The Cornell Note-Taking System: Learn the Method Students Have Used to Enhance Their Learning Since the 1940s

How should you take notes in class? Like so many stu­dents who came before me and would come after, I had lit­tle idea in col­lege and even less in high school. The inher­ent­ly ambigu­ous nature of the note-tak­ing task has inspired a vari­ety of meth­ods and sys­tems, few of them as respect­ed as Cor­nell Notes. Invent­ed in the 1940s by Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion pro­fes­sor Wal­ter Pauk, author of How to Study in Col­lege, Cor­nell Notes involves divid­ing each page up into three sec­tions: one to para­phrase the lec­ture’s main ideas, one to sum­ma­rize those ideas, and one to write ques­tions. After writ­ing down those main ideas dur­ing class, imme­di­ate­ly sum­ma­rize and add ques­tions about the con­tent. Then, while study­ing lat­er, try to answer those ques­tions with­out look­ing at the main body of notes.

You’ll find a com­plete and con­cise expla­na­tion of how to take Cor­nell Notes at Cor­nel­l’s web site, which includes infor­ma­tion on the “Reflect” stage (in which you ask your­self broad­er ques­tions like “What’s the sig­nif­i­cance of these facts?” and “What prin­ci­ple are they based on?”) and the “Review” stage (in which you “spend at least ten min­utes every week review­ing all your pre­vi­ous notes” to aid reten­tion).

For a more detailed visu­al expla­na­tion, have a look at teacher Jen­nifer DesRochers’ instruc­tions for how to take Cor­nell Notes in the video above, which now approach­es one mil­lion views on Youtube. Her own ver­sion encour­ages tak­ing down main-idea sum­maries in draw­ings as well as text, and includ­ing things like “key points” and “impor­tant peo­ple or ideas” in the ques­tion col­umn.

That DesRochers’ video now approach­es one mil­lion views sug­gests stu­dents still find the Cor­nell Notes sys­tem effec­tive, as much as or even more so than they did when Pauk first pub­lished it. Over time, of course, its users have also aug­ment­ed it: take Doug Neil­l’s video “Improv­ing Cor­nell Notes With Sketch­not­ing Tech­niques” above, which com­bines stan­dard Cor­nell Notes with his sys­tem of “sketch­not­ing,” also known as “visu­al note-tak­ing and graph­ic record­ing.”

He pro­vides exam­ples of what such Cor­nell-for­mat­ted sketch­not­ing might look like, explain­ing that “hav­ing the option of doing some­thing more visu­al in your mind trig­gers a dif­fer­ent type of pro­cess­ing pow­er, so that you’re more active in the way that you’re respond­ing to the ideas. You’re not just pas­sive­ly tak­ing in infor­ma­tion.” The nature of school, as stu­dents in every era have known, can often induce a state of pas­siv­i­ty; sys­tems like Cor­nell Notes and its many vari­a­tions remind us of how much more we can learn if we have a way to break out of it.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

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Wyn­ton Marsalis Gives 12 Tips on How to Prac­tice: For Musi­cians, Ath­letes, or Any­one Who Wants to Learn Some­thing New

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What’s a Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-Proven Way to Improve Your Abil­i­ty to Learn? Get Out and Exer­cise

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (12)
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  • Shelly says:

    Won­der­ful web page. Obvi­ous­ly the pre­vi­ous post does­n’t val­ue edu­ca­tion. Any­one aspir­ing to a high­er edu­ca­tion and learn­ing lev­el val­ues any tips on ways to process and retain infor­ma­tion. All the oth­er links on the page are also won­der­ful cul­tur­al short­cuts.

  • Brandon says:

    I’ve known 2 peo­ple who’ve gone to Cor­nell, not even Cor­nell uses “Cor­nell notes.”

  • Applgasm Apps says:

    There’s an app for this. Cor­nell Notes for iPad.

  • Chaim Silvershekel says:

    Plat­i­tudes of intel­li­gence. Any­one who has made it to post grad knows this is absolute garbage.

  • TomR says:

    Bran­don … what’s your point? I use the Oxford com­ma all the time, but I did­n’t to to Oxford.

  • flensingknife says:

    Dif­fer­ent peo­ple have dif­fer­ent ways of learn­ing and pro­cess­ing infor­ma­tion. Claim­ing that any one method is “the best” is exact­ly as stu­pid as claim­ing that any one method is “absolute garbage.”

  • Elias Zuniga says:

    Agree with so many posters here. When there are so many dif­fer­ent ways of observ­ing and learn­ing infor­ma­tion, the idea of any one way (includ­ing “Cor­nell” notes) as being *the* way to take lec­ture notes strikes me as absurd.

  • Stephanie says:

    That’s because MOST stu­dents do not spend the time to learn note­tak­ing. Pro­fes­sors often asked me for my notes to refresh them­selves on the dis­cus­sion of the pre­vi­ous week, so obvi­ous­ly THEY thought it was a good method. I did­n’t know it was called Cor­nell, but I com­bined both Cor­nell and Sketch­not­ing (as dis­cussed in video) — learned it in the 1990s. Since you obvi­ous­ly missed out on this, con­sult the Study Skills depart­ment of your uni­ver­si­ty. At Cor­nell, it’s called the Learn­ing Strate­gies Cen­ter. Might get some good tips even now when attend­ing lec­tures.

  • AJ says:

    Cer­tain­ly, tak­ing down every sin­gle word is inef­fec­tive and basi­cal­ly pas­sive, as Neill says. Cor­nell, how­ev­er, is def­i­nite­ly not pas­sive.

    When I was teach­ing high school, I taught the Cor­nell method in week 1 and had the class prac­tice it as I read a page on a win­ter fes­ti­val in Europe. Since I worked taught in an inner-city school, I want­ed my stu­dents to learn well and effi­cient­ly; they had so many oth­er large issues lim­it­ing their time and atten­tion out of class. :(

    I nev­er referred to the fes­ti­val after the prac­tice; if stu­dents asked about their notes, I said that was just for prac­tice, and they gen­er­al­ly threw them away and for­got about Cor­nell note-tak­ing. In week 3, I gave a pop quiz on that win­ter fes­ti­val, ten ques­tions I read and they answered on loose­leaf paper.

    In over 20 years of teach­ing, not a sin­gle stu­dent failed that quiz. I kept wait­ing, year after year, but no one failed (very few per­fect scores; most missed 2 or 3 ques­tions).

    After­ward, we’d dis­cuss test-tak­ing, study, and grades. I’d focus on the times they HAD failed a quiz on mate­r­i­al they knew they were respon­si­ble for mas­ter­ing. What made the dif­fer­ence? Their con­sen­sus was the Cor­nell method, and I agree. Nor­mal­ly, a review of the process fol­lowed, and this time, the kids were very atten­tive b/c they’d seen for them­selves that it helped them learn.

    Sketch­not­ing is inter­est­ing to exam­ine, but while kids are col­or­ing in sec­tion dividers or com­ing up with bul­let designs for their lists (instead of num­ber­ing them as in Cor­nell), the teacher is con­tin­u­ing to present mate­r­i­al, as he men­tions. The odds of a stu­dent miss­ing some­thing impor­tant while sketch­ing makes that method not one I would rec­om­mend to my stu­dents. How­ev­er, I would (and have) encour­aged stu­dents to make help­ful dia­grams, etc. as a very help­ful study activ­i­ty at home.

    Every­one learns dif­fer­ent­ly. Some peo­ple remem­ber every­thing with one hear­ing, oth­ers must take notes, oth­ers must add move­ment and rep­e­ti­tion to their study­ing reper­toire. I don’t think any edu­ca­tor would name any method as being best for every learn­er, but the Cor­nell method has demon­strat­ed its use­ful­ness to my stu­dents and me, so I hope any­one who knows a strug­gling stu­dent will give it a try. The Pauk book men­tioned is an excel­lent resource, too — the best I’ve found to date.

  • Anna says:

    Don’t for­get a long lost prac­tice that is proven to be help­ful, writ­ing your notes in cur­sive. There are mul­ti­ple stud­ies that have proven when we write things down in cur­sive it uses a dif­fer­ent part of the brain than print­ing or typ­ing and we retain the infor­ma­tion bet­ter. So what ever ‘method’ you chose, do it in cur­sive and you will real­ly see an improve­ment.

  • Nancy says:

    Thank you for this sto­ry and the insight gleaned from it for the use­ful­ness of this method. I appre­ci­ate the input.

  • Josh says:

    The Cor­nell note method is a game-chang­er for any­one look­ing to improve their note-tak­ing and study habits. This sys­tem allows for effec­tive sum­ma­riza­tion and orga­ni­za­tion of infor­ma­tion, mak­ing it eas­i­er to review and retain what you’ve learned. I high­ly rec­om­mend check­ing out Cor­nell notes tem­plates to use them when­ev­er you want:

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