A thought experiment

Look around you and observe what you see. Maybe you see a computer, a phone, a plant, or a person. Undoubtedly you interact with most of these items frequently and understand them well.

Suppose you wanted to describe your Computer to someone who had never seen one. You might start with its main components: Mouse, Keyboard, and Screen. You could explain how you can move the Mouse around to open up a Browser on the Screen, and how you can use the Browser to visit a Website. If this person asked you how heavy your Mouse was, or what color the plant was, you would probably answer instantly.

This intuitive way of thinking about the world suggests a model that we call the Concept-Descriptor Framework.

  1. The world is made up of Concepts, the words we've capitalized above – like Computer, Mouse, and Keyboard. These concepts form a hierarchy in which large, complicated Concepts are made up of smaller, simpler Concepts: your Computer has an Internet Browser, which has a Back Button; a Houseplant has a Pot, Soil, Leaves, and Stems. Concepts can also be abstract or intangible; in your current environment, you might be thinking about Work, Learning, or Light.

  2. Concepts can be explained in detail with Descriptors representing attributes of the Concept: your Computer's weight, your Desk's height, your Mouse's color, your Houseplant's Soil's wetness, Light's consequences for vision.

  3. Concepts are related to each other, and they're often easiest to make sense of in relationship with each other: you use your Keyboard to make characters appear on your Screen; you use your Watering Can to add water to your Houseplant's Soil.

If we write up the Computer example according to the above principles, we might come up with something like the following:

Notice that Concepts begin with a capital letter and are rendered in bold, while Descriptors begin with a lowercase letter and are rendered in italics. Relationships are primarily represented with Rem References, which appear in blue.

We can see, then, that the Concept-Descriptor Framework is laid out the same way as your natural thinking and learning process. In each system or topic we want to understand, we go through the same three steps:

  1. Breaking down the material into Concepts that are arranged hierarchically.

  2. Identifying important Descriptors of those concepts.

  3. Linking the Concepts together using Rem References or Tags, depending on how they relate to one another.

Why bother with the Concept-Descriptor Framework?

You might wonder why, aside from matching what we believe to be the natural human thinking process, the CDF is a useful way to take notes. It turns out that it's not only convenient but also makes learning easier and more efficient.

It helps you understand complex ideas.

New, complex ideas are difficult to wrap your head around when you consider them all at once. Research shows that people can only hold a small number of pieces of information in their short-term memories at once. When you're repeatedly having to refresh your memory of fussy details to understand what's going on, other information that you need to understand the idea gets constantly pushed out of your short-term memory, so a full understanding becomes somewhere between difficult and impossible.

If you instead break down the idea into simpler parts and thoroughly learn each part and the relationships of the parts to each other, you'll be able to think about the parts more fluidly and on a higher level when you come back to the larger idea.

The act of splitting up an idea also forces you to understand the idea more deeply than you would if you simply copied and pasted textbook material or wrote down what someone said in a lecture and studied that.

It helps you learn and retain information more efficiently.

The most effective way to deeply learn and retain information is to regularly test your understanding of a topic using tiny prompts that are quick, easy, and fun to answer. A tool that understands your learning progress, like RemNote, can then show you the details you're struggling with more often, significantly increasing your learning efficiency.

The catch is that traditionally, making effective, tiny prompts can be difficult. But when you break knowledge down into Concepts and Descriptors, the prompts almost write themselves. In fact, RemNote will automatically generate flashcards with such prompts, using the same hierarchical structure as your notes! Here are a few examples:

RemNote automatically schedules these flashcards for review using a near-optimal practice schedule. By continuously testing yourself on what you're learning, you'll prevent yourself from forgetting anything once you've learned it.

It helps you build connections more easily.

Human memory, unlike computer memory, is based entirely on connections between ideas; the only path to retrieving a piece of information is to think of something related to it first. So no matter what you're learning, building connections between related concepts is vital – it's the only way you'll remember anything! You need to build connections between the new concepts you're learning, as well as between new concepts and old concepts you already understand well.

Since we believe notes are easier to use when they mirror the structure of your thoughts, RemNote provides several ways to build connections in your notes, most notably Rem References and Tags. Tags can also be turned into templates, which allow you to define the information you want to learn about all Concepts of a similar type; see Structuring Knowledge with Templates and Slots for details.

When you study flashcards, RemNote can also fine-tune the sequence in which cards are presented for review based on the structure of references between those concepts, to reinforce the relationships between them.

How to create notes that use the Concept-Descriptor Framework

As you type, you can press Ctrl+Alt+C (Cmd+Opt+C on a Mac) to change the current Rem into a Concept, and Ctrl+Alt+D (Cmd+Opt+D on a Mac) to change it into a Descriptor.

More frequently, however, you'll want to move to the back side of a flashcard at the same time as you make the current Rem into a Concept or Descriptor. For instance, you might type Computer and then want to type the definition of a computer for the back side of that flashcard. You can type :: to carry out these two operations simultaneously. Similarly, for a descriptor, use ;;.

There are several other shortcuts available if you want to control the direction in which the flashcards appear or make them span multiple lines. See Creating Flashcards for details on all the options.

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