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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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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