Two Stops Down

A journal on photography by Thomas Riggs

Take better notes (and use them) with the Cornell Method

The Cornell Method of notetaking, devised in the 1950s by a professor at Cornell University, is fundamentally a way of making your notes read-write. By leaving yourself room on the page for later, your notes can become something you can revisit, refine and learn from.

And, best of all, it's simple, gets out of the way and is totally adaptable to how you work.

Revisiting your notes can be a game-changer in itself. It was a relatively modest change to make, but simply opening up my notebook and reading what I had written turned notetaking from being a wrist-exercise into something useful. Incredibly useful, in fact.

Here's the basic idea of the Cornell method of notetaking, as I was taught it: before the lecture/book/interview/etc., add two margins to your page. A margin down the left side is kept for keywords, or cues. A footer along the bottom is used for summaries.

The summary is a pretty easy concept to grasp. It's somewhere to place all of the useful, re-usable parts of what you've written. Think bullet points and shorthand facts.

The keyword or cue column is less easy to pin down. Depending on your field of study, the cue column could hold topic headings, key concepts, chapters, exercise questions, and more. The cue column forms something in between an index and a flash-card, letting you quickly find notes on a particular topic or test your knowledge of the key concepts.

A spread from my notebook.

Here's a spread showing notes from one of Ed's rather dense lectures. Personally, I don't see much use for the cue column in art study: the lectures are fragmentary at best, and much of the reading is more akin to finding needles in a literary haystack than copying out exercises.

What I really got out of the Cornell method was the summary, a dedicated space where I could process and extract all the good stuff from my notes. Usually these are ideas and people I need to follow up on.

NINJAAAA

The ninja move

Psst. Here's the super ninja move. You know what's going to make your notes useful? Making them yours. Getting rid of the cue column was just the first step in making my notebook something other than somewhere to waste ink. I came up with my own visual cues to let my (future) self know about:

  • things I need to look into (circled with an arrow, as if to say "Go! Research!");
  • important ideas that are buried inside of dense writing (highlighter!);
  • non-sequitur thoughts that need to go somewhere else (in a self-contained box).

Also a great idea? Come up with your own shorthand system for copying out long quotes or wordy book titles. (You've got no idea how much time it saves writing photo. instead of photograph, and photog. instead of photographer.)

Speaking of quotes: For long quotes from slides, I write the first few words and the author, and circle-arrow it. Meaning? "Google this later". So useful.

Context

When you think about it, lectures are a huge, one-sided demand on your attention. Two or three hours spent looking at someone's slides, and what do you end up with? "Some awesome, useful notes", I hear you cry! You wish, right? Well, keep at it. And don't use this kind of read-write notetaking on lectures alone; there's all sorts of places where revising can really make your time spent working more valuable.

A great example is books. I'm not talking about pulling long quotes and keeping a bibliography on Tolkien, but giving yourself somewhere to make notes on what you're reading every few chapters can be really useful in the long run.

From my own experience, the most useful and most under-valued kind of notes are notes on your own work. These notes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes: project proposals, grades, proof-readings, even conversation. These things may seem ephemeral, but you can get so much out of them just by processing and summarising.

This article was published on 8 April 2011.