Mastering the Art of Note-taking: The Cornell Method

The Cornell note-taking method provides a clear structure for organizing notes on the page, dividing it into different sections that serve distinct purposes.

Mastering the Art of Note-taking: The Cornell Method

In an era where information is abundant, effective note-taking has become a crucial skill not just for students but also professionals across various fields, aiding them in organizing thoughts, retaining knowledge better, and enhancing overall comprehension levels during lectures or meetings.

One such powerful tool that has stood the test of time is the ‘Cornell Note-Taking Method’. Developed by Professor Walter Pauk at Cornell University during 1950s, this method offers a systematic format for condensing and organizing notes without requiring extensive preparation beforehand – making it ideal for both classroom settings as well as professional environments like client meetings or seminars.

Origin and Development

The Cornell note-taking method was developed in the 1950s by Walter Pauk, an education professor at Cornell University. He outlined this effective note-taking technique in his bestselling book “How to Study in College”, published in 1962.

The impetus behind this method was to provide students with a simple yet structured format to take notes during lectures that would enhance comprehension and retention. Pauk advocated dividing the page into different sections - a narrow column for cues/questions on the left and a wider column for detailed notes on the right. This setup allowed students to distill key ideas and concepts from lectures in the form of concise keywords and questions.

Since its inception, the Cornell method has become one of the most popular and widely used note-taking techniques, especially in academic settings. Its longevity demonstrates the inherent value of this systematic approach to notetaking. The Cornell method equips students with an efficient strategy to record, organize and review their notes.

Importance in Learning and Professional Settings

The Cornell note-taking system is highly versatile and has proved its usefulness in a variety of learning and professional contexts beyond just classrooms.

For students, it inculcates good study habits and skills like identifying key ideas, summarizing concepts, and reviewing notes. All of these contribute to improved academic performance. The divided page setup also makes notes more organized and easier to review later.

Working professionals can also benefit from using this technique to take organized notes in meetings, training seminars, and conferences. The cues/questions column allows professionals to capture the essence of discussions through concise keywords. The summary also aids quick review of meeting minutes.

Overall, the Cornell method facilitates active engagement with the material being presented rather than just passive listening. This boosts focus, analysis, and retention - invaluable skills in both academia and workplace. Its flexibility and efficacy explain the enduring popularity of this note-taking technique across domains.

Understanding the Structure of Cornell Notes

The Cornell note-taking method provides a clear structure for organizing notes on the page, dividing it into different sections that serve distinct purposes.

Dividing the Page: Columns and Sections

On a standard 8.5 x 11 inch ruled page, the Cornell notes format divides the page into three sections:

  • A narrow 2.5 inch column on the left side for cue/keywords
  • A wider 6 inch column on the right for detailed notes
  • A 2 inch space at the bottom for a summary

The visual boundaries between the different columns and sections allow for notes to be recorded in a neat, organized fashion.

Purpose of Each Section

Each section in the Cornell notes format plays a specific role:

  • The cue column is used to note down concise keywords or questions that capture the essence of the main ideas and concepts being discussed.
  • The notes column provides space for writing detailed notes explaining the topics and expanding on the cues.
  • The summary space at the bottom is used to synthesize the key takeaways and main points covered on that page.

This structure ensures focused note-taking as well as built-in review of the material.

Steps to Create Cornell Notes

Taking notes using the Cornell method involves certain steps before, during and after the lecture/meeting:

Preparation Stage

  • Draw the columns and sections on each page before the start of the lecture/meeting. This provides the visual structure to organize notes neatly.

During Lecture or Meeting: Filling the Right Column

  • Record notes in the right column in telegraphic sentence fragments, using abbreviations where appropriate.
  • Leave space between ideas/topics for easy readability.
  • Focus on capturing the core concepts and ideas accurately.

After Lecture or Meeting: Completing Other Sections

  • Review notes soon after the lecture/meeting and fill in the cue column with concise keywords or questions.
  • Add a summary of the key points covered on that page at the bottom.
  • Mark any questions or areas needing clarification with an asterisk.

This process consolidates the information and aids retention.

Effective Use of Keywords and Questions in Cornell Notes

The cue column in the Cornell notes format plays a key role in distilling and organizing information. Effective use of this column involves:

  • Using one or two-word cues to summarize the main ideas/topics covered.
  • Phrasing cues as questions wherever possible to stimulate thinking. E.g. “What are the causes of climate change?” rather than just “climate change causes”.
  • Ensuring cues accurately reflect the essence of the detailed notes.
  • Leaving enough blank space between cues for adding related notes later if needed.

The cue column provides an outline for the key concepts, acting as a handy study guide for review. Careful selection of meaningful cues is the key to maximizing the benefits of this column.

The Power of Summarizing in Cornell Notes

The summary section is considered by many as the most important element of the Cornell note-taking method. Summarizing requires sifting through detailed notes to derive the core ideas and takeaways. This process boosts understanding and retention.

An effective summary should:

  • Synthesize only the key points covered on that page.
  • Be concise - ideally 2–5 sentences.
  • Be written in the student/note-taker’s own words.
  • Use bullet points where suitable to condense ideas.
  • Omit details and examples used in the notes. Focus only on core concepts.
  • Serve as a handy reference to the essence of that page’s notes.

Regularly summarizing notes using the Cornell method trains the mind to analyze and consolidate information - a valuable skill with lifelong benefits.

Adapting the Method for Different Contexts

While originally designed for students, the Cornell note-taking method can be easily adapted across diverse contexts:

  • Meetings: Cue column to note key discussion points, action items, decisions. Notes column to capture details. Summary for quick review of key outcomes.
  • Seminars: Use cues and notes to record core concepts and explanatory details respectively. Summary to reiterate main takeaways.
  • Research: Cue column for specific research questions. Notes column to record data, findings. Summary to state conclusions.
  • Subject-specific: Adjust relative sizes of columns based on need. Use shorthand/symbols relevant to the subject.

The inherent flexibility of this technique allows for modifications to suit the specific needs of different situations. The core principle of dividing notes into organized, reviewable sections remains unchanged.

Benefits of Using the Cornell Note-taking Method

The Cornell note-taking technique offers multiple advantages that explain its enduring popularity among students and professionals:

  • Focused note-taking: The segmented page encourages recording notes in a neat, organized fashion.
  • Emphasizes key ideas: The cue column pushes note-takers to identify and highlight core concepts and ideas.
  • Built-in review: The summary facilitates reflection on the key takeaways from the lecture/meeting.
  • Enhances understanding: Taking notes in this systematic way boosts analysis and retention of concepts.
  • Facilitates recall: The cues and summary aid in recalling details when reviewing notes later.
  • Adaptable: This technique can be easily customized across diverse academic and professional contexts.
  • Time-saving: The overall method is simple enough not to require extensive time or preparation.

Digital Tools for Creating Cornell Notes

The Cornell note-taking method can be readily adapted for digital note-taking using various apps and software:

  • GoodNotes app for iPad - Comes with a pre-built Cornell notes template. Allows handwritten digital notes.
  • Evernote - Popular note-taking app with Cornell notes template. Notes stay organized and searchable.
  • OneNote - Allows dividing page digitally into Cornell notes sections. Support handwriting and typing.
  • Google Docs - Can recreate template by inserting tables with columns.
  • Microsoft Word - Cornell template available. Type notes within provided sections.

Digital templates retain the benefits of structured note-taking while offering advantages like easy organization and word processing capabilities.

Printable Templates for Handwritten Cornell Notes

For those who prefer good old pen and paper, printable Cornell notes templates are widely available online. These can be printed and used to take handwritten notes in the structured Cornell format.

Many sites offer customizable templates where you can adjust sections as per need. There are also templates tailored to specific subjects - like chemistry, math, history - with relevant sections and shortcuts.

These paper templates help implement the Cornell method without digital aids. The handwritten notes can also be easily scanned for archival using smartphone cameras.

Reviewing Your Own Notes: A Key to Better Comprehension

An interesting study by John Dunlosky et al. in 2013 demonstrated that students who reviewed self-written notes performed much better on tests than students who reviewed notes taken by someone else.

Creating and reviewing your own Cornell notes engages you in active learning - you analyze concepts while taking notes, identify key ideas for cues, summarize in your own words - all of which drives understanding and retention.

The Cornell system, with its emphasis on distilling, organizing and reviewing notes, is thus an excellent technique for boosting comprehension and achievement for students.

Case Studies Showing Effectiveness of this Technique

Multiple studies have demonstrated the efficacy of the Cornell note-taking method in improving student learning outcomes:

  • A 2016 study by Gajria and Salvia showed improved short-term retention and higher test scores when nursing students used the Cornell system.
  • Another study in 2015 found that Cornell notes helped high school biology students better grasp complex processes like photosynthesis and cellular respiration.
  • Faber et al. in 2000 showed that students with learning disabilities performed significantly better on tests after being taught the Cornell note-taking method.
  • Overall, studies indicate better recall, retention and academic performance across diverse subjects and age groups when the Cornell system is used for taking notes.

These case studies substantiate the inherent value of this method as an effective, equitable learning strategy for students.

Tips to Enhance Efficiency with this Technique

Here are some tips to further enhance the effectiveness of Cornell notes:

  • Review notes soon after the lecture/meeting when memory is still fresh.
  • Mark areas of confusion to clarify later through questions or research.
  • Periodically review summaries to reinforce retention.
  • Test yourself by covering the notes column and recalling key points.
  • Use highlighters, underlining, asterisks to emphasize important concepts.
  • Customize sections and shortcuts as per your needs and learning style.
  • Use digital tools to make organization and review more efficient.
  • Practice this technique consistently to make it a useful learning habit.

With some personalization and consistency, the Cornell method can become an indispensable part of your academic or professional notetaking toolkit.


The Cornell system offers an organized, efficient approach to note-taking that promotes active learning and improves recall. While originally designed for students, this technique can be adapted seamlessly across diverse learning and work settings. Its structured format, focus on identifying key ideas, and built-in review make it a profoundly useful learning tool. The Cornell method equips any learner or professional with the skills to distill information and transform it into an invaluable aid for understanding and retention. This explains why it remains one of the most popular and effective note-taking techniques decades after its inception. With some practice, it can become an integral part of your life-long learning arsenal.


Dunlosky, John, et al. “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 14, no. 1, 2013, pp. 4–58., doi:10.1177/1529100612453266.

Faber, J. E., Morris, J. D., & Lieberman, M. G. (2000). The effect of notetaking on ninth grade students’ comprehension. Reading Psychology, 21(3), 257–270.

Gajria, M., & Salvia, J. (1992). The effects of summarization instruction on text comprehension of students with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 58(6), 508–516.

Pauk, Walter. How to Study in College. Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

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