Cornell Method revised

The article reflects my previous post on the Cornell Method. I show some shortcomings in the public reception of the Cornell Notes System. My advice is not to focus on the formalities of the method but to concentrate on the educational function of the three types of notes fields. I explain the Feynman Technique and suggest integrating it with the Cornell Note System.

During my post on H5P Cornell Notes, I explained the Cornell Method in some detail. I mentioned the three parts of different types of notes: Excerpt, Deliberation/Reflexion, and Conclusion. I hinted that this was a revised concept heavily influenced by my constructivist perspective on learning. This post will elaborate as a postscript on the difference between my orientation and the traditional outlook.

Taking Cornell Method to a higher educational level

The article reflects my previous post on the Cornell Method. I show some shortcomings in the public reception of the Cornell Notes System. My advice is not to focus on the formalities of the method but to concentrate on the educational function of the three types of notes fields. I explain the Feynman Technique and suggest integrating it with the Cornell Note System.

Meanwhile, I am convinced that there is a wrong interpretation and misguided public discussion about the Cornell Method. The focus on formal issues (e.g., the width of the different note fields, their distance from the paper border, their internal arrangement, etc.) misguided the main educational idea. Walter Pauk invented the Cornell Method in the 1940/1950ies, where Behaviorism still dominated the scientific landscape. And at that time, the method was exceptionally progressive, even revolutionary.

But now – 70 years later – we have to revise the concept critically and take it to a new level. In the previous article, I claimed that the formal aspects of the Cornell Method are not so important, but this is not enough! One has to design the note-taking system from scratch, to set a constructivist note-taking system from the bottom up. I will now counteract my previous position: The width and arrangements of the note fields are not important at all! What matters alone is the three steps of involvement with the material, with the content.

First step: Traditional note-taking

Efficient note-taking is not easy; it is a skill in itself. But said that, I refer you to two very different videos about writing good notes. The first is only a link to a page because I cannot embed the video here. This talk is in a slow, thoughtful speech focussing on paper notes. The second video is difficult to understand for non-native speakers as the presenter rushes through the subject using different kinds of cinematic approaches. But both videos are valuable.

By the way: Thinking about how different approaches of note-taking (e.g., sequential writing, outlining, mind mapping – as mentioned in the second video) could be supported by software tools would be an interesting topic in itself to which I would like to come back in another article. But now, I do not have to add essential things to this first step.

Second step: Exploration, Finding Examples, Inquiry, Linking

My concentration is on the second step. These notes are not written during the class, during watching, or reading but several hours or 1-2 days later. It takes as a basis the notes from the first steps and elaborates on it. The essential mood is one of engagement and involvement with the subject area.

  • Do you have any questions?
  • Do you understand all concepts and terms?
  • Can you find at least two or three examples to illustrate the essential idea?
  • Are there any connections to other learned subjects to integrate the new content?
  • What questions do you have to follow up on?

The Feynman Technique

You can summarize these points with the Feynman Technique, another strategy of self-directed learning. It follows a quote (wrongly?) attributed to Albert Einstein:

If you can’t explain something to a six-year-old, you really don’t understand it yourself.

Albert Einstein (?)
Integrating Cornell Method with the Feynman Technique: Physicist and Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman in front of a blackboard with mathematical symbols. The image emphasizes a headline with the text: "Want to learn something new?  - You are only 5 steps away. Just implement my technique to perfection."
What is the Feynman Technique and how can it be integrated with the Cornell Method?

Richard Feynman, physicist and Nobel prize winner, was famous for his educational approach. Briefly worded, I would summarize the so-called Feynman Technique:

  1. The first and foremost thing to do is to choose a concept.
  2. Explain the concept to yourself (or to somebody else) as if you’re explaining it to a layperson (say a six-year-old kid).
  3. Point out any knowledge gap (if any).
  4. Use some analogy.
  5. Simplify the concept.
Video and some text in this section were taken from an article by Justin Goh published on a website for Malaysian students. On this CC-Material you will also find a more detailed account of the Feynman Technique.

Withdrawal from formal aspects is underway

But coming back to the Cornell Method: Applying this second step size and arrangement of the note fields doesn't matter at all! Quite the contrary: Reserving only a smaller place in the Cornell Notes System for the most crucial action hints at a misunderstanding.

Fortunately, there is a change of thinking underway. I hinted at this already in my previous article in outlining three different attitudes towards the formalities of the Cornell Method.

  • The purists: “The margin of the cue column must be exactly 2.5 inches from the left edge of the paper.” (see picture to the left)
  • The pragmatists: “Essential is the general L-form structure, but the details may vary” (see Figure 1)

It’s ok to set up the paper in whatever way works best for you. Some students find the standard Cornell Notes set up doesn’t give them enough room, so they open their notebook to a new page for each class. They use the whole width of the page for their “notes” section and the back page of notes from the last class for their “cue” section.

Feedback page of a quiz from a public course module of Cornell University I took during my research for this article.

The quote above leads in another direction, but it was not on the front page but deep-buried into a quiz's feedback. The next example (of many others I have found) shows that a certain withdrawal from the formalities is a stable trend.

The presenter uses the front and back pages of her notebook because the dedicated size and place of the "Cue"-note field is way too small. But why talking about the size and arrangement of the different fields at all? Wouldn't it be better to throw this old stuff – reminiscence of the 50ties of the last century – away completely?

Third step: Conclusion, meta-evaluation

The third step should more than a summary – as it is often mentioned in connection with the Cornell Method. In my opinion, it should be a meta-evaluation:

  • Why is the subject so important?
  • What did it change to my previous knowledge?
  • Are there any new conclusions to draw?
  • What are the follow-ups to do?


To sum up, I still think that the Cornell Method is a fascinating note-taking system. But the references to its formal paper structure are in a constructivist setting as well by using electronic devices not adequate anymore. The whole industry of producing & selling Cornell Notes templates leads astray from the educational strategies behind it.

But to embody three different mental engagements into three separate note fields is an ingenious educational device. It directs the awareness from pure note-taking by asking the question: "Oops! Why three fields? One is for note-taking, but what are the others for?". So, in the end, my evaluation of the Cornell Notes System is still positive. It has helped change the mindset of generations of learners from a reproductive mode of learning by rote to a more appropriate inquiry stance.

Von Peter Baumgartner

Seit mehr als 30 Jahren treiben mich die Themen eLearning/Blended Learning und (Hochschul)-Didaktik um. Als Universitätsprofessor hat sich dieses Interesse in 13 Bücher, knapp über 200 Artikel und 20 betreuten Dissertationen niedergeschlagen. Jetzt in der Pension beschäftige ich mich zunehmend auch mit Open Science und Data Science Education.

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