How do you learn the most from your own notes?

Studente maakt samenvatting van de lesstof

Many students take notes during a lecture or when reading the subject material. But is it actually useful? Do you learn enough from taking notes and making all those summaries? And how do you best approach it? In this study tip you will learn how to get the most out of your notes.

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. You may wish to supplement this with notes from your fellow students. 

At the end of the lecture or chapter you use the left-hand side to write down key words and questions you may have based on your 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 you want to re-examine a topic or lecture, you can easily use the key words and questions on the left-hand side. By re-examining the subject matter in this manner, you learn effectively and discover what you do not understand properly yet. You can then spend more time on that.

Summary = 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, you write the core thought of the lecture (or topic) in at most 3 sentences at the bottom of the page. If you do this at home after the lecture from the top of your head, you have already had one study moment. You will now not easily forget this core thought. 

In short, with the Cornell note-taking method you take notes that allow you 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.