Have you ever read your students’ notebooks when they take independent notes and face-palmed? I know I have – it can feel like they have not listened at all when their notes don’t reflect the lesson you think you have given.

When this happens, you know it’s time to explicitly teach your students how to take notes. Even if you feel like they should already know how to do it.

Note-taking is an essential study skill for middle and high school students. Yet many students struggle to take effective notes. The Cornell method for note-taking is one of many popular and well-known note-taking systems.

What is the Cornell method of note-taking?

Walter Pauk, an education professor, described the Cornell method of note-taking in the 1940s in his book How to study in college.

The Cornell method of note-taking involves dividing the page in a specific way. Students split the page down the middle into two columns: a ‘cue’ column and a ‘notes’ column. At the bottom of the page is a ‘summary’ section.

Many universities, including Cornell, encourage students to take notes in this way because it’s an effective note-taking structure. But also, it’s an easy tool to use for active study.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at six tips to get your students to take effective Cornell notes.

Tip #1: Explain why students should use the Cornell method of note-taking

In many cases, if students understand why they are doing a task or practicing a skill, they are more likely to engage.

So, explain the benefits to students. Firstly, the Cornell method of note-taking may be easier for middle and high school students to use as it is a highly structured way to take notes. 

Most guides to using the Cornell method focus on how to set up the page for note-taking. (And if you want a Cornell method note taking template, we can help you out, sign up here to get a free blank Cornell notes template).

However, the effectiveness of the strategy is actually in how the method suggests students use the notes.

The Cornell method of note-taking assists students in studying actively. Students record notes and then create questions about those notes. Students then summarise the information to identify the main points after the lesson.

After the lesson, preferably within 24-48 hours, students recite the information from their notes using the ‘cue’ column. Students then reflect on the wider implications of the notes/learning. 

Finally, students review the notes at regular intervals.

An active study system with timed intervals for review, such as that promoted by the Cornell method of note-taking, is more effective than passive study styles, such as simply re-reading or copying out notes multiple times. 

This question-answer style of study is an effective study technique similar to flash cards. It works because the effort used to recall information helps it stick in students’ brains.

Another great reason to use the Cornell method of note-taking with middle and high school students is to prepare them for further learning at university or college. Similarly, it prepares students to take notes as part of a profession.

Tip #2: Explain to students what the sections of the Cornell note taking method are and how they function 

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Many students have no idea how to set up their pages to take effective notes. The second easy tip to teach students how to use Cornell notes is to explain what the different sections of the Cornell method note taking template contain.

An easy way to do this is to show students an example of a Cornell notes style of note-taking. Get students to read the note-taking page and explain what they think belongs in each section.

Then, as a class… 

Discuss what belongs in each of the sections and the purpose of those sections.

Project a filled-out Cornell note taking page on the board (see here for a free blank Cornell method note taking template that you can fill in) and show students where the ‘cue’ column, ‘notes’ column, and ‘summary’ section are. Then get students to suggest reasons for dividing the page like that.

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Next, explain the purpose of the different sections. Firstly, explain to students that in the ‘cue’ column, they need to write important words, definitions or main ideas. They should also use it to create questions to spur information recall when reviewing (preferably completed within 24-48 hours of the lesson).

Then, explain that in the ‘notes’ column, students take notes about the information presented in the lesson or learning session. Students can structure the actual in-lesson notes however they prefer: the outline method, sketch notes, doodle notes, mind-mapping, or any combination of these styles.

Finally, explain that the final section in the Cornell method is a one-to-two-sentence summary at the end of the page. Explain that they should complete this at the end or after the lecture or learning session. This is a great homework activity or exit ticket activity.

The summary section helps students identify the one or two most important points from the lesson. It can also be used when reviewing notes as it helps students easily locate information in their notebooks.

Tip #3: Show students how to set up their page in the Cornell method style

Now, you could use the Cornell method note taking template (see here to sign up for it to be emailed to your inbox). But ideally, students would know how to draw it up themselves in any kind of notebook or paper. Plus, (ideally!) students all have notebooks and pens, so make them use them instead of spending a fortune on photocopying.

But, if your lessons are short and you want to get students practicing taking Cornell notes, you can skip drawing up the page on the first try and use the Cornell method note taking template.

Now, to show students how to set up their page, you could demonstrate it yourself on the board. Or, if your students respond better to video clips, try this one which shows students how to set up their page

Tip #4: Model the Cornell note taking process as a class

Now, students should have drawn up a Cornell note taking page into their notebooks (or, if time is short, have been given a Cornell method note taking template). You’re ready to start modeling the note taking process.

Give students a short informational or content text. Using pages from a textbook is easy or printing a short handout for students to read. Both are easy ways to get students to take notes. Make sure you choose texts that are short enough that students won’t spend half the lesson reading. 

Go through the textbook page or handout bit by bit and demonstrate finding important information and writing notes into the Cornell method note taking template. 

Discuss and model 
  • Which information is important
  • Whether the information should be written in the cue, notes, or summary section of the notes

Doing a paragraph or two as a class is a great start. Then, let students complete the rest of the handout or textbook page independently. They can do this individually or in pairs. 

After giving students some time to practice, come back as a class to discuss notes as a class to gauge students’ progress.

Finally, it is important to show students how to use their notes to review/recall information. Because this is the real benefit of this system over other kinds of note taking – it enables easy, active studying.

To model this process, explain to students that the best benefit of the Cornell note taking method is the way that it makes studying easy and more effective. To do this, ask them to cover up either the ‘cue’ or ‘notes’ column, and then try to explain what that information corresponds to.

For example, if students had the word ‘symbolism’ as a ‘cue’ word, then they would have to recall the meaning of the word from the lesson. Alternatively, if they have an explanation of the word in the ‘notes’ column, they would need to give the word from the ‘cue’ column that matches the meaning.

Explain that doing this process once a week or a few times a month will ensure that they are making the most of their study time.

Tip #5: Point students in the direction of more information for using the Cornell note-taking method 

The final tip for teaching your students to take effective Cornell notes is to show them how they can find more information about using the Cornell note taking method.

You might tell students to go to at least one of the websites/YouTube videos listed below for homework. Get students to check it out and report back at the start of the next lesson.

Thomas Frank from College Info Geek has lots of fantastic videos about preparation for tertiary study. Many of his videos would be useful for middle and high school students too. This video is about the five main note-taking systems students can use to study.

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CrashCourse, the free YouTube channel by John and Hank Green, has a Study Skills series hosted by Thomas Frank. There are many episodes covering a variety of study skills topics, including taking notes. (Bonus: If you are looking for visual note-taking worksheets for this or any of the other CrashCourse Study Skills or CrashCourse Literature episodes, check out our TPT store).

Cult of Pedagogy has a great blog post and podcast episode about what the research says about note-taking. In particular, the blog post focuses on why explicitly teaching how to take notes is important.

Tip #6: Help! My students hate taking Cornell notes

Now, even if you try all the tips, your students might still hate note-taking. First of all, you’re not alone. Whenever you tell students to get out their books, pens, and pencils, you are likely to be met with groans. 

But effective note taking skills are so essential to study and career success. So, it’s important to persevere with teaching Cornell note taking because it’s an easy style to learn and an effective style for study. 

If explaining why students should learn how to take Cornell notes doesn’t help, perhaps explain that it’s just one of many note taking styles. You could even get students to research which style they think is the best and teach that style in a future lesson to show reciprocity.

If your students go home and research other note-taking styles, you bet you should take dedicate a lesson or two to other note taking styles such as mind-map notes, taking doodle notes, or taking outline notes.

Doodle notes and Math Giraffe have more information about doodle notes or visual note-taking. Middle and high school students may prefer this creative and visual style of note-taking. 

You could even get students to take visual notes using a blank comic strip template (see this blog post or this blog post for more ideas on how to use blank comic strip templates to get students to take notes).

Rest assured…

You can remove your palm from your face as long as students are being explicitly taught note taking skills and being given the chance to practice.

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Last updated 23/10/23

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