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.