Taking notes, the Cornell way

Taking notes is something that technical writers do. A lot. Many of us take those notes digitally – in a word processor, using a text editor, or with a smartphone.

Even with all the software and gadgets available, taking notes with pen and paper is still popular with many. So much for going paperless …

Taking notes, though, can be a challenge. Sometimes the ideas and thoughts of others are coming so quickly and furiously that you can barely keep up. To record those ideas and thoughts effectively, you some space and some structure. Not just for what you’re noting down, but in the way you’re developing those notes.

You can do that using the Cornell note-taking method.

Anatomy of the method

The Cornell note taking method was developed in the 1950s by a professor at (obviously) Cornell University to help students take notes more effectively and efficiently. According to the Wikipedia entry on the method, it :

provides a systematic format for condensing and organizing notes.

The core of the method is a sheet of paper. No surprise there. It’s the way in which the sheet of paper is set up that makes it effective. On the right side of the page is a set of ruled lines. That’s the space in which you write your notes. This takes up about 70% of the width of the page. On the left side is a blank space. In this space you write keywords or connecting ideas. There’s also a space at the bottom of the page where you can write a short summary.

Here’s an example:

While most people who use the Cornell note taking method have the keyword portion of the page on the left, you can have it on the right. That’s one of my many little quirks.

Getting set up

Obviously, you’ll need a sheet of paper set up like the screenshot above. You can do it by hand, but I that’s a lot more work than it’s worth.

There’s at least one Word template available, and I found an OpenOffice.org Writer template. If you want a little more control of the page, you can create your own online.

Using the system

The Cornell method can promote brevity. My idea of notes is that they should be short, fragmentary sentences. The keywords can be cues that jog your memory. Or you can use the keyword portion of the page to jot down ideas that connect two or more points. Don’t be afraid to draw arrows between keywords and your notes.

It’s nothing fancy, but it does take a little while to adapt to doing things this way. Once you adapt, using the Cornell method becomes almost second nature.

That said, the method isn’t designed for everything; I don’t think it’s a universal solution to everyone’s note taking woes. I use the Cornell method, for example, when doing research (though not always), when brainstorming, when interviewing SMEs, or when I’m at a seminar or talk. This method is well suited for the latter two tasks – I need to get information down quickly, and even though I might miss something the keywords jog my memory.

Thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment.

Photo credit: garwee from stock.xchng

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