in teaching

Focused note-taking (or, how to make your notes work harder than you do)

Note taking is a perennial topic of conversation in education. In school, teachers struggle with teaching it, students struggle to master it and everyone struggles to find the time to make it useful. Beyond school, students at university level are bombarded with commands to take notes with laptops, without laptops, throughout the lecture, only after the lecture or every time in between. At work, few of us  manage to take notes that serve as more than a surface record of some of what went on. I’ve found myself explaining a few things about note-taking a lot lately, so I’ve tried to drop most of it here for future reference.

One of the perennial “best” methods, often used to support college-readiness programmes in the US (such as AVID) is the Cornell note-taking method (or, for those of us that write the title out a million times a semester, C-note(s)).

Cornell note example: link to text explanation here 

Cornell notes are divided into three sections: the note-taking column (where, unsurprisingly, the notes are taken), the cue column (which a student fills in after the notes to expand on/reinforce/review what they have taken notes on) and the summary section (where the student summarises what is on the page (not what the topic involves!)). The formal Cornell process is record/question/recite/reflect/review and is meant to take students through the first exposure to a new idea (record), questioning (examining what you know and creating additional questions to further your learning), reciting (checking what you know), reflecting on what you know and reviewing what you know. This process echoes current work popular around some perennial learning strategies such as dual coding, spaced retrieval and elaboration. (The reciting and reviewing elements also tie directly into the work around frequent assessment of learning).

In the classroom, the strict version of C-notes might not always be appropriate. Luckily, the flexible nature of the C-note format means that notes can be taken based on student preference or specific instructions. Prefer a mind-map (like I did in the picture above)? fine! Want to write bullet-pointed  notes? those will also fit! The “cue” column can also be used to do dual coding, questions and really any sort of revisit that a student or teacher can imagine. This flexibility, while not necessarily part of strict C-note practice, makes it more useful across multiple disciplines and settings than it might be otherwise. In fact, many have started dropping the formal Cornell notes designation recently, going to a “focused note-taking” format that asks students to go through five distinct steps: (text from image here)

This evolution recognises the strengths of the Cornell method while freeing up everyone involved to develop notes that work for their context and goals. Students may struggle with these more abstract steps in the first instance (as may their teachers), so I think there is an argument to continue starting with traditional C-notes but recognising that there is untapped potential once better habits around note-taking are established. Want somewhere to explore this and more? My Learning Essentials has a note-making resource that takes you through a huge variety of techniques. 

My Learning Essentials launch page