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Why do I have to take notes? The Brain - Note Connection

During AVID Center’s recent National Conference, I was quite abruptly reminded the power of note-taking and review.  During the last day of the conference, I found myself sitting in a large auditorium eating breakfast and listening to a panel of student speakers addressing the 1500+ participants.  One student panelist, Reginald Brown, was discussing Cornell Notes and quipped, “It hurts, but it works!” to the amusement of the crowd.  Having no paper and taking no notes, I made a mental note with my trusty brain to reference the quote during my hour and a half presentation on Focused Note-taking, which I would be leading in about an hour.  I started the presentation, successfully integrated the quote, and merrily continued the presentation.  However, about 45 minutes into the presentation I wanted to reference the quote again and could not recall it to save my life.  It was gone!  Simply gone!  It had disappeared into that great memory abyss.  It was now keeping company with the memories of what I had for dinner three years ago, the mechanism for a Birch Reduction, and my high school locker combination. 

I believe that I might have been distraught about my unique forgetfulness, if I had not recalled a similar story regaled in How to Study in College by Dr. Walter Pauk (creator of Cornell Notes) regarding a conversation he had with two professors at Cornell University:

CLYDE:            Did you hear last night's lecture?

WALTER:          No, I was busy.

CLYDE:            Well, you missed one of the best lectures in recent years.

LEON:             I agree. The four points that he developed were gems.

CLYDE:            I never heard anyone make his points so clearly.

WALTER:          I don't want you to repeat the lecture, but what were those four points?

LEON:             (Long silence) Clyde? (Passage of two or three minutes; seems like an hour.)

LEON:             Well, I'd better get back to the office.

CLYDE:            Me too!

WALTER:          Me too!

It is interesting that so many people lament having a poor memory, when the reality is that our brain is designed to perform one simple task... to forget stuff!  Our brains are a huge deleting machine.  Need proof?  Just ask yourself, “What did I have for dinner last night?”  How about two nights ago?... A week ago?...  A month ago?... A year ago?  Most likely you could get the first one or two, possibly you can even recall last week.  But, over the course of time your brain dumps any information that it deems unnecessary, in order to store the new incoming information.  Our short-term memory is a huge tank that holds onto a ton of information bits to keep us from minor mistakes, like eating chicken for dinner night after night because we do not remember we ate it last night.  Our long-term memory stores only information it finds important, like don’t eat the chicken at El Pollo Loco because it made you sick in 1996 on your way to Newport Beach.

Think about it, at some point your brain remembered every meal you’ve eaten, every outfit you’ve ever worn, the name of everyone you’ve ever met, and all the words to R.E.M’s “It’s the end of the world”.  (The result of a miss spent youth).  But over the course of time, sometimes a very short time, our brain hits the delete button.

So where do Cornell Notes fit into this?  The reality is that without a system for revisiting information, our brains are incredibly efficient at removing extraneous information from our brain.  In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus did extensive research around the idea of forgetting.  In his book, Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology, he mapped out the rate at which the average human forgets information over time.

As a recovering math teacher, this information makes me incredibly sad...  It is the realization that after one of my brilliant discourses on systems of linear equations, my students will only retain about a quarter of the lecture for the test. 

But there is hope...  Ebbinghaus goes on to examine how frequently a student would need to revisit information in order to regain near perfect recall.  His research evinces the brain’s ability to retain information, when we revisit the information during key times.


In AVID, we often reference the work from the University of Waterloo around the forgetting curve.

The essence of this research demonstrates the need for students to revisit information, in order to kick the information out of the short-term memory and store it in the much more reliable long-term memory.  This is the power of Cornell Notes, because it primarily focuses on how we process the information rather than simply a method of recording the information.

What experiences have you (Teachers, Students, College Students) had with Cornell Notes?

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Reader Comments (3)

I am a firm believer in Cornell notetaking, not as a student but as a professional. I started using the Cornell notetaking system while I was still in the classroom, trying to understand the strengths and challenges involved in using the system. I personally understand the need to not only take notes but to formulate key questions in the margin and summarize my understanding at the end. I have adapted the system to include a follow-up To Do list at the end to remind myself how I can use the information I gathered in the notes.
After nearly 15 years of taking notes the Cornell Way I understand the positive aspects of being engaged during meetings, professional development and in graduate classes. I find taking notes to be habit forming. These notes not only allow me to reveiw what was discussed or taught, they also give me a reference point for follow up.
It is not just understanding how the brain works and being able to share information about the curve of learning and/or forgetting. Notetaking has become a way of staying engaged with the speaker. To convice others that the Cornell notetaking system is valid and valuable we need to become 'users' as well as teachers of the system. We should model the method so that when students, teachers and other staff complain about the many challenges of getting students (or anyone) to take useful notes, we can discuss from experience how we personally have overcome the challenges and why we continue to use the system in our daily work.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Powell-McMillan

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March 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersoobest

Cornel notes are amazing. They have revoloutionized note taking, and after AVID introduced me to them, I began using them for meetings at work, and more.

May 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTrae M

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