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How-To Help Students Take Better Notes

Many of us would likely share Bonnie Armbruster's (2000) assessment that "When left to their own devices, students, even college students, do not take very good notes" (p. 180). While most of our students enter our classes having practiced some form of note-taking in their previous schooling, far fewer have been coached in effective note-taking and, more importantly, note-using strategies. If you expect students to learn from your lectures, you can help them succeed by training them, even minimally, in such strategies.

The Cornell note-taking system, developed by Walker Pauk at Cornell University in the 1940s and popularized in his book How to Study in College, is one approach that you could share with your students to help them improve their academic performance through enhanced note-taking and note usage. To prepare a page for Cornell note-taking, a student divides the page into two columns, a 2.5" x 9" cue column and a 6" x 9" note-taking column. The bottom 2" of the page is marked off as a single-column summary section. Cornell University's Learning Strategies Center offers a diagram that illustrates this visually, or you can search Google Images for "Cornell note-taking" to see examples.

Students taking notes in a classroom

During the lecture, the student takes notes in the large note-taking column, leaving blank lines between topics and generous white space around the notes to allow for further elaboration. As soon as possible after the lecture, the student uses the cue column to write questions that require recall and application of the information recorded in the note-taking column, and the student summarizes each page in its summary section. To review the course material from these notes, students test themselves by covering the note-taking column and testing themselves by trying to answer the questions in the cue column.

Obviously, students must follow through on the out-of-class study strategy in order for this type of note-taking to be effective. As a professor, though, you can inject active learning into the lecture experience by taking short breaks for students to formulate questions for the cue column and to summarize lecture chunks in the summary section of the page. You might direct students to work in pairs or threes on devising their cue-column questions. If you were to have students copy their cue-column questions onto index cards, those cards could provide you with rapid feedback on students' perceptions of the lecture's main points. Most lecturers already pause from time to time to solicit students' questions and comments, not infrequently receiving only silence in return. This technique presses students to immediately formulate questions for later review, even if they don't think they have questions of clarification at that moment.


Armbruster, Bonnie. 2000. "Taking Notes from Lectures." In Handbook of College Reading and Study Strategy Research, ed. Rona F. Flippo and David C. Caverly, 175–199. Mahwah, NJ: Taylor and Francis.

Pauk, Walter E. and Ross J. Q. Owens. 2013. How to Study in College. 11th ed. Boston: Wadsworth.

Note: The Cornell note-taking method has advocates and detractors. Most of the evidence demonstrating its effectiveness is anecdotal. A handful of controlled studies are split between those showing improved test performance for students using Cornell note-taking compared with students in a control group, and those failing to show any significant difference between experimental and control groups. One limitation of such studies is that students' use of the notes in personal study tends to be opaque to researchers, who primarily have access to classroom conditions. However, when used with the prescribed study strategies, Cornell note-taking aligns well with the principle of retrieval practice, which enjoys robust experimental support.