Cornell Note taking technique with Flash cards

Note taking is an art. It's like cooking. With the right ingredients, put in a precise amount and in the right manner, can make the end dish very delicious. And when art mixes with science, the results are just magical. In this article, we discuss a scientific way of writing short notes to help you do much better at learning stuff than you already do.

Have you seen students who don't seem to spend enough time on their studies at home and still are able to perform incredibly well? I certainly have. We might think they have overachieved. As it turns out to be, they have only achieved what they planned for. They are only reaping the benefits of an efficient approach to learning information they are presented with. In short, they write better short notes.

We come across a vast amount of information that we are expected to understand, recall and apply. Be it a student who has taken up a university course or a professional who is honing her knowledge and skills, we all learn throughout our lives. It's humanly impossible for us to assimilate all the data that is there for us to learn. That data has to be converted into information in an efficient, concise and easy to use manner. Note making is precisely that system which helps us achieve that -  convert data into concise information.

Talking about this process, what better way to do it than doing it in a tried and tested scientific manner. We discuss here the Cornell Note Taking system, which was devised by Walter Pauk, an education professor at Cornell University in the 1940’s. He also advocated its use in his best-selling book ‘How to study in college’. Now, given the context of our discussion, that seems like an interesting book to read, doesn’t it?

So what is the Cornell notes system? Well as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. A typical Cornell note would look like this:

Cornell Notes are divided into 3 sections:
1. Note-taking section
2. Cue Section
3. Summary section

We know that the flash cards have two sides, side A and side B. The Note-taking section is written on one side (Side A) while the cue section is written on the other side (Side B).

1. The Note-taking section : Side A of Flash card

We start with the note taking section. This section contains more written information than the other two sections and is the most important. While reading a topic or during a course lecture, the main ideas or the key points are written here using concise, short sentences, abbreviations, symbols, tables and diagrams. Long sentences are avoided. Moreover, since the notes have to be accommodated over a flash card, the inherent space constraint forces us to write only the must-have information regarding the topic and throw away all the other clutter.

2. The Cue Section : Side B of Flash card

Immediately after you've gone through the topic or a lecture, key words/questions from the lecture or the lesson are written in the cue section on the other side of the flash card(Side B). The key words/questions are the main ideas of the the text you are studying or a lecture you were listening to. The power and magic of this section comes from the fact that the flash cards can be easily used as quiz cards for your revisions. While revising, look at the cue section of the flash cards and try to answer the questions or describe the keywords. If you fail to answer the quiz, you can flip the flash card and refer the information in the note-taking section on Side B. Works like magic, doesn't it!

3. The Summary Section

This is an optional section. This section contains a one liner summary of the entire flash card, a gist of what information the flash card holds. This will help you to wrap up your revision sessions completely. You can look at the summary section to get an overview of the entire flash card. If you already feel very confident about the topic, you can skip the flash card altogether and save your precious time on revising something you need to learn better.

This section could be at the top or bottom of the flash card on Side A (Note-taking section).

So there you have it! The entire lecture is now available to you in a concise and compact form. You can go through the flash cards whenever the need be while you spend most of your time on problem solving exercises and doing things you love to do. See, all of us can look like overachievers!

To conclude this discussion

The Cornell Notes System is an effective note taking method. But it is quite impractical to keep using long sheets of paper every time you want to write a note. Reason being, we tend to overwrite and include information which could've been skipped and is not essential to understand the topic. This results in longer hours to revise topics and shorter time spent on problem solving exercises. More importantly, long notes look daunting and overwhelm us which results in low confidence while approaching an examination.

The short format of flash cards enable us to wrap up our revisions during small breaks. They are quite mobile and can be categorized easily on the basis of your comfort level with them. They enforce discipline of writing short, concise and to-the-point notes.

To summarize the discussion,

  • The size of a flash card makes it very convenient and practical to take notes. Each flashcard can be divided into the 3 sections – notes, cues and summary – thus making it very easy to revise your notes or lectures in no time before a crucial exam.
  • The durability of the flash cards also ensures that they stay for a long period of time. Once written, your flash cards will stay intact for many years.
  • Flash cards are economical and provide value for money. Hence you can buy as many as you want for all your subjects.
  • The pocket size of the flash cards makes it easy to take them with you for any lecture. They are light, small and easy to carry.

The Cornell note system with flash cards is an effective way of studying. So the next time you’re sitting at a lecture or reading a lesson, grab some flash cards, use this scientific method and see the difference it can make in your exams.

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