How Using Cornell Notes Can Increase Grades

I have always been a note-taker. I make notes and lists for everything, from my to-do list to my weekly and yearly goals. Notes and lists help keep me organized and help keep me sane. I keep a notebook by my nightstand, in my purse, and pretty much with me at all times in case I need to jot something down. I remember everything by writing it down.

Despite my natural inclination towards notes, my notes have not always been extremely helpful, especially in school. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always taken notes in class. Ever since I can remember, I would take pages upon pages of notes. But the problem was that there was no rhyme or reason to the notes. They were just a mixed jumble of words with no flow or organization whatsoever.  My notes would make no sense to anyone who wasn’t me at that very moment. What would happen is that even though I learn best by writing things down, I would go back to review my notes and they’d look Greek to me. I’d then spend the 24 hours before any major test with my nose crammed in my textbook attempting to absorb months’ worth of information, writing nothing down.

As you can guess, the technique was less than spectacular and my grades suffered. Luckily for me, this horrendous study habit ended when I learned about Cornell Notes and I was forced into using them.

Trying a New Way to Take Notes

I still remember when my 10th-grade social studies teacher, Mrs. Bork, got in front of the class on the first day of school and informed us that we would be required to use Cornell Notes in her classroom. There was a unanimous groan amongst the students, myself included. Not only were we going to be required to use these notes, but we were also going to have note checks that accounted for 25% of our grades. It sounded awful.

But we all became a little more open to it when she told us, “in the first two years of college I never even opened a textbook because my notes were so good and useful that I could just study from them. I was on Dean’s List the whole time.” It seemed a little too good to be true. I had been taking notes forever, and yet I still resorted to cramming my brain full of information at the last second before any major quiz or test.

I decided I would give it a try.

The Academic Impact of Cornell Notes

The impact was almost immediate. Though I began only using Cornell Notes in my social studies class, soon enough I started using the technique in every other class from Algebra II to English. When I went to open my notes to study before a test, I was no longer met with the ramblings of a possible sociopath. Rather, my notes were clear, organized, and super useful to study from. I used the textbook as a study guide rather than the sole resource for studying. Sure enough, my grades leaped. I went from having a 3.4 in my freshman year of high school to a 3.9 in my sophomore year.

I continued to use Cornell Notes during my junior and senior years as I took a number of AP classes. I went from decent grades to graduating with honors. The nights before my AP Exams I didn’t try to shove information from the textbook into my head; rather I reviewed my notes and went into the exams feeling confident and ready.

How to Use Cornell Notes

cornell notesIn my junior year of high school, I began working as a tutor with the AVID program for students who had the potential for academic success but lacked the organizational skills necessary. The first lesson was always Cornell Notes.

Like me, many students approach the idea of revamping their note-taking style with several groans. However, those who begin to use Cornell Notes statistically see a jump in their grades.  A study by Wichita State University in 2008 showed that when students switched to using Cornell Notes, on average their scores increased by 17% and these same students had a significantly easier time answering critical thinking questions.

So how do we use Cornell notes? The first step is to take a piece of paper and fold it lengthwise at about the 1/3 mark. This column is going to be for your headings or major ideas and is known as the Cue Column. The other column will be for your notes. At the bottom, you have a Summary Section.

One of the biggest mistakes students make when using Cornell notes is that they think that they are stuck to this structure. When in reality, the best way to use Cornell notes is by diversifying the method to meet your needs. So, for example, in math, I may work a problem in the Cue Column, and write the steps I was taking in the note-taking area. I wouldn’t always use the summary section if it wasn’t applicable. However, for Spanish, I may use the Cue Column for vocabulary words and the note-taking area for their definitions. I may use the summary section for any key facts that I was asked to memorize for the test.

To study, students can bend their paper in half to reveal either only the notes side or the Cue Column. This creates instant cue cards – easy to study and easy to follow.

When to Use Cornell Notes

Many students argue that Cornell Notes aren’t applicable for every subject. However, I disagree. Throughout my high school career, undergraduate degree, or graduate classes, I have not found a time when I could not use Cornell Notes. I have found that using Cornell Notes when reading a textbook greatly increases my understanding of the material. I have also found using Cornell Notes to create step-by-step directions in labs or math classes to be extremely beneficial.

As I mentioned earlier, many students come to the table with negative feelings toward Cornell notes, so there are a few things that parents and educators can do to help encourage students to use this technique. The first is to lead by example. Try making your grocery list or to-do list in the Cornell style. Put the recipe in the cue column and the ingredients in the notes section or put a larger item in the cue column with the steps necessary in the notes section. When students are exposed to Cornell notes, they’ll often be more receptive toward it. Another thing to do is to have weekly note checks. Do this on Sunday night, which is a good day to get caught up.

If your student is still struggling with Cornell notes, try having a professional talk with them. Sometimes working with a tutor, executive function coach, a school counselor can help students embrace a new studying technique.