Power Notes

In the normal course of events Power Notes are a simple way to organise your note-taking.

If push-comes-to-shove, however, they can also be a very effective way to re-organise your conventional linear notes to make them more revision-friendly.

Although there are a variety of patterned / visual note-taking techniques around, it’s a good bet the default mode for most teachers and students tends to be linear: which, when you come to think about it, isn’t that surprising.

Not only do linear notes mimic how we conventionally learn to write across a page, so there’s no great learning curve involved, they’re also well-suited to a variety of situations in which we need to take notes. This is particularly the case for fast-paced situations like lectures or videos where large amounts of information are often delivered and received at such a speed as to require an accurate recording system that can process this data quickly and efficiently.

Unfortunately, one downside to the speed and efficiency of linear note-taking tends to be that by the end of a two-year course you end up with a lot of notes. And by a lot I mean several folders packed with closely-written pages of text.

Power Notes Example

And if you’re the kind of student that leaves revision until you’ve finished the course, you’re going to have around 12 weeks max to relearn all the stuff you last studied up to a year and a half ago.

A relatively short amount of time, coupled with an intimidatingly large number of folders filled with notes tends to result in just one thing: a feeling of being overwhelmed. And this, in turn, makes it much less likely you’re going to remember what you’re revising because, of necessity, you’ll try to cover it all too quickly.

You’ll use, for example, techniques like reading and re-reading your notes, coupled with things like highlighting key ideas. While these are a super-efficient way to cover all the course information quickly, research has shown them to be a very inefficient way of remembering and understanding information.

The upshot of all this is that while you end-up doing a massive amount of work, you don’t really remember much of what you’ve revised. And you don’t have to take my word for it (although, if we’re being honest, you probably should). Tom Stafford, Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield, says it’s pointless to “stress yourself with revision where you read and re-read textbooks and course notes” (Make study more effective, the easy way: 2011).

“Trying to remember something has been shown to have almost no effect on whether you do remember it. The implication for revision is clear: just looking at your notes won’t help you learn them” (Five secrets to revising that can improve your grades: 2014).

While this seems to leave you with no room for manoeuvre – on the one hand you’ve got all those notes taking up valuable storage space while on the other your exams are, if you’re lucky, a few short weeks away – all’s not lost:

“You’ll remember better (and understand much better) if you try and re-organise the material you’ve been given in your own way” (Make study more effective, the easy way: 2011).

While completely re-organising your notes might sound a bit desperate – why waste precious revision time restructuring notes you already have? – it’s actually going to help you revise. Power Notes are a tool to help you re-organise and categorise your existing notes in a way that focuses on the essential things you need to know for your exams. And by doing this you make your revision easier, more-productive and more-useful.


In basic terms, creating Power Notes involves identifying both the main and supporting ideas in your existing notes using a highly-structured, revision-friendly, frame of reference consisting of different “power levels”:

  • Level 1 is always the most important (key) idea you want to illustrate
  • Level 2 involves ideas that support and illustrate the main idea.
  • Level 3 involves things like examples that support / criticise Level 2 ideas.
  • Level 4 involves ideas that support / criticise Level 3 ideas.

We can put some flesh on these bare bones by illustrating how easy it is to create a set of Power Notes from your existing notes. Have a quick read through the following notes I’ve created on the Functionalist Perspective in Sociology.

Functionalism: Some Notes

For Functionalists any explanation of how order and stability are created and maintained involves looking at how societies are organised at the level of the social system. This involves the idea that the various parts of a society (family, education, work and so forth) work in harmony, such that each is dependent on the other. This idea is expressed through an Organismic analogy (society is like a human body). Just as the different parts of the body – the heart, lungs and brain – work together to form something greater than the sum of their individual parts (a living body) the different parts of a society work together to form a social system.

 In this respect Parsons (1937) argues every social system consists of four “functional sub-systems” – political, economic, cultural and family – each of which performs different, but related, functions based on certain “problems” faced by every society:

The connections between the various “parts” of the social system – family, culture, work and government – are created by institutional purposes and needs. For a family institution to exist (and perform its functions) its members need to survive. The work institution performs this survival function by allowing family members to earn money to buy the food (among other things) they consume; conversely, to fulfil this purpose, work needs families to produce socialised human beings.

While order is created at the institutional level through these relationships, Parsons (1959) explains how individuals fit into the overall structure of society on the basis of functional prerequisites – things that must happen if society is to function properly. For individuals to survive and prosper they need to be part of larger co-operative groups – they must combine to solve fundamental problems. Every social institution, from families to schools to workplaces, must develop ways to ensure individuals conform to the needs of both the institution and society as a whole. For Parsons institutions do this by developing ways to solve “four problems of their existence”. We can illustrate using the example of education:

1. Goal maintenance: Institutions must provide people with goals, such as academic qualifications, to achieve.

2. Adaptation: To achieve institutional goals people need a co-operative environment, such as a classroom and teachers, within which people can work.

3. Integration: People must be motivated to achieve (educational) goals and one way to do this to encourage a “sense of belonging”; to both wider society, where educational qualifications are used to sift and sort (differentiate) adults in the workplace and the education system itself. A school, for example, makes people feel they both “belong” to the institution – school uniforms serve this function – and have things in common with other pupils and teachers – they are working toward a common goal.

4. Latency: Conflicts within an institution must be managed and rules created to encourage desirable behaviour and punish rule-breaking (deviance). In schools these rules cover things like attendance, behaviour, dress and so forth designed to maintain a particular way of institutional life.

Both societies and their institutions can only function if people feel they are part of a much larger community. If millions of individuals simply acted in their own selfish interests things would fall quickly apart. We must, therefore, be compelled to behave in ways that are reasonable, consistent and broadly predictable if social order is to be maintained for the overall benefit of all. Control of behaviour, on one level, involves people sharing similar beliefs, values and behaviours so they are effectively working towards a common goal. Institutions also, as we’ve noted, must devise ways of making people conform; both willingly, by convincing them that observance of certain rules are in their interests and, where this does not work, through a variety of control agents – both “soft”, such as teachers, and “hard” such as the police and armed forces.


You create Power Notes using a four-column table. Each column, as I’ve created it below, represents one of the four levels I’ve previously noted:

Level 1: The main idea for these notes is Functionalism

Level 2: Functionalism is illustrated by various Level 2 ideas (Social system and so forth).

Level 3: Each of the Level 2 ideas is illustrated by, in this instance, an example.

Level 4: This column has been used to add any necessary supporting information for the Level 3 ideas.

  Sociological Perspectives  
Level 1 Level 2Level 3Level 4
 Social System  Organismic analogy   
 Sub-systemsPolitical, Economic, Cultural, Family  Parsons (1937)
 Purpose and Need  e.g. Workplace and Family   
 Functional prerequisites  GAIL Parsons (1959)  1. Goal maintenance
2. Adaptation
3. Integration
4. Latency  
 Social ControlSoft: teachers, parents
Hard: Police, army  
Shared beliefs, values and behaviours?
Power Notes: Functionalism

As you can see from the above, the first thing Power Notes do is re-organise your notes into a far more revision-friendly format. The focus here is on identifying the key information you’re going to need for an exam.

The second way Power Notes help is by clarifying and simplifying complex ideas and relationships in a highly visual way. By arranging your ideas in terms of different levels you can immediately see how key information is related.

Thirdly, one of the great benefits of re-structuring your notes is that this constitutes a solid and very effective way to revise. Not are you having to actively select the most important information to highlight, you’re reinforcing this selection process by having to think consciously about how to categorise this key information.

Finally, by organising key information into columns you’re having to think about how each piece of information relates to the next – a skill that will help you in the exam when it comes to constructing extended answers.

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