Have you ever read your student 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. And at the bottom of the page is a ‘summary’ section.

What does a Cornell Notes page look like?

Picture of a notebook using Cornell note-taking system

In the ‘cue’ column, students write important words, definitions or main ideas. It is also used to create questions to spur information recall when reviewing (preferably completed within 24-48 hours of the lecture).

In the ‘notes’ column, students take notes about the information presented in the lecture 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.

The final section in the Cornell method is a one-to-two sentence summary at the end. Students complete this after the lecture or learning session.

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

Why use the Cornell method of note-taking in middle and high school?

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. 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 to study 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 withing 24-48 hours, students recite the information from their notes using the ‘cue’ column. Students then reflect on the wider implication 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.

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.

Ways to introduce the Cornell method to your students:

The first thing to do when introducing is to show students how to set up their page. Then, you explain what the different parts of the page are for. You could use a video that demonstrates the method, or visually demonstrate it yourself on a whiteboard/chalkboard/PowerPoint slide etc.

After the demonstration, get students to practise the Cornell note-taking system. You could ask students to do this individually or in pairs. Then, you would model this as a whole class by comparing what information students put in the ‘cue’ section, ‘notes’ section, and ‘summary’ section.

Finally, it is important to show students how to use their notes to review/recall information. 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 a word ‘symbolism’ as a ‘cue’ word, then they would have to recall the meaning of the word from the lecture. 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.

Where can you find out more information about using the Cornell note-taking method with your middle and high school students?

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.

CrashCourse has a Study Skills series hosted by Thomas Frank. There are many episodes covering a variety of topics, including taking notes. 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 about what the research says about note-taking. In particular, the blog post focuses on why explicitly teaching how to take notes is important.

What if my students don’t like using Cornell Notes?

The Cornell method of note-taking isn’t the only way to take notes. Some students may prefer taking 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 can subscribe to an email list to get a free starter kit for creating and using doodle notes in your middle or high school classroom.

But rest assured you can remove your palm from your face as long as students are being explicitly taught and being given a chance to practice note-taking in any format.

easily teach your students how to take Cornell Notes