Cornell Notes – Is this Note-Taking Perfection?

A little over a week ago I wrote about three tips to help perfect your note taking. I stated that re-reading and highlighting have been shown time and again to be amongst the worst methods of note taking and learning. So what is the secret? Well that’s where we come to Cornell Notes. Many people have estimated that their retention, understanding and application of information goes from 30-40% with methods like re-reading and highlighting, to 70-90% when using Cornell Notes.

What is it?

Cornell Notes is a system developed in the 1950’s by Walter Pauk, a professor at Cornell University. The system uses a structured yet flexible approach to note taking, and utilises basic learning psychology to improve learning efficiency. It isn’t about capturing every word you hear in a lecture and then being able to regurgitate it verbatim. It actually encourages comprehension and critical appraisal, which are important steps in the application of learned knowledge.

How does it work?

The first thing to remember is that Cornell Notes is a system – not a magic bullet. The two main components of the system are The Equipment, and The Method. Each component is important; if you leave one out then the system loses it’s efficacy.

1. The Equipment

Cornell Notes page format

Cornell Notes page format

This is your notebook. Whilst I am a big fan of digitising information, as of yet this system still seems to work best with handwritten notes. However the invention of the iPad and other tablet devices is changing this – you can still handwrite but store everything electronically.

In the case of Cornell Notes, a specially formatted page is part of the secret. The illustration shows you how the page should be formatted. The title of the lecture and date at the top, a column on the left which is roughly 1/3 of the page width, a column on the right which is 2/3 of the page width, and a small bottom horizontal box.

2. The Method

The four steps in the method are:


    • Whilst in your lecture, watching a video, or reading a journal paper or book, write your notes in the larger right hand column.
    • Make the sentences short and concise, and only record information word-for-word if there is a particular requirement to do so (for instance an old quote or a mnemonic). But don’t shorten the information too far – later when you read what you have written you need to be able to understand it.
    • Leave a line between each main point or thread of information. Don’t try to cram the page full of words – white space on the page actually makes reviewing your notes easier and more efficient.
    • Use bullet or numbered points if that’s useful.


    • As soon as possible after the lecture (eg. the same night), review your notes and write cues in the smaller left hand column.
    • Cues can be almost anything, including:
      • Keywords
      • Categories
      • Themes or patterns
      • Questions on the material
      • Special notes (eg. “This will be in the exam”)
    • Don’t forget to do this as soon as possible after the lecture. Studies on learning efficiency have shown that this immediate review improves retention and understanding enormously.


    • After writing your cues in the left column, write a summary in the bottom horizontal box.
    • The summary should be a short paragraph, which captures the essence of the notes on that page.
    • When writing it, think of how you would explain the key concepts/information on the page to somebody else.

Review & Reflect

    • This can be done days or weeks later, especially when you are revising prior to an assessment.
    • Cover the notes column on the right with a piece of paper, then look at your cue column. Elaborate on the cues – answer the questions you have written, define or expand upon the keywords, expand the categories, apply the themes or patterns. In short you are reconstructing in your mind the notes and the essence of the lecture which you have captured in the right hand column.

The combination of the equipment and the method of Cornell Notes makes for a powerful system of note-taking and learning. Of course like any system, it takes practice to master. But give it a try, and let me know in the comments how you go!

For more information and resources, see the links below:

Copyright Ian Breakspear, 2014