Cornell Paper and Reflective Problem-Solvers

Those of you who have read a number of my posts (especially How I Teach Maths) will have picked up on my main philosophy in the classroom: getting the students doing as much maths as possible, and as independently as possible. However, having such an ambition is quite different from achieving it on a consistent basis. Of course students need to be shown and taught how to be problem-solvers and, importantly, how to reflect on the process. My main tool here (which is by no means original!) is having the ‘strategy steps’ annotated beside working. Even the Edexcel textbooks do this to some extent, although I often think they gloss over key points and emphasise more basic mathematical skills to reassure students.

Cornell Paper

I discovered the concept of Cornell note paper around five years ago, when I came across the amazing Incompetech Graph paper generator website. I think I needed polar paper at the time but it’s worth taking some time to explore the site fully. The basic principle of Cornell note-taking is to divide a piece of paper into three main areas:Cornell sections

(Image from

The notes section is typically lined or gridded while the cues and summary sections are usually plain white. Moreover, the cues section could be on the left or right hand side, depending on your preference. (The Incompetech site lets you set all of these options!)

When I first came across the idea, I trialled it with a further maths class. I can’t remember the problem they solved, but they liked using the allocated margin space for annotating their work with key steps and points to remember. We weren’t so sure how best to use the summary section in maths, and opted instead to use it to note formulae/prior knowledge used etc.

Moreover, another problem is the need to print off sheets of this paper every time you want the class to use it. ( stocks various packs off the stuff, but barely knows of its existence.)

While I was in Germany at the start of the holidays, I bought one student notebook very cheaply and I think it’s the perfect style for A level Maths. It has the side margin just like Cornell paper, but no space lost to the summary box.

IMAG3484_1 IMAG3485_1

(In Germany, there’s a numbering system to different styles of paper depending on whether it’s gridded or lined, with margin space or without etc. The one I bought is Lineatur 26.) Why don’t we have so many options for paper in the UK? It’s a real shame. Again the problem is I can’t provide, or expect my students to acquire, these kind of pads.

Reflective Problem-Solvers

This year I’m determined to give the Cornell approach one more try, with a focus on developing exam technique. I’ve used the Incompetech site to create blank Cornell template, putting the summary box at the top. I’ve then created a number of separate documents by pasting different exam questions into that blank space. There are 3 prompt questions across the top of these PPP (past paper practice) sheets:

  • Can you solve this question?
  • Do you understand every step?
  • Where is there a risk of making mistakes?

Of course I will have to guide the students on how to make use of the margin space but I really think this structure will help them throughout the year.

The sheets I’ve made – currently for Edexcel FP2 – are all in this Dropbox folder. Feel free to take a look. I’ll try and report back during the year on how the students find them!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s