How To Write English Exam Notes

Reduce your exam stress, now! Learn how to write English Exam notes to prepare you for your English exam success.

Written by:
Matrix English Team

Are your study notes too dense to memorise? Are you struggling to find important information in your study notes? This is why we need to have English exam notes! In this article, we will show you the different ways you can write your English exam notes to fully prepare to ace your English exams.


Table of contents:


What’s the difference between study notes and exam notes?

Too often, students rely on their study notes to study for their exams. This is problematic because they are unable to remember their notes and recall important information.

Study notes are used to revise your year’s content to you ensure that you understand everything and that you don’t miss out on any information.

Exam notes are used to memorise key pieces of information. These key points act as a trigger for you to recall more detailed information.


Study notesExam notes
  • Detailed information about everything you learn during the year
  • You need to continually add to your study notes throughout the year
  • Good for revision because you won’t miss any information.
  • Shorter, simple and concise notes
  • Contains only the most important information
  • Are a trigger for you to recall more detailed information
  • Better for remembering and recalling information.




Different methods of writing English notes

Just as there are a plethora of different learning styles, there are many ways you can write and develop your English notes. What we’ll do now is show you some different step-by-step processes for compiling effective English study notes.



1. List of important evidence

It is impossible to remember 15-20 different examples for every theme, for every text.

Instead, by breaking your examples down to the 3 most important pieces of evidence…

You can easily memorise and recall them when you’re writing your responses!

Additionally, by categorising your evidence into themes, you can easily recall appropriate techniques to use for your arguments.

Alright, let’s see how to do this:


Step 1: Identify important evidence from study notes

Read through your study notes and highlight or asterisk important evidence per theme, per text.

Remember, one example can include multiple techniques. So, to figure out which piece evidence is strongest, you need to examine the following:

  • Higher-order techniques (like metaphors, ambiguity, intertextuality)
  • Important symbols and motifs
  • Stylistic choices
  • The structure or form of the text

Try not to select a low order technique, like repetition or alliteration, unless they are used in conjunction with a stronger or more significant technique to create meaning.


Step 2: Select the most important example for each theme

Now that you’ve identified important evidence from your study notes, it is time to select the most important example for each theme, per text.

Rate each of the selected examples you identified above and order them from strongest to weakest.

Select your strongest 3-4 evidence per theme, per text.

These are the examples that you will prioritise memorising.

When you are compiling these pieces of evidence into your exam notes, ensure that you include:

  • Example
  • Technique(s)
  • Brief analysis in dot point
  • Why you think it is important.

Note: Ensure that you select some techniques that are specific to the form.

For example, if you are analysing a film, you should be analysing the shots, angles, lighting, acting, costume etc. Don’t simply focus on the metaphor or imagery used in the character’s dialogue because this is not only weak, but it is not specific to the form!


Step 3: Select the next most relevant examples

Now, it’s time to create your secondary set of evidence. These are your next 2-3 strongest examples.

A secondary set of evidence ensures that you have a variety of examples and techniques to tackle different types of questions

However, don’t stress if you can’t remember these!

You should focus on your first selection of evidence and make sure you remember those off by heart before you begin rote learning these. This is your exam security net.

A Matrix student’s list of important evidence from Rosemary Dobson’s ‘Young Girl at a Window’



Want a free note-taking kit to write perfect study notes?

Download our kit with clear step-by-step instructions and the 3 templates below for you to print and use!



2. Visual references: Master mind-map, flow chart or them table

This type of English exam notes is all about identifying connections between different themes for each text, as well as the connections between texts for each module (approach to a text. Eg, a close study, genre study, or contextual study).

Having a master mind-map, flow chart or table will help you better formulate your theses and structure your arguments.

Using this you’re able to quickly recall connections between different themes and texts and consequently, scaffold a strong essay during your exams.

Note: If you are studying multiple texts for the module (eg. comparative studies, prescribed text vs related text, 5 different poems…), you must also find connections between the texts.

So, you will probably end up with a few mind-maps, flow charts or tables for each module.


Step 1: Select the most appropriate form

You can choose to create a mind-map, flow chart or table. Each have their own benefits and disadvantages.

So, it depends on what works with you best!

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons for these exam note forms:

Mind-mapFlow chartTheme table
  • Visualise connections between themes
  • Able to show more than one connection
  • Easy to recall visually
  • Able to show more than one connection
  • Can add more information at any part
  • Show a flow of ideas (like an essay). Great for scaffolding!
  • Can easily represent connections between themes and texts
  • Clean and organised
  • Best diagram to compare different texts
  • Can get messy and overcomplicated
  • May be difficult to show connections between themes placed across the page
  • Can get messy and overcomplicated
  • May be difficult to expand on themes that were explored earlier because there will be no space
  • Need to start a new flowchart for themes and ideas that don’t relate to each other
  • Doesn’t allow you to really expand on themes and ideas very well
  • Not really suited to identifying common connections between more than 2 ideas/texts at a time
  • Get unwieldly when trying toexamine too many aspects of a text at once.


Step 2: Identify different themes from each of your text

By now, you should have already identified your text’s themes. So, simply make a list of these themes from your study notes.

You will be relying on this list to draw your mind-map, flow chart or table.


Step 3: Expand the connections between themes

Now, let’s see how we can draw these these diagrams!


Developing your Mind-map

  1. Begin with the text in the centre
  2. Write themes in bubbles around the centre
  3. Expand on the themes with ideas
  4. Draw lines to connect related themes and ideas
  5. Annotate to show how the themes are linked

Note: You should use different colours to represent different things. This is to prevent your mind-map from becoming too messy.

So, now that you know how to draw a mind-map, let’s take a look at an example from a Matrix student:

A Matrix student’s mind-map to show connections between the themes in ‘Richard III’


Here, the student circled the main themes and wrote the ideas in black. They also drew connections in purple and briefly explain these connections in red.

This allows the student to easily identify different aspects without overcrowding the mind-map.

Also, notice how the mind-map is simple but also contains just the right amount of information to make sense. The student briefly identifies different ideas that derives from a theme, and relates it to other themes.



Developing a Flow-chart 

  1. Begin with a theme at the top of the page
  2. Expand on the theme with ideas
  3. Link the themes and ideas to another theme
  4. Continue to expand
  5. Annotate to show how the themes are linked
A Matrix student’s flowchart on the themes in ‘Richard III’ to identify a flow of ideas.

Notice how the flow chart guides you through a theme and their ideas, to another theme and their ideas. Doesn’t this seem familiar?

That’s right!

The flow chart mimics an essay structure. It shows a ‘flow of ideas’ which helps you structure cohesive and sustained essays.

Flow charts allow students to explore different ideas that stems from a theme and relate them to other ideas and themes.


Developing a theme Table

  1. List the same themes on both axis
  2. Highlight the corresponding boxes where the themes are related
  3. Write a small note in the box to explain the connection


A Matrix student’s table to show connections between different themes in ‘Richard III’


You will find that there are 2 squares for each connection between 2 themes. This gives you space to write 2 different comments on this connection.

Although it’s best to try to fill in all the highlighted squares, don’t feel obliged to do so.


How to use tables for comparative study:

Table 1: Study of 2 texts

Now, let’s see how to identify connections between a pair of texts. The best diagram for this task is a table because you are able to clearly identify shared themes between different texts.

  1. List the themes of Text 1 on the x axis
  2. List the themes of Text 2 on the y axis
  3. Highlight squares of common themes or themes that are related
  4. Write a small comment on the connection
A Matrix student’s comparative notes for ‘Richard III’ and ‘Looking for Richard’

Notice how we are able to easily identify shared themes and related themes between the two texts. Memorising this table will help you figure out your thesis and arguments in your exam.


Table 2: Study of more than 2 texts

  1. List the texts on the x-axis
  2. List important themes from all the texts on the y-axis
  3. Highlight all the corresponding squares where the text explores the themes
  4. Write a small comment on how the text explores the theme
Here is an example from a Matrix student

Notice how some texts may explore more common themes than others. This table is a sure way of identifying these shared themes and connections between the texts.

This is an essential study asset for “compare” or “contrast” questions!

Use these tables to figure out the most suitable texts to discuss in your essays based on your question and the themes they explore.



3. Scaffolds

Scaffolds are essentially a combination of Step 1 and Step 2. A scaffold requires you to identify related themes and ideas and identify the most important questions.

They are plans for your essay structure.

A scaffold includes:

  • A thesis
  • Main body points
  • List of evidence

Writing scaffolds (and doing scaffolding drills -timed scaffolding drills where you produce a scaffold to a question against a time limit) will prepare you to answer a wide range of questions and help you develop the skills needed to quickly formulate strong theses and arguments.



Step 1: Formulate a question

There are many ways you can formulate and/or find questions.

Some methods are more challenging than others. You can choose to follow multiple methods or stick to one.  It is up to you to figure out what is best for your studies!


a. Ask teachers for questions

You can always ask your teachers or Matrix teachers to give you a bank of good essay questions to scaffold your responses.

This way you know you are practising with strong exam-style questions.

Remember to always be polite when you are asking.


b. Find questions from past papers or online resources

Another method is looking for past papers or online resources to find questions.

This is another sure way of ensuring that you are practising a wide range of exam-style questions.

Your school should provide you with past papers. If not, search online for some past papers or question banks.

We have a few question banks and past papers for HSC English:


c. Build a bank of questions with your friends

If you are confident with your text and the structure of exam-style questions, then feel free to write your own practice questions.

Create a shared document with your friends and pop down your questions.

At the end, you will have a document of different types of exam-questions, written by different people!

This means that you will have a wide range of questions with different focuses.


d. Change your syllabus dot points into questions

This method is a sure way of ensuring that you are prepared for anything that the syllabus may require you to do. (This is a useful habit you should practise from junior years, if you can, as it will teach you the skills you need for Stage 6)

Obviously, this method does require you to spend more time formulating questions (but that will help you learn the syllabus dot-points!).

  1. Go through your syllabus and identify key points
  2. Change these key points into questions
  3. Advanced options:
    1. Combine question with a skill outlined in the syllabus
    2. Combine multiple ideas into 1 question


Step 2: Form a thesis and argument

Now, the challenge! Formulate a quick thesis and dot point your arguments.

Ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ as you are answering the question to fully flesh out your thesis and arguments.

Remember, these are not supposed to be a polished piece of writing. This activity is supposed to train the way you think and approach questions.


Step 3: Identify evidence that supports the argument

Now, go through your study notes or list of evidence for each theme and select the most appropriate pieces of evidence for your arguments.

You can write a brief comment that explains how the evidence supports your argument.

This is an example of a scaffold for a Romeo and Juliet essay question.

As we can see from above, the student has colour coded their work. Red is used for the question and the evidence/technique, whereas blue is used for the example. Black is used for the ideas and the brief explanation of the evidence.

You should practise doing a few scaffolds to a variety of different questions to fully prepare yourself for the exam. You don’t know what type of question the exam will throw at you, so it is best to be prepared!



Extra tips to make your notes memorable!

Simply writing your notes and never looking back at them is not good enough. You need to also remember them!

So, here are some useful tips to help you make memorable notes:

  • Use different colours to represent different things
    • eg. Red for examples, blue for techniques, orange for themes, OR, colour code different themes
  • Use acronyms and mnemonics
    • eg. A.M. (Allusion and Metaphor) for “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature” (Richard III)
  • Draw symbols, diagrams or images to represent different ideas
    • eg. Draw a crown to represent power
  • Write important tips in the margin
    • eg. “Remember to link to audience”
  • Write in your own words
  • And, finally, write by hand! Writing things out helps you retain information and essential for rote learning!


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Written by Matrix English Team

The Matrix English Team are tutors and teachers with a passion for English and a dedication to seeing Matrix Students achieving their academic goals.

© Matrix Education and, 2023. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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