The Cornell Note-Taking System: Learn the Method Students Have Used to Enhance Their Learning Since the 1940s

How should you take notes in class? Like so many students who came before me and would come after, I had little idea in college and even less in high school. The inherently ambiguous nature of the note-taking task has inspired a variety of methods and systems, few of them as respected as Cornell Notes. Invented in the 1940s by Cornell University education professor Walter Pauk, author of How to Study in College, Cornell Notes involves dividing each page up into three sections: one to paraphrase the lecture’s main ideas, one to summarize those ideas, and one to write questions. After writing down those main ideas during class, immediately summarize and add questions about the content. Then, while studying later, try to answer those questions without looking at the main body of notes.

You’ll find a complete and concise explanation of how to take Cornell Notes at Cornell’s web site, which includes information on the “Reflect” stage (in which you ask yourself broader questions like “What’s the significance of these facts?” and “What principle are they based on?”) and the “Review” stage (in which you “spend at least ten minutes every week reviewing all your previous notes” to aid retention).

For a more detailed visual explanation, have a look at teacher Jennifer DesRochers’ instructions for how to take Cornell Notes in the video above, which now approaches one million views on Youtube. Her own version encourages taking down main-idea summaries in drawings as well as text, and including things like “key points” and “important people or ideas” in the question column.

That DesRochers’ video now approaches one million views suggests students still find the Cornell Notes system effective, as much as or even more so than they did when Pauk first published it. Over time, of course, its users have also augmented it: take Doug Neill’s video “Improving Cornell Notes With Sketchnoting Techniques” above, which combines standard Cornell Notes with his system of “sketchnoting,” also known as “visual note-taking and graphic recording.” He provides examples of what such Cornell-formatted sketchnoting might look like, explaining that “having the option of doing something more visual in your mind triggers a different type of processing power, so that you’re more active in the way that you’re responding to the ideas. You’re not just passively taking in information.” The nature of school, as students in every era have known, can often induce a state of passivity; systems like Cornell Notes and its many variations remind us of how much more we can learn if we have a way to break out of it.

Related Content:

Richard Feynman’s “Notebook Technique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

Carl Sagan’s Syllabus & Final Exam for His Course on Critical Thinking (Cornell, 1986)

What’s a Scientifically-Proven Way to Improve Your Ability to Learn? Get Out and Exercise

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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