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Cornell Notes

Cornell Notes

Feb 17, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
Taking notes should be a pretty simple process, right? All you need to do is write down the key points from a lecture or text and voila - notes! Often that's all you'll need to do, particularly if it's a simple topic or you just need to jot down a few thoughts about something you read. But there are also plenty of occasions, especially when it comes to school work, where you can benefit from a more thorough method of taking notes. If you're doing research for paper, sifting through a complicated lecture, or reading for a class, you'll save yourself time and a lot of work if you learn to take good notes.
This is a topic that has interested writers and education professionals for a long time, and over the years experts have put forward a variety of systems for taking notes (you can even find studies comparing the effectiveness of the many note taking systems out there). One of the best of these systems is Cornell notes.

Cornell notes

Cornell notes were developed in the 1950s by an education professor at Cornell University (hence the name). In the Cornell system, the page is divided into three sections: two columns and a row along the bottom. The right-hand column, which should take up about 2/3 of the width of the page, is for taking notes. You should copy down the main ideas of the lecture or text you're reading. Focus on keeping your sentences short and on paraphrasing the original wording: you should be processing the information and writing it down in easy-to-understand language, not just repeating the lesson word-for-word.
The left-hand column, which should take up about 1/3 of the page, is for keywords as well as questions you have about the lesson or text. The idea here is that instead of burying questions inside a long list of notes, they can be pulled out to the side where they're easy to see, making it simple to go back and review areas you didn't understand. The visibility of the keywords will also help in the review practice, since you can skim the left-hand column and look for keywords instead of having to pick through pages of notes. Including questions and keywords as you go will also help you to begin to synthesize what you're hearing or reading-you're not just writing it down, you're also thinking about what it means and why each idea is important.
The space at the bottom of the page should be used for summarizing your notes. Within 24 hours of taking the notes, you want to read back over them and condense all the notes on the page into a few sentences. Working on this section is a great way to review, and creating the summary will also help you memorize the material. As an added bonus, the space at the bottom will help you if you ever need to go back through your notes to find a particular concept. Instead of reading through pages of notes, you can simply flip through and read the summaries until you find what you need.

What are Cornell notes good for?

Class lectures

Cornell notes are great for keeping notes from class lectures organized. You can take notes in the right-hand column while keeping track of questions that come up and important vocabulary on the left. Then, at the end of the day you can take a few minutes to summarize the day's lecture at the bottom. It makes it easy to keep track of the material you've covered in class and will help when it's time to review for quizzes and tests


If you're reading for a class, taking notes in the Cornell system can help you keep your thoughts organized. In the right-hand column you can record important quotes, themes, symbols, or ideas from the reading, and in the left you can write down questions and comments for class. And, as was mentioned above, summarizing at the bottom is a good way to memorize the material and synthesize everything that you've just read.


If you're doing research for a paper, you need a system to organize all the work you've done. Cornell notes will help you in a number of ways: you can keep track of all your sources (for example, you can create a single page for every source you've read), and by using keywords you can group together related sources and interconnected ideas. Then, when it comes time to write your paper, you can use the keywords and summaries to quickly find what you need.

Notetaking software

Obviously it's pretty easy to take Cornell notes by hand, but there are also several computer programs that will allow you to keep notes on your pc or tablet. Notability, for example, is an Apple application that will let you set up your screen so that you can take notes in several different panes. OneNote from Microsoft can also be set up to take Cornell notes. The programs will also let you organize your notes in folders, which can make a large research project much easier.


Here's an example of a what a Cornell note for a reading assignment might look like:
Questions/Keywords Notes
The Great Gatsby
Reading assignment, p. 65-73
Introduction of Klipspringer Ch. 4 opens with a list of all the impressive people that show up for Gatsby's parties.
Gatsby's "history" Nick goes a ride with Gatsby, who interrogates him about his opinion of Gatsby, during which Gatsby presents his fake backstory: "He hurried the phrase 'educated at Oxford,' or swallowed it or choked on it as though it had bothered him before. And with this doubt his whole statement fell to pieces and I wondered if there wasn't something a little sinister about him." (p. 69)
Here Nick seems to enjoy Gatsby's ostentatious wealth; when does he stop and become the cynical man we see at the beginning of the novel? When they pass a hearse, Nick says that he "was glad that the sight of Gatsby's splendid car was included in their somber holiday" (p. 73). This is callous of Nick, and doesn't reflect well on him
Nick lists all the impressive people that come to Gatsby's parties. The two then go on a ride in Gatsby's "splendid car," and Gatsby tells Nick is extravagant life story. He also requests a favor from Nick, to be further discussed with Jordan Baker.
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