How to Make a Study Guide that Actually Helps

A study guide is usually a condensed version of all the information you need for an examination or test. Not only does it help you to study before the test, the process of making it itself allows you to familiarize yourself with the materials. I personally find making study guides to be an essential step when preparing for exams.  

When should I make my own study guides?

I used to make the mistake of not starting to make these guides until a month (or even a week) before the test or exam. That worked fine, and I still had the notes on the day before the exam, but then I realized I missed out the best part of making the study guides. In fact, the end product isn’t the most important thing (although it still matters), but it is the process of making it that help you to absorb and understand the information. So basically, the most efficient and effective way of studying (especially for college students) is to make study guides right from the start of the semester.

That sounds a lot of work, I know, but if you consider spending one to two hours (or a little bit more than that) after every week’s lecture to organize everything into one word document or notebook, it really doesn’t seem much compared to spending a few weeks on making a study guide for one course.  

How to create a study guide?

Making your own personalized guides is quite different from your normal note-taking. Study guides are more exam-oriented, instead of merely summarizing and organizing information. It is a tool to help you to study for your exams and to guide you through answering exam questions. So you definitely have to bear the following things in mind:

  1. Your study guides have to include every topic listed on the syllabus for the examination. Or, if you are confident enough, you can pick the topics that you think will be examined or that you need to particularly go through.
  2. While getting everything in is important, make sure to omit things that are not useful or helpful in the exam. There are going to be things that are very informative in your textbook or readings, but you can definitely tell that they have no relevance to the examination. If so, take them out of your study guides.
  3. Your final goal is to have one booklet or notebook that contains everything you have learned in that course that will help you in the exam. During the last few days of the exam, this booklet should be the only thing you need.

What are the sources of your study guides?

College students

If you are in college, lecture notes are usually the most important material you should refer to when studying for exams, because they are things covered by the person who came up with the exam paper. I usually use them as the base material, and then add the important points and references I found from readings and tutorials to it. Meanwhile, if your tutorials have some tutorial questions, they are likely to be similar to the exam questions. Putting those questions and answers covered by the tutor or other students in the study guides will be helpful. Some lecturers and tutors will also advise you on how to answer the question. They will either mention some answering skills, or the structure of a good answer, or even an attack plan. You should definitely note those down to remind yourself when doing your final revision.

Middle school and high school students

If you are in high school, textbooks are likely to prevail, but it depends on your course structure and the way your teacher teaches. Textbook generally covers everything in the syllabus and you can simply follow its way of organization.Past papers or practice papers are a great help when making study guides, because they help you to understand what will be on the exam paper, and most importantly, how you could answer the question.

My approach: I used to place a great emphasis on past papers. I had one notebook for each class in which I left a few blank pages for each topic. I would then mark the important questions (usually those with long answers, or the ones I found difficult) and copy the question and provided answers to the corresponding topic section of the notebook. As I did more and more past papers, I have a collection of Q&As organized by topic to study from.

Organizing the study guides

I highly recommend making an overview at the very beginning of the study guides and before every chapter. This is a page that maps out the topics you have to study and what is going to appear in each chapter. It’s usually much easier to get through everything once you have a big picture in mind. You can either do this in an outline format or a concept map/mind map. There are a lot of note-taking techniques and style that may be helpful when creating a study guide, and that very much depends on your own learning style and the subject you are studying. Here are some that I can think of:

  • Tables
  • Mindmaps
  • Flowcharts
  • Charts
  • Timelines
  • Simple outlines
  • Diagrams
  • Color-coding
  • Symbols

As mentioned at the beginning, creating your study guide isn’t just about making the notes, or copying everything into a notebook, but a process for you to comprehend everything. It’s best if you can make use of this time to understand all the information and find out areas that you are not familiar with. Using your own words instead of copying word-by-word may also increase your comprehension. Additional research is sometimes necessary. A quick search on the internet may help you to understand concepts or ideas that you are confused with. If the information is useful, you should also note those down on your study guides. Textbook summaries at the end of each chapter are very handy since they help you to sort out the important information. While they don’t cover everything in the chapters, you can use the summaries as a blueprint. When you are condensing the information, prioritizing the information and making the important ones stand out is the key.  For example, here is my note-taking key:

  • Red star: next to topics that are very likely to come up in the examination
  • Circle: topics that I don’t understand/fail to grasp when making the study guides
  • Green highlight: keywords with definitions
  • Pink highlight: main idea
  • Red highlight: authority or names
  • Purple highlight: examples

Remember to also note down tips on how to answer the exam questions. Here are a few things that I like putting into my study guides

  • Answering structures or attack plans for common exam questions
  • Some common mistakes previous students made  (which are usually brought up by the teacher or lecturer)
  • Important concept or clarification of misunderstandings