Cornell Notetaking Method

  • The Cornell notetaking method is a system for writing, organizing, and then reviewing notes. It was invented by former Cornell University Professor Walter Paul in the 1950s.
  • The Cornell notetaking method takes advantage of the fact that handwritten notes are a better way to retain and understand information than notes taken on a device.
  • The Cornell notetaking method involves a sheet of paper divided into two columns and three rows. The smaller column contains question-based prompts that later become self-examination questions, while the column adjacent contains the notes themselves. On the bottom is a summary of the information in one or two sentences.

Understanding the Cornell notetaking method

The Cornell note-taking method is a system for writing, organizing, and then reviewing notes.

The Cornell note-taking method was invented by former Cornell University Professor Walter Paul in the 1950s. The method, which was initially used to take notes in lectures, can also be used by businesspeople during client interactions.

The ability to take effective notes is a skill that must be developed. Some studies have shown that students who took their own notes outperformed those who were given notes by the instructor.

Despite the preference for tech-based notetaking today, research has also found that taking notes by hand remains a more efficient way to conceptualize or remember information

The Cornell method takes advantage of this fact, requiring individuals to hand-write notes on a sheet of paper divided into various segments. This process is explained in more detail below.

The five steps of the Cornell notetaking method

The Cornell notetaking method is relatively easy to perform. Simply follow these three steps.

Step 1 – Prepare the sheet of paper and take notes

Prepare the sheet of paper by dividing it into three segments:

  1. The review/self-test column – start with a column on the left-hand side around 7 cm wide. This is the column where cues, hints, phrases, or prompts are written (usually in the form of questions) to test your understanding of the material.
  2. The note-taking column – on the right-hand side is the note-taking column where you write your notes as usual. This includes questions and answers, diagrams, formulas, and any relevant or useful comments.
  3. The summary row – at the bottom of the sheet of paper occupying its full width is the space where you summarize the information in one or two sentences. The summary section can also describe information that needs further clarification.

Step 2 – Test yourself

Once you have completed the review column, note-taking column, and summary row, obscure the column where you recorded your notes.

Then, use the question-based cues, hints, and prompts to review the information and test your level of comprehension.

Questions about concepts you didn’t understand completely can be put to the instructor or otherwise at the next session or meeting. 

Step 3 – Rehearse the information

The notes should be reviewed several times a week to ensure the information is retained. Ten minutes should suffice in most cases. 

During this time, some useful reflection questions include:

  • What is the significance of the learned information?
  • How can I use facts to the organization’s advantage?
  • How does the information fit into the context of what I already know?
  • What principles are the facts based on?
  • What is still beyond my level of comprehension?

Connected Learning Frameworks

Active Listening

Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone speaks and displaying understanding through verbal and non-verbal techniques. Active listening is a fundamental part of good communication, fostering a positive connection and building trust between individuals.

Active Recall

Active recall enables the practitioner to remember information by moving it from short-term to long-term memory, where it can be easily retrieved. The technique is also known as active retrieval or practice testing. With active recall, the process is reversed since learning occurs when the student retrieves information from the brain.

Baptism by Fire

The phrase “baptism by fire” originates from the Bible in Matthew 3:11. In Christianity, the phrase was associated with personal trials and tribulations and was also used to describe the martyrdom of an individual. Many years later, it was associated with a soldier going to war for the first time. Here, the baptism was the battle itself.  “Baptism by fire” is a phrase used to describe the process of an employee learning something the hard way with great difficulty. 

Dreyfus Model

The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition was developed by brothers Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1980. The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition is a learning progression framework. It argues that as one learns a new skill via external instruction, they pass through five stages of development: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert.

Kolb Learning Cycle

The Kolb reflective cycle was created by American educational theorist David Kolb. In 1984, Kolb created the Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) based on the premise that learning is facilitated by direct experience. In other words, the individual learns through action. The Kolb reflective cycle is a holistic learning and development process based on the reflection of active experiences.

Method of Loci

The Method of Loci is a mnemonic strategy for memorizing information. The Method of Loci gets its name from the word “loci”, which is the plural of locus – meaning location or place. It is a form of memorization where an individual places information they want to remember along with points of an imaginary journey. By retracing the same route through the journey, the individual can recall the information in a specific order. For this reason, many consider this memory tool a location-based mnemonic.

Experience Curve

The Experience Curve argues that the more experience a business has in manufacturing a product, the more it can lower costs. As a company gains un know-how, it also gains in terms of labor efficiency, technology-driven learning, product efficiency, and shared experience, to reduce the cost per unit as the cumulative volume of production increases.

Feynman Technique

The Feynman Technique is a mental model and strategy for learning something new and committing it to memory. It is often used in exam preparation and for understanding difficult concepts. Physicist Richard Feynman elaborated this method, and it’s a powerful technique to explain anything.

Learning Organization

Learning organizations are those that encourage adaptative and generative learning where employees are motivated to think outside the box to solve problems. While many definitions of a learning organization exist today, author Peter Senge first popularized the term in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation during the 1990s.

Forgetting Curve

The forgetting curve was first proposed in 1885 by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist and pioneer of experimental research into memory.  The forgetting curve illustrates the rate at which information is lost over time if the individual does not make effort to retain it.

Instructor-Led Training

Instructor-led training is a more traditional, top-down, teacher-oriented approach to learning that occurs in online or offline classroom environments. The approach connects instructors with students to encourage discussion and interaction in a group or individual context, with many enjoying ILT over other methods as they can seek direct clarification on a topic from the source.  Instructor-led training (ILT), therefore, encompasses any form of training provided by an instructor in an online or offline classroom setting.

5 Whys Method

The 5 Whys method is an interrogative problem-solving technique that seeks to understand cause-and-effect relationships. At its core, the technique is used to identify the root cause of a problem by asking the question of why five times. This might unlock new ways to think about a problem and therefore devise a creative solution to solve it.

Single-Loop Learning

Single-loop learning was developed by Dr. Chris Argyris, a well-respected author and Harvard Business School professor in the area of metacognitive thinking. He defined single-loop learning as “learning that changes strategies of action (i.e. the how) in ways that leave the values of a theory of action unchanged (i.e. the why).”  Single-loop learning is a learning process where people, groups, or organizations modify their actions based on the difference between expected and actual outcomes.

Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is a technique where individuals review lessons at increasing intervals to memorize information. Spaced repetition is based on the premise that the brain learns more effectively when the individual “spaces out” the learning process. Thus, it can be used as a mnemonic technique to transform short-term memory into long-term memory.

Related Strategy Concepts: Read Next: Mental ModelsBiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon EffectDecision-Making Matrix.

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