Zettelkasten Forum

Cognitive Load Theory, Worked Examples and the Zettelkasten Method

Have you ever heard of Worked Examples from Cognitive Load Theory?

If not, this simple, teacher/student oriented video explains worked examples quite well.

As I have been learning a bit about cognitive load theory and the effects of worked examples, I was wondering what how it applies to the Zettelkasten Method. Specifically, in the video above, it seems that elaborative encoding might not be as effective without the schema being represented well to the learner first when they are a novice.

It seems that a lot of the ideas around ZKM or just Zettelkasten more generally are heavily founded upon deep processing or elaborative encoding from a more constructivist flavor.

I was wondering if there was more of a need for worked examples as one develops knowledge within their ZK and even as one works on getting better at the method itself (ZKM).

Would love to hear if any others have thoughts on this.

Note: I know that Math is focused on this video. But, it seems to me that zettling is a practice/skill. And, even a lot of what we develop within the ZK should be able to used in some skill. So, worked examples seems relevant. Feel free to pick at that assumption too!


  • @rwrobinson said:

    I was wondering if there was more of a need for worked examples as one develops knowledge within their ZK and even as one works on getting better at the method itself (ZKM).

    It may be the opposite: There may be more of a need for worked examples when one is a beginner and less need as expertise develops. This is covered in Chapter 12: "The Expertise Reversal Effect" in the book that you cited above, Cognitive Load Theory by John Sweller et al. (2012). Sweller et al. cite various interesting studies. For example (159–160):

    Based on the expertise reversal effect as exemplified in the longitudinal studies, it might be expected that novice learners would benefit from well-guided instruction that reduces their need for random search for suitable solution steps. For more experienced learners, on the other hand, studying detailed instructional guidance and integrating it with available knowledge that provides essentially the same information might generate an unnecessary extraneous cognitive load. A number of studies have indicated that while less knowledgeable students benefited more from worked examples that provide considerable guidance than from problem solving with less guidance, for more knowledgeable learners, the benefits of minimally guided instruction were apparent. For example, Tuovinen and Sweller (1999) compared worked examples with minimally guided exploratory-based instruction on how to use a database program. Worked examples were better than exploration for low-knowledge learners, but the difference disappeared for higher knowledge learners.

    Sweller et al. also summarize some research on the use of writing prompts (and perhaps one could consider some kinds of Zettel templates as writing prompts) (158–159):

    Nückles, Hübner, Dümer, and Renkl (2010) provided evidence of the expertise reversal effect in learning journal writing skills. Journal writing provides an example of cognitive and metacognitive strategies and is an effective follow-up after a lecture or seminar session in which students are asked to reflect on the previously studied material. Two studies investigated long-term effects of instructional support for writing learning journals provided in the form of prompts for applying appropriate cognitive and metacognitive strategies. Students wrote a journal entry about each weekly seminar session over a whole term. One group received prompts, while another group received no prompts. In the first half of the term, while students were still novices, the prompt group applied more strategies in their learning journals and showed higher learning success rates than the no-prompt group. Towards the end of the term, with increases in expertise, the amount of cognitive and metacognitive strategies elicited by the prompt group decreased while the number of cognitive strategies applied by the no-prompt group increased. Accordingly, when learning success was measured again at the end of the term, the prompt group performed worse than the no-prompt group. In order to avoid these negative long-term effects of prompts, a gradual and adaptive fading-out of the prompts was subsequently introduced.

    Indeed, many old research manuals did have "worked examples" of note cards for beginners, for example:

    • Dow, Earle W. (1924). Principles of a Note-system for Historical Studies. Century Historical Series. New York: The Century Company.
    • Williams, Cecil B. (1963) [1940]. "Notes and Note-taking". A Research Manual for College Studies and Papers (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row. pp. 95–105.
    • Barzun, Jacques; Graff, Henry F. (2004) [1957]. The Modern Researcher (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth. pp. 22–31, 176–183.
    • Shafer, Robert Jones; et al., eds. (1980) [1969]. "Research Notes". A Guide to Historical Method. The Dorsey Series in History (3rd ed.). Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press. pp. 117–126.
    • Eco, Umberto (2015) [1977]. "The Work Plan and the Index Cards". How to Write a Thesis. Translated by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp. 107–144.
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