Geek to Live: Take study-worthy lecture notes

Geek to Live: Take study-worthy lecture notes


by Gina Trapani

Copying class notes after the fact is a time-consuming way to study
for an exam, but it was the only thing that truly worked for me back in
college. But next week I’ll be in a classroom again for the first time
in 8 years, pen poised over notebook, and this time I’m going to
perfect a strategy that gets my notes right the first time: the Cornell
Note-taking method.

We’ve mentioned the Cornell method in passing here and there,
but today we’ll dive deep into how to transcribe a lecture in a way
that makes studying and cross-references a breeze throughout the
semester – no copying involved.

Lay out your page for the Cornell Method

Using the Cornell method, you split your notes page into three sections, as shown below.


  • Notes column (right) Record the lecture here
    during class using short sentences and fragments that transcribe the
    facts you’ll need. Eliminate all unnecessary words. Use bulleted lists
    for easy skimming, and as much shorthand as possible (without
    sacrificing readability.) Develop a vocabulary of abbreviations you
    always use, like “ex” for “for example,” “v.” for “very,” “tho” for
    “though,” “1st” and “2nd” for “first and second.” Finally, leave lots
    of whitespace between points and paragraphs so you can go back and fill
    in sections later.
  • Cues column (left) After class, review your notes
    and jot questions and memory joggers in this narrow column that help
    connect ideas listed in the notes section. When you’re studying, you
    will look at these cues to help you recall the salient facts in your
    notes, so keep that in mind when you create your cues.
  • Summary area (bottom) After class while you create
    your cues, sum up the notes on each page in one or two sentences that
    encapsulate the main ideas in the bottom area. You’ll use the summary
    section to skim through your notes and find information later.

An example of a page of notes taken with the Cornell method, shamelessly ripped off from a Temple University page, is shown below. (Click to enlarge.)

Study and review your Cornell-formatted notes

The Cornell Note-taking method’s creator, Walter Pauk, outlined a
six-step study system to use along with this note format. The BYU web
site breaks down the 6 R’s: Record, Reduce, Recite, Reflect, Review and Recapitulate. While those steps are worth a read, personally I think this system boils down even further.

In short, once you’ve attended class and filled in the notes area,
that evening, review them and fill in the cues and summary area. When
the time comes to study for an exam, read through your notes. To quiz
yourself, cover up the right side and use the cues on the left to jog
your memory and help you rebuild the factual narrative in your mind.
When you’ve got a paper to write, use the summary section of each notes
page to flip through and find relevant facts to cite in your paper.

In essence, with the Cornell method, instead of straight transcription, you’re creating your study guide as you go instead of waiting till it’s time to cram for the test.

Pre-formatted Cornell Notepaper

Unless you like messing around with a ruler and pen or pencil, there
are a few templates and notepaper generators that will print out
pre-formatted Cornell notes-style pages. Two mentionables include:

  • The Cornell Method PDF Generator
    creates printable PDF’s split into the Cornell notepaper style with
    unlined, ruled, or graphed sections. Optionally include your name, the
    date, and the name of your class, and up to 4 punch holes for use in a
    binder. Also, choose the line darkness on a scale from gray to black.
  • Cornell Word Templates
    are perfect for students who take their notes with Microsoft Word. This
    page includes instructions for creating your own Word Cornell template,
    and a sample you can tweak to your own needs.

How are you taking notes this semester? Had any good or bad experiences with the Cornell method? Let us know in the comments.

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