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How to use Cornell Notes in High School Science

how to use Cornell notes

Teaching students how to take notes is a huge part of being a high school science teacher – whether we want it to be or not. I am excited to share with you how to use Cornell notes, as it has been a method I never set out to be a big cheerleader for, but have actually had incredible success using.

Let me start off the bat by saying, I LOVE creating a student-centered classroom. I LOVE using hands-on, engaging experiences for my students to learn in place of lecture. But I DO believe there is still a place for effective lecture in the classroom (and I have compiled my tips to make lectures engaging here for you), and I have found that most students really have NO IDEA how to take notes from a lecture or discussion. This is a skill I think is critical that all our students learn – regardless of where they head after leaving our classrooms.

A brief note on why teaching note-taking is important…

how to use Cornell notes

A lot of our students will go on to further their education in some capacity, and no matter what path they take, listening and processing that information into notes that can be referenced later is a critical skill. Most obviously, we know our college-bound students will be taking notes. And while the nature of college courses is slowly evolving, many of our students will still experience 200+ person lectures for the first time, and thus it is our job to prepare them for what is ahead.

I’ve had other students go on to cosmetology school, or to a technical school to learn boating mechanics (we live near the water so this is a big one where I am from!) While both of these career paths have more hands-on skill-based education, they still require students to read text, listen to instructors, and record notes.

My husband and I love to watch sports documentaries, and we were watching one the other day about the Dallas Cowboys football team, and all of the linebackers were in a meeting, watching film, listening to their coach, and GUESS WHAT??? They were taking notes. It further reinforced to me that this is a worthwhile skill worth teaching my students.

BUT HOW? How much do we force them to do them a certain way, versus giving them the freedom to explore the best way for THEM?

I have taught 8th grade through 12th grade. I am going to be perfectly frank with you – my 8th and 9th graders have no clue how to take notes. They NEED a lot of structure and guidance. However, while I offer suggestions and tips, in general, I let my 11th and 12th grade AP Bio students do notes however they most prefer. But if I am going to teach note-taking, it is going to be specifically about how to use Cornell notes.

Also a little side note: Personally, I prefer that all my students take handwritten notes (as research supports that it is better for their learning than typing). I know though that this can be considered “old school” and especially with the constantly changing nature of our lives mid- and post-pandemic, paperless digital resources are here to stay. So all of my student packets with Cornell note outlines (you can read more about my packet strategy here) come in printable PDF and paperless digital Google Drive™️ versions.

Are Cornell note outlines the ABSOLUTE BEST WAY?

how to use Cornell notes

Let’s be real – there are so many ways to take notes and so many opinions about how to do this best. Notes by hand vs. typing, graphic or doodle-based notes, fill in the blank vs. filled in. You name, it, you will find a borderline cult following of passionate teachers using each method.

Have I personally tried all of these strategies? Not in the slightest. But when I first started teaching, a lot of the other teachers in my department were doing Cornell notes, so I just went along with them – and I am so glad I did!

I am going to share with you what Cornell notes are, how I specifically use them, and why I love them but just know – if you have a strategy for note-taking you LOVE and are finding success with – PLEASE stick with it!!! I just want to share my experience using Cornell notes to help the teachers out there who don’t know where to begin when it comes to note-taking.

So first, what even do I mean by “Cornell notes”?

What they are

The Cornell note-taking method was made popular by a professor at Cornell University. You can read more about the strategy, in detail, directly from the source here.

In simplest terms, the strategy involves dividing your notes and note-taking paper into 3 sections, as pictured below.

How to use Cornell notes - a picture showing the breakdown of the three pages

Section A is for taking the actual notes. This is where students jot down specific facts or terms they need to know.

Section B is for “cues”. This is for students to jot down questions they have about what they are hearing –> I will explain more how I use this section below.

Section C is for the summary. This is for students as they review their notes later to summarize what they learned from their notes.

How I use them

how to use Cornell notes

I have my students take notes in Section A, as prescribed by the method. For Section B (the margin) I have students do two things:

  • Highlight any key ideas or vocabulary during lecture
  • Write down any questions they have as they are studying after lecture

Here is why. There are a lot of times I REALLY want to make sure something is emphasized with students and I found that writing it in the notes section AND re-emphasizing it in the margin was incredibly helpful for getting the point across. For example, when I teach about evolution and the principles of natural selection I am constantly emphasizing statements like, “Populations evolve, not organisms,” and, “Natural selection acts on traits that are heritable.” The margin creates a great space to pull out key ideas to emphasize and highlight.

I also want to emphasize to my students the importance of engaging with their notes after taking them. Their notes matter and are useful if only they would REALLY use them! The margin space is the perfect opportunity to write questions as they are studying that can be brought up later. Could they write questions there during a lecture? Yes, but I encourage active discussion-based lectures, so rather than writing questions during lectures, I just want my students to ask them right then and there. I reserve this space specifically for them to write questions they have later on that they want to remember to ask me later.

For Section C I encourage students to summarize what they’ve learned here. For my lowest level students, I even include prompts for this space to help them. These are specific application-based or synthesis questions to help them really find meaning and connections from what they learned.

So you are probably wondering at this point – how did you get them to actually do this??

When first starting to use this method, I followed my coworkers’ lead and actually assigned Sections B and C for homework on the nights we had taken notes in class, and then, would check them the next day. Students were expected to go through and read their notes at night and then highlight key terms from Section A, write questions in Section B, then answer the summary in Section C.

This was really effective in ensuring students were engaging with the notes but to be honest, in the long run, I didn’t find it worth my time personally. So instead, I spent a good bit of time in our first unit each year modeling how to use Cornell notes and walking them through this process. This was a great time to also talk about study habits. I even created space for the first concept or two to give them time to read through their notes and work through a neighbor to mark key points, jot down questions about what was confusing, and write their summaries.

I maintained this practice during my after-school tutoring hours. A lot of times students would show up and not even know what they didn’t know, except that they were just plain confused. This method gave us a plan of attack. We could sit and walk through it together and it was incredibly revealing of where their misunderstandings were.  

As the year went on, while I didn’t continually teach about note-taking, I constantly provided cues during the note-taking process to help my students. For example, when lecturing I may highlight something and say – CIRCLE THIS!!  Or, “Make a note in the margin that FORM DICTATES FUNCTION,” (or whatever you are emphasizing).  If I had a funny pneumonic device for remembering something, I would encourage students to highlight it by writing it along the side in their margin for Section B.

Why I love them

The main reason I REALLY love the Cornell note-taking method is because it sets students up to actively use their notes later on. So many students just take notes because we tell them to and never look at them again, and if they do, it is a quick read-through during a cram session the period before a test. This method gives them a strategy for engaging with their notes through writing questions in the margins and summarizing their understanding at the end.

I ESPECIALLY love them if you are providing your students with completely filled-in notes, or even fill in the blank style, as pictured below. I think it is especially helpful in these circumstances because while these styles of notes really help students that have a hard time writing notes, they can also really decrease student engagement with the notes. Using the Cornell note-taking method basically forces students to engage more with their notes.

Also if you are doing a flipped classroom, this is a GREAT strategy for students to use while taking notes on their own, and then when reviewing them with you in class later. Students can watch a lecture video or read a text outside of class while filling in Section A with notes and Section B with questions. Then when you gather and do a quick overview, you can answer any questions they had in Section B, they know what to highlight in the various parts of the notes they took, and can then more confidently complete the summary in Section C. Again, just providing some structure and guidance for something that can be really hard for students!

How to use Cornell notes - a picture showing the difference between an outline, fill-in-the-blank notes, and filled in notes.
Note: All of my complete units come with lecture notes in these 3 formats – outline, fill in the blank, and filled in so you can best differentiate for your students. Not only that, but all of the notes come in a paperless digital version, too (although I personally prefer paper and handwritten notes!)

One last thing I love – I always have some incredibly artistic students in my classes. I wish I was this way, but I am just not. It is actually a running joke anytime I try to draw ANYTHING on the board how terrible it is. So needless to say, doodle/graphic notes just don’t work for me. But they DO work for a lot of students. I love that the Cornell note-taking method allows them to do this AND still gives them a lot of structure!

A lot of my students used Section A to doodle their notes and B to emphasize the highlights with words. Other students, who maybe were using the filled in or fill-in-the-blank versions, would use Section B for their doodling. I encourage this from the beginning! You can’t take drawing out of an artist. They just can’t help themselves. But you CAN encourage them from day one to relevant doodlers. I had some students draw some amazing anime-style cell drawings. The challenge to make their doodles relevant and meaningful to the content motivated them – AND kept them focused. Everybody won!

So now you know it all – what Cornell notes are, how to use Cornell notes, and why I love them so much. I can’t tell you how many students I would have as upperclassmen who were still voluntarily using Cornell notes because they had learned to love the strategy when they had me as a freshman. Nothing makes a teacher’s heart happier than seeing what they taught really stick!

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