illustration showing hand taking notes in a notebook

Take Note: Popular Study Method has ‘Cornell’ Written All Over It

University has embraced prof’s ’50s-era system as a key resource

By Joe Wilensky

Have you ever heard of Cornell Notes? And no—it’s not a new a cappella group on the Hill.

Officially called the Cornell Note-Taking System, it was a study tool developed by longtime education professor Walter Pauk, PhD ’55.

Pauk devised his technique, also known as the Cornell Method or the Cornell Way, in the 1950s as a TA on the Hill.

Professor Walter Pauk, PhD ’55
Starting in the ’50s, Pauk created college prep summer programs on the Hill for high schoolers. (Photo by Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

It gained national popularity when he promoted it in his 1962 book, How to Study in College—which remains in print, in its 11th edition.

(The father of two Cornellians, Pauk retired from the University in 1978 and passed away just three years ago—at the age of 105.­)

His system divides each notebook page into two unequal columns with a third, “summary” section across the bottom.

Students, whether attending a lecture or reading, record their notes and abbreviated facts in the wider right-hand column.

Questions prompted by the material go on the left side—usually written afterward, but when the information is still fresh.

“As you’re taking notes, keep the cue column empty,” Pauk wrote. “But when you review and recite what you’ve jotted down, draw questions from the ideas in your notes and write them in the cue column. Writing questions helps clarify meanings, reveal relationships, establish continuity, and strengthen memory.”

Students reflect on their own prompts and questions, which they connect to the facts on the right; they then summarize the lecture or chapter at the bottom.

Writing questions helps clarify meanings, reveal relationships, establish continuity, and strengthen memory.

Professor Walter Pauk, PhD ’55, in How to Study in College

That aids understanding of the concepts, increases information retention, and informs later study.

“The utility and longevity of this system are due to the fact that it gets students to be active while taking notes,” explains Jen Bokaer-Smith, MS ’97, senior associate director of Cornell’s Learning Strategies Center, the University’s academic support unit for undergraduates.

To underscore the technique’s benefits, Bokaer-Smith likes to use the analogy of a TV courtroom drama, in which a stenographer records the proceedings while lawyers analyze the facts and legal concepts.

“To be really successful and engaged, students need to capture the information that a professor says, think about it, and analyze it,” she says. “It forces them to operate at multiple metacognitive levels.”

Illustration showing the basics of the Cornell Note-Taking System
As a “structured notes” system, the Cornell method provides a framework for recording facts and concepts and encourages self-testing. (Illustration by Cornell University)

Cornell Notes is just part of Pauk’s long legacy on the Hill. In addition to teaching, he served as the University’s reading and study skills center director.

In 1958, he created the High School Reading Improvement Program, which brought juniors and seniors to campus for several weeks in summer to help prep them for college by boosting their study skills.

(The program evolved into today’s Cornell Precollege Studies program in the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions.)

But Cornell Notes remains his most prominent legacy—and for decades, Pauk’s system has been popular across subject areas. It’s used by students in high school, college, and beyond, with free templates available online.

The technique remains flexible and adaptable, Bokaer-Smith says, and is just as useful today for online study and with e-textbooks.

In a 2021 teaching guide offering insights “by grad students, for grad students,” two Cornellians studying psychology (doctoral candidate Julia Nolte, MA ’20, and Hamid Turker, PhD ’22, now a postdoc on the Hill) contributed a section about Cornell Notes.

Pauk’s system is used by students in high school, college, and beyond.

Nolte—who plans to use the system in her fall 2022 class on aging and the media—says it has several key advantages, including its templates and organizational approach.

“The summary section at the bottom prompts note-takers to formulate the gist of what they learned in their own words,” Nolte says, pointing out that paraphrasing material covered in class can help students improve their understanding and performance on tests.

Recently, the Learning Strategies Center produced its own content about Cornell Notes, promoting the system’s use in modern learning environments. The site offers instructional videos and a publicly available course; hundreds of thousands of users (about half in the U.S. and half around the globe) have watched and downloaded the materials, she says.

“I had been thinking for years that some of the best resources about the Cornell Note-Taking System were from outside Cornell—and that just seemed silly to me,” Bokaer-Smith says.

“This was invented and developed here, even though it’s pretty broadly used now. So let’s make our information really great, so we’re the place people around the world go to learn about it.”

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University

Published July 29, 2022


Comments

  1. T P Ramarao

    Great way to learn

  2. Don Robins, Class of 1977

    After my high school graduation, and before heading into my freshman year in Arts & Science, I spent the the summer of 1973 in a study program on campus where I learned the Cornell note taking method. It has served me well these last 50 years, and I have come to understand it’s benefits more and more especially as I became immersed in technical education. A timeless model that should be promoted for the benefit of all learners.

  3. Mike Southerland

    I would like to get my soon to be college students in this but we live in Ann Arbor, mi

  4. geoffrey+hewitt, Class of 1979

    so in graduate school I condensed my reading notes in an abbreviated spiral notebook for each subject; there were no laptop computers or cell phones when I was in school; studying for test I would read only the notes; if I did not understand a section I would go back to the book for clarification; so results was graduating with honors, a fellowship and free tuition to Cornell Law school although I did not attend

  5. Jane Haynes, Class of 1978

    What a great idea! What a shame it was not promoted more in our day.

    I attended Cornell as a transfer student 1976-1978 and my husband was there all 4 years. Neither of us ever heard of this before now. As a detailed and avid note-taker majoring in communications, I would certainly have utilized this and remembered it!

  6. Katherine Moy, Class of 1979

    Of all the many methods of note-taking I teach in my class “Advance Listening and Notetaking” for English Language Learners (ELL), my students say the Cornell Method is the most useful. It is simple, yet so effective in preparing students for academic success.

  7. Pam Otis, Class of 1974

    I have heard of Cornell notes, but only long after I graduated. I joked that Cornell notes were writing everything you heard as fast as possible. This was especially true for Walter Lafeber’s class! In my career this skill served me well as I always had the most complete notes from meetings. But now that I know what Cornell notes really are, I’m sure the method is useful too. 😉

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