Cornell Note-Taking System – the Fast and Easy Way to Take Notes

With my youngest daughter entering her sophomore year of high school, we decided that she was ready to take dual credit classes at our local community college. Before she could begin taking college-level courses though, she was required to enroll in a study skills class. While taking this course, we quickly realized that she was going to have to work on her note-taking skills. As a homeschooler, she never really had to take notes on teacher-led discussions and initially had difficulty keeping up with all the material that was presented in class. Because my daughter is very artistic and right-brained, the standard outline format did not register well. So, in doing some research on all the various note-taking techniques, we discovered the Cornell Note-taking System which has helped her tremendously with the lecture format of her college courses.

The Cornell Note-taking System was developed in the 1950s by Cornell University professor, Walter Paul. This method became widely used after the publication of his popular book, How to Study in College. One of the primary reasons Cornell Notes is so effective is because of how the page is organized. You can use any kind of paper; just divide it into two sections. Begin by folding your paper (or drawing a line) so that the right-hand column is two-thirds of the page and the left-hand column is one-third of the page, reserving the bottom portion of your paper for summaries. It is also important to remember to only write your notes on one side of the page so that your information is easy to retrieve and read.

The right-hand column is the notetaking section of the page. It’s important for your notes to be brief and concise, using abbreviations and symbols where you can. This is where you can draw diagrams, timelines, etc. Indenting and using spaces, headings, numbers, or bullets will help make your notes easier to read.

Once you have finished taking notes, you can use the left-hand column to record cues or prompts. In this section, you can write questions that will help you with recall. Questions need to be the main points in your notes or about specific definitions that you wrote out. They can even be sample test questions. You can also use this part of the page to draw icons that will remind you of what you recorded on that page.

Another strength of the Cornell Note-taking System is that it facilitates recall as you’re studying for a test or quiz. My daughter quickly realized that it wasn’t enough to just write the information down from her class lectures or from her reading. She needed to REVIEW, REVIEW, REVIEW!

Once you begin the review process, you can use the left column or the “cue” column to test yourself over the information in your notes. Short, frequent review sessions over class and reading notes are extremely helpful in retaining information. After you finish your review, write a brief summary of what you just studied at the bottom of that page. This will later serve as a quick reference for the material in your notes.

One other thing that is very helpful, is to make sure that you record at the top of each page the subject (biology, algebra, economics, etc.), perhaps the topic if applicable, and the date. There is nothing worse than trying to put notes back together after a binder breaks or explodes!

You might be thinking to yourself, “This sounds like a lot of work! Is this note-taking method worth it?” The short answer is, “Yes!” By reviewing the information multiple times, you give yourself the opportunity to process the information in different ways. Not only do you record the information, but you ensure your understanding by stating key points and developing questions to ask yourself about the material. By writing summaries for each page, you are able to process and synthesize the information into your own words.

Taking notes requires you to be an active learner and helps you to better retain the information. It forces you to interact with the information, you are fully engaged with what you are learning, and your mind is less likely to wander. Using the Cornell Note-taking System also provides a solid means for review and will help students better prepare for their quizzes and tests.

If you’re like my daughter and want to add a little whimsy to everything that you do, then you might want to consider adding some of you’re own creative and artistic flair to your notes. There are multiple ways to do this, and if it helps you to focus and concentrate on what you are learning better, then why not?

Sketch note-taking is one way you can achieve this. You can include icons that help you quickly recognize key points and definitions. You can use banners and arrows to help highlight topics and changes in the subject.

While it’s fine to just use notebook paper and a three-ring binder for your notes, you can also use journals. Different colored pens are also a bonus, but I would only use one or two colors while you’re in class. You can always go back and highlight, add icons or drawings when you are writing in your questions and/or cues in the left-hand column.

Another tool we have found to be helpful is post-it notes. These come in all shapes, sizes, and colors and have helped my daughter in a variety of ways. They are great to use for adding in diagrams or drawings. They can be used for formulas or special definitions. We read one blog that even suggested using it to write down additional practice questions or to cover up information as you test yourself over the information on that page.

As you can see, there is a lot of flexibility built into the Cornell Note-taking System. It enables students to quickly record, review, and recall any information that they are trying to learn. For my homeschool high schooler, it has made the transition to her college classes that much easier!

I’m a firm believer in keeping things simple and note-taking is no exception to that rule! So, when it comes to supplies you can do what we do and just use simple notebook paper or copy paper and a three-ring binder. Or you can opt to use various types of journals or composition notebooks. The one thing that we both love to use though, is high-quality pens.