Think ahead a few months: exam season has started, and you’re thankful that you’ve attended class faithfully and taken clear, well-organized notes—or so you thought.
The incoherent jumble of words and phrases stares up at you from the page like so much tangled spaghetti, defying you to remember exactly what the professor meant or how these ideas connect. How can you study effectively when faced with such a note-taking disaster?
The solution is easy: learn the Cornell Note-Taking System and start using it before exams start.
Created by Dr. Walter Pauk from Cornell University, this note-taking system is both an efficient way to record information and an effective way to absorb it. Aside from saving you the time and angst spent cramming, Cornell notes can actually improve the quality of your learning experience, helping you make connections and get more out of each lesson.
With this step-by-step guide, you’ll learn the five Rs of the Cornell note-taking system, and you’ll never end up with the nightmarish problem of not understanding your own notes.
Before You Begin
The Cornell Note-Taking System organizes ideas spatially, so it’s great for visual learners. The idea is to give yourself space for copying down information (class notes), for identifying key points (study cues), and for summing up the main ideas of the lesson (summary). Remember to also record the course name, the class topic, and the date of the lesson to keep your notes orderly.
Before class, use a marker or a different color of ink to divide the page into two main columns, with a bit of space at the top and a larger section at the bottom. Notice that the thick lines make a lopsided “I” shape.
You might want to prepare several pages in advance, or you can use a template (you can find them online or use Microsoft Word to create a digital version). Lefties can switch the cue column to the right-hand side to make things easier. The idea is to make the process as easy as possible.
Step 1: Record
This is where the fun begins. Fill the largest section with your class notes, recording relevant terminology, names, dates, formulas, statistics, and other information. Keep these tips in mind:
- Write neatly (or at least legibly).
- Leave a space between each line in case you need to add more information later.
- Use shorthand, such as the ampersand (&) instead of “and,” or acronyms instead of full terms, but make sure you know what they mean.
- Don’t use complete sentences.
If you learn better by doodling/drawing or if you make connections through tactile learning (such as something you saw, smelled, or felt during an experiment), feel free to write these down. This will help you study later.
Step 2: Reduce
Class is over, but hold it! Effective note-taking continues outside of class. It might seem like a drag, but taking a few minutes to go over your notes (and clear up any illegible handwriting) while the information is still fresh in your mind will spare you hours of pulling out your hair while cramming for an exam.
After class, take a few moments to summarize the key points inside the left-hand column (study cues), and make sure they line up with the corresponding information. One way to reduce the lecture is to put it in your own words, looking for meaning and the relationships between ideas.
When study time comes, you can find information quickly by scanning the cue column, and you’ll already have a firm grasp on what you’ll need to know for the test.
Step 3: Recite
For the oral learners out there who remember best by hearing, take a few moments to verbalize the key points in the study cues. Without looking at the detailed notes from the class, see if you can remember what you learned by looking at the cues. You can always “cheat” a little to check if you got the right answer (it’s not the real test yet!).
Spoken information—especially if it’s in your own words—can help you understand the material in a way that simply memorizing something can’t.
Step 4: Reflect/Summarize
Ask yourself: How would I explain the lesson to someone who’s never learned it before? Not only do teaching and learning go hand in hand, but reflecting on what you’ve learned is the best way to retain information.
When you write your summary section, don’t think of it as a mere repetition. Treat it as a chance to engage with the material, including your thoughts, your questions, your interpretation, and your own personal reflections. You can even relate the material to the textbook or other study materials, to your previous experiences, or to knowledge from other courses; the more connections you can make, the better.
Step 5: Review
This step can actually be done throughout the semester as a way to aid comprehension and alleviate the pressure of studying for exams. Believe it or not, taking the time to review your notes for 10 minutes each week can spare you the 10 hours of fruitless studying where you’re straining to remember what was once fresh in your mind.
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If that’s true, then a systematic approach to college or university note-taking is worth the effort. Don’t make your studies any more stressful than they need to be: become a master of Cornell notes instead.