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A Simple, Effective Note-Taking Technique — The Cornell Method

desk with piece of paper showing The Cornell Method titled Tips and guides

To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day. — Lao Tzu

Simplicity at Its Best

The Cornell Note-Taking System was created by Walter Pauk, Cornell University's reading and study center director. He is the author of the best-selling How to Study in College. Low tech and highly efficient, perfect for lectures and readings, the Cornell Note-Taking System requires only paper and pen. There are even free templates online.

 sample of The Cornell Method template


Essentially, you use regular notebook paper that you divide into sections. The narrower left-hand column is for cues (which you write in later), the larger area to the right is for note-taking during your reading or a lecture, and the bottom area is reserved for a summary of the notes on the page, which you write in your own words, as soon as possible after taking notes, to help you capture the material.

Here’s a helpful visual of the organization of the page, in PDF format from,

Here’s yet another PDF with a helpful discussion of the layout from,

As Wikipedia states:

Notes from a lecture or teaching are written in the note-taking column; notes usually consist of the main ideas of the text or lecture, and long ideas are paraphrased. Long sentences are avoided; symbols or abbreviations are used instead. To assist with future reviews, relevant questions (which should be recorded as soon as possible so that the lecture and questions will be fresh in the student's mind) or key words are written in the key word column. These notes can be taken from any source of information, such as fiction books, DVDs, lectures, text books, etc.

Within 24 hours of taking the notes, the student must revise and write questions and then write a brief summary in the bottom five to seven lines of the page. This helps to increase understanding of the topic. When studying for either a test or quiz, the student has a concise but detailed and relevant record of previous classes.

When reviewing the material, the student can cover the note-taking (right) column while attempting to answer the questions/keywords in the key word or cue (left) column. The student is encouraged to reflect on the material and review the notes regularly.

The system is simplicity at its best:

  • Low-tech (no charger required)
  • Portable
  • Low-cost
  • Interactive
  • Updatable

The system works because it:

  • Encourages distilling only relevant (testable) information (cuts the clutter associated with trying to write down every word said or written).
  • Allows for digesting information a little at a time (no last-minute cramming).
  • Encourages relating prior information to new information for a greater depth of understanding.
  • Relieves study anxiety by providing a calming framework and structure.

For a video tutorial here’s, How to Take Cornell Notes, by Jennifer DesRochers on YouTube.

By the way, take notes with a smooth rolling pen rather than a pencil which will drag against the paper and slow your writing.

What do you think?

  • Did you already know about the Cornell Note-Taking System?
  • Do you see a value for yourself in the Cornell Note-Taking System?
  • Do you have a different note-taking system you prefer?

Contributor: Cynthia Dalton

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