The Cornell note taking method – revisited

Ah, effective research note-taking… the constant bugbear of academics everywhere. For years I have been searching for the best technique, convinced ‘the secret’ was out there, somewhere. I’ve sadly come to the conclusion that there is no perfect system, but there are a lot of good techniques that work in different circumstances. The Cornell Method is one of them.

Some time ago my colleague Dr Katherine Firth wrote an excellent introduction to the Cornell notetaking method here on the whisperer. This post is Hannah JensenFielding who is a  is a Master of Counselling/PhD (Psychology) student at the Universityof Queensland. Her current research project is a memory training program for community dwelling older adults. In the future she would like to focus on the role of experience in learning and psychological development. Her current hobbies include productive procrastination and ‘self-care’ activities such as Netflix. She can be found on Linkedin and ResearchGate, but the best way to contact her is by email: h.jensenfielding@uq.edu.au

Hannah has spent some time working with the method and has prepared a few tools that might help. Take it away Hannah!

So, you are in the process of researching and have discovered the age-old dilemma of ‘What do I need to remember from this text?’. This dilemma is often followed by deciding what to remember, which is then followed by a ‘But what if….?’.

The result is a summary of the text as long as the text itself.

Now we know a summary like that is not very useful but what can you do? How do we limit the number of notes we take when examining a text? One answer is the Cornell method.

The Cornell method was first devised in the 1950’s to help university students take appropriate summaries of what they were learning (from Pauk and Owens: How to study in College). The method limits the amount of space available for the students to summarise each text by means of a template:

The template includes space for recording bibliographic details, developing keywords and taking short notes. There is a summary section as a footer, theoretically making it easier for you to flick through your piles of notes and compare them.

Time has changed since the Cornell Method was developed. The Cornell template is not very user friendly on the computer. I have updated the design to suit note taking on Microsoft Word and gone a step further, in an effort to make it more useful for PhD students, or anyone else taking summarising texts for a large piece of work such as a thesis.

You can download my revised Cornell Template here.

Here’s a screen shot:

The first feature to note is the header.  There is a section stating, ‘Area of Research here’. On the MS Word file you can highlight this text and replace with the name of the general field of research that you are summarising, e.g. ‘Memory training programs’.

The second feature of the header is the page number which becomes damn useful if you print out the pages and a small child/dog/cat/other messy creature decides to play with the document.

Now the main feature is the table. As seen it has three headings: Keyword, Paper, and Summary.

Keywords refers to the word that you would use if you need to find similar texts. In the original method students are encouraged to develop keywords to help the process of linking your notes together, developing a picture of the research field. An example of a good keyword for me is ‘self-efficacy’. If I use it consistently I can search in the document to find my notes on similar texts with a focus on self-efficacy.

The second column ‘Paper’ is where you would write the name, year and title of the text you are summarising.

The final column is where you write the summary of the paper. Dot points are useful here but if you are desperate to write as much as possible then knock yourself out. It is in this column that the beauty of the Cornell method comes into play. I have constrained how much you can write in this column. The table cell will not grow if you go beyond the room provided.

If you write more than what can be written in the space available, that extra writing will not be visible.

This means you need to critically think about the text, specifically what you really need to remember about it, before you start summarising. Don’t worry: I’ve given you more space to summarise than the original Cornell template offers, so you will have enough room for all your notes if you are strategic.

The last feature of the Cornell method is the summarising box at the end of the page. Here you summarise the three papers of the page into a paragraph. This paragraph has great potential to just be inserted into your thesis if you play it right.

That in summary is the Cornell Method. I hope is serves you well.

Side Notes:

  • I have done up a very basic table (List of Keywords) in MSWord that you can use to record all the key words you develop for each area of research. This will help you stay consistent throughout your summarising and serve as a good look up table when you are searching for new literature.
  • Even when you use the template, the table does not automatically appear on a new page. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a way around this so you will need to copy and paste the table on each new page.

Related Posts

Turn your notes into writing with the Cornell Template

Endnote vs… well, everything else

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11 thoughts on “The Cornell note taking method – revisited

  1. Thank you! Yet another timely reminder from the Thesis Whisperer about how to get through candidature. Found this really helpful. I appreciate that you loop-back and re-visit issues.

  2. This is great. I use a modified version of Cornell notes to summarise each paper I review but often forget which paper made X point. This will save me a lot of time when it comes to writing.

  3. This is very similar to what I did when I started out, having never heard of the Cornell note taking system. I have three more columns in my table though. I have one for the date I read the paper. This is a memory aid, as I often thing ‘what was the name of that paper I read last Christmas…’ I have an extra text column for notes. This is for things like how I found the paper (perhaps a search term or a personal recommendation, or snowballing) or other meta information. It is often blank. And finally I have a column for a unique id number. This shows me how many papers I have read, as well as giving me a code when referring to other papers in the summary or notes. It might be seen as over kill by others, but it works for me.

    • Thank you so much for sharing! I just started using the method and inspired by your ideas, I now use the columns “date” and “unique number” as well. I also added columns for which paper I will use the paper, that I want to cite (I am working on two paper projects) and a column for “give two or three words for what you will use this paper” and a column where I enter how many times that paper was already cited, the ranking of the journal and the impact factor. This works very well for me since my supervisor likes to know this info when we discuss ideas from several sources, so he knows if I am citing a well-known article… So far I have come to the conclusion that the column “summary” is still empty for all the “overviews” I have created. Usually, my notes section works well. Still trying to figure out how to use the summary section…

  4. In my opinion the Cornell note taking method surpasses any other approach. I used it throughout my undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral studies with success. I also used it during my work career and now as a reasearcher and author. Definitely useful method as a note taker.

  5. What is the general consensus about written v. on computer? I have a mass of references on computer as pdf files, so it would be easy to copy and paste into a word file i.e. Cornell template. But maybe we learn better if we write it?

    • It is necessary to recognise that the Cornell approach is a tool: one of many. Its usefulness comes about by fine tuning the information to fit into the approach to match the data found, and this could mean adding columns to record references, subscripts, comments etc. in plain words, the template provides the base that should be built upon.

      • I understand the challenges you face. Depending on the circumstances that exist at the time of doing research, could call upon the use of pen & paper scratch pad, computer (laptop or ipad), mobile phone to take photograph and copy and eventually paste, hand held scanner to scan and later paste. In the absence of laptop or mobile phone, there have been some instances where I had to use toilet paper to catch and record the needed information for transcription later.

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