The only note-taking system you will ever need!
That, of course, is not true. But now that I’ve got your attention, let me tell you about Cornell notes.
Cornell notes were invented at. . . uh. . . Cornell University, in New York, and they have endured because they are simple, adaptable, and effective in both lectures and research.
Cornell notes greatly improve my research, and they help me to think and engage during academic lectures.
The big difference with Cornell notes is that they expect you to write more than a summary of lecture content. They expect you to record references (eg, page numbers or general topic). But they also encourage you to reflect on the content, as you record your questions, critical interactions, points to follow up, and cross-references to other sources. And they always end with a summary. Wreiting this summary forces you to think deeper and take in the content better.
So, let me show you how I use Cornell notes.
For lecture notes, I use this template:
For lecture notes, I recommend this:
At the top, briefly write the subject (course), the topic, the lecturer, and the date. This helps you with filing, reviewing, and exam preparation.
Write your main lecture notes in the larger, right column. This is the same as what you have always done in taking lecture notes.
But now the process becomes different, and that left column becomes important. For this is where you write cues – your comments, questions and thoughts, and perhaps sub-headings. These help you stay engaged and not become a zombie student. It makes you an active learner and not a mere passive note-taker. It helps you understand more, retain more, and figure out what you don’t yet understand.
Finally, there is the all-important summary at the bottom of the page. This helps you crystalise the lecture content. (You may write the summary at the end of class, or later in the day as a first review.) And then when you start your next class, you can review that summary to recall the previous lecture.
For research and reading, I suggest a slightly different template:
For research notes, I recommend this:
When I start a new source, I fill in the full bibliographical information at the top of my Cornell notes. But after that, I can use just a simple reference (eg, ‘Wenham, Exploring the OT’).
Three things distinguish Cornell research notes:
- Record a single topic per page, and a single source per page
- Second, always record your page numbers in the left column. They will save you much weeping and wailing when you write your essay.
- There is a whole column for your musings and critical interactions.
Next, I make quick notes – recording the page numbers – from that single source. If I shift to a different topic or a different source, I quickly start a new page.
But these notes give you a whole column for comments and thoughts. This is vital to critical thinking, seeing connections, or noting questions. Jot your observations, thoughts, and ‘Aha!’ realisations here. You are expected to show original, creative, and critical thinking. These notes help me do that.
Finally, there is still a summary at the bottom to consolidate what I have recorded.
Then when I finish my research, I have a pile of useful notes. And I then physically group my notes by topic (multiple sources per topic), and then arrange those topics in a tentative order. This becomes my initial outline, and it helps me see where I need to do further reading and thinking.
A final word:
You don’t have to follow this outline as I have prescribed. Adapt till you get what works for you. But write comments and questions while making your notes, and write your summary soon after (say, at the end of class or that afternoon).
Perhaps you have only ever used computers for academic research and are now adept at that. That’s fine, but it is a hard discipline – if not nearly impossible – to engage as deeply with material electronically. This is even more important when we are new to our field and topic. If you are willing to try something new, give handwritten lecture and research notes a go.
Besides, most research indicates that handwriting trumps computers for learning while listening.
- You can download templates of my versions of Cornell Lecture Notes Template and Cornell Research Notes Template online. Download and modify till you are happy with them. Or do as the students in the following video do, and just draw your own in a notebook.
- A short video (4:05 – go to the second video) from the Cornell University Learning Centre recaps most of this. (And yes, even Ivy League universities have learning centres!)