7 Steps for Successful Note Taking Cornell Method

The note taking cornell method is one handwritten notetaking method that towers above the rest. Learn more below.

Research shows that you can’t beat the classics when it comes to notetaking. In a 2014 study, students who took handwritten notes did significantly better on conceptual questions than those who used digital devices. And, there’s one handwritten notetaking method that towers above the rest, the Cornell Note Taking Method. Research shows that students who use this structured method achieve grades 10 to 12% higher than those using other methods.

This is a research-backed method developed by Cornell University professor Walter Pauk in the 1950s. He later shared his method in the book How to Study in College. It’s easy to utilize once you are familiar with how the page is organized and what the method entails.

If you want to set up your own note-taking system for your writing, I created just the thing. Click here to learn more.

Materials Needed

Steps for successful note taking with the Cornell method

Cornell Notes require just two items:

  • 8.5″ by 11″ paper. Regular college or wide-ruled notebook paper is ideal.
  • A pen or pencil

Step 1: Set Up Your Page Layout

The Cornell Method creates such effective notes because of its page layout.

Begin by drawing a horizontal line across the top of the page. In the section above the line, write the name of the class, the subject, and the date.

Draw another horizontal line about two inches from the bottom. The section below will be used for summarizing your notes.

Draw a vertical line below about 2.5 to 3 inches from the left to divide the page into two columns. The right-hand column is for notes, and the left-hand column is a “cue column” for keywords and comments.

You can either add headings to prompt yourself or remember the simple formula for the page. Some people choose to create a semester’s worth of templates at the beginning of the term; others sketch the layout just before each lecture. 

Step 2: Take Notes During The Lecture

Note taking Cornell method
The Cornell Method discourages long sentences, as these can be harder to retain

Take notes in the right-hand column during the lecture as you usually would. Try to keep sentences short, averaging five to ten words in length. The Cornell Method discourages long sentences, as these can be harder to retain.

You can also use abbreviations and symbols for common expressions. It can help to write up a list of ones you’ll use before notetaking. This can make taking notes faster without sacrificing the value of writing by hand. 

Be sure your notes include essential ideas and concepts, formulas, graphs, key historical figures, dates, and anything else you feel you will be quizzed on later. 

The implements you use to take notes are important. To get the right pen for your notetaking needs, give our article on the smoothest pens to write with.

Step 3: Formulate Questions Based On Your Notes

After your lecture, formulate some questions based on your notes from class. These questions can help you clarify the meaning and significance of the lecture’s contents.

In this cue section, you should also write down keywords relevant to the lecture. For instance, in a history class where you are discussing the American Revolution, you might write the dates and names of significant battles, the names of historical figures, or the titles of influential pamphlets and papers from the time. 

These notes are also powerful tools for revealing relationships between the main points and establishing continuity so that you can see how the newest lecture relates to what you learned before.

Posing and answering the questions also strengthens your memory of what you’ve learned.

Step 4: Answer Your Questions In Your Own Words

This step, which Dr. Pauk called the “recite” section, helps you ensure that you have absorbed what you learned.

Cover the note-taking column with another piece of paper, then look at the questions you wrote in the previous step. Answer the questions from memory, using your own words. You can either answer the questions aloud or write your answers on the second piece of paper. 

Step 5: Reflect On What You’ve Learned

Take some time to sit with what you’ve learned. Reflect on the lecture material by asking yourself things like:

  • What is the significance of this piece of information?
  • What principles are these ideas based on?
  • How are these ideas applied?
  • How does this new knowledge relate to what I already know?
  • What further questions are raised by what I’ve learned?

Step 6: Summarize Your Notes

Now that you have taken some time to think about what you have learned create a summary of the day’s lecture notes in the summary section at the bottom of the page. This should be a quick and general summary that you can use as a reference to look up information later on.

Summarizing also helps anchor what you’ve learned and increases retention. 

Step 7: Review The Week’s Notes

At the end of every week, spend some time reviewing all of the notes you took that week. This continuous review saves you from cramming just before an exam. In addition, because you are continually reviewing and reinforcing what you learn, you are far more likely to be able to recall what you need to know for your test questions. 

The Cornell Notes system is effective, but should you want also to incorporate a notetaking app into your studies, we’ve written a handy guide to the best apps out there.