Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Cornell Note-taking System (2001) (cornell.edu)
102 points by walterbell 3 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 41 comments

I tried the cornell system when I started back at school (OMSCS). I didn't really like it. It felt overly tedious to me. I think it's probably an okay starting point if you have no idea how to learn things. At some point you'll figure out your own personalized way of learning and retaining information - at that point you'll become a lot more productive than following some formula.

My approach is:

* Take lecture notes during the lecture, pausing the lecture to really understand everything (active listening). I never re-watch a lecture (takes too long), so I make sure the lecture notes have all info needed to review for an exam.

* Before an exam review all lecture notes.

That is about all I need to ace pretty much any exam that is about information retention.

If the exam requires real understanding and thought (algorithms, math), then the best way to prep is doing lots of practice. No note-taking system is going to help you there, it will only waste your time.

>pausing the lecture to really understand everything

no doubt in 2001 we had maybe <1% classes available as pre-recorded. this seems like a good foundational approach, better than "just take notes and pause". What if you are in- you know- an actual lecture? I took copious notes but had no review process or built in repetition (which this does).

That is more of a challenge :). This is why I think pre-recorded lectures are a superior form of teaching. They can be tweaked and revisioned to convey information in the most lucid way possible. Meatspace should be reserved for interactive QA sessions. Schools that accomplish this have a pedagogical advantage over everyone else.

Bar that, I recommend what you do is record the lecture audio while jotting down the major points (note taking apps like Notability work great for this). After the lecture re-review the audio, make sure you understand everything thoroughly, adding any additional notes that are required. This requires having to go through the lecture twice. If you are comfortable in the subject you can probably take sufficient notes during the lecture without having to listen to it again. Then before the exam, go through your notes and make sure you understand it.

My children attend a charter school where the Cornell system is taught and is mandatory. They are grade school age (9 and 11 y/o) and use their notes to study for tests. It is awesome to see them put effort into the notes as they intuit an almost direct correlation between those notes and their performance with exams.

I've tried this system before. It didn't work well when using in a workplace. Mainly because the info/knowledge in workplace is scattered and sometimes incoherent.

But, then, I've realised that this is from Cornell, and the note taking system here is for students noting lectures.

I've designed specific "note-taking" sheets for regular meetings I attend. There are separate places for me to write down "Things I want to say" and "Things I need to take action on" and "Things I need to to pass to other people."

As time goes on, I refined the page. We all travel a bit, so I added a section for "where's the staff this week."

I liked this idea so much that I've created similar templates for each of my regular meetings. A project control meeting has a different format than a staff meeting.

Interesting: I have icons I tag for action items I have to take (* but I draw it as a 5 pointed star) (note that passing things on, and producing something are both action items for me), questions I have (?), and things that are important, surprising or urgent (!).

Agreed, icons is the way to go here for meeting note-taking. I use a box for things I want to make sure get covered during the meeting, and I check it off after I bring it up or someone else does. And I use a triangle next to a box for things I want to follow up with someone privately or ask about off line after the meeting.

And the very important star for things I don’t want to forget or that are important.

Most people just interrupt because they are afraid they’ll forget and must bring up their very important point right now.

I also sometimes make a diagram showing the seating arrangement of everyone in the meeting so I can know who was present and refer to them by name if I’m unfamiliar with them.

Another note taking trick I use is to use circled numbers to refer to things elsewhere on this page or other pages.

Most important of all is that I never use a notebook with rippable paper; these notebooks are important documents I keep with me forever. Every page gets a page number and the date at the top. I reserve the first page of each notebook for a table of contents. Whenever something happens that I might need to refer to later I put it and its page number in the table of contents. Many table of contents entries end up with many page numbers after them, such as pages with T-shirt ideas, game ideas, and haikus. Because of this system I can say “see #3 on 2016-05-24” and go right to something I noted years ago. I go through about one notebook per year and have them going back a long time.

Whether you are aware and just didn't mention it, or are not aware that you have essentially recreated the bullet journal (see: a search engine), might as well go all the way and get a Leuchtturm 1917 notebook for the new year. It has page numbers and a table of contents pre-printed for you. $20, but for something that pretty much lasts the whole year, not overly expensive.

It actually sounds a lot like what I do, which is a close cousin to the good old-fashioned scientific notebook. This is a neat read that I just found searching:


Understood! My system started with franklin covey from back in the day, but I need graph paper for my notes for various reasons.

My system is much like yours in terms of notebook organization- I use it like a daily diary with TOC and all. I use graph-ruled composition notebooks.

My note-taking format is actually a simpler version of bulletjournal.

Bulletjournal is a bit heavy weight. But maybe BulletJournal is meant to be an example what you can personalize to meet your own preference.

Would it be possible for you to share your templates?

I'm very interested in ways to improve my meeting notes, and it sounds like you've already done a fair bit of testing on your templates.

They're mostly optimized for my specific meetings. Since the meetings are weekly, I do a fair bit of optimization from week to week.

The biggest tip I can suggest is to create the template with a pen, instead of making a formal template on the computer and printing it out. Iteration is your friend in this case.

I use this method almost exclusively. Even for things like meetings (to my sibling's comment). The trade-off is that I tend to only take notes on one side of the page, using the back side of the previous page for organizing my thoughts I need to say in a meeting (or in a class- I still take one occasionally for my interests).

So I use a lot of paper, and look forward to the day that I can really use my method virtually. But the time it saves helping me learn stuff (by making it super easy to do a quiz-like review) keeps me coming back.

The last time Cornell notes was discussed, a user had made a detailed comment on how he uses the system in his IT job.


This is an awesome reference. I had read the original SA article and skipped this discussion (my focus at the time was more on student techniques). You've linked to an excellent thread.

Using this system would mean dedicating a total of at least 3x the length of each lecture to a given topic per day. With 3-4 classes per day, you wouldn't have time to do anything else and also sleep.

I think that 3x is a pretty standard recommentation. For instace, a quick google gave a first link (from cliffnotes.com) that says this.

Here's a guideline to what freshman can expect throughout their college years: Each unit of credit requires 2 to 3 hours of outside classwork per week. So, a student carrying 15 credit hours should plan to spend 30 to 45 hours each week studying beyond the classroom.

per week, but not per day.

If a student has 3-4 classes a day, they can't reasonably spend 9-12 hours working solely on digesting those lectures that day. They'll have homework at the very least, likely some ongoing projects, normal human activities -- not to mention that in the US they probably also have a part-time (or full time) job.

> per week, but not per day.

Maybe we are talking about the same thing but maybe not. Most recommendations that I see (including the official one from the college where I work) say 2-3 hours outside class for every hour inside class. Maybe not the same day, but if you have a week with 3 hourly classes then the recommendation calls for 6-9 additional hours spent that week digesting the material of those class hours.

Sure, but you always need roughly that amount, or more, to get a deep understanding of new material. MIT operates on a 1:3 ratio of lecture to review, Cambridge is even higher.

Who takes 4 classes per day in college? A full load when I was in school was 12-15 hours of lecture time per week.

A full load is 12 credit hours per week (at the schools I attended in the US), but there were plenty of people who took more than that. At some schools the tuition caps out at a certain amount of credit hours (12 where I went) and you can take courses beyond that amount and it doesn't cost extra (in terms of money at least).

During my freshman or sophomore year my high school pushed this system really hard, making it mandatory to turn in your Cornell notes in many classes. The system was atrocious and nobody could stand it. I'm not sure if the reason was that they were forcing us to write notes and evaluating their quality or just a flaw in the Cornell system, but I really struggled to find much merit in the types of notes I was taking after. In my experience, it added a lot of clutter and a lot of work but I never actually went to look back at the summary section (which doesn't make a ton of sense for most subjects) or recall column. Based on studies though it looks like the system has very little positive effect if any, so not entirely surprising.

I used a form of this system to take notes when I participated in the first cohort of Udacity's "Self-driving Car Engineer Nanodegree" a few years ago. I found it very useful, and ended up filling about 3 notebooks (one sided) worth of notes for the effort.

I say "form of the system", because I wasn't as formal with it, and didn't do the "bottom page summary" - but it still worked well for note taking; I think the very act of doing these notes "hands on" helped with deeper understanding and retaining of the material.

On a side note - one other thing I learned from that class was to never again take a MOOC course on the first iteration; you are essentially the "guinea pig" experiment for beta testing it, and that can be a frustrating experience at times.

Ha! This was mentioned on an Ask HN last week ("Things to learn in one hour")!

I like this explanation better (gives a better visual of how it's useful):


(In case you don't trust "box.com", the PDF is linked in the "Tools" footer here: https://duckstop.stanford.edu/blog-category/note-taking)

Why should every student record the lecture with notes? Isn't it better if they get a copy of the lecture notes, and they only add their own notes, thereby paying more attention to the lecture instead of copying things manually which can be printed/photocopied for all sutdents?

It's not about conveying the information, it's about how to get your brain to integrate and hang on to the information. The process of writing it down, and the other steps described are all about cajoling the brain to learn new material quickly.

Personally I think it takes more than a note taking process, there has to be some personal intrinsic motivation to understand and a genuine desire to know. Otherwise its just test cramming and will be forgotton soon after.

> The process of writing it down, and the other steps described are all about cajoling the brain to learn new material quickly.

In my experience we often missed things, because there was too much info, so it was very hard to copy the info and pay attention at the same time.

It would have been much better to get a copy of the notes beforehand and add only my observations, making it personal.

Because often the instructor or professor may ad lib based on a question from a student. It may result in a really good answer that probably won't be in the official lecture notes. Instructors with decades of experience have anecdotes that may not be suitable for lecture notes but may give express an idea better using analogy that is spur of the moment.

I went back to college late in life and now with cellphones and cloud storage people often recorded lectures with permission. One person used OBS most others used their mobile phone's note recorder app. Many used Microsoft OneNote (free Office 365 with tuition) to record and photos of whiteboard notes and diagrams. OneNote can OCR the text and even adjust skew of the image.

I still wrote my own notes though at first hand written because I wrote in cursive which is far faster than block printing. But I was persuaded by the masses typed my notes into a document on my laptop. I regret that now because I noticed a significant difference in retention between hand-written versus typed. When I wrote by hand I recalled much more of the material.

And take this with a grain of salt because I'm friggin' old.

> Because often the instructor or professor may ad lib based on a question from a student. It may result in a really good answer that probably won't be in the official lecture notes.

Exactly, that's why I said everyone should get a copy of the official notes beforehand and write down their own notes on them.

It's much more efficient than slavishly copying everything you hear, making it harder to pay attention.

Most students find the process of taking notes AIDS the assimilation of information in lecture.

Just listening doesn't work as well for most people.

I don't think most students have A/B tested themselves on it. Meanwhile outside of school much is remembered without note taking, and what's not is captured for later lookup in superior ways.

This is like peak HN contrarianism right here.

I've never used note taking and I don't miss it.

You're very special.

Most people find it helpful. If I had a coworker on a team in a dev meeting, and they didn't take any notes, though, I'd be super suspicious they weren't going to retain all the important parts.

Sorry, bad attempt to humorously go even beyond the previous peak. ("I've never used/seen x and I don't miss it" -- so how would you even know anything about the value of x -- is a sentiment seen on many HN programming language threads). I do occasionally take notes. For meetings specifically, notes of them tend to serve first the function of a discussion log, second as reminders either to follow up on something or to transfer anything really important to a more structured form of knowledge share like documentation, a titled google doc, or the details section of a specific work item.

My preference would be both. Take notes during the lecture, and then receive the professor's outline. This would allow me to focus and reinforce lecture material during the first iteration, while also seeing where the holes in my knowledge reside (e.g. what I considered important during the lecture/note-taking vs. what the professor deemed important).

At that point, I can refactor my notes including the professor's outline, adding details I missed or elaborating on parts of the outline that might have been sparse.

The cited "How to Study in College" can be found in PDF form via Google.

I like this tip, it seems handy.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact