Turn your notes into writing using the Cornell method

This post is by Dr Katherine Firth who works in Academic Skills at the University of Melbourne, with a particular interest in research student literacies. Basically, Katherine is a Thesis Whisperer, like me. Unlike me, Katherine is still an active researcher in her field of 20th-century poetry. Over coffee Katherine told me about the ‘Cornell Method’ and kindly agreed to write a post. I found it enlightening, I hope you do too.

I take a lot of notes.  Even when I was doing my PhD and I was taking thousands of pages of notes, I took them by hand.  I tried using a computer, but there are so many things that are really hard to do on screen (drawing an arrow to make a connection between points, for example) that are really quick on paper.  Also, you only need one hand to write notes, but two hands to type.  And that free hand comes in useful for holding open books, grasping coffee cups, or stuffing your face with Gummi bears.

Now that I’m working with lots of PhD students, I find that they also take a lot of notes.  Years and years of notes.  Notes about field work.  Notes about interviews.  Notes about lab results.  Notes about books they’ve read. And then they get stuck.  Because they have to turn the notes into a thesis.  And that’s really hard.

The reason I think it’s so hard, is because when you take notes you focus your attention on the text (or case study, or thing under your microscope).  You focus towards that thing.  Then you have to turn completely around and face your thesis, and write towards that instead.  (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Writing notes and writing the thesis mean you have to focus in opposite directions.

Even if you see note taking and research as a cycle of reading and writing, you still focus towards the research, then towards the essay, then towards the research, then towards the essay.

I’ve tried lots of different ways of getting around this.  For my most recent article I just typed the quotes straight in.   It was really quick to write, but it was a disaster as far as the bibliography was concerned; and I kept losing content that I edited out and then wanted to put it back in.

But then I discovered the Cornell Method.

The Cornell Method was invented about sixty years ago (see Walter Pauk’s 1962 classic How to Study at College, now in its tenth edition), though I only found out about it last month.  It incorporates a lot of what I was doing already—providing spaces for notes, and margins for reactions, connections and comments.  But it takes it further, and adds some very cool functions.

Firstly, the template gives you less space to write notes.  You aren’t supposed to record everything you see, or even everything that is interesting.  Having fewer lines to write notes encourages you to be selective—just to chose the quotes or paraphrases or details you expect to include in your thesis.  It’s so liberating.  And it’s so quick.  In under an hour, I went from opening the book for the first time to producing the notes in Figure 2.

Figure 2. My notes on Judith Wright, The Moving Image, for a forthcoming article. There’s a good post on making a Cornell Template in Word here.

Secondly, the template gives you a bigger margin than in a usual ruled note book.  This is where you put key words, identify themes, or recurrent patterns.  This is great to helping you to analyse what you’re putting down, and to find the relevant quote when you go back to it.  It also helps you to stay on track.  You can check: ‘are my key words the same as the ones in my research question / thesis title?’

But thirdly, and most valuably, the template gives you a big space at the bottom to write sentences that summarise the page.  That is, you start writing your critical response on the notes themselves.

When I sat down for hour of Shut Up and Write last week with only this page of notes and my laptop, I didn’t have to spend any time thinking about how I would turn my notes into my writing, because my notes were already facing in the right direction. My notes were already my writing plan, my topic sentences, my argument.

In 50 minutes, I produced 1200 words.  That’s a full draft of the whole section.  I think that’s a win.  Hopefully this is helpful so you can win too! If you are interested, here is some further Reading:

http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/cornell-method-pdf-generator.html http://www.eleven21.com/notetaker/

So I’m wondering, do any of you use this method to take notes? Does it work for you? Do you have any tweaks to suggest?

Related Posts

What is the best way to take notes for your PhD?

Why you should keep a PhD notebook

Using Word to make a Cornell Template



102 thoughts on “Turn your notes into writing using the Cornell method

  1. Lynne Kelly says:

    I developed a system in doing my PhD which I am now using for my subsequent research and writing. As a professional writer, the publishable product was always a high priority. My goal was for all notes to be fully searchable and lose nothing. I went close.

    I have colour coded excercise books for different aspects of the research. These now number about 50 and growing! As I read any document or do any thinking, I dictate into voice recognition software or cut and paste from the article. Confession: as I was reading, I would lightly pencil mark the margin of the bit I wanted to dictate in and then erase the pencil once it was entered. I actually ended up cleaning up lots of library books.

    I cut and paste the EndNote reference to the top of the document. That habit made sure I had always entered the reference in EndNote and always had the year available for referencing. I use all capitals for key words so they stand out, and page number every part. Every reference is noted at the top and which notebook it is in. I highlight (in Word) key passages and then summarise at the end in the form which suits the thesis / books / papers. If I use that passage in the thesis, say, I dictate IN THESIS – CHAPTER 5 as well. I am always aware that may change with editing, but at least it gives my original thinking. These bits were then cut and pasted into the Word document for that chapter, later to be worked and reworked into the thesis. Voice recognition becomes very accurate with a lot of use.

    I then print the summary and glue it into the exercise book so I can hand annotate in spaces left, just as for the Cornell Method. For some reason I need things in hard copy. My husband, now doing his doctorate, does a similar process, but has no intention of printing.

    I also add images, relevant emails and other bits and pieces into the note books. I love the feel and sound of the notebooks as I use them!

    The beauty of having everything electronically is the searching. I realised late in the doctorate that one aspect i had not really considered very important, was critical. One search, and I had every summary which included key words. I could do the same for authors.

    It may sound obsessive, but it was much faster than hand writing and became an efficient habit. If I was out and about, I would hand write and then dictate from my notes. Of the 750 or so items in the bibliography, I have over 500 summaries. Some did not warrant summary. All those summaries were in the cloud and I could call up any of them on my iPad when travelling for research, or in discussion with my supervisor or others.

    Over the four years, my system became more organised and efficient. I am now working on a number of books arising from the thesis, and am finding my system really paying off. And I’m adding to it with the new research.

    Love the Thesis Whisperer!


    • one name, 2 words (@AmandaMichelle) says:

      that really is awesome, lynne! i do something similar (without the voice recordings) in notability – it lets you type, handwrite/draw, and highlight. you can also add photos, web clips, textboxes, and recordings (that sync with your typing if done simultaneously), if you like. my ipad has turned into a e-scrapbook with all my notability files organized into folders by course/topic, which are sorted into sections (mostly by term, but i do have one “dissertation” section).

      since notability already allows me to share with google drive & evernote (just two of many choices), the only thing i need is for them to add zotero to the mix! for now, i can just use one of the other services as a proxy.

      (lol, i just realized i’m starting to sound like a notability salesperson. i really do love that app, though!)

    • petermalling says:

      Lynne, that’s an interesting method. But I don’t understand the purpose of gluing the summaries into physical notebooks. Would it be possible to share a photo of such a notebook?
      About using dictation software, that is also really interesting. However, the challenge here is that it is not always possible to talk aloud (if reading in a public place for example). I recon that to be the reason of marking the citations. Did you actually write your remarks in the books also, to be dictated later into a word document?
      Would it be nice if you could simply highlight the text you wanted to use in the PDF, dictate or type your own reflections to that phrase, and somehow tag/thematise it. I still miss the perfect note taking tool that would integrate this whole process and would integrate the themes/tags with headings in a Word document, automagically sorting the notes/annotations along with the quotes, into your own thesis structure.
      Such a tool should also integrate a smart phone or tablet for reading and taking/tagging notes, with a proper pc for doing the structuring and writing.

  2. Katherine says:

    Wow, Lynne, that’s a very organised system! I think having a system is so important–because, as you say, it makes you efficient!
    Since finishing my PhD, my research projects have become much more ad hoc (a bit of Judith Wright, a bit of Ezra Pound, a bit of TS Eliot, a bit of Adorno, a bit of Dada… just this year). The Cornell method is perfect for that kind of new entry into a project.
    It’s also amazing how much the cloud and search technology has changed storing and creating knowledge. As a PhD student I had to keep emailing myself my documents to work on it away from my (home) desk, and EndNote lived on my desktop and no-where else…
    And Scrivener + Cornell… that would be interesting to see how that works for you, knelistonie!

  3. one name, 2 words (@AmandaMichelle) says:

    yes! I used to teach Cornell Notes to my students as part of my overview of notetaking & study skills. I never liked the method for my own work – i prefer to scribble all over a pdf using Notability. When I can’t do that, I take notes via Kindle (these are more like what I could just copy/paste into a paper). And, lastly, when I can’t do that, I take in different colors electronically. I’ll put up headers, as needed, & move chunks around if my thoughts begin to flow. I used to love marking up paper books, but I rarely do so anymore because it’s more time consuming to look through tape flags for something I need.

  4. cam says:

    Using Scrivener, I accomplish about the same thing. The ability to add metadata, including notes and key words and to colour code sections of writing, coupled with having different “kinds” of sections (note cards, text, etc, plus document metadata for sections within each of these or the whole project) is hands down a winner. I can add in any drawn or found images/diagrams, including the conceptual diagrams I hand draw on an iPad/iPhone. Scrivener plays well with Endnote. And add in apps like Notability (mentioned above) or IndexCard, Writer etc and it’s a nice, portable and back-upable system. I still hand write some things, but try to regularly scan/transcribe. The result is an electronic version of ‘everything’ that is immediately ready for assembly.

    (my hardest habit to break is redundancy in note taking, electronic or hand written. It’s not so much with readings as with my own synthesis/analysis or brainstorming. I bet I’ve written the same thing 12 times before I finally connect all the dots.)

  5. Katherine says:

    For those of you using Notability–what stylus do you use? That’s my biggest sticking point at the moment!
    (and yes, like Cam, redundancy is my biggest bugbear! Which is why I love the constriction of the paper, of the A4 sheet, of the tiny space).

  6. Katherine Firth (@AcadSkillsMelb) says:

    Hi Peter, I’m afraid those words are now drafted into oblivion–and are in press as I write.

    What I normally do, though, is use my summary sentence as a topic sentence. Then I plug in the quotes / facts / points from the keyword tags and notes. Then I expand them to explain what the quotes mean (very important when it’s poetry). Finally, I string them together with some pointing phrases, a couple of howevers, therefores and (my writing tic) moreovers.
    Then I do it again.

  7. OS says:

    This can be really helpfull. I will try this for the next papers to wirte. Currently I am facing the same stress (actually, I am in the “Shut up and Write” stage of my current paper, not working at all, as you can imagine when you see me writing this comment). Anyway, tahnks for that info. I will try to test it.

  8. OS says:

    Reblogged this on fyeyes und kommentierte:
    Ein wirklich erfrischender Artikel über das Schreiben einer Dissertation / Abschlussarbeit und das dazugehörige note-taking!

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  10. alextdel says:

    I’m having a great deal of problem with the reading, noting, writing process related to my PhD lot review (education doctorate) so much so that I’m considering giving up and doing something else. Is the Cornell method meant to result in approximately one sheet per paper read? When I take notes I write a lot and by the time I read, note and write up my notes into retrievable segments I’ve probably taken 2 or 3 days and forgotten why I was reading the article in the first place. By the way I’m doing a part time PhD with a full time job (50-80 hour per week). So is the aim one page of noted per Cornell sheet per article?

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Yes, the aim is to reduce the amount of notes you take. It sounds to me like you are reading without a theme or two to guide your note taking and are, instead, essentially recording the article in your own words. I’d recommend generating a couple of keywords and using those to decide if you take a note or not. Best of luck.

  11. cchung90 says:

    Hi, FYI you can create free online Cornell Notes on Classmint.com. I am really surprised most people make do with a more or less random way of taking and reviewing notes (when I see people highlight every other line of their notes, it’s really annoying!)


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  14. Richard Wilson says:

    Just starting my PhD and I am finding a combination of Scrivener, Endnote and MindNode working really well. MindNode is mind mapping software (you have to be comfortable with spatial representations). My early stage process is find a document that is interesting – journal articles for me at the present time. Attach the doc to an Evernote note with Article Title as heading. Open the pdf and use mark up tools etc. to annotate the pdf as you read. Save. Copy the note link. Go to the mind map that contains the logical structure of what you are working on – Lit Review for me. Make a new node in the best logical location. Insert the Evernote note link. This link will then click through to the article on Evernote. Add more commentary or write the paragraphs in the mind map that will become the draft thesis text in the same or another node. Use the mindmap to restructure your logic and connect/reconnect the logic.

    I am not yet at this stage but I intend bringing this material into Scrivener. The Scrivener cards approach some of the functionality of the mind map but don’t provide the same spatial flexibility.

    Interested to know other’s methods.


  15. Ainslee Hooper says:

    I’ve finally written the first draft of my first chapter of my honours thesis and I have found that my method of note taking has really worked for me so far. As I’m reading something, I had a Word doc open and I will put quotes in there and then discuss my opinion, do I agree, disagree, why, why not etc, and then discuss how this point is relevant to my thesis. Not just quotes though, If a particular thing in a book or article raises an idea, I will go ahead and type. My first chapter was written in a matter of hours because all I had to do was go back and look at my notes and there all the material was, with page numbers etc.

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  22. kmal91 says:

    Well this was quite enlightening! Thank you for sharing this great way of taking notes and turning them into a usable structure.

    I have implemented it and I found taking notes in one column and then taking notes on my notes in the other works best for me right now. I am sure it will evolve some more but right now it serves the purpose of making new connections and constantly clarifying what I’m writing and why I’m writing.

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  25. Mackenzie Rice Johnson says:

    Thanks for the original post and for all the good comments. I wanted to put in a plug for the Rocketbook. I take WAY too many notes when I’m reading so will be trying the Cornell Method to help prepare for my qualifying exams. One thing that’s helped organize my notes lately is the Rocketbook. You use special pens that write remarkably like normal pens, on paper that wipes clean yet feels close enough to normal paper to satisfy the tactile needs of those of who still cling to paper (but are trying to reduce the environmental impact of their PhD). There’s a set of icons at the bottom that link to a digital destination of your choosing (email, Drive folder, numerous other options) and a QR code. When you take a picture of the page using the Rocketbook app, it scans it to an OCR pdf and sends it to your chosen destination. It really is awesome!

    I’m excited to set up a template on my Rocketbook for the Cornell method!

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