The Cornell Method

When presenting new information to students in lessons, how can we best support the retention of this information? 

This post features a note taking strategy that may be new to many, the Cornell method. In essence, the strategy involves learners dividing their paper into two columns with a row across the bottom (as shown):


The learners should then take the following steps in order to take notes on the lesson:

Step 1 (right hand column): Take clear and concise notes on lesson content. Sentences should be no longer than 5-10 words long and the notes taken should not be copied verbatim from the presentation, unless a crucial point.

Step 2 (left hand column): Here is where learners are given time at key intervals or at the end of the session to create questions or cues that clarify meaning, or reveal information about the notes. For example:


Step 3 (bottom row): Summarising the notes in the bottom row helps to consolidate understanding of them. This is best done after the class. Encouraging learners to elaborate on the points made in the notes column will help to reinforce meaning, or identify gaps where further study is required.

Step 4: Learners should regularly revisit notes, covering the right hand column and testing themselves on the questions in the left hand column.


Why might this method effective?

In his book ‘Classroom instruction that works‘, Robert Marzano shares with us the features of effective classroom instruction. With an average effect-size of 1.0, note taking methods are really worth exploring further in our classrooms. According to Marzano, effective note making involves the learner summarising information being shared by deleting and substituting the information in order to create their own meaning. The Cornell method certainly allows for this, both in the notes section (step 1) and the summarising section following the lesson (step 3).
Beecher (1988) examined the research on note taking and found mixed results, with one such issue with note taking being that learners tend to copy verbatim. In doing this, learners are not engaging in the synthesis of information being presented. However, if used properly, the Cornell method overcomes this by restricting the information that learners write and requiring them to summarise well.


Despite the mixed results found, Beecher’s subsequent findings on reviewing notes makes for interesting reading:

‘The research findings on whether note-taking promotes encoding have been mixed. Hult et al. (1984), for example, found that note-taking does involve semantic encoding; but Henk and Stahl (1985) found that the process of taking notes in itself does little to enhance recall. They found, however, that reviewing notes clearly results in superior recall.

As we know from the work of Dunlosky et al (2013), self-testing is a highly effective study method. Therefore, if we combine the self-testing as the review element of note taking, we may be on to something. The Cornell method does exactly this. Not only do learners benefit from the creation of questions, but they are then able to self-test by using them – win win!


I’m certainly going to be trialling this approach to note taking with my learners in the coming months, why not do the same with yours? Let’s make note taking more meaningful and use the methods that are likely to be more effective for learning.



14 thoughts on “The Cornell Method

  1. I’ve been tempted over the years with the Cornell method for my own note taking but have never been fully persuaded by the three columns.
    As to using it with students, I reckon it wouldn’t work just because of the “writing frame” (isn’t really just that?) as you’d still need to teach them exactly how to both recognise and articulate key ideas. Just having a column and obstructing to fill it in won’t work for most students.
    To his credit, Marzano gives a fine example of exactly how to teach summarising skills (what used to be called précis; the central cognitive skill of grammar schools).
    So, the Cornell method, surely, can only be as effective as the teacher’s note-taking instructions. What do you think?

    1. I hear what you’re saying, the instruction needs to be right, but is it not beneficial for learners to make notes in a way that supports their own understanding of concepts? So regardless of the columns, there is a degree of personalisation based on their current and prior understanding. For me, the main benefit is the questions that they create as a result of the notes – supporting self-testing. I’m not sure about the summary box at the bottom. I can’t see how doing it after the lesson is a good thing, because if there are misconceptions, there is no way that I as the teacher can correct, unless it is built into a review – by which point it may be too late.

      1. I’m right there with about the benefits you listed. I’m just saying that just because a particular system of note taking has boxes or columns for it, and just because the teacher may tell the students this is what they need to do, doesn’t mean they’ll be able to.

        That’s why Marzano’s example on summarising skulls directly shows how it’s done. I haven’t seen similar teaching of students how to identify key points, how to write concise descriptions and definitions, summaries, questions, key vocabulary etc.
        In other words, just telling students to do these things doesn’t mean they can. Sure, for some such signalling is all they need but, I guess, most will need direct instruction n the necessary skills.
        Furthermore, as we know from the difficulty of both near and far transfer, and the necessity of domain subject knowledge, this direct instruction of note taking will need to be subject specific.
        And, even then, doesn’t mean the students will be able to transfer this skill to other topic content, especially if they haven’t the necessary prior knowledge.
        So, I’m not being negative, but such study skills solutions have been suggestions for several decades without great success. The more recent emergence of the significance of subject knowledge adds further doubt as to such a “solution”.

      2. Sure. Execution is key with any strategy I suppose. Maybe I need to follow up with more clear information on application? I’ll try this after using the method I think. I may change my views completely once I have actually tried to implement the method. Thanks for the comments, they’ve certainly provided me with more to think about – much appreciated.

  2. All due respect for the discussion above, but I’ve used the method a lot, and it really works – the way I learnt it was was to do the editing/adding stuff in a smaller right column, after looking over it later – and the summary at the bottom really helps to focus on what really matters. It’s a more powerful tool than one would think at first glance. Keep that good stuff coming!

    1. Thanks for the comment, and thanks for sharing your experience using the method. So did the method you learnt had a further column? Can you share an example of this at all? Sounds interesting

  3. Hi. Good questions. The columns were the same, but the ‘cue column’ was on the right. Now that I think more about it, the cue column was used for questions, new thoughts and so on. As for the main column, , you were encouraged to leave lots of white space in the main column to add stuff later on, so most of the adding stuff in happened in the gaps in the main column, although you could use the ‘cue column’ for that as well.

    I used it as an active note-taking method, taking notes from books and so on. My notes would be really roughly written, and the columns scribbled in, but the key thing was that the method makes you actively engage with the material. I also use it sometimes for taking notes when I’m listening to a lecture or a talk. The gaps encourage me to go back over it later, the ‘cue column’ gets me adding questions and so on, and having the blank piece at the bottom tees me up to write some kind of a summary (sometimes a really rough one).

    It’s a great method. The frames steer you into active involvement. I was a secondary teacher once, and tried to encourage students to use it, without much success, but it’s been really effective for me.

  4. I also encourage this approach with some minor adjustments and have had good report backs. It encourages students to think about what they are learning. Like you the large white space for their notes. A narrow column on the left for a bullet point summary of key points raised in their notes. Forces re-reading of their notes and condensing i.e. precis. At the bottom of the page I label the horizontal space ‘questions’ with encouragement for the students to reflect and pose questions for clarification in later discussion. This often helps for misconceptions to be identified and corrected. I also encourage the completion of one of these note-taking forms as a useful part of ‘flipped’ or ‘blended’ learning approaches because it provided evidence of having viewed a video or having read the specified chapter of a textbook or web or blog pages. Gives a platform to tease out learning.

    1. Sounds great, Bradley. I’ve not had much opportunity to use myself, but Marzano’s meta analysis on note taking strategies and the cog sci research on testing gives me high hopes if implemented well. Thanks for the comment.

  5. I teach science in a secondary school, and this year we have been getting all students from years 7-13 to use cornell. Our main aim has been getting students to review their work by doing summaries, mainly to get passed the “that lesson is finished, now move on” that a lot of them have, as well as encourageing continuous revision for the new linear GCSE and A Levels.
    Students definitely need instruction on summaries but with sharing of good practice between students and classes I think we will get there. We are looking at it in the long term, and hope if start in year 7 by the time they get to Year 10 they will have some good habits

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