Notes/Cornell Notes


When you take notes, you essentially extract important information in short form. You might take notes following the order of information in the text, or you may end up rearranging your notes in an order that makes sense to you. Note-taking is a process through which you whittle down a large amount of information to smaller pieces that you can more easily remember.

Note-taking also fosters comprehension of and interaction with a text.  Notes can be both similar to and different than annotations.

Notes may occur while you read, like annotations.  Reading notes may capture the same things that annotations capture: main ideas, your ideas and responses as you read, definitions, reactions, and more.  Notes that you take while you read, like annotations, are a form of dialogue with a text.

Notes may also occur after you read.  In this way, they can be a “next step” after annotations, as you can then re-order, further consider, and manipulate the information you jotted down as you read (e.g., you may want to draw images to illustrate concepts and then draw lines to show relationships or connections among concepts as appropriate). The whole rationale behind note-taking is to reduce both the text’s key points and your own key responses into a manageable amount and format to help with recall and deeper thinking.

Think of note taking in terms of Google maps.  The text is like having a satellite view in Google maps.  It presents a lot of information equally, without distinguishing certain features of that information. However, when you take notes on a text, it’s more like the map view of the same information, as certain features such as streets are highlighted.  When you take notes, you decide what features to focus on, depending on your reading purpose, context, and background knowledge. Notes condense the information you extract to essential concepts, to help you better understand, remember, and see relationships within that information.  Notes help you find and remember your way.

Images courtesy of Google maps. Saratoga Springs, NY, Starbucks to Empire State College, 2 Union Avenue

Notes taken after reading and annotating allow you to organize information in a way that makes sense to you; you do not need to stick with the text’s order of ideas, but can group and comment on those ideas in your own way. The very act of organizing information itself is a form of conversation with a text, which further promotes your own understanding of that text.

How to Take Notes

Develop a system that makes sense to you.  Some note-taking systems include the following:

  • headings and subheadings of information, with short summaries of key points
  • bulleted lists
  • underlined key terms or main ideas
  • notes with lines and arrows drawn to show idea relationships
  • abbreviations
  • symbols
  • and more

The video below shows one person’s unique (and somewhat complex) system.  It’s not for you to reproduce; instead, it’s included to give you an idea of the creative range that can occur as you develop your own note-taking system. View the video for ideas which you may want to adapt (e.g., using visual cues such as boxes for certain information), ideas that complement your own reading and note-taking processes.

The key point to remember about note-taking is that you should not simply re-rewrite the text, using the text’s words. Instead, put information into your own words, and use a system of note-taking and organizing information that makes sense to you.

Sample Notes

What follows are a few sample notes based on the first few paragraphs of an article from CNN, “One quarter of giant panda habitat lost in Sichuan quake,” July 29, 2009.

(CNN) — “The earthquake in Sichuan, southwestern China, last May left around 69,000 people dead and 15 million people displaced. Now ecologists have assessed the earthquake’s impact on biodiversity and the habitat for some of the last existing wild giant pandas.

According to the report published in “Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment”, 23 percent of the pandas’ habitat in the study area was destroyed, and fragmentation of the remaining habitat could hinder panda reproduction.

The Sichuan region is designated as a global hotspot for biodiversity, according to Conservation International. Home to more than 12,000 species of plants and 1,122 species of vertebrates, the area includes more than half of the habitat for the Earth’s wild giant panda population, said study lead author Weihua Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.”

Sample Notes:

  • earthquake in Sichuan, China, May 2009
  • half of world’s wild giant pandas in the world live here
  • earthquake exterminated almost 1/4 of the pandas’ living environment
  • many other animal and plant species were affected

Cornell Notes

One traditional method of note-taking is called Cornell notes, which essentially involves annotating your own notes. Open this file to see a full Cornell Notes Template, adapted from Word; an explanation of the template is below.

  1. Row at the top – fill in the topic, the text, the course, or any information you need to identify these notes
  2. Right-hand/wider column – Write notes from the text, noting in your own words main concepts, important examples, definitions, etc.
  3. Left-hand/narrower column – After you take notes in the larger column, go to this smaller column and write key words, main ideas, and/or your own insights and questions about each of the main ideas in the right-hand column.
  4. Summary row at the bottom – After you work in the two main columns, write a summary encapsulating the over-arching concept of these notes.

View the following video for an oral/visual explanation of Cornell notes:

How to Work with Cornell Notes

Link to Cornell’s own explanation of the The Cornell Note-taking System, which also includes information on how to work with your notes.  They identify important “recite,” “reflect,” and “review” stages, which help ensure not only recall, but linkage of information in the notes with your existing knowledge network.

try it

Read the article “A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop,” by Cindi May (Scientific American, June 3, 2014). Take notes on the article using your own system, or use the Cornell note-taking system – or both, as you may want to see what works best for you. Then compare your notes with the notes of another reader, with the understanding that note format will vary according to the individual.  However, note content should be somewhat the same, since all readers should be identifying the article’s main ideas in some way.