My Favorite Note-taking System: Cornell Plus One

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Is there a perfect way to take notes? One that ensures you will never forget the material and ace every test for the rest of your life? Probably not, but for me, Cornell Plus One is my go-to strategy. What is Cornell Plus One? First, a bit of background.

In community college, I took a College Success class. It wasn’t an amazing course, to be entirely honest. If not for the topic I’m about to share, I would have said it was a horrible class. We did a lot of long and tedious assignments, watched movies which may have only been vaguely related to the topic.

But there was one really valuable piece of information I learned from this class, and I never forgot it. At the time, I thought it was just another strange and tedious task our professor designed for us to get through like all others. But when I began applying it in the rest of my classes, I realized the value in it.

Why take notes at all?

Note-taking is always a good habit in any situation. The human brain can only retain so much information in the short-term memory before older memories are replaced with more recent ones. In general, by writing things down, you reduce the stress on your brain by letting it know that it’s alright to forget this information for now, as long as you can check your notes later. As you get older and your memory weakens, the benefit of writing down things becomes more and more apparent.

Taking notes also exercises an alternate part of your brain, so that more of the brain is involved in storing the information. When multiple parts of your brain are involved in an activity, it is less likely to be forgotten. One example of this is the function of the amygdala, which deals with emotions. When emotions are tied to a memory, the amygdala steps in, making those memories easier to remember and harder to forget.

Why can’t I remember the things I studied so well?

It’s happened at least once to most people. You’ve studied so much, the information is pouring out of your both ears. Yet, when you sit for the test, all of the answers fly out of your head like a flock of spooked pigeons, leaving you dumbfounded in your seat.

What happened? Well, you may have learned the information, but you aren’t used to recalling after you have forgotten. This is the skill that needs to be exercised. Cornell+1 Notes focuses on helping you practice forgetting and remembering.

Cornell Plus One Notes

In the 1950s, Walter Pauk, professor and director of Cornell University’s reading and study center, developed Cornell Notes. Lauded as one of the most influential professors in the field of developmental education and study skills, Pauk is the author of best-seller How to Study in College, which can be purchased as an eBook from $25.49. In 1997, the College Reading and Learning Association awarded Pauk with the Pearl Anniversary Award.

I’m not going to explain standard Cornell Notes here. You can learn more about that at any source you’d like. Here, I will focus specifically on C+1 Notes.

Step 1: Preparation

For best results, start the note-taking process the day before the scheduled lecture or class. Once you know a new section or chapter will begin in an upcoming class, start preparing like this, especially if your class has a textbook. Just as with ordinary Cornell Notes, the paper – lined or blank, I prefer blank – is divided into four sections.

Now, you don’t have to be exact about the vertical division. I actually like to give a bit more of a 40-60 split, but it can be a 30-70 split instead. In the top section, write the chapter, section, topic, and any heading you need. Also, be sure to number your page numbers. You can use both sides for notes, or only one side and save the reverse side for scratch paper. Alternatively, you can take notes by computer, but I’ve preferred the freely interactive nature of handwriting notes.

Here’s mine:

I like using stock printer paper for notetaking. You can hole punch it, or just slip it in a plastic binder pocket or a pocket folder

For my demonstration, I am going to be taking notes using this textbook, World of Chemistry by Zumdahl, Zumdahl, and DeCoste. I have prepared my first page of notes like this.

Step 2: Write Like Crazy

My teacher used to emphasize this specific phrase. In the right-hand section – the larger of the two middle sections, you’re going to write like crazy. I find I prefer to avoid bullets to use as much of the space as possible. One after the other, write as much as you can about what you are reading. Your hand should be writing the whole time. When you run out of room, move to the next page of notes and continue to fill out all of the right-hand sections. For the best results, complete the entire section like this in section.

When you get to the class lecture, you can add in anything else that your teacher or professor tells you in class. You can even add in silly, unrelated facts that help you to remember certain things, such as a vice principal coming into class, or a student dropping their burrito on the ground. Whatever. As long as you are writing the whole time.

If you didn’t have a textbook or anything to go off of before class, then start at the lecture and write down everything you hear. Feel free to use abbreviations if you’d like, as long as you will be able to understand later.

Here’s mine:

Since I use paper without lines for my notes, I can write as much as I want without limiting myself to the lines.

For mine, I opened to Chapter 1, Lesson 1 of this chemistry and found the section titled “The Science of Chemistry” so I titled my page 1.1 The Science of Chemistry. I started from the first page and began reading through and writing as much information as I could, from the maintext, important pictures, examples, diagrams, and subtexts. I kept writing until I had run out of room.

Step 3: Forget Once

Now step away. Put these notes away and give yourself 24 hours at most, 6 hours at least, to take your mind off of the material. How much you take off depends on how long you have before you have to be ready for a test. Assuming you have more than a week, 12 hours should be efficient. Allow yourself to forget. If you have other classes, take notes for them instead. If you don’t, find something else to do.

Step 4: Focused Notetaking

Now that you’ve given your mind a chance to forget, you’re going to remind it of the information again. Before you look at the notes, sit and try to recall as much of the important information you had written down before and see what you remember.

In the left-hand side, we are going to record main ideas, keywords, definitions, important dates, or key concepts out of what we had written on the right. Look and think carefully and write as many as you can find. These should be items you imagine you’ll be expected to recall on the test and afterwards. You can also write down things your teacher drew specific attention to for any reason or explained in depth in class, as those are also fair game for tests.

Here’s mine:

I produced about six key items from the notes I wrote on the right side.

As you can see, I found six items I thought I might be asked about on a test. I could have stretched to seven or eight if I had wanted to do so.

Step 5: Forget Twice

Step away again. If you can afford it, do so for a little longer than the first time. If the first time, you gave yourself 12 hours, give yourself 18 or 24 this time. Use this time to complete an earlier or later step for another section of notes you’ve already started on. At any given time, you should have two or three sets of notes in progress.

Step 6: Question Everything

Firstly, before you pull out your notes, recall the section you are working on and try to recall all of the key points you wrote down. Say them to yourself. This will be your brain’s second time remembering after forgetting and, even though it has been a little longer, it should be no problem.

At this step is the biggest divergence between Cornell and Cornell+1. In Cornell Notes, the bottom section is used for a summary of the section, which is a wonderful and proven strategy. But it’s not my favorite way to take notes.

Instead, look at what you have written in the left-hand section. If you’re like me, you’ll have between six and eight key concepts or terms you expect could be turned into a question. So, we are doing just that

At the bottom section, start writing potential questions your teacher might ask on the test. NO True/False questions, NO Yes/No questions, NO multiple choice questions. Try to make them challenging questions. In fact, try to make the most challenging questions you can, even more challenging than you might expect the test itself to be.

If you can, use one key concept or item to form multiple questions, each one asking about a different missing item of information. Come up with as many questions as you can for each page. Sometimes, the textbook has some questions at the end of a lesson or chapter. You can add these as well.

Here’s mine:

I made about nine questions from the key concepts I picked out from my notes.

As you can see, I came up with nine questions, but I have room for one or two more if I give more time to think of it. I even made two questions on the same line.

Step 7: Forget Thrice

If you’re really good, you might have a few days left. Give yourself even more time to take your mind off the material. In fact, you can leave the next step until an upcoming test or assessment is announced. Until then, you can come back to the section every other day or so and try to recall the answers to as many of the questions as you can remember.

Step 8: Practice Test

Your teacher just announced the next test. Your other classmates may be getting stressed out as they frantically attempt to memorize all of the information on the test.

Not you. As soon as you hear this, you will know just what to do.

If this is a chapter test, you will have taken notes on multiple sections just like this. Get all of the notes you took on the sections the test will cover. Open up a word processing document on your computer (or do this by hand on a new paper). Collect all of the questions you made. If you want, you can even mix the questions out of order. You can print out the test questions (or photocopy them) and every day or so, test yourself to see how well you do. Alternatively, you can write your questions and answers on flash cards and quiz yourself this way.

Here’s mine:

On my first page of notes from section one, I managed to make nine questions, but on other pages, you might get fewer or more questions. This first chapter has three sections, so I’m bound to get at least 10 pages of notes for the whole chapter. If each page has at least 5 questions, that’s 50 possible test questions. If I managed to write 8 questions per page of notes, you’ll have 80 questions.

A chapter test won’t normally have 50 – 80 questions, but even if it does, I’ll be sure to make my test question as challenging or more.

Step 9: Midterms and Finals

What will you do when a midterm or final is coming up? Easy!

Collect all your questions and put them all together to fashion yourself your very own practice exam. If your teacher somehow got you with questions on previous tests which you hadn’t thought of in your notes, be sure to add these to your collection of questions now.

What’s your favorite note-taking strategy?

Cornell Notes are used around the world and praised as the most efficient and effective note-taking strategy. But each person is different, and different strategies are more or less effective for certain people. What strategy is most effective for you for both difficult and easy material? Like and leave your answer in the comments below.

I hope you found this informative, helpful, and interesting. If you happen to try this style of writing with your students or with your classes, let me know how it went! And be sure to Subscribe below using your email to get more content like this delivered right to your inbox. You can also follow me on Reddit or Twitter! As always, Rock On, Class!

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