This Simple Note Taking System Improves Exam Scores by Over 50%

In the 1950’s, Professor Walter Pauk, from Cornell University, realised something: most of his students, even at the University level, were terrible at taking notes. This exacted a toll during exams, when handfuls of scribbled notes proved to be poor study material. In response, he developed a note taking system that would end up improving test scores by over 50%. Here’s how the Cornell Note Taking System works:


What is the Cornell Note Taking System?

This is a simple system of taking notes, that any student can do in a classroom. Using this format, the notes are more systematic, easier to reference when studying, and ensure students have to think about the content.

The following is the general format of the Cornell system:

Section A (Cue Column)

  • Keywords
  • Key phrases
  • Examinable questions
  • Teacher’s remarks
Section B (Note-Taking)

  • Short, concise sentences
  • Diagrams


Section C (Summary) 

Process of Note Taking:

  1. During class, the student is to take notes to fill in Section B.
  2. After the class, the student is to fill in Section A.
  3. The students should ask the teacher for examinable topics and questions if possible, and add these in Section A.
  4. The student should complete the reflection process listed below.
  5. The student writes a summary (approx. 50 – 80 words) at the bottom of the notes.

Filling in Section B (Note-Taking Column)

This is where the student writes the notes taken during class. These notes should be kept to simple, concise sentences. This column may contain miscellaneous details, such as events, dates, or names that may not be examinable.

Filling in Section A (Cue Column)

Using a highlighter, students should pick out key words and phrases from Section B. These should then be written down in section A. If the teacher mentions examinable topics or questions, these should be written in this section.

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Reflection Process

The reflection process happens after the class. The student should cover Section B (the notes) with a sheet of paper, and read only off Section A.

Based on the key words and phrases alone, the student should be able to recite most of the details of the notes.

If there are examinable questions in Section A, the student should attempt to answer them without reading Section B.

Students should attempt to answer the following questions, based on the subject:

  • What are five ways I can apply this lesson in everyday life?
  • How can I give an example of the lesson? (e.g. if you have read that people were oppressed in Nazi Germany, what is an example of how this oppression happened?)
  • How does this lesson fit in with previous lessons?

This reflection process should take at least 20 minutes – the more the student thinks about it, the better the rate of recall will be. Once the reflection is done, the student can proceed to write in…

Section C (The Summary)

This is a 50 to 80 word summary of the lesson. The student may write this in point form; however, it is always better to write in paragraph form, as this helps to improve retention.

When revising the notes for an exam, students should begin by reading the summary, and then attempting to explain Section B.

Sample Notes (English Literature):

Section A (Cue Column) 

  • Satan given heroic speeches


  •  Author was strict Puritan, Christian


  • May reflect the devil’s deceptiveness


  • Satan is villain of story


Exam  question: Why is Paradise Lost unusual in its depiction of the villain?


Section A (Note-Taking) 

John Milton’s Paradise Lost is unusual in that the character of Satan (the devil) is given heroic speeches.


It is at odds with the personality of John Milton himself, who was a strict Puritan and Christian.


Some critics argue that Milton made Satan sound grand in order to show how the devil is eloquent and skilled at deception.

Section C (Summary)Paradise Lost is unusual because the villain, who is Satan, has some of the most heroic speeches in the poem. However, John Milton was a Puritan and Christian, so he was not intending to praise the devil. He may have given Satan heroic speeches to show how deceptive the devil is.


The Cornell note system is one of the ways our tutors help struggling students. Sometimes, all it takes to improve grades is a simple organisational change. Consider contacting one of our tutors if you need more help.

How do you or your child take notes while studying? Comment and let us know!

Image contributed by:

Xavier Vergésgosheshe