Cornell notes were invented in the 1950s by a professor at Cornell University. The system allows you to quiz yourself directly from your notes and to quickly reference your lectures in the future. It’s comprised of three sections: the main notes, the cue column, and the summary. The diagram below shows how the three parts fit together:
SETTING IT UP
Split your paper into three sections according to the diagram above. I’d recommend setting up the system on several sheets of paper before class so you don’t have to worry about drawing straight lines in the middle of a lecture. Alternatively, you could print out a template or buy a Cornell notes notebook.
This is the largest section of your notes. Here, you’ll write the contents of your lesson just as you would normally. I usually structure this in a bulleted outline format, with a hierarchy of broad topics and little details, although you don’t need to make it so rigid. Feel free to space things out, draw boxes, connect things with arrows, etc. Put the teacher’s lecture into your own words. Use straightforward language and lots of abbreviations to write more quickly.
At the end of class or later that day, fill in the left column with some questions and cues. Reword important concepts into question form (6CO2 + 6H2O + sunlight energy = C6H12O6 + 6O2 becomes What is the formula for photosynthesis?) Formulate the types of questions your teacher would ask on an exam. Write down vocab words, big events, influential people, and key facts.
When you’re studying, cover up the right side of the page and quiz yourself with the cue column. Don’t simply read each question, think “Oh, I know that”, and move on. Instead, force yourself to say the answer/definition/explanation out loud, and elaborate on your response as much as you would if this were a test question. This quiz-and-recall is an active learning technique that’ll strengthen your memory more than passively reading your notes over and over.
Either at the very end of class or within a day or two of the lecture, write a brief 2-3 sentence summary at the bottom of the page that includes the most important points from your notes. You can write a summary for every page of notes or for every lecture, depending on how specific you’d like to get. Finding the big ideas in what you’ve learned and seeing how they tie into the big picture will reinforce them in your mind. The summaries will also help you find a particular topic when you’re flipping through your notes.
Lastly, here’s a sample notes page I made to show you what a finished product might look like!