How do students learn the most from their own notes?

Studente maakt samenvatting van de lesstof

A very recognisable image: students busily writing (or typing) along with your lecture. Or who make elaborate summaries of the subject material. But is it actually useful? Do students learn enough from taking notes and making all those summaries? Should you once again be faced with a room full of students bent over their notes, be sure to point your students to the Cornell note taking method; a method that helps them get more out of their notes. And, of course, you can also start using it yourself.

Many students have never learned how to properly take notes, and thus do not use this learning strategy optimally. A large review study (Dunlosky et al., 2013) has shown that just taking notes is not very beneficial. There are two things that make taking notes more valuable; the structure and whether your notes encourage you to re-examine the subject matter.

One way to create structure in your notes is the outline method, in which you write down your notes in a structured manner, making connections and separating main points from side points. Unfortunately, this method does not meet the second requirement: the notes should support re-examining the subject matter. A very effective way of re-examining the subject matter is to quiz yourself, Dunlosky and colleages' review showed. However, now you are lacking structure. What you really want is a method that meets both requirements. 

Cornell note-taking method

The Cornell note-taking method meets both requirements. The image shows the structure of a Cornell note. At the top you write the topic from your book or (a part of) the lecture. It works best if each page covers a different topic (structure requirement). The right-hand part is for taking notes. Students can supplement this with notes from fellow students. 

At the end of the lecture or chapter, students can use the left-hand side to write down key words and questions they may have based on their notes. It is important that there is a link between the key words and questions on the left-hand side and the notes on the right-hand side.  

When re-examining a topic or lecture, students can easily use the key words and questions on the left-hand side. By re-examining the subject matter in this manner, they learn effectively and discover what they do not understand properly yet. They can then choose to spend more time on those topics. 

Core thought = main thread

When using this method, it is important to not only learn the key words and questions, but also to keep track of the main thread of the lecture. To do so with the Cornell method, students write the core thought of the lecture (or topic) in at most 3 sentences at the bottom of the page. If students do this after the lecture from the top of their heads, they've already had one study moment. They will now not easily forget this core thought. 

In short, with the Cornell note-taking method students take notes that help them to study effectively and efficiently.


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Blasiman, R., & Hollis, R. B. (2019). Note-taking habits of 21st century college students: implications for student learning, memory, and achievement. Memory, 27(6), 807-819.