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Cornell Notes – could they be a useful technique for MFL?

 In my research of effective Retrieval Practice, when reading Mark Enser’s book ‘Teach like nobody is watching’, I have come across a technique called Cornell Notes, which has been successfully used in HE for a long time. Enser mentions this method in the Recap section of his book, so I started to ponder whether it would work in Secondary Education and specifically in the Languages classroom to support retrieval practice as well as how I could apply this technique to my context so it can benefit and improve the learning of my students.

What are Cornell Notes?

The Cornell Notetaking method was developed by Dr. Walter Pauk of Cornell University. It is a system used widely for taking notes of material presented in a lecture or from reading. It is also used for reviewing and retaining of that material. Using this system can help learners to organise their notes, actively involve them in creation of knowledge and improve learners study skills.

When using Cornell Notes style, student’s exercise books are set up in four distinct sections:

  1. A title and date section at the top

  2. A section for key questions or key words on the left

  3. A main section on the right for the note taking

  4. A summary section about 6 lines from the bottom comprising the three quarters as pictured in the illustration above

You can get your students to either grab a ruler and draw their own lines (if you choose to do this, I would model it first) or you can make/download a template from the many templates available on the internet.

Template adapted from a template found on the internet

AS/A Level

I can see great potential for using Cornell Notes when analysing texts, films and social concepts. I think this method would be extremely useful for students when organising their notes and  their knowledge on various topics; it is another way to build retrieval throughout the course or lesson. Additional bonus is that students can use the questions they put in the second section to revise at home as well.

In MFL context, I have also seen them used for Grammar notes, which again would apply more to HE (AS/A Level). Here is a post, I came across when researching, demonstrating how the learner uses it  for learning and revising Grammar.

Secondary school level

However, I was more interested in using Cornell Notes with my GCSE classes or even look at the ways I could use them with my KS3 classes as a retrieval tool. I discussed the method with my colleague who is the Subject Leader for Geography at my school and we decided both to trial it and compare our findings.

She has trialled it with her year 8 higher attaining class when summarising a topic of rainforest adaptations and reported that a large amount of time had to be spent on teaching students how to lay out their book (this would diminish over time as students will become more familiar with the method or you could use a template) and how to apply the method (she modelled it on her white board), but overall she was pleased with the result. She has also emphasised that in her opinion this method would probably work with higher attainer classes only, but she was keen to use it again.

I decided to trial it with my year 11 class as a retrieval task prior to their writing assessment. I have asked my students to pick any topic they wanted except for the one we covered most recently. I have given them a pre-made template, I have adapted from internet (see above) in order to save time explaining students how to organise their exercise book.

This task was completely ‘free call’, without using any KO, SB or notes! 

I have asked them on their template:

  • in the second section (left side), to list some key vocabulary (variety of word groups) – you could even ask them to list key questions

  • in the third section (right side), to write examples of sentences they could use for the topic, encouraging them to use complex sentence that would be suitable for the grade they were aiming for. 

  • finally, in the fourth section, to summarise any Grammar points they have to consider and review when proof checking their work.

                                                                  On the pictures are some examples of students’ work – mixed ability.

The next step in the process would be feedback – checking for any mistakes made, this could be done by teacher circulating around the class, noting common errors/misconceptions and addressing them either individually or if the same mistakes are made across the group re-teaching if necessary. This feedback is crucial to support students in developing their metacognition.

It is also important to build a ‘culture of errors’ as Doug Lemov mentions in his book ‘Teach like a Champion’, so students are comfortable when discussing their mistakes and learning from them.

I believe this method is worth exploring and could be even used with KS3 when recalling the knowledge from a SB, parallel text or KO.

Please share your views here, I would be very interested to hear what you think! 

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