There is no one right way to take notes in class. One effective note-taking system is called The Cornell System, which was designed by Walter Pauk, emeritus, at Cornell University. To use this system you will need a large loose-leaf notebook. This allows you to insert class handouts, rearrange notes easily, or remove notes to spread them out and study. To learn more about this note-taking framework read Chapter 5 in Pauk's book, How to Study in College, 5th Edition.
The distinguishing feature of the Cornell system is the layout of the page on which you take your notes. The page layout includes large margins on the left and bottom of the page. A picture of this layout (not to scale), with dimensions, is shown below.
Cue (Recall) Column
The space to the left of the vertical margin should be reserved for a cue (or recall) column. You should not write in this area during the lecture, while you are taking notes. The cue column is not created until you review your notes (which, ideally, you do as soon after the lecture as possible, and certainly before the next lecture). As you study the material in your notes, you should devise questions which the notes answer (think "Jeopardy"). These questions are the "cues" that should be written in the cue column. By writing questions, you are forced to think about the lecture material in a way that clarifies meaning, reveals relationships, establishes continuity, strengthens memory, and attempts to predict test and exam items.
The area below the horizontal margin near the bottom of the page should be reserved for a summary of the notes on that page. A summary is brief -- at most, only a few sentences. The page summary provides a concise review of the important material on the page. More importantly, in writing a summary, you are forced to view the material in a way that allows you to see how it all fits together, in a general sense. The summary should be written in your own words... helping you to own the information.
The space to the right of the vertical margin is where you actually record your notes during the lecture. Pick a note-taking format with which you are comfortable -- there are no hard-and-fast rules for this aspect of the Cornell system. However, you should not attempt to transcribe verbatim every word spoken by the instructor. It is usually not difficult to separate the essential material from the non-essential. For instance, if information is written on the blackboard, it is probably important enough to include in your notes. To avoid missing information during the lecture, you should develop a system of abbreviations you understand, and you should write in telegraphic sentences (where you only include enough words to carry the essential meaning) or similar shorthand that is often used in cell phone text messages. As you take notes, realize that your emphasis should be on the key ideas, rather than the actual words used to convey those ideas.
Cornell Note Taking System
(For Lecture or Reading)
Taking good notes is one of several keys to academic success. There are several
reasons why developing an effective technique of note taking is important
Reasons for Developing Effective
Note Taking Techniques
1. Prevents forgetting:
Our memory fades quickly. For most students, forgetting occurs very
rapidly after listening to a lecture, or reading over informational
material even if the material is engaging and interesting. After lectures,
for example, research shows that we forget 50% of what we hear within
an hour and more than 70% within two days.
2. Encourages concentration:
Taking effective notes requires a student to be mentally active during a
lecture or while reading. One has to pay attention, interact with
information, make decisions about what to record, and write. Given
that the mind is occupied with a demanding task, there is less
opportunity for the mind to wander.
3. Records testable material:
Instructors generally expect students to remember and apply facts and
ideas presented in lecture or in texts. Tests are based on key ideas
teachers emphasize in their lectures and/or written material that
supports key concepts or themes. In other words, the testable
There are a variety of note taking styles. No single method suits all students.
However, many successful students and business people have found that the Cornell
note taking system is very effective for lectures or reading that is organized around
clearly defined topics, subtopics, and supporting details.
The Cornell System is both a note taking and a study system. There are six steps
Step One: Record
1) Prepare your notepaper by creating a two-column table. The lefthand
column should take up about 1/3 of your writing space, leaving
remaining 2/3 for recording information. Use only one side of
sheet of notepaper.
2) Summarize and paraphrase (restate in your own words) the facts
and ideas presented. Record definitions as stated or written.
3) Indicate changes in topic with headings or by leaving a space
4) Number, indent, or bullet key ideas presented with each topic.
5) Aim for telegraphic (brief) sentences, abbreviations, and symbols.
This will increase your note taking speed.
6) Write legibly so your notes make sense to you later.
7) Edit as soon as possible.
Step two: Question
Cornell Note Taking:
Formulate test questions based on the information recorded in notes and write
them in the recall clues column on the left-hand side of notes. Questions
should focus on specific definitions and “big ideas”.
Step three: Recite
1) Recitation means explaining the information in the notes out loud, in
your own words. The information should be triggered by the test
questions in the recall clues column.
2) Purposes of recitation:
a. Improves learning: Psychologists who study how the memory
works say that reciting aloud is a powerful technique for
anchoring information in the long-term memory.
b. Ensures understanding: Reciting requires you to think about
and understand the information you are committing to memory.
c. Facilitates retrieval: Understanding information improves your
ability to retrieve it from your memory. Studies show that
students who recite tend to do better on tests than students who
just read their notes silently to themselves.
3) Step in recitation:
a. Cover up the notes in the “record” column or fold notes back
along line separating the “clues” from the “record” column.
b. Use recall clues to stimulate your memory and recite the
c. Check your answers. This gives you immediate feedback on how
well you have learned and are able to retrieve the information. If
you have difficulty recalling the information or if your answers are
incorrect, learn and recite over again.
Step Four: Reflect
1) Reflection has to do with thinking about the information you are
2) One way to reflect is to look for connections with your own experiences
and observations and with other facts and ideas discussed in class.
3) Another way to reflect is to ask questions like: How do the main ideas fit
together into a “bigger picture”? How do these ideas fit in with what I
have already learned? What do I agree with? What do I disagree with?
Which ideas are clear? Which are confusing? What new questions do I
Step Five: Recapitulate (summarize)
1) Write a summary of the main ideas using your own words. This is the
best test of how well you understand the information.
2) Use a section at the bottom of each sheet of notes to write your summary
or write a summary of all the notes on the last page of your note sheets.
Step Six: Review
1) A good guideline is to review nightly or several times during the week by
reciting, not rereading.
2) Frequent, brief review sessions aid more complete comprehension of the
material than cramming the night before a quiz/test.