Developed “far above Cayuga’s waters“, Cornell Notes are an effective note-taking strategy that can be used across grade levels and content areas.
I was first introduced to Cornell Notes by my administrator in a 6-8 public school in Anchorage, Alaska. She didn’t have to sell me on it too hard since my grandfather, my parents, many uncles, and two of my brothers all spent their college years at Cornell’s top-rated Ag program in “GORGES” Ithaca NY.
Research and Action Research at our school have proven Cornell Notes so effective that they have become a foundational element of our school’s Level 5 Plan for Improvement. All teachers in all subject areas are expected to incorporate Cornell Note-Taking throughout the year so that it will become the go-to tool for our students in future classes and on standardized assessments.
The simplicity of the Cornell Note-Taking process and the clarity of the resulting notes make this an ideal strategy for students to learn to use to organize and process their thinking and to record it for future reference.
WHAT ARE CORNELL NOTES?
Cornell Notes are a two-column note-taking system. Topics or questions are listed in the the left column, and corresponding details and/or answers are listed in the the right. A summary is typically included at the bottom.
Here is an example:
HOW TO TAKE CORNELL NOTES
Students begin by dividing the space on the piece of paper that they plan to use for note taking into separate sections. They create a T-chart that leaves a narrow column on the left and a wide column on the right. They also partition off a second space at the bottom of the page to house their summary.
STEP ONE: TAKE NOTES
While students read a text or listen to a lecture, they take notes in the large right-hand column. No particular strategy is needed for note taking; students should take notes in whatever way they feel most comfortable (bulleted, free form, even doodle notes could work!).
STEP TWO: CLASSIFY
Once the notes are complete –meaning later, after the act of intaking content; not while in class or while reading the book– the student re-reads the notes that they have taken. As they do, the student breaks their notes down into segments and labels each one with a key concept in the left-hand column. This key concept could be…
- an essential question
- a key vocabulary word
- the topic
- the main idea
STEP THREE: SUMMARIZE
After reviewing their notes and classifying them by key concept, the student writes a simple summary for the lecture or text in the space at the bottom of the page.
ALTERNATE USES OF CORNELL NOTES
There may be instances in which the student begins with key concepts and then takes notes accordingly. I use this adaptation of the Cornell Note-Taking process frequently when reading novels with my students. Before reading a text, I give them a list of things to write in the Key Concepts (left) column. As they listen to or read the text, students fill in the details about those Key Concepts in the right-hand column.
The Key Concepts could be characters or places. As we read, students write descriptions of those characters and things that they experience or do or descriptions of those places in the right-hand column.
Providing students with a list of Key Concepts gives them specific cues to look for, and it gives them greater direction than just taking notes blindly. I find this “backward” method especially helpful for students that are new to note taking generally and to Cornell Two Column Note Taking specifically. I tend to provide my students with the Key Concepts several times before I ask them to begin with the notes and work backward to identify the Key Concepts. This helps students to see what kinds of information is important to note, and it helps them to differentiate between Key Concepts and Supporting Details.
WHAT TO DO WITH CORNELL NOTES
The great value in the Cornell Note-Taking method lies in the requirement that students revisit their notes and think critically about them in order to extract the Key Concepts and the Summative statement.
Beyond this powerful processing, there are several practical uses for a completed page of Cornell Notes. They make an excellent study guide (fold on the line and quiz yourself!), and they can be a helpful pre-writing tool.
A FEW MORE CORNELL NOTES TWISTS
Here are two other ways that I have played around with Cornell notes:
- Study vocabulary in-depth by listing terms on the left and having students write down a description of the term in the right hand column.
- Have one student write down questions (based on a reading, cultural study, video, etc.) on the left and have other students write down the answers on the right.
Whether you are new to Cornell Notes or a seasoned expert, I’d love to hear how you equip your students with this excellent note taking strategy!