The unvarnished truth about Cornell Notes: 3 pros and cons every learner should know
Table of Contents
What are Cornell Notes?
The 5 Rs of Note Taking
Cornell Notes are a specific note taking layout designed to encourage the 5-Rs of note taking, as described by Walter Pauk in How to Study in College:
- Record: Record in the main column as many facts and ideas as you can (while writing legibly).
- Reduce: As soon as possible, summarize the main ideas of the lecture by formulating questions based on the material. Write these questions in the “cue” column. The goal of this step is to clarify meanings and relationships, strengthen memory, and practice anticipating test questions.
- Recite: Cover the note taking area, and use your questions in the “cue” column to quiz yourself. Describe, in your own words, the main ideas of the lecture and relevant facts. Then uncover the main column to check your answers in comparison to your lecture notes. (This is a form of active recall.)
- Reflect: Think about the material included in your notes and use this as inspiration for your own reflections on the material. Engaging with the material and reflecting on how it may apply to your own life or integrate with other topics makes it more vivid and memorable.
- Review: Dedicate time each week to review your daily notes. When you consistently review the material on a regular basis, instead of cramming, you’ll retain more of what you’ve learned. (See the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.)
Who created the Cornell Notes system?
Cornell Notes were developed in the 1950s by Professor Walter Pauk, the director of the Reading Study Center at Cornell University. He outlined his approach in his 1962 book, How to Study in College [view this book at Archive.org], and it has been a classic note taking strategy for university students for decades.
How to take Cornell style Notes
Layout and elements of Cornell Notes (how to format Cornell Notes)
When writing Cornell Notes, you divide your paper (either analog or digital) into four main areas, as shown in the diagram below:
Title, topic, date
- Add the title, topic, and date to every page of your Cornell Notes
- Fill in this column first, in real time as you’re listening to a lecture
- Try to capture as many ideas as possible, but avoid slavishly transcribing word for word
- Capture facts, ideas, concepts
Recall Column (aka Questions, Keywords, or Subheadings)
- After the lecture, go through your notes column and add in relevant questions, topics, keywords, or subheadings
- Use this as a cue column for self-testing – you can cover the main “notes” column and see how much you can recall based only on the recall column
- Sum up the most important ideas or concepts of each page of notes in 1-2 sentences or bullet points
Should you use Cornell Notes? The unvarnished truth
I’m not personally a huge fan of Cornell Notes for most professional or advanced note takers. I see their value for junior learners (like high school students or early undergrad students), who are still learning the process of extracting the main ideas from a lecture. And I do appreciate the built-in Q&A aspect of this note format.
But I think that using paper-based Cornell Notes as main note taking method in 2023 makes about as much sense as using a manual typewriter to type your emails then scan them into a computer to send as PDF attachments. There are better, more efficient ways to harness the advantages of Cornell Notes and run with Walter Pauk’s original inspiration of the 5-Rs of note taking without staying slavishly devoted to the Cornell Notes format.
Benefits: what makes Cornell Notes effective?
Encourages active recall
If you’re trying to learn material to be tested on later, you’ll need to practice recalling that information from your memory. The “cue,” “question,” or “keywords” column of Cornell Notes priorities active recall (aka the testing effect) in learning. Rather than simply re-reading lecture notes, the cue-column encourages built-in review.
Engagement in material
The process of reviewing lecture notes, adding in cue/keywords, and adding a summary ensures that you have a first pass of the material shortly after a lecture.
Extract the main ideas from a lecture
Some lecturers are more organized than others. With the Cornell Notes method, you can reverse-engineer the big ideas from even the most disorganised lecture by going through after the fact and noting the most important ideas.
Disadvantages: what are the downsides to taking Cornell Notes?
The Cornell Notes method assumes that the student has ample time to take notes in class, review them shortly after class, engage in reflection and summarisation, and regularly review the notes. Depending on workload of classes, this ideal setup of regular engagement may be impossible, leading to a frustrating backlog of half-processed notes.
Messy and inflexible
Given the flexibility of copying and pasting digital notes, using a strict Cornell Notes approach seems rigid in the modern world. It is difficult to rearrange notes in the Cornell structure, even if an idea would be better grouped with a related concept later in the lecture.
Cumbersome in the digital age
The Cornell Note taking setup was designed in the 1950s, to follow lecturers who were speaking using a chalkboard or a literal slide carousel (no PowerPoint here). Many modern lecturers race through a 200+ slide PowerPoint deck, expecting students to mark up the pre-provided PDF document. Attempting to take Cornell Notes, either by hand or by typing, can be impossible depending on the speed of the lecturer.
Alternatives: other note taking options beyond Cornell Notes?
I think that Walter Pauk did a fantastic job of designing a note taking system for active engagement in learning in the mid 20th century. I think he’d be surprised that his Cornell Notes method has continued to be followed even into the digital age— and in fact I wonder if he’d be a bit dismayed.
The Cornell Notes method was designed before widespread use of personal computing, and was very much intended as a technique to be used for handwritten notes. Given the speed and flexibility of digital note taking techniques, you might want to draw inspiration from Cornell Notes and apply it to other options such as: