • 4:15pm Bullet notes – Germany syllabus points 2a + 2b (Nazi party + Hitler)
    • 5:00pm BREAK
    • 5:05pm 5x practice questions on Nazi policy (source from past HSC or trials papers)
    • 5:30pm BREAK
    • 5:35pm Bullet notes – Germany Syllabus point 2c (Nazi power)
    • 6:10pm BREAK
    • 6:15pm 3x practice questions on Hitler (source from past HSC or trials papers)
    • 6:30pm Syllabus point done! Good work!!

    This schedule just goes to show how easy it is to cover syllabus points in one hard-working afternoon, and it can be applied to almost every subject.

    By organising your work this way it’s much easier to figure out what you want to get done and how to do it, and giving yourself a set time plan helps beat procrastination.

    Developing a visual system is also a good way to incorporate visual learning.

    This can be as simple as allocating a colour to each subject, for example; green folders, post-it notes and highlighters for Science notes, pink for English, and so on.

    This helps create visual associations within your study and allows you to emphasise key ideas or information for easy reading.

    Step 3: Write!

    Now that we’ve gone through how you should go about writing your HSC study notes, we’ll be walking you through how to overcome the challenges we mentioned above.

    Firstly though, it may seem obvious, but just getting something down is the best way to get into positive study note habits.

    It’s always good to try to stick to your plans and write as much as you can, but also remember that any notes are better than none! If this means that you only write one page for one week, but three pages the next week, that’s okay!

    What’s important is getting the information down and understanding the content you’re trying to remember.

    Formatting is a big deal, because it’s what keeps your notes from becoming page after page of text walls with nothing to define them!

    The best formatting style to follow is to break down syllabus points into more manageable headings and subheadings.

    For example…

    Here’s one syllabus point from the Modern History topic on Germany 1919-1939.

    Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 1.03.37 pm

    At first glance you’d think it’s one heading with four subheadings, but it can actually be broken into even smaller, more manageable pieces!

    HSC Study Notes - Example

    Here I’ve underlined the key themes of each point – some only feature one, but the first two have multiple ideas to explore! It looks like more work, but in fact we’ve just split up the amount of content into smaller, more manageable pieces.

    From here, it’s easy to figure out your headings and subheadings as follows;

    Weimar Republic

    • Emergence of the Democratic Republic
    • Impact of the Treaty of Versailles
    • Political issues to 1929
    • Economic issues to 1929
    • Social issues to 1929
    • Collapse of the Weimar Republic
    • Impact of the Great Depression

    Once you have your headings and subheadings sorted, you’re going to need information to write about!

    Your best bet is always you class work and text books, as this is the stuff your teachers have chosen purely because they tell you exactly what you need to know!

    Plus, most textbooks have fairly similar headings and topic, so it’s 10 times easier to find the information you need.

    If you do need to venture online to find extra information, make sure you’re smart about it.

    Wikipedia is fine for a quick look at a topic, but avoid it as much as you can – there are so many better, more reliable sources out there.

    In fact, a whole lot of sources can be found in the ‘references’ and ‘external links’ sections of any given wikipedia page, so if you’re at a loss that’s a good place to start.

    HSC Study Notes - References

    Now that you have your information it’s time to get writing based on the styles we had a look at back in Step 1!

    Remember that writing isn’t the only way to take notes and try to mix it up with diagrams, drawings, graphs and charts to keep your notes visual and make it easier to stay motivated to study.

    It’ll take some time before they really start looking like ‘proper’ study notes, but as you build up your information you’ll start to realise just how much this planning has paid off.

    How often should you write your HSC study notes?

    I recommend taking notes in class and then adding to these notes at home if you didn’t finish them or have more information to add.

    Some people prefer to update their notes at the end of every week or even every fortnight! However, I prefer to just spend 15 minutes every night getting my notes in order so that there’s not a whole stack to do over the weekend.

    You might like to separate your class notes from your home notes if that works for you. Although, I like to keep them all in one document so that they don’t disappear or get lost!

    Obviously, the amount of notes you take for each subject will differ. For example, you’ll have less notes for Maths compared to Modern History, so you may find that you need to update your notes for content-heavy subjects more frequently.

    How do you know if your notes are effective and how can you apply them?

    Every single time you write your notes for a syllabus point, find or make up a question relevant to that particular HSC dot point and include it at the end of your notes. 

    Then, use your notes to write an answer to that question. 

    It’s that simple! But how does this technique benefit you?

    Benefit #1

    Firstly, it lets you know that your notes are good — if you can’t answer the question provided, you’re going to stop and think, “Okay my notes aren’t up to standard, what can I change to make them better.”

    This simple trick will help you get the feedback you need on your notes before the exam, not after. This gives you the time you need to IMPROVE your results and EXCEL.

    Benefit #2

    Another reason why this tip is really critical is that it’s going to help you learn to apply the content you have in your notes to an actual question within your exam.

    As you’re completing various questions bit by bit in your notes throughout the term, you’re going to be completing a wide range of relevant practice questions.

    As a result, by the time you get to your exams, you would have already completed a bunch of past papers without ever having to print one out.

    In doing so, you’re building the crucial exam technique of APPLICATION without even realising it.

    Step 4: Store Your HSC Study Notes

    Finally there’s the question of what to do with your notes when you’re not studying them!

    A lot of people forget about this and end up dumping all their notes together in a draw or shelf, leading to a mish-mash of subjects next time the pull them out.

    Notebooks (handwritten notes only)

    Make things fun by going to Typo or Kmart and buying a whole bunch of cheap, colourful notebooks to write all your study notes in.

    These are usually lightweight, have a funky design on the cover and some have spiral binds, so you can pull out notes easily when you need them!

    By using books you’re writing all your notes in one place from the get-go, and storing them is as easy as slotting the book onto a shelf when you’re not using it.

    Plastic Folders (handwritten and digital notes)

    They’re a little more expensive than cardboard or manila folders, but the benefit of plastic folders is that they are way more durable and usually have elastic bands or velcro tabs to secure them shut.

    You don’t want to know how many times I saw people’s notes falling out of loose folders during the HSC!

    Folders let you make notes digitally or by hand, then print/collect them and keep them all in one place. The only downside is that (unless you’re super organised) they can sometimes get a bit mixed up.

    External Hard Drive (digital notes only)

    So many people who make notes digitally think that they’re safe from misplacing sheets or losing books, but it’s just as easy to lose a digital file!

    By backing up all of your notes onto an external hard drive at least once a week, you can make sure that you never lose more than a few days work.

    If you’re not keen on buying an external hard drive you can also use online storage, such as Google Drive — just remember you’ll need Wi-Fi whenever you want to access them!

    You’re Ready to Go!

    By following these simple steps it’s easy to establish the basis for effective, efficient study note habits.

    Incorporate several different study styles into your note taking to can maximise your study potential and summarise to take your memory retention one step further.

    Stick to your schedule and remember that any notes are better than no notes at all!

    Make sure you check out this article for tips on how to stay on top of your study notes or deal with notes you already have!

    How to Write HSC Study Notes for Specific Subjects

    If you’re looking for subject-specific guide to notes, have a browse through here!

    Standard and Advanced English Study Notes

    Writing notes for English if often a combination of theme analysis, quote collation and practice paragraphs.

    You can check out more on How to Write HSC Standard & Advanced English Study Notes here!

    Standard Maths Study Notes

    For your Standard Maths notes, you’ll often have to include formulas, worked examples of how to apply them as well as practice questions.

    Check out our steps to writing awesome Standard Maths study notes here!

    Advanced Maths Study Notes

    Writing notes for Advanced Maths often involves noting down formulas, worked examples of how these work and practice questions.

    For more on How to Write 2-Unit Advanced Maths Study Notes check this article out!

    Modern History Study Notes

    Writing notes for Modern can be straight forward but content heavy! You want to be able to balance writing notes for each syllabus dot point with sources up your sleeve whilst keeping these concise.

    For an in-depth guide on How to Write Modern History Study Notes check out this article!

    Ancient History Study Notes

    Writing notes for Ancient can be pretty content heavy, especially when you’re writing them for each syllabus dot point whilst including sources.

    You can get the full guide on How to Write Ancient History Study Notes here! 

    Chemistry Study Notes

    Writing notes for Chem is a combination of making notes according to the syllabus dot point as well as breaking down concepts so that you’ll be able to write responses to them.

    You can find out more on How to Write Chemistry Study Notes here!

    Legal Studies Study Notes

    Your Legal notes will probably be a combination of writing notes for each syllabus dot point in each topic, as well as collating case studies and legislature to use in your responses.

    You can check out more on How to Write Legal Studies Notes here!

    Economics Study Notes

    Economics is a pretty content-heavy subject, which means you’ll need to make detailed yet concise notes according to each syllabus dot point in each topic.

    For an in-depth guide on How to Write Economics Study Notes, check out this article!

    Visual Arts Study Notes

    Yes, there really is a way to write notes for Visual Arts! Often, it’ll be a combination of using the Frames, the Elements and the Conceptual Frame for each artwork you’re studying.

    You can check out more on How to Write Visual Arts Study Notes here! 

    And that wraps up our definitive guide to writing effective HSC study notes! Good luck!

    Are you looking for a tutor to help you ace the HSC?

    We pride ourselves on our inspirational coaches and mentors! 

    We offer tutoring and mentoring for Years K-12 in a large variety of subjects, with personalised lessons conducted one-on-one in your home or at our state of the art campus in Hornsby!

    To find out more and get started with an inspirational tutor and mentor get in touch today! 

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    Maddison Leach completed her HSC in 2014, achieving an ATAR of 98.00 and Band 6 in all her subjects. Having tutored privately for two years before joining Art of Smart, she enjoys helping students through the academic and other aspects of school life, even though it sometimes makes her feel old. Maddison has had a passion for writing since her early teens, having had several short stories published before joining the world of blogging. She’s currently studying a Bachelor of Design at the University of Technology Sydney and spends most of her time trying not to get caught sketching people on trains.

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