The Two-Column Method of Note-taking
Updated February 26, 2023
Academic proficiency requires students to manage the many language demands inherent in school. As students move from learning to read to reading to learn, systems to help students organize the information that they encounter are not only essential for students with specific learning disabilities, but can be beneficial for all students.
An enduringly popular method for managing information for notetaking is the method of two-column notes, which is similar to Cornell notes. This system of notes was first introduced by Walter Pauk in the 1950s and was a key feature of his widely used book How to Study in College. Two-column notes and Cornell notes both differentiate main ideas and details into separate entities. The act of separating main ideas from details strengthens understanding and memory of the content area. This allows students to focus on specific attributes of the content and to categorize the information that they are reading. The only difference between these note-taking systems is that Cornell notes also include a section at the bottom of each page to summarize key points.
Why does this system of organizing information work?
Using two-column notes explicitly directs students to organize the information they encounter
- Neuroscientific research has uncovered that the human brain is not hard wired for reading, that it is a skill that must be taught. Research also confirms that when people are taught to read using systematic and explicit methods that follow the rules and building blocks of language, more people will read proficiently (The Reading League, 2022). Research on writing instruction has yielded similar findings: understanding of the cognitive processes involved in writing are essential and should be used as scaffolding for instruction (Sedita, 2019). Joan Sedita’s theoretical framework, the Writing Rope, points to the importance of encouraging students to use systems of organizing information to help them digest and understand content. She asserts: “Students benefit from explicit instruction for brainstorming strategies and skills for gathering information from written and multimedia sources, such as note taking. They also need to learn planning strategies for organizing their thoughts, including the use of prewriting graphic organizers” (Sedita, 2019). This influential research and thinking on both reading and writing demonstrates that when students are explicitly taught how language is built, from sounds to words to paragraphs, they have a framework they can rely on to help them manage the language demands. Using two-column notes is an extension of these concepts. When students are explicitly taught to organize what they read, they can walk away with a better understanding of not only what they have read, but also how to apply that understanding to assessments like tests, quizzes, and essays.
Using two column notes can help students lessen the cognitive load and encourages metacognition
- Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) supports the idea that students can learn only if their mental capacity is not overloaded. Many students with specific learning disabilities often allocate so much mental energy to basic academic tasks that there is not enough bandwidth to comprehend, organize, or synthesize information. This lack of bandwidth can also impede the ability to think metacognitively, making it challenging for students with specific learning disabilities to think critically and to problem solve when they encounter difficulties with comprehension. David Kilpatrick suggests that explicit instruction in reading comprehension skills and strategies “has demonstrated benefits for poor comprehension (Fletcher, Lyon, Fuchs, & Barnes, 2007; Hulme & Snowling, 2009; NICHD 2000). These include skills like inference, summarizing, comprehension monitoring, and identifying the main idea…This is likely because of the fact that many children with learning disabilities and language difficulties lack metacognitive skills (Fletcher et al., 2007; Hulme & Snowling, 2009) so they need direction in how to approach texts in ways that come naturally to others” (Kilpatrick, 2015, pg. 325). Using two-column notes can assist comprehension by offering students a pre-set framework and structure to organize the information they are learning. Teaching students how to use two-column notes can free up mental bandwidth for comprehension and thinking about their learning.
When students handwrite information, it can help students with retention:
- Although many students, particularly older students, prefer to take notes on a laptop for ease, speed, and volume, studies conducted in 2014 by Peg Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer asserted that students who took notes by hand had a deeper understanding of the information they encountered. They found, using several other studies to confirm their thinking, that when students simply typed verbatim what was said in a lecture or cut and pasted information from an article, the lack of rephrasing or summazing the information led to a decrease in understanding (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). While two column notes can certainly be adapted to work on a computer, encouraging students to hand write at least a first draft of their notes can increase their retention and comprehension of the material.
Providing a framework to help students organize the information they read or hear, reduces the burden of determining how to organize that information. Thus, using two-column notes can free up cognitive bandwidth for students and allow them to think more analytically and critically about what they learn.
Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Wiley.
Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159–1168.
The Reading League. (2022). Science of Reading: Defining Guide.