Effective Notetaking

by Paul Humphreys

Audio Listen to a summary.

W e take notes to remember things.

By the way — you won't need a computer for this, only a pencil or pen and a few sheets of A4 paper. A ring-binder will be useful, but only if you adopt this particular notetaking method as part of your study plan. The act of handwriting your notes is essential in this system.

The problem about studying for formal examinations, like GCSEs or A-Levels, is there's a long time from when we first learn something new in our subject and the date we come to be assessed in it — possibly a couple of years. There's plenty of time to forget things, and we're not allowed to take our notes into the examination room.

For example, today we might learn that the Latin word for horse is Equus. So, how can we best prepare to recall that word if it comes up in a test? How does our memory work?

Here's the theory.

If you have already made up your mind that the Latin word for horse is not something useful in your life, then there's no incentive for you to remember it, let alone write it down. Fair enough. There's nothing wrong with that. Our mind is continually separating everything we come across into its 'important' box and its 'not important' box.

On the other hand, if you are a keen student of the Classics, you will have determined in a flash that Equus is a great word to retain. What a gift! It might come up in your finals, so you certainly have good reason to keep it. Your mind will have assigned it enthusiastically to its 'important' box, and, even better in your case, into its more significant 'short-term memory' box. But it's not yet fully arrived inside your biggest-of-all 'long-term memory' box where ideally you wish to keep it for future recall. So what else needs to happen if you don't want Equus to escape? How do you steer the horse into the protected stable of your long-term memory?

Well, here's what you do.

You write it down.

You make a note of it.

You've quickly decided that Equus is valuable, so it's already made its move from your immediate memory towards your short-term memory. It's travelling and heading in the right direction. It has momentum and is accelerating — but it needs a further push.

More precisely by this notetaking method, you must deliberately make a note of it. It's not the note itself, but rather your determination to push its content into your long-term memory which gets it there. It's the intentional act of writing it down that does the trick.

"Deliberate, planned, systematic, structured notetaking is effective in helping students to remember things." That's what educational researchers at Cornell University found and advised their own students to adopt. Cornell came up with this notetaking system known as the Cornell Method of Notetaking which we'll take a closer look at now.

Here's the research question: "Can we devise a system on paper which replicates the workings of the mind to move important things from our immediate memory into our short-term memory and then into our long-term memory?"

Let's get started.

Start with a blank sheet of A4 paper and draw four sections on it like this: a top part to hold a title; a slightly larger portion at the bottom to hold a summary of the notes held on this page; a left part about 1/3 across for your keywords; and a right part around 2/3 across for your notes. Your sketch will look something like this:

Four parts make up the Cornell Notetaking format.

Here's a more elaborate version to help explain how it works. You can click on this copy below to download the PDF of this template, then print it on paper and try it out.

Cornell Notes: its four parts explained.

About The Title Section
Write a brief heading to record the source of today's notes. Such as: 'Latin class with Mr Dexter', or 'Notes about Romeo and Juliet', or 'Law Lecture by Professor Jameson'. Then write down today's day and date.

In this method, the timing of when things happen is fundamental. So, write down the name of the day of the week in full. For example, write 'Monday 24 Aug 2020'. Expressing the word 'Monday' in full is required for this reason: after you have completed today's notes in the right column, you'll let your notes rest for a few hours before writing their keywords in the left column. It would be best if you aimed to complete your keywords by the end of tomorrow evening (Tuesday). Therefore, maybe complete your keywords this evening, or perhaps tomorrow morning or tomorrow afternoon. But finish your keywords by the end of Tuesday, the next day. You'll also revisit this same page once more on Monday of next week to complete your summary at the foot of the page. So — today, write title and notes; keywords tomorrow, and your summary of the page next week.

The Notes Section
The Notes section (labelled with a big letter A for assurance you're working in the correct column) is the most substantial part of the page where you write your notes. Typically, you'll be jotting notes while a classroom lesson proceeds, or you might be taking notes from a book in the library. But all you need to do today is take your notes. You can leave repeating its keywords until tomorrow if you wish, no problem. After all, much of your focussed attention today will be given to what your teacher is saying or what you are reading from your book.

Writing in the Notes section replicates the process in our mind of sifting out what we judge we can leave behind right now from what is valuable to retain. We should not attempt to write everything down. Information will probably come at us hard and fast, so we should jot only the main points while we distinguish each note on the page. The purpose of the pre-printed numbers 1-10 is simply a device to remind us to separate each note, one from another. If your handwriting is small and your notes are short, you can begin each note alongside each dot hence get ten distinct notes on the page. But its OK if you need to make a long note which extends over a few numbers. In that case, leave a space then begin the next note alongside the following available number. The role of the dots is to show that an earlier note has ended and a new note has begun, so our records don't run-in to each other. Later on, these same numbers can make for a handy reference in our summary: to refer back to Note 3 or Note 7, or whatever. But its perfectly fine once you've established the principle, to work in an un-numbered section if you prefer. So, the key to the Notes section is this — take short notes, separated. With this system, you'll be feeling very much better organised already, but do stick to the prescribed pattern. What's happening is you're building up a valuable new skill about learning to learn.

The Keywords Section
Each day, look back at the notes you took yesterday. Pick out their keywords and repeat them in the left column (the column marked with the large letter B). You may also add further comments under Keywords which, on reflection, help you to understand the main points you took yesterday. Some students have found that writing a question in this space is helpful. The suggestion of creating a question is to prepare yourself better for the final examination: so you rehearse the idea of turning your notes into a question which leads back to them. For example, by writing "What is the English translation of Equus?".

Using the Keywords section mirrors the mechanism in our mind, which re-enforces our purpose that this bit of information is worth hanging on to. By identifying and repeating our keywords, we've confirmed to ourselves that these same notes are vital to us. We've not only retained the notes we took yesterday, but we have now reaffirmed them inside our short-term memory. We have signalled it's our deliberate intention to keep them. When next week we come to write our summary of what's on this page, our mind will already have been primed to know what's happening. What was new information only a day ago, is already familiar to us because we've seen it before. And, not long from now, we'll get to see it yet again. And deliberately so.

The Summary Section
Here's where the good bit happens. Finally, we push our notes assuredly into our long-term memory. A week on, we revisit our page. We commit a paragraph to summarise everything on it. Hereafter, we can refer back to our page at any time, but most purposefully in the days of revision running up to our final examination where we'll find a well-formed collection of notes to see us through.

The Cornell Method of Notetaking has been widely employed in the United States of America in its schools, colleges, and universities for well over 50 years. But this system seems to have attracted little attention in the UK. If you have used the Cornell Method in your studies in the UK, please let us know via KV. How well did this system work for you? But if you - or someone you know - are preparing for a written examination you might consider giving Cornell Notes a try. It's a disciplined and highly structured approach to taking notes, but it might make a big difference in your results, come the big day.

SEE ALSO by Paul Humphreys:
Effective Notetaking
Young Saint
Why Dexter Wrote Morse

Paul Humphreys is a resident of Kidlington village, Oxfordshire.