How to Take Better Notes and Study More Effectively With Cornell Note Taking System

There are dozens of ways to take notes, but they all seemingly end up with the same outcome: well-intentioned bullet points that quickly turn into vast swathes of difficult-to-memorise text, abbreviations that become uncrackable codes (even to those that made them in the first place), and mindless layouts with all the clarity of an inebriated housefly. If you frequently find your notes (be it from class, business meetings or online courses) in any way similar to the above then the Cornell Notes system is for you.

Illustration of person writing Cornell notes besides the table

Created in the 1940s by Walter Pauk, a prominent education professor from (you guessed it) Cornell University, the Cornell Notes method was devised so you can make better notes, and study more effectively. Many people find the Cornell Note system to be a transformative approach to note-taking, and you could too. In this article we’ll tell you what Cornell Notes are, why they are so effective and how to take them.

What are Cornell Notes?

Cornell Notes are an uncomplicated, structured way of taking notes on any subject. We’ll go into more detail below but all you’ll need to get started is a decent sized pad of paper (A4 is preferable, and can be lined, grid-lined or blank), a pen (obviously), and three lines across & down the page.

With Cornell Notes you can organise your notes on-the-go through class, rather than mindlessly scribbling all the information thrown in your direction as quickly as possible. The beauty of Cornell Notes lies in the layout, and by employing this technique you will find yourself making more sense of the class material as the lesson progresses, and a better understanding of the content when it’s time for review.

Advantages and Use Cases of Cornell Notes

It’s simple

This is Cornell Notes’s most prominent feature, and its biggest advantage too: it’s simple. It’s such a straightforward method to implement that you don’t need much to do it. No coloured tabs or reams of dividers or post-it notes, just pen and paper. It also means that once you’ve read this article you’ll be good to go, and bringing big gains to your note-taking skills in no time.

It’s flexible

There are an abundance of subject-matters out there - luckily, Cornell Notes work with every single one. They can be applied to any number of scenarios, including those outside of the learning environment. Whilst the majority of people will use Cornell Notes within the context of classroom learning and university lectures, it works equally well with online courses, client meetings, and even business planning.

You will retain information better

Cornell Notes break lessons down into manageable chunks that are easy to remember. In this way you can keep track of the salient bits of information that also come to be better understood on later review. Additionally, the Cornell layout is designed for easy testing of the information on the page which will further improve study-productivity.

How to take Cornell notes?

To begin with, divide your paper into a few sections, essentially an off-centre “I” like the following:

To save time, it can be good to come to class or your meeting with a bunch of sheets that already have the layout. The basis of the Cornell Notes format involves separating the page into four sections: a space at the top for some specific topic details, a right hand column containing the main pieces of content we need to know (also known as the “Response Column”), with a column on the left called the “Cue Column”, containing keywords and questions. Finally the bottom space is a summary of the information above it.

1. Top Space - Subject Particulars

The first thing you will want to do is fill in some details like the specific topic that these notes are on, and the topic/objective to be covered. This top space will contain information that will organise your notes later, so noting the date, lecture number and so on could prove useful later.

2. Right Hand Column - Main Notes

The large box on the right hand side is for noting down key words, concepts and facts. As you listen to the information you’re learning, note down the salient points in this column. Make sure you skip lines between ideas so there’s a clear separation between them on the page (and in your mind when you go back to revise). If you find an online lecture going too quickly, also think about skipping a couple of lines to leave yourself some space in case you need to go back and add things later.

3. Left Hand Column - Cues

So far, this all seems pretty similar to regular note-taking. However, it’s when we get to the left column the magic really happens. We now want to cue on the left things that relate to the information we've just written down. The cue can be a question, keyword or phrase that refers to the material on the right hand side. In some cases the lesson might move on before we have time to fill it in and that's fine. Just come back later and write the cues when there's a pause in the session.

Once this section is filled in, you will be left with two columns consisting of cues and responses, with those cues on the left encouraging us to think of the more detailed information on the right.

4. Bottom Space: Summary

The final section to fill is the bottom space. This is your summary, essentially a few sentences outlining the key points of the information above. Pull out key ideas from the cue and response columns, maybe any vocabulary you're unfamiliar with, and just generally all the important stuff that you’d want to know if you were going to explain this topic to somebody else.

It can be good to wait at least a couple of hours before doing the summary, so as to give time for the content to sink in and let your brain sort things out in the background.

Subsequent Testing and Review

And that’s it! The last step of the Cornell Notes process is when you come back to the notes for review and revision. You’ll see a clearly structured representation of the class and subject-area, and have a ready-made testing system in front of you: cover the right hand column and you’ll have questions or keyword prompts to answer and expand upon for a really productive revision session.

Conclusion

It almost sounds too simplistic to be effective, but it is in its simplicity that Cornell Notes work so well. This is a technique that not only helps you consolidate details of information better, but remember it too. Whilst Cornell Notes help you with taking notes in the moment, they help you when coming to revise those notes later, enhancing your study-time and improving your productivity.