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The Cornell System for Taking Notes

A special system of notetaking developed at Cornell University can be applied to almost all lecture situations. Its keynote is simple efficiency: every step is designed to save time and effort; there is no retyping or rewriting; and each step prepares the way for taking the next natural and logical step in the learning process. In other words, it is a do-it-right-in-the-first-place system.

The First Step: Preparing the System

Use a large, loose-leaf notebook. The large size provides ample room for taking meaningful notes, recording examples, and drawing diagrams. The loose-leaf feature enables you to insert mimeographed "handouts" and assignment sheets in topical or chronological order.

Take notes on one side of the page only. Later, while studying, this will allow you to spread out the pages to see the pattern of a lecture.

The key to the system is to draw a vertical line about 2-1/2 inches from the left edge of each sheet. This is the recall column. Classroom notes will be recorded in the space to the right of the line. Later, key words and phrases will be written to the left of the line.

Before each new lecture, take a few minutes to look over your notes from the previous lecture, so that you can connect them with the lecture you are about to hear.

The Second Step: During the Lecture

  • Record your notes in simple paragraph form. Your objective should be to make your notes complete and clear enough so that they will make sense to you weeks later.
  • It is not necessary to make elaborate outlines, using Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numerals, and small letters with various indentations. This traditional form gives the appearance of thoroughness and understanding, rather than actually achieving them. Besides, it is sometimes hard to remember which number or letter comes next.
  • Strive to capture general ideas rather than illustrative details. This will let you follow the train of the argument or development of an idea. You can usually get names and dates from the textbook.
  • Skip lines to show the end of one idea and the start of another. Indicate sub-ideas and supporting details with numbers or letters under the major idea.
  • Use abbreviations to give yourself extra time to listen and write. Avoid abbreviations you might have trouble deciphering weeks or months later.
  • Write legibly. You can if you discipline yourself. Later, when you review, legible handwriting will let you concentrate on ideas and facts rather than on figuring out your scribbling. Doing your notes right the first time saves time in rewriting or typing them. Copying or typing notes is not an effective form of review.

The Third Step: After the Lecture

Since forgetting is constantly taking its toll, it would be wise to consolidate your notes during your first free time after class, or during the evening at the latest. First, read through your notes to make any scribbles more legible, fill in spaces purposely left blank, and emerge with an overview of the lecture. Then underline or box in the words containing the main ideas.

Now you are ready to use the recall column on the left side of the page. In this column, jot in key words and key phrases that will stand as cues for the ideas and facts on the right. In making these jottings, you will have reread all the lecturer's ideas, rethought them in your own words, and reflected on them as you tried to think of a brief summarizing phrase or a key word. In doing so you will have organized and structured the lecture both in your notebook, and more important, in your mind.

Now, cover up the right side of the sheet, exposing only the jottings in the recall column. Using the jottings as cues or "flags" to help you recall, recite aloud the facts and ideas of the lecture as fully as you can, in your own words and with as much appreciation of the meaning as you can. Then uncover the notes and verify what you have said. This procedure of reciting is the most powerful learning technique known to psychologists.