From Paper to Pixel: Mastering the Cornell Note-Taking Method in the Digital Age
Cornell Notes - Learn to use a time tested note taking strategy
Some 30 years ago, one of my mentors introduced me to a note-taking system developed in the 1950s called the Cornell Note-Taking System, often abbreviated as Cornell Notes. She had been using it for decades and found it a wonderful way to capture meaningful notes that helped with comprehension and memory retention.
Now after using it for a couple of decades, I can confirm it's an effective note-taking system. I have notes that I took years ago that I still reference from time to time and am amazed at the value they hold. When I read those notes, many of the ideas I captured at that time come flooding back to mind. For those notes I took in a classroom environment, it is as if I am transported back in time, listening to a professor give a mind-engaging and important lecture.
Cornell Notes was developed at a time when people took notes on paper. While it proved to be a good system for paper, I always wanted to use the method for taking digital notes. In time, I came to see that all the good concepts in Cornell Notes could be applied to digital note-taking and not just that, the powerful visual format of Cornell Notes could also be done digitally.
In the end, with Cornell Notes, I have a note-taking method for both paper and digital notes.
In this article, we will explore:
The history of Cornell Notes
The benefits of this note-taking method
and of course, how to take Cornell Notes in Obsidian
By the way, I go into much more detail and even provide tools for helping with taking Cornell Notes in a new tool I have published called the Cornell Notes Learning Vault. You can learn more about this tool at my website: https://tfthacker.com/cornell-notes
The History of Cornell Notes
The Cornell Note-Taking System, developed in the 1950s by education professor Walter Pauk at Cornell University, is a widely recognized method for organizing and summarizing information during lectures or study sessions.
As an effective tool to facilitate active learning, this system promotes critical thinking, efficient summarization, and effective review by helping students identify crucial points, connect ideas, and engage actively with the material.
Although initially designed for academic settings, the versatile approach has been adopted for various purposes beyond the classroom.
The Benefits of Cornell Notes
The Cornell Note-Taking System is a versatile method for organizing and summarizing information that provides numerous advantages for both students and professionals. Key benefits of this system include enhanced organization through its structured layout consisting of main ideas, cues, and summaries, which results in easily readable notes.
Employing this system encourages active learning, leading to increased comprehension and retention of information.
It emphasizes identifying essential concepts and connections between ideas, fostering improved understanding.
it positively impacts long-term information retention and is adaptable to a variety of subjects, disciplines, and scenarios such as lectures, seminars, meetings, personal study sessions, and taking notes on what we read in books and articles.
Furthermore, its efficiency in taking and reviewing notes saves time, permitting users to allocate attention to other components of their studies or professional pursuits.
How to take Cornell Notes
Let us first focus on how this works when taking notes on paper, but keep in mind that all these ideas transfer into the digital note-taking realm.
Cornell Notes are broken up into three sections as depicted in the following image:
The three sections consist of:
Notes: This broader right-hand column is designated for writing down your observations. Typically, primary concepts are clustered, with gaps in between.
Cues: The narrow left-hand column is designated for cues or prompts linked to the primary concepts on the right in the notes column. These cues aim to stimulate memory, helping you remember and connect the documented ideas.
Summary: Situated at the base of the page, this section features a succinct summary of the key ideas obtained from your notes. In this segment, you are urged to condense your notes into a few terms, simplifying the process of recalling the central points.
Here is an example of notes taken with the Cornell Notes method.
As you can see, there are three sections: Notes, Cues, and a summary.
By grouping thoughts into main ideas and adding spacing between them, helps the ideas stand out clearly as distinct. The cues on the left column help us to quickly understand those ideas and also remember what is in our notes. The summary section is a concise review of the main teaching points.
Of course, this example is overly simplified, as notes are often many pages and include many more details. But it makes the point of how these three elements work together.
Cornell Notes in Obsidian
The main concepts of Cornell Notes map nicely into Obsidian. Remember our goals are to group thoughts together as main ideas, use cues to give us mental triggers into our notes, and a summary to provide a consolidated review of our notes.
These Cornell Note elements can be duplicated with the use of headings and callouts.
Here is an example of how the paper note discussed in the previous section can be done in Obsidian as a digital note:
Here we group thoughts together using headers, such as H1, H2, and so on. These visually grippy clump thoughts together and creates spaces between ideas.
For cues, we use the Info callout. For example:
For the summary, we use a Summary callout. For example
>[!summary] Summary: >- PKM helps us create a personal learning network, and improve their productivity. >- To manage knowledge: we capture, organize, and utilize knowledge.
You notice I am using callouts. This is because callouts create a distinctive visual indicator in Obsidian. In effect, they call out, like your notes raising their voice to get your attention.
There are numerous callout types included in Obsidian's markdown support. Check out the list at this link: Callouts
You will also notice that in Obsidian I put the Summary at the top of the document, not at the bottom as done with paper. Why do I do this? The summary is intended to be seen almost as one of the first things when you review a note. In the digital world, summaries would show at the bottom of the page, which means it's not visible until you scroll to the bottom. Putting the summary at the top makes the summary one of the first things we see when we open the document.
Can we take Cornell Notes further in Obsidian?
What I have presented so far is a nice approach to using Cornell Notes both on paper and in Obsidian.
However, I wanted to go a step further. I really like how Cornell Notes looks on paper. There is something special about having the cues in the left column and the summary visible at the bottom.
With that in mind, I spent many a night and came up with a solution that renders my Cornell Notes in my Obsidian vault to look like this:
You'll notice how nicely the cues appear in the left margin and the summary at the bottom while the document is viewed in preview mode. I even got it to support right-column cues and other themes.
This really helped me to see how flexible the Obsidian UI can be in rendering markdown.
Cornell Notes Learning Vault
If you are interested in learning more about Cornell Notes and how to use them in Obsidian, check out my learning resource the Cornell Notes Learning Vault. More information is available at this link: https://tfthacker.com/cornell-notes.
In addition, the Cornell Notes Learning Vault includes all that you need to use the specially formatted Cornell Notes I just showed you so you can get left or right-hand columns for cues, along with bottom-of-the-page summaries. The learning vault also includes several samples that demonstrate the use of Cornell Notes in Obsidian. The learning vault even includes many templates for quickly making Cornell Notes and inserting cues and summary callouts.
What about Atomic Notes? Evergreen? Zettelkasten? Mind mapping?
Don't worry, Cornell Notes complement other note-taking systems. In fact, I heavily use a combination of Evergreen Notes and Cornell Notes in my vault. I use the right tool for the job at hand, and they play nicely together.
Cornell Notes are especially well suited for longer notes or where the cue or summary visualization adds value. Also, as mentioned earlier, it is nice to have a method that works equally well on paper as well as digitally.
I also love to include in my Cornell Notes Obsidian canvases, and visual tools offered by other plugins such as Excalidraw drawings and mind maps and drawings. The visual drawing in line with my notes really brings my notes to life.
Cornell Notes is a time-tested and powerful note-taking strategy. I have used it for decades and strongly recommend it to you. You will enjoy having a note-taking method for paper and digital notes.
You'll be surprised at how Cornell Notes help you to organize your thoughts, and improve comprehension and long-term memory retention.
Find out more at https://tfthacker.com/cornell-notes.