Becoming a Better Learner: How to Take Smart Notes

The illusion of competenceIllusion of CompetenceThe Illusion of Competence is a cognitive bias where individuals incorrectly assess their ability to comprehend or recall information. This typically occurs when passive learning strategies, like reading or highlighting, create a misleading sense of familiarity with the material, leading to an overestimation of understanding. In actuality, the depth of understanding may be shallow or incomplete. It's a pitfall in the learning process that emphasizes the need for active learning methods, such as - we've all been there. Reading an insightful book, highlighting key points, underlying keywords, yet struggling to explain what we've just learned moments later. This frustration is the illusion of competence, a phenomenon where our note-taking methods deceive us into thinking we've grasped new information while our brain idles.

But what if we told you there's a fix? The solution lies in taking smart notes. Adopted by luminaries like Leonardo da Vinci and Niklas Luhmann, smart notes not only help in retaining information but also foster critical thinking.

What Makes Smart Notes 'Smart'?

1. Active Smart Notes

Smart notes are active; they're not passive highlights and underlines that merely follow the author's flow. Instead, smart notes involve actively restructuring other people's thoughts into your own structure. One effective method is the Q/E/CThe QEC methodThe Q/E/C method stands for "Question, Evidence, Conclusion" and it's a structured approach to note-taking that encourages active learning. Here's a quick breakdown: Question**: Identify the main question or problem the material you're reading is trying to address. Evidence**: Highlight or jot down the facts, examples, or ideas that support or provide an answer to the question. Conclusion**: Note down the conclusion or summary that the material presents based on the evidence. This method turns (Question, Evidence, Conclusion) note-taking structure. Regardless of the order the author presents their ideas, the Q/E/C structure allows for a consistent method to extract and link the main points together.

2. Atomic Smart Notes

The second element that sets smart notes apart is their 'atomicatomic notesEach atomic note contains one idea and one idea only. This way, it’s easier to form connections across topics and contexts. If your notes are too broad, you might not notice when you encounter some new idea about one of the notions contained within, and links to that note will be muddied. If your notes are too fragmented, you’ll also fragment your link network, which may make it harder to see certain connections.' nature. Instead of lumping notes into one giant document, each idea on a smart note stands independently. This atomic approach allows for 3D thinking, linking ideas in various directions and placing them in a context, turning the notes into a dynamic latticework of interlinked ideas.

3. Connected Smart Notes

Lastly, smart notes are interconnected. They are linked to existing knowledge, enabling us to combat the illusion of competence effectively. A powerful technique to achieve this is the Compass of Zettelkasten Thinking, which prompts four perspectives on an idea: its origin, its similarities to other ideas, competing ideas, and future implications.

In summary, smart notes are active, atomic, and interconnected. They represent a potent tool for understanding and retaining complex information, making us better thinkers, learners, and communicators.

This blog post was heavily inspired by: