Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Taking Notes, The Cornell Way

Someone writing by hand in a notebook

Taking notes is something most of us do. You might be doing that as a writer or as a student or as someone working 9 to 5. More and more more people are taking their notes digitally — in a word processor, using a text editor, online with Evernote, or using a smartphone.

Even with all the software and gadget available, taking notes with pen and paper — what some people call the analog method &mdash: is still popular with many. I count myself among them, even though my handwriting is really hard to read.

My notebook of choice is a Moleskine pocket notebook. Sometimes, though, I need a bit more space and a bit more structure when taking notes. Not just in what I’m writing notes on, but in the way I’m developing those notes.

And that means turning to the Cornell note-taking method.

Anatomy of the Method

The Cornell note taking method was developed in the 1950s by a professor at (obviously) Cornell University to help students take notes more effectively and efficiently. According to the Wikipedia entry on the method, it:

provides a systematic format for condensing and organizing notes.

The core of the method is a sheet of paper. No surprise there. It’s the way in which the sheet of paper is designed that makes it effective. On the right side of the page is a set of ruled lines — the space in which you write your notes. This takes up about 70% of the width of the page. On the left side is a blank space. In this space you write keywords or connecting ideas. There’s also a space at the bottom of the page where you can write a short summary.

Here’s an example:

Example of a Cornell note taking template

While most people who use the Cornell note taking method have the keyword portion of the page on the left, I prefer to have it on the right. One of my many little quirks.

Getting Set Up

Obviously, you’ll need a sheet of paper set up like the screenshot above. You can do it by hand, but I that’s a lot more work than it’s worth.

There’s at least one Word template available, and I found an OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice Writer template. If you want a little more control of the page, you can create your own online.

Using the System

The Cornell method promotes brevity. Take my notes, for example. They’re usually short, fragmentary sentences — point form, to save space. The keywords can be cues that jog my memory. Or, as I mentioned above, I sometimes use the keyword portion of the page to jot down ideas that connect two or more points. Don’t be afraid to draw arrows between keywords and your notes.

It’s nothing fancy, but it does take a little while to adapt to doing things this way. Once you adapt, using the Cornell method becomes almost second nature.

That said, I don’t use the Cornell method for everything. It’s not a universal solution to all my note taking woes. I do use the Cornell method, when doing research (though not always), when brainstorming, or when I’m at a seminar or talk. This method is well suited for the latter two tasks — I need to get information down quickly, and even though I might miss something the keywords jog my memory.

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