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The Story Behind Cornell Notes

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
June 1, 2020

We all know the note taking technique, Cornell Notes. It's fantastic and simple and most importantly, it works. The story behind Cornell Notes is interesting but it can also teach us about how to help students be more successful.

University Students Needed Help

Cornell University professor Walter Pauk created the note taking system to help his students. What is often over looked is why he even had to do this in the first place. His students, who attended one of the most prestigious universities in the US, needed help with the skill of note taking.

It's safe to assume that if students at Cornell needed help with note taking, then students in the K-12 space - regardless of their grade level or schooling environment - could use the same. Robert Belfanz says it this way:

“In moving to college and career readiness for all, we must now teach some skills formerly learned by students on their own. All students need lessons and modeling of study and work skills like time and task management, note taking, and assignment completion strategies...”

Putting Middle Grades Students on The Graduation Path

Teaching Noncognitive Skills

Until we regard the teaching and modeling of skills and habits as seriously as we do the teaching of content standards we will continue to widen existing achievement gaps. A report from the University of Chicago agrees:

“By helping students develop the noncognitive skills, strategies, attitudes, and behaviors that are the hallmarks of effective learners, teachers can improve student learning and course performance while also increasing the likelihood that students will be successful in college.”

CCSR Literature Review, Teaching Adolescents To Become Learners,

So why are these skills and habits rarely taught or modeled in schools around the country?

Two reasons:
1. Funding
2. Time

The Funding Paradox

At my last conference appearance before the COVID-19 shelter in place order an audience member at the end of my talk raised his hand and jokingly asked, "Can you walk over to the Capital (the conference was held blocks from the California state Capital) and speak to the legislators about changing policy. We want to spend our budgets on programs that actually impact students achievement instead of purchasing mediocre textbooks!" Of course, we all knew he wasn't being literal, but we also recognized that his sentiment was true. For example, districts often want to adopt Organized Binder but they have to get creative with funding because the program doesn't fit nicely into a pre-defined budget that must be spent.

What Can I Find More Time? You Can't!

The other reason executive functions are rarely addressed is time. Teachers, in all environments and at all grade levels, never have enough time to get through the content of their classes. If I am hired to teach 5th grade, or 9th grade Algebra, or College Composition, when am I going to find time to weave in additional lessons that are not outlined in the course requirements?

The answer to the "time" question is found in the Cornell Notes story. Professor Pauk noticed his students needed help with the skill of note taking. He created a template for them to use, but here is the key, they used it in conjunction with the content of his course. Meaning, they practiced taking Cornell Notes each day in his class as he lectured. He could continue teaching the content of his course while his students simultaneously gained practice with a skill that would help them be more successful in his class and others! It was killing two birds with one stone, if you will.

Embed Practice In Our Routines

The moral of the Cornell Notes story is that students need daily practice with the skills and habits that are the hallmarks of successful learners. However, because educators are short on time students have to gain this exposure by the simple rhythm or protocols of our school day. If we can do this, then students, by virtue of engaging in their schooling, will be more successful.

Now, let's all starting writing letters to our representatives to change education policies around funding...

Be well,


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