Our Blog

Discovering the Cornell Method

  • Image
  • 0

Many students never really consider or reflect on their method for taking notes in class. They think that they have to copy down everything they read or hear. When preparing for an exam or assignment, they copy their notes out again, producing page after page of A4 facsimiles.

This method of note taking is generally time consuming and ineffective. But surely that’s the only way to do it!?

I was one of those students. I progressed from GCSE, to ‘A’levels then on to university taking notes in this manner; I was little more than a scribe. Rather than focusing on the content and meaning of the class, I was too busy writing down everything seen and heard.

Days or weeks after a class or lecture, I would look at my notes again and they would seem utterly foreign to me. This effect is called ‘ice-cold notes’. Ice‐Cold notes are frustrating and are time wasters. You do not want to be gazing at your own writing and wondering, “What did I mean by that?” or “I have no recollection of that!” Slowly but surely I realised something had to change and I began to pick up tips from other students.

By the time I had completed my Master’s degree in my late 20s, I had a homebrew shorthand system comprising abbreviations, diagrams, symbols and colours. Throughout my thirties, working in professional environments, I was exposed to time management, organising and planning tools which led me to incorporate a page-division strategy into my diarising and note-taking methods. I used this additional element to separate personal from professional tasks.

I felt that these techniques would really benefit the students I worked with. What eluded me however was a way to assimilate these various tools into a coherent and simple system for note-taking, which students would see as useful and relevant to their studies. I needed to de-personalise it and make it user-friendly; creating in effect a ‘unified-notes-theory’. Thankfully, I have not needed to do that, as a solution came calling!

During my 18 month research into note-taking systems, one in particular got a lot of internet mentions and therefore grabbed my attention. It is called the Cornell method and it is a scorcher – a quantum leap in note-taking! I have been trialling it over the last 12 months in a variety of scenarios and I’m sold: it’s straight forward and incredibly effective. What I love about it the most is that it is based on a simple framework within which you can apply your own shorthand or coding systems. Let’s have a look at how it works…

What is it?

The Cornell method is a note-taking method was developed in the 1950’s by Walter Pauk, a professor of education at Cornell University, New York. The method provides an incredibly effective system for condensing and organising notes. First you need to create the template. Divide your paper into four areas: a header bar, two columns and a footer section. The title of the class should be written in the header. Notes from the class are written in the larger note-taking column on the right, consisting of the main information, facts and opinions. Try to avoid using long sentences; use symbols or abbreviations instead. To assist with future reviews, relevant questions or key words are written in the cue column on the left.

Within 24 hours of taking the notes, you should review them, research any outstanding questions and then write a brief summary in the footer. This will help to broaden your understanding of the topic. When studying for an exam, you will have a concise but detailed record of previous classes. When reviewing your notes, you can cover the note-taking column while answering the questions and explaining the keywords in the cue column. To deepen your understanding and to aid memory retention, we advise you to review and revise your notes regularly.

The Cornell Method template:

Title (header) Insert the class details; subject, topic, teacher, location, date.
Notes (right column) Record the information within the class using short sentences that transcribe the details you’ll need. Try and eliminate all unnecessary words. Use bulleted lists for easy skimming, and as much shorthand as possible. Develop a vocabulary of abbreviations you can use. Think textspeak. Leave some whitespace between points and paragraphs so you can fill in more detail later.
Cues and Questions (left column) Record relevant questions here. You might have the opportunity within the class to ask these questions. After class, review your notes and questions and insert cues; consider these as memory-jogging trigger words. When you’re studying, you will use these cues to help recall the detail from your notes.
Summary (footer) After creating your cues, condense the notes on each page in one or two sentences that encapsulate the main ideas. You will use the summary section to skim through your notes later. Try reviewing your notes at intervals of day, week, month, and then regularly in the run-up to your exams.

An important benefit for the students is that it promotes different ways of thinking about the content which they are being exposed to. Each of the four panels or areas within the template demand different cognitive skills, such as:
• Recording
• Condensing
• Reflecting
• Reviewing

What an awesome technique! Just three lines on an A4 page and a simple process. I think it would certainly have helped me when studying for my ‘A’levels and have enabled me to make a more productive transition into higher education. I’m really looking forward to sharing the Cornell Method with post-16 students across the country from September 2016 as we are now including it in our workshop: Stepping UP. I hope you have found this blog useful and that it has provided another angle on this note-taking system, the Cornell Method.

Sander de Groot

Tags: , , , , ,

This is a unique website which will require a more modern browser to work! Please upgrade today!