Zettelkasten Forum


Unpopular opinion: I found "Effective Notetaking" a tad shallow

I got this book two hours ago, zoomed through and finished reading. There are some good bits here, for sure: I will certainly pay more attention to headings in my notes. Also, for the intended audience of that book---students who must study for a test, and need to learn that material---it is likely useful and a good read. I might even recommend it to a high schooler.

That said, my note's title is from the perspective of what utility I perceived for me. The advice seemed pat, too cut-and-dried, proclaimed with a finality that stuck the wrong cord in me. When I read the bibliography, I found something very curious for a book from 2018: the references by decade are: 7 from 2010s, 39 from 2000s, 62 from 1990s, 50 from 1980s, 18 from 1970s. Nothing wrong with old references: I have cited 19th century books often enough and once a 17th century book in a paper in computer science, but the relative balance caught my eye. These 80s/90s skew is curious, although a tad more explained by the original date of publication (2007). Surely more ink has been spilled on this topic this decade, some refining the cited works, others casting grave doubt on some other cited works? FWIW, I have a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science and am quite familiar with some lines of research here and which I find rather dubious (won't name names, sorry).

So, some good stuff here, no doubt about it, great material for a longish blog post, but the hefty 250+ pages that it is is a stretch.

I normally don't write bad reviews, preferring to keep my mouth shut. But this has been strongly recommended here---enough for me to purchase this---so I felt obliged to add a counter argument. Just my 2¢.

Best regards,
Abhijit

Comments

  • @amahabal I also read the book because of the raving comments here and must say that I completely agree with you and had similar impressions when reading the book. Too many generalisations (like "Don't highlight more than 10%") and too many assumptions that don't apply to my specific needs/systems. It might still be better than the average book on note-taking out there, but I certainly wasn't impressed.
    Good to read that I'm not the only one ;)

  • edited April 28

    Ah, so your critique is not so much about its shalloweness but about that it is outdated?

    That leads to the obvious question: What are more recent sources you'd recommend? :)

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast said:
    Ah, so your critique is not so much about its shalloweness but about that it is outdated?

    That leads to the obvious question: What are more recent sources you'd recommend? :)

    The way I understood it he makes both points, not mainly the one about being out of date. My critique would mainly be shallowness / too many overgeneralisations. I'm not a cognitive scientist, so don't know much about whether it is in line with up-to-date research.

  • @Vinho said:

    @sfast said:
    Ah, so your critique is not so much about its shalloweness but about that it is outdated?

    That leads to the obvious question: What are more recent sources you'd recommend? :)

    The way I understood it he makes both points, not mainly the one about being out of date. My critique would mainly be shallowness / too many overgeneralisations. I'm not a cognitive scientist, so don't know much about whether it is in line with up-to-date research.

    This would be an interpretation of what is in the post.

    Explicitely, there are only two remarks refering to something other than the references used:

    1. "There are some good bits here, for sure:" (Already an interpretation!) = not dense, could be compressed.
    2. "So, some good stuff here, no doubt about it, great material for a longish blog post, but the hefty 250+ pages that it is is a stretch." = not dense, could be compressed.

    So, the title of this post doesn't match neither the content nor your critique. :)

    Too many generalisations (like "Don't highlight more than 10%") and too many assumptions that don't apply to my specific needs/systems.

    Another conclusion might be that you are using a subpar system which can be verified by the science Fitzpatrick used.. ;)

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast said:
    Ah, so your critique is not so much about its shalloweness but about that it is outdated?

    As @Vinho said, I make both points. Let me give a concrete example or two. Midway on page 141, when analogies are discussed, the discussion of how we retrieve old memories states that this is based on surface similarity. Well, no: that is just not true. A book I love and consider one of the best books on human understanding (I am maybe biased: Douglas Hofstadter, my Doktorvater, is the first author) is "Surfaces and Essences: analogy as a fuel and fire of thinking" is entirely about analogy and cognition.

    As a second example, the early discussion of working memory is too pat, too simplistic. If any area's understanding has deepened this century, it would be the understanding of brain and how and where certain things happen, including working memory. I am not an expert in this area, not by a long shot, but refreshing recommendations with some backup would have been good here.

    That leads to the obvious question: What are more recent sources you'd recommend? :)

    Not for note taking, but the Surfaces and Essences is a good read. For elaboration and making connection, in the area of math at least, I love the writings of Polya. "How to Solve it" is a classic: it basically teaches how to solve a problem by asking probing questions and seeking related problems that we know how to solve. His two-part book on "Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning" is also good.

    Ultimately, my reasons for Zettelkasting do not emphasize "remembering more". That reeks of the collector's fallacy. I am with @sfast in that my note-taking is to deepen understanding, to make connections, to write.

    Finally, I think "Student achievement is based above all on use of effective strategies" is BS. It certainly could be important, no doubt, but not to the level of what gets said on para 1 on page 1: "Forget intelligence. Forget hours put in". This is a self-serving pitch for a book that teaches strategy.

    That was a longer diatribe than I expected!

    --Abhijit

  • Adding my voice to the requiem chorus, or the dirge.

    Erdös #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport.

  • Thank you for your kind and reflective post, @amahabal. I'm a bit embarrassed as my biases are showing.

    1. I am one of the poor saps who raved about this book.
    2. I must be the target audience, given my interest and education level.
    3. I don't have a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science or an Erdös number.
    4. I don't think she thought she was writing for an audience that included Ph.D.s in Cognitive Science or people with Erdös numbers of 2.
    5. Even though this book is couched in the research of the 80s and 90s science, I still feel it is a better guide than a lot of what is popular today. Does it make blatantly wrong claims, point to fraudulent research, or is it a matter that the scientific understanding has deepened since 2007?
    6. Sadly, many books contain only enough material for a longish blog post and don't warrant a whole book.
    7. Thanks for that reference to Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander's book Surfaces and Essences Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. I've downloaded this 593-page book. We'll see if I can handle the material?

    Will Simpson
    “Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
    kestrelcreek.com

  • @Will said:
    Thank you for your kind and reflective post, @amahabal. I'm a bit embarrassed as my biases are showing.

    I am feeling a bit sheepish, too. Hope it is clear that my goal is not to say that the book is useless for everyone---far from it, as there are some useful things I found in it---only that it may not be useful for all. If you find it useful and helpful: more power to you!

    As I reflect more on this book, two distinct pillars stand out. On the one hand, this is a book about strategies: a bestiary of things to help attention, from highlighting, to headings, to summaries to asking questions, diagramming the material. Each is explained with examples. I think this part is well done and commendable. On the other hand, this is also a book about why those techniques work, presented as a research-based rationale.

    I quite like the first pillar above. Engaging with the material will help you get more out of it. If you engage using different techniques, you will get even more out of it. No quarrel here, only plaudits.

    What I was reacting to, and this is clear with hindsight, is the second pillar. The discussion of working memory, I suspect, is a bit of a red herring here, and certainly suggestions for what techniques would work better for "people with low working memory capacity" seem quaint and from a different era.

    I am not a fan of chapter 12 (about how people have different cognitive styles) but like Chapter 13 (which is about how to choose a technique based on cognitive style). I like 13 by throwing away the part about "based on cognitive style": I suggest everyone try out various techniques and see what sticks and what sticks for what kinds of notes.

    1. I don't think she thought she was writing for an audience that included Ph.D.s in Cognitive Science or people with Erdös numbers of 2.

    My Erdös number is NOT 2 (it is 4). I sometimes point out in jest that my Erdös-Go number is 2, a measure no one else uses because it is utterly meaningless: I played Go once with someone (Prof. Paul Purdom) who played Go once with Paul Erdös. Now, I lost to Prof. Purdom who lost to Erdös. Hardly something to brag about but for its outlandishness :smile:

    1. Thanks for that reference to Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander's book Surfaces and Essences Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. I've downloaded this 593-page book. We'll see if I can handle the material?

    Would love to hear what you think.

  • edited April 29

    :trollface: My Erdös number is 2. Incidentally, I disagree that using a Zettelkasten to remember more "reeks of the Collector's Fallacy." For me, the Collector's Fallacy amounts to saving references with the intention to get to them later, feeling a false sense of accomplishment (this is optional) or harboring the illusion of control over one's subject (this is less optional), and then in a day or a week or so forgetting what, exactly one saved and why.

    The point for me is to keep concise notes adequate to reconstruct whatever is likely to be useful (even if indirectly) for future writing projects. Then one does have to remember to write. Now if one is fine with forgetting what one has written and published, I suppose the role of memory in this activity can be de-emphasized or even disparaged. It might be misleading to tell a hiring committee that you bring a multi-year research program with you to your prospective institution, then take the attitude when forgetting crucial aspects of it once you arrive (you're bogged down with administrative work) or when catching a moment to resume where you left off that you refuse to review your Zettelkasten notes on your research program on the grounds that this would reek of the Collector's Fallacy.

    It's not unfamiliar to encounter academics who dismiss the role of memory...pardon me I need to relearn the spelling of the words I just used ... it's not an impediment to understanding ...

    Anyway, whatever it was I said, I'm curious about what (if any) role you think that memory plays in developing and using a Zettelkasten.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    Erdös #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport.

  • @ZettelDistraction said:
    My Erdös number is 2.

    What paper would you like to collaborate on :trollface:?

    Incidentally, I disagree that using a Zettelkasten to remember more "reeks of the Collector's Fallacy." For me, the Collector's Fallacy amounts to saving references with the intention to get to them later, feeling a false sense of accomplishment (this is optional) or harboring the illusion of control over one's subject (this is less optional), and then in a day or a week or so forgetting what, exactly one saved and why.

    I will tease apart two aspects of what goes by memory or memorization, and my comment applied to only one of those. What it applied to was the memorization of facts (such as: the five great lakes are HOMES and the ten classes of stars based on Harvard spectral classification are the first letters of "Oh be a fine gal, kiss me right now sweetheart", and "Ouagadougou is the capital of Burkina Faso"). I'd like to point out that you may know that last fact about Ouagadougou without knowing anything else whatsoever about the city: its population, size, age, geography, time zone, safety, how it smells, etc. That fact is isolated. This kind of memory holds relatively little fascination for me. I have reason to believe that the author of the book we are discussing is interested in factual stuff, given that they wrote an entire book on the use of mnemonics.

    The other kind of memory connects concepts held in a deep way. Looking at a plane geometry problem, you may suddenly recall Menelaus' theorem. It was triggered by something, perhaps the need to show three points as collinear and the presence of triangles. This is no isolated fact: it is hooked in your mind to dozens of other facts. This is the kind of memory you are talking about. When you refresh your memory about Euler, I suspect you care less about the day of the week he was born and more about the ideas of his theory.

    Of course, all this lies on a cline, some at the dry fact end, some at the rich-web-of-associations end.

    The point for me is to keep concise notes adequate to reconstruct whatever is likely to be useful (even if indirectly) for future writing projects. Then one does have to remember to write. Now if one is fine with forgetting what one has written and published, I suppose the role of memory in this activity can be de-emphasized or even disparaged.

    If you wrote a brilliant piece about someone and mentioned, in passing, the clothes they wore, and also spent many paragraphs on why their thought matters and what made it groundbreaking, I contend that it might be okay to forget the incidental if you retain a good enough gist of the meat.

    It might be misleading to tell a hiring committee that you bring a multi-year research program with you to your prospective institution, then take the attitude when forgetting crucial aspects of it once you arrive (you're bogged down with administrative work) or when catching a moment to resume where you left off that you refuse to review your Zettelkasten notes on your research program on the grounds that this would reek of the Collector's Fallacy.

    I don't think we are disagreeing. Memory is a topic I find fascinating, and if after the discussion above you still think we are not seeing eye to eye, happy to say more, but don't want to flog a dead horse.

    Anyway, whatever it was I said, I'm curious about what (if any) role you think that memory plays in developing and using a Zettelkasten.

    A big role, both in deepening concepts, enabling their triggering from a wider range of unexpected contexts, and in reawakening deep but currently dormant concepts you have not recently grappled with.

  • edited April 29

    When you wrote that you do not use to your Zettelkasten to remember more, you meant "remember more (relatively isolated) facts." The examples were of course unnecessary.

    Erdös #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport.

  • @ZettelDistraction said:
    Anyway, whatever it was I said, I'm curious about what (if any) role you think that memory plays in developing and using a Zettelkasten.

    It is with trepidation that I venture forth. Maybe this is my Don Quixote moment.

    Memory plays a surprisingly minor role in developing a ZK.

    Writing in a ZK provides written evidence, so we don't have to rely on memory.

    Besides the varying amounts of long-term and short-term memory, there is more than one type of memory. Experiential memory like how to drive, how to do an overhand stitch while knitting, how to hold the gouge at the lathe, where you put the teacup last, and episodic memory like what I read last year, classes I took in high school, what I was doing when the Berlin Wall came down.

    I'm not sure how you'd classify knowledge about a math process or a writing process. It feels like once integrated and part of your knowledge schema, you would not have to rely on the episodic memory to perform math or writing processes.

    As a process integrates, it becomes more experiential.

    A ZK maybe only peripherally helps experiential memory by providing queues. All that memory is tied up in our muscles and reflexes.

    Episodic memory is notoriously unreliable, making it undependable.

    .

    Will Simpson
    “Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
    kestrelcreek.com

  • edited April 30

    @amahabal 's answer is more convincing to me, but I agree that relying on episodic memory to recall a calculational method I once knew wouldn't be ideal--where was I at the time...? The written record in a ZK serves the same function as it does elsewhere--to not have to rely on immediate, unassisted recall. There should be something additional that the ZK offers.

    I had latched onto a secondary matter of emphasis--remembering more doesn't necessarily mean treating a ZK as the dumping ground of a collector operating under the Collector's Fallacy--depending on what "more" meant. But that other sense of more was given in the reply on the role of memory. And some of us want to remember more in that sense (more deeply etc, if not numerically more, though why not), and believe that ZK can help.

    Erdös #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport.

  • edited April 30

    I liked the first half of it. It was really good. I got some good learnings and material from it. However, I have since tried picking it up again to finish the second half, and I'm not too intrigued. Its luster has worn off for me.

    I'm a big fan of her advice, warning one not to highlight.

    That said, I liked her focus on graphic illustrations and multimedia diagrams. This stuff is a game-changer. It's something that gets too little attention: creating diagrams and multimedia maps and doodles representing your knowledge. This is an area where @sfast and I seem to really agree on.

    Scott P. Scheper
    Website | Twitter | Reddit | YouTube

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