Take better notes with the Cornell note taking system

One of the main useful advices in learning better is taking notes. This can enhance learning and knowledge retention whether attending a lecture, watching a video, participating in action-based learning situations or reading a book. The idea in taking notes is simply the following:

Figure out the key points and write them down

This process is useful, because it requires you to have the focus of finding the key points. Then, especially when writing by hand, you have to abbreviate. It is simply impossible to write down everything as it is said when writing by hand. Therefore you have to do something with the information, process it even a little bit. Now, this often results in obscure notations that are impossible to understand even a few hours after a lecture, so Martin Lobdell in his lecture “Study Less, Study Smart” suggest the following (not a direct quotation): right after the class, before doing anything else, go through your notes and write them out more clearly and add any important points you still remember but have not written down during the lecture. Write more detail into those notations that make no sense or little sense. If there are notations that, even at that point, make no sense, or if you find you cannot remember a key point, ask a fellow student or a teacher to elaborate and clarify. He also adds that teachers love this and, from my own viewpoint I can vouch that yes, at least I do love that.

Writing by hand, besides forcing you to abbreviate and do something with the information, has also been shown to increase memory and retention (remembering it again). The act of writing, putting pen to paper, seems to activate areas of the brain that help students increase their comprehension, possibly due to the fact that it involves more senses and motor neurons than typing on a keyboard (for some other benefits of writing by hand – see f.ex. Oxford Learning).

One good method of taking notes is the Cornell note taking system. In this method, you divide the page into a left column and a right column (see photo below). During the lecture, or video, you take notes in the right column (record). Then after the class, video, book chapter etc. formulate questions based on the notes on the right and write them, as well as any important keywords, onto the left column (question). This process helps to clarify meanings, reveal relationships and strengthen memory. These questions can further help if there is going to be an exam later. These questions can also work as a wonderfully easy method to go through the content and see if you have understood everything and can explain it in your own words. These questions can also be used together with the Feynman technique (for more about that here). These questions are best done when the content is still fresh in ones mind as that is the best time to capture the key issues and relationships.


After the lecture and writing of the key questions you can recite the content of the lecture by covering the right column and going over the keywords and talking out loud or to a friend in your own words what they mean. Also answer the questions you have written and answer them in your own words. If you find you cannot remember something or explain them in your own words, you can go over the content on the right column again and focus on understanding the concepts and memorising the facts and terms.

Once you have recited the content, memorised and made meaning in the information in your notes and can explain the keywords and answer the questions in your own words, reflect on the material asking questions. The learning centre at Cornell University suggest questions like: “What’s the significance of these facts? What principle are they based on?
How can I apply them? How do they fit in with what I already know? What’s beyond them?” Also a good question is: “what is a good example of this in every-day life?” This helps you connect the information with previous knowledge structures you already have about the topic and helps you apply the information onto circumstances that were not specifically gone through deepening your understanding of the phenomenon. If again, you find you cannot do this, then go over your notes, talk to your friends who attend the same course, contact the lecturer or use google etc. to find the missing link to help you apply the knowledge.

The last point of the Cornell note taking system is review. They at Cornell suggest spending at least 10 minutes every week reviewing all previous notes. This helps you keep the information fresh in your mind and helps with storing the knowledge into long-term memory, where it can be used weeks, months and even years later. If the notes and lecture belong in a course in which there is a test afterwards, this reviewing also helps reduce the last minute studying as you have already understood and you already remember the key points in the lecture.

One thought on “Take better notes with the Cornell note taking system

  1. Pingback: The 10 minute rule – repeated recall | In Search for Better Learning

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