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Daniel Ferrara

EDUC 403
4/24/2018

Note Taking in Math: The Adoption of


Cornell Notes

Abstract: Taking notes in class is one of the indispensable skills students must practice to achieve the
highest levels of academic success. But, it appears that students are losing this discipline and it
negatively affects their performance in the subject. For my fieldwork, I observed an Algebra I class and
an AP Statistics class at DeWitt Clinton High School and familiarized myself with students’ note taking
habits. Upon learning that most students do not take any substantial notes on their own, I introduced a
method of note taking and encouraged students to try it for the duration of my observation hours. Six
students from the Algebra class and five students from the Statistics class volunteered to keep up with
Cornell Notes over several weeks and answer questions about their experience. After each class had an
examination for the current unit, students shared with me their opinions on how Cornell Notes
influenced their performance as a math student and if it helped study for the exam. While the grades of
the examination did not differ largely from previous exam grades, roughly half of the students claimed
that Cornell Notes did help them study and understand the material and that they are inclined to
continue taking notes in this fashion in the future.
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Note taking is one of the universal skills a student practices within every discipline

throughout his or her entire academic career. It acts as a method of retaining material in short

term contexts, storing information long term, and organizing one’s thoughts in a uniquely

efficient format. As with any other skill, taking notes is something that takes time and effort to

improve and it can be done properly in many different ways.

The quality and extensiveness of one’s notes reflects on one’s characteristics as a learner;

those who are classified as visual learners typically tend to have clearly organized notes with

plenty of nonlinguistic representations such as graphs and tables, whereas auditory learners may

only have the most important points written down and absorb information mostly through

listening. In any case, notes clearly can vary significantly between equally performing students

in terms of content and depth which is primarily why notes are not assessed in most classes. And

naturally, when something is not explicitly graded by the teacher, the students are not guaranteed

to do it, even if will benefit them for assessments that certainly will be graded.

Personally, I understand that some students choose not to take notes, or at least minimal

notes, having been one of these students myself. It is a discipline for students, much like

studying or test-taking. So, if there was a way to obtain the grades I wanted without taking notes,

I almost always went that route. Not all students however, can perform at a satisfactory level

without note taking of some form. This is why I am examining the problem of how to get

students accustomed to routinely taking good notes who had not practiced this discipline before.

For my fieldwork, I visited DeWitt Clinton High School to observe the note taking habits

of Algebra I and AP Statistics students and to introduce one or two note taking strategies for the

students to try in order to open them up to the potential benefits. My goal was not so much to

have students taking perfect notes over the course of a couple weeks, but rather to get students
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more receptive to the concept of writing down whatever information they may find useful in an

organized fashion. After every session, I kept up with the students who agreed to practice the

note taking strategy I suggested in order to discover any insights about simply picking up note

taking and to what extent it works.

In addition to my fieldwork, I also researched some empirical studies concerning

different types of note taking and their effects on student performance upon learning them. I was

particularly interested in Cornell Notes as a potential strategy to aid students who are not used to

taking detailed notes themselves. Duane Broe, a secondary mathematics teacher conducted a

study in which he taught two of his classes how to effectively use Cornell Notes as a note taking

strategy, and carried on two other classes without teaching this method. He recorded data and

performed statistical analysis of all of his students’ performance in two areas, note taking

proficiency and achievement as math students.

While the classes that learned Cornell Notes did significantly better on their note taking

assessments, it came as a surprise that there was no notable discrepancy in achievement between

either pair of classes. “Through analysis of assessment scores, I found no significant difference

between the intervention and base classes on achievement. However, through analysis of note

quality, I found significantly greater note quality of the intervention classes than that of the base

classes” (Broe, 2013, p. 29). It was concluded that the project was an overall success since note

taking skills had been positively influenced and there were no negative effects on achievement.

Jenni Donohoo wrote about a case in which two secondary science teachers implemented

Cornell Notes into their class with evident success. They first introduced the format in a lesson,

having students pair together in completing a premade template in order to practice identifying

main ideas. After students grew more comfortable with the format, the teachers shifted the
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practice to be more independent, having students complete Cornell Notes. The difference in

performance between the classes that used Cornell Notes and the classes that did not was worth

discussing to say the least. “In the section taught by Anna, all students passed the midterm,

compared with only a 70% success rate in the section taught by another teacher who had not

implemented Cornell Notes” (Donohoo, 2010, p. 227). It appears that Cornell notes may have

some warranted merit in enhancing student accomplishment. I suspect that most of the positive

results are primarily stemming from students who had no set method for taking notes prior to

formally learning of a well-defined strategy.

I made sure to look into different types of note taking and determine if one strategy tends

to be more successful than others. Allison King conducted a comparative study between self-

questioning notes, summarizing notes, and ordinary notes of the students’ without learning any

specific strategy. By running qualitative and quantitative tests among the three groups, King

found that students who studied using self questioning and summarizing notes performed at a

significantly higher level than those with ordinary notes. This held for both immediate post-

testing of lecture comprehension and retention testing one week after the lecture. Furthermore,

reports from students in both experimental groups showed positive responses to utilizing these

methods of note taking.

According to King, “By engaging in these generative self-questioning and

summarizing activities, students were constructing their own representations for the meanings

of the lecture” (1992, p. 317). Upon researching these studies, it appears that the explicit

teaching of note taking strategies is worth attempting, as it tends to evidently improve note

taking skills which will benefit students for the entirety of their academic career as well as has

potential to increase student performance in class.


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With this research in the back of my mind, I was determined to find for myself how

Cornell Notes would affect the average math class at DeWitt Clinton High School. During my

initial visits, I wanted to get a general sense of how notes were taken among the students

throughout each class. It became quite clear early on that the majority of students did not take

any form of structured notes themselves. In fact, many students did not even have a notebook or

binder out during the entire class session. It appeared that the information students took away

with them at the end of each class was limited to whatever worksheets the teacher gave to them

each day. At that point I had thought if this was the case, then a lot of improvement can be made.

I asked my cooperating teacher about her students regarding taking notes and she

explained that especially since working at Dewitt, most students are not compelled to take their

own notes unless they were being graded. The problem is that it certainly is not feasible to

collect and grade students’ notes even on a semi routine basis. So, her method of ameliorating

the issue was to create worksheets and other materials students can use like templates for notes

for each lesson. For instance, when students learned about the quadratic formula, the formula

was at the top of the page followed by examples for the class to work on together and eventually

individually. According to the teacher, the students received these worksheets well and student

engagement increased.

Clearly this solution is not the most optimal, neither for the teacher nor students. The

teacher has to spend extra time and effort while preparing each lesson on combining the

formative assessments of worksheets with a practical format of notes to study from. The students

should have the ability to extract whatever facts and details they need from the lesson the teacher

provides. Additionally, tailor made notes from the teacher prevent students from unique

organization and the most efficient means of studying. Students vary greatly when it comes to
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what works best for note taking and studying. The goal should be to have every student taking

notes that works best for them, not simply to have any notes at all.

My plan was to introduce the concept of Cornell Notes to the students in Algebra I and

AP Statistics and observe two things: how receptive the students were to the concept of self-

motivated note taking and whether or not the notes were helping students study and do better on

tests. In the spirit of learning how effective Cornell Notes is at motivating students who rarely if

ever took notes to try it, I made it entirely voluntary for students to try this method and report to

me their progress. After all, the best notes come from students who take them on their own

volition. Initially, I had eight students from the algebra class and five students from the statistics

class opt into adopting Cornell Notes and spend some time discussing any noticeable differences

with me each week. During the course of my visits, two of the algebra students chose to stop

taking Cornell Notes with the explanation that they did not sense an improvement that justified

the change.

Before I introduced Cornell Notes to the students, I first asked them to share their current

note taking habits. The resounding majority said that they did not take notes because they did not

find the time and effort required to take good notes to be worth it. Some even said that they know

they take poor notes and decide not to bother rather than practice. I explained that once good

habits are formed, the process of note taking is almost effortless in comparison to learning from

scratch. I showed the students the template for Cornell Notes, and immediately some of the

students were perplexed; they had never seen a template for taking notes before. After I had

given a breakdown of the components of this format, they seemed optimistic particularly with

how organized and visually pleasing it seemed. So, with over a dozen students looking forward
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to implementing Cornell Notes in their math class, I was eager to check their progress each

week.

During my first couple of visits since I had students start using Cornell Notes, I noticed

that the students in AP Statistics were having a better time than those in the Algebra I class. I

believe the reason for this is because the statistics class for the most part is a more analytical

field of math than algebra; there are more definitions and word problems in statistics compared

to the more prominent computational and procedural work found in algebra. So, the statistics

students had an easier time determining main ideas for their notes and utilizing their pages more

optimally.

After a couple of weeks, when the bigger topics in the algebra class started to wrap up,

students were able to bring together big concepts in what were becoming some very extensive

notes. At this point, the algebra students had taken a quiz on content prior to starting Cornell

Notes, but a couple of them told me that if they had started taking these notes earlier, they may

have done a lot better after reviewing them. This gave me high hopes for the remaining weeks of

my field work, especially since an examination was to be given towards the end of it.

As the weeks progressed, most of the students were continuing to develop their notes to

be more organized and concise. Some of the students from the algebra class however brought it

to my attention that they felt it was too difficult to complete Cornell Notes in class as well as

they would like. They explained that since they were totally unfamiliar with new material, they

did not know which points would be main ideas, how much space to allocate to different topics,

and that it was pretty demanding to summarize the day’s notes at the end with so little time

remaining in class. I had to clarify that taking the best notes possible is not limited to the inside
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of the classroom. Restructuring or even rewriting notes at home may seem tedious and

unnecessary, but it is one of the best ways to study without even realizing it.

In no time at all, the time for the exams for each class had arrived and I could see how

well Cornell Notes worked out in the end. Two of the algebra students chose to discontinue

taking Cornell Notes as the required effort became more than what they felt they needed to get

their desired grade. Once I learned of the results of the exams, I saw that the grades students

received did not differ significantly from their prior test grades. This disheartened me at first,

until I was told that for both classes, these particular tests were more challenging and the

students who had participated in Cornell Notes for the most part scored higher than their class

average. One student made a note to tell me that without the notes he took and studied from, he

was almost certain he would have failed the exam instead of scoring in the high 70s.

Ultimately, I feel that I had achieved the goal I had set for myself. I had successfully

introduced Cornell Notes to students who took barely any notes, and I had some of them develop

good habits that hopefully they will carry with them in other subjects and future classes.

Unfortunately, the sample size of students I had to work with was not the most optimal. Plus,

with the limited amount of time I had, the data I could rely on most was qualitative, specifically

the opinions of the students using Cornell Notes. Still, I have discerned much about students’

behavior regarding note taking and how to encourage the skeptical into trying it.

I believe that students who do not take notes can truly benefit from learning some kind of

method of note taking, especially in a formal context. Students can go their whole academic

career not seeing the virtues of note taking as a source of knowledge and vital information

directly transcribed by themselves. I can tell that the students at DeWitt Clinton High School

needed structure and reason in their notes, which is why a developed template such as Cornell
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Notes worked to extent that it did in such a short time. Perhaps if note taking was officially

taught by teachers, students will have the upper hand in directing their own learning.
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References:
Broe, D. (2013). The Effects of Teaching Cornell Notes on Student Achievement. Research

Paper. Minot State University.

Donohoo, J. (2010). Learning How to Learn: Cornell Notes as an Example. Journal of

Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(3), 224-227.

King, A. (1992). Comparison of Self-Questioning, Summarizing, and Note taking-Review as

Strategies for Learning from Lectures. American Educational Research Journal, 29(2),

303-323.