How to Take Notes with the Cornell Note System

Perhaps you are interested in getting a little bit more out of your lecture. Or perhaps you are just interested in finding a system that will not leave you even more confused than you were when you opened up your notebook and listened in class. If you are one of the countless students with messy notes and a disorganized system, this article is for you! 

The Cornell Note System is a way to take notes created by Walter Pauk, Cornell University's reading and study center director. He is the author of the best-selling book,​ How To Study In College, and has devised a simple, organized method for compiling all of the facts and figures you hear during a lecture while being able to retain the knowledge and study smarter with the system.

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Divide Your Paper

Cornell Notes layout

Before you write down a single word, you will need to divide a clean sheet of paper into four segments as pictured. Draw a thick black line down the left side of the sheet, about two or two and a half inches from the edge of the paper. Drawn another thick line across the top, and another approximately one quarter from the bottom of the paper.

Once you've drawn your lines, you should see four different portions on your notebook page.  

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Understand the Segments

Cornell Note System

Now that you have divided your page into four segments, you should know what you are going to do with each!

  • Class, Topic, and Date: Across the top of the page, write the class (Literature, Statistics, SAT Prep), the topic of the day's discussion (Early Romantic Poets, Ratios, SAT Math), and the date. For instance, your page may be Political Science, The Judicial System, and April 3. 
  • Key Ideas: The left side of the page is where you will ask yourself questions so you can use them to study later. You'll also jot down notes to yourself like references to page numbers, formulas, web addresses, and major concepts.
  • Notes: The largest section in the center is where you will jot notes during the lecture, video, discussion or self-study. 
  • Summary: Along the bottom of the page, you will summarize the information that page contains in your own words, adding information to help you remember when necessary. 
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Example of the System in Use

Cornell note system

Now that you understand the purpose of each segment, here is an example of how to use them. For instance, if you were sitting in an English class in November, reviewing comma rules during a lecture with your teacher, your Cornell note system may look something like the illustration above. 

  • Class, Topic, and Date: You will see that the class, topic and date are clearly written across the top. 
  • Key Ideas: Here, the student has written in questions and comments that relate to the ideas presented in class. Since the topic isn't incredibly difficult, the questions are pretty straightforward. The student also added a note at the bottom of this segment, telling her where to find information about comma splice rules, which is important for her to be able to reference quickly. 
  • Notes: The student used good note-taking strategies in her note section. She divided each concept into its own space, which is important for keeping things neat and orderly and added stars next to examples of the given comma rules. If you are not interested in using color or shapes in your notes, then a simple drawn line between concepts or bullet points would suffice just as well. However, using color or special symbols when note-taking can help you associate certain ideas together and find them quickly. For instance, if you always use stars to show an example, it will be easy for you to find them when you need them while you study. 
  • Summary: At the end of the day, when the student was completing her homework, she summarized the key ideas from that page at the bottom in the summary section. She does this every single night, so she remembers what she learned in the day. In this section, she does not need to write anything elaborate, so she stated the ideas simply in her own way. Remember, no one else will see these notes unless you are required to turn them in. Putting ideas in your own words will help you remember them better! 
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Your Citation
Roell, Kelly. "How to Take Notes with the Cornell Note System." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Roell, Kelly. (2020, August 26). How to Take Notes with the Cornell Note System. Retrieved from Roell, Kelly. "How to Take Notes with the Cornell Note System." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).