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The Cornell Note-Taking System: Taking Notes From Boring to Active

written by: StudyExpert • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 1/4/2012

This article is going to tell you all about how to take Cornell notes. This method, good for high school, college and post graduate, will help you take notes that are much more inclined to stay in your long term memory, encourage better classroom participation, and are great with study groups.

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    Here's the Goal:

    I have two goals in this article: The first is to show you how to take Cornell study notes effectively and the second is to turn Cornell into a verb. We did it with Google and YouTube, don’t tell me it’s impossible.

    Google it.

    YouTube it.

    Cornell it.

    You too can Cornell, I promise.

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    Don't Put Off Learning This:

    Until college, I don’t remember at any point having someone show me how to take notes that would work to my advantage. When I was a little Study Expert in elementary school the best my teachers would do is make sure key words were written somewhere in my notebook. In high school I don’t think teachers check notes; at least they didn’t with me.

    Finally, in college during my freshman year I saw a class called Academic Strategies – this or a very similar class is open to most college students, I think. It was in this class that I learned about study skills as Cornell, SQ4R and other fun things like the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI). Neither I nor my professor knew what the MBTI had to do with academic success.

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    Some Background Information on the Cornell Note-Taking System:

    But enough babble from me, you’re here because at some point a smart person said the words “Cornell note-taking” and you thought to yourself: “Hey, might be helpful.” Being the active and engaged learner that you are (which brought you here) you’re looking for the best information you can find on how this Cornell business works. I’m here for you, my friends (and an incredible paycheck). In my very first post ever here on Bright Hub, I talked about how to take Cornell study notes and put up a link to a pdf file you can print. If you have lots and lots of ink and printer paper, you can do that – or you can use a notebook. I’m smiling, dear reader, you just can’t see it.

    To understand why Cornell is effective, let me give you a brief introduction to how it works. Walter Pauk, an education professor at Cornell University, thought out the Cornell note-taking system in the 1950’s – so you know it’s had plenty of time to be perfected. Pauk wrote a book that goes in-depth on this called How To Study In College which is currently in its 9th edition.

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    Here's the Book:

    Pauk's Book. ...Since there is no picture of Pauk
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    Why the Cornell Note-Taking System Is Helpful

    The system is designed to trigger your memory with cues and make you actively engaged during a lecture. It welcomes you to take note of questions you have during the class, so that if the teacher or professor you’re learning from doesn’t want the lecture disrupted, you can ask later, or solve the questions in a study group. This note-taking method also encourages summary, lists, and grouping, which all work together with the way we best remember information.

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    How to Take Cornell Notes

    Time for some nitty-gritty in how to take Cornell study notes. If you’re printing this from the pdf link I gave earlier, bear with me for just a minute. If you’re doing this in your notebook, pay close attention.

    Get a pen, preferably a pen that leaves thick lines. Get a Sharpie or something, got it? You’re going to divide your paper into three sections. You want about a 2.5” column on the right and a 2” or 2.5” row on the bottom. Think of an upside down “T” with the stem way over to the side. There’s a picture for this. You’re welcome.

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    This is what a Cornell Notes page looks like
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    The Left Column (The Narrow 2.5" One)

    The column to your left is called the cues column (and that’s not the official name for it, I’ve just created an alliteration to help you remember. You’re welcome, Bright Hub). If, while you’re listening to the lecture, you think: “I have a question!” you make note of it here. Picking up on main ideas? They go here. Did the teacher or professor tell a joke that helps you remember a point? It goes here. Are there certain words that will trigger you to remember key points? Put them here. A good way to think of the cues column is to think about the headers in this very article. It’s like a good outline.

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    The Right Column ( ...The One That Isn't the Cues Column)

    The right column is for your notes. This is where you’re going to record things in a fuller way. The left column is for cues to trigger your memory. The right column is more in-depth. This is where you have full sentences. You can put bulleted lists here. If you must draw smiley faces in your notes (I’m the type of person that must) they go here.

    Some people recommend you think in terms of short hand to keep your notes as easy to skim as possible. This may work well for you. The last tip for your notes section is white space. Consider this very article – I want to work in plenty of white space by dividing things into smaller sections because it’s easier on your eyes. Also, gaps help your brain think in terms of grouping, which as I recall, many an education professor told me over and over (and over again) we naturally group things together.

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    The Bottom Row

    This is where the cross on your inverted “T” comes into play. This row is about 2” wide. Summaries go here. Think about abridged books. A few sentences that cover the main idea. Think of it this way: it’s a cross between your cues and your notes. For instance, if you were to summarize this article you would say: StudyExpert talked about how to take Cornell study notes. She explained the left column is for cues, the right for notes, and the bottom for summary. Not only did she make me smile, but I learned some of the ways we can make effective how we naturally learn.

    Awe, you’re welcome.

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    All Together Now:

    You wanted to know how the Cornell note-taking system works, and I’ve done my best to explain it. Being the active and engaged learner that you are, I’d like to provide you with some useful links (related stuff at the bottom). And to make absolutely sure you understand this, I’ve used the Cornell note-taking method for this very article. Go ahead and click on the blue link. I should warn you though, it's just an example, and is full of my quirky humor. It’s also hand written and scanned – I have terrible handwriting.