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spring semester study tips: how to take notes

23 January 2012

Last semester I had a student stare at me the entire lecture, every lecture. I’ll admit it felt odd, not just because it was mildly creepy, but because he wasn’t taking any notes. I wondered why someone would come to class but never take any notes. It’s not because my slides are uploaded to the internet (I would never choose to do so) and it’s not because anyone is recording the lecture (at least, they’re prohibited from doing so). Still, maybe this student heard someone say that he would do better if he just listened rather than trying to copy my every word.

There is plenty of research that shows what we might all expect: verbatim notetaking is an ineffective learning strategy. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Evidence also shows that the probability a student will recall textual information if that student wrote the information down in notes is 34% compared to a 5% chance when students fail to record the information.

I see notes as requiring two functions: notation and review. I think the best way to take notes is to listen and when the speaker pauses to try and condense what they’ve said in your own words, using as many abbreviations as possible. Then, review your notes afterwards and identify what you have learned and what you are uncertain about. Try to probe the reading or the instructor about those things you aren’t clear on. Then, remind yourself what you’ve learned. Do all of this by actively writing each step of the way.

Perhaps because of this perspective, in my own class I’ll be telling students about the Cornell note-taking system. For those who are unfamiliar, the Cornell method was designed by a Professor of Education at Cornell University, Walter Pauk, who wrote How to Study in College. Essentially, as seen in the diagram to the right, students write notes on only a fraction of the page during lecture, and leave a lot of white space between notes. Then, after lecture, the students will write in the left-hand column main ideas or questions that connect the notes together. Finally, (and again, this is after the lecture) at the bottom of each page, the student will write in his/her own words a summary of the notes.

I’ve tried finding evidence on whether using the Cornell note-taking system actually impacts students’ grades or other learning outcomes. I’ve come across a few anecodtes (i.e., a physics teacher whose students’ that made most use of it scoring twice as high on a national physics test as those who didn’t; and a comparison of science teachers who used it vs. those that didn’t, with the formers’ students having higher average grades). I also found a study that compared students who used their own notetaking method, to Cornell method users, to students who didn’t take any notes. These were students taking English as a foreign language. The evidence in the study indicates the Cornell method is the best, but we should be wary to extrapolate to all course subjects. Still, I’ve seen no complaints or shortcomings written about Cornell note-taking and think providing some structure to students could be helpful. Ask me again at the end of the semester if I think it worked.

In case you’re sold on the idea, here is a link to print your own Cornell notes PDF.

Here are a few resources I consulted that may be of use if you care to look further into note-taking:

This post is part of a series on studying in college.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 January 2012 9:44 am

    Never been an avid note taker myself, partly because the notes I make don’t make an enormous amount of sense afterwards. Will try the Cornell method though, thanks for brigning it to my attention

  2. 25 January 2012 1:34 pm

    I can add to the anecdotal evidence that the Cornell method (even when adapted by students) can really help. I’ve seen this make an especially big impact when a student who normally gets good grades are struggling in a specific class. Thanks for this series!


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