In-Depth Biology Textbook Example

Learn how to break down complex information using the Concept/Descriptor framework from this extended example.

Soren Bjornstad avatar
Written by Soren Bjornstad
Updated over a week ago

The Concept/Descriptor Framework is a tool for building models of the ideas you're learning. If you're already familiar with spaced repetition systems (like Anki or SuperMemo), the Concept/Descriptor framework is one of the core differences you will find in RemNote. The framework is designed to address many of the shortcomings of the knowledge structures in existing spaced repetition systems by helping you organize and synthesize ideas.

Let's say we're learning about "Cells", and want to internalize and remember this excerpt from a biology book:

  • All cells share four common components: 1) a plasma membrane, an outer covering that separates the cell’s interior from its surrounding environment; 2) cytoplasm, consisting of a jelly-like cytosol within the cell in which there are other cellular components; 3) DNA, the cell's genetic material; and, 4) ribosomes, which synthesize proteins.

  • A cell’s plasma membrane defines the cell, outlines its borders, and determines the nature of its interaction with its environment. The plasma membrane must be very flexible to allow certain cells, such as red and white blood cells, to change shape as they pass through narrow capillaries.

Using Other Spaced Repetition Apps

If you're familiar with other spaced repetition tools like Anki, you would make flashcards that use question/answers or cloze deletions:

The flashcards would look like this in Anki:

These are reasonably good flashcards. Most have a short and have a clear answer. Some of the definitions should be more personalized (for example, what does determines the nature of its interaction with its environment mean?), but they get the job done. However, the flashcards don't directly represent the model you're trying to build about how to think about what a Cell is. There are a few problems.

Problems That Arise Using These Apps

First, the excerpt's hierarchical structure that breaks down a Cell into Plasma Membrane, Cytoplasm, DNA, and Ribosomes isn't directly expressed in the flashcard structure. One of the flashcards prompts the user to recall this hierarchy, but this knowledge is isolated in a single card - the underlying structure isn't immediately visible when looking at the set of cards and the hierarchy is not explicitly provided to the spaced repetition tool.

Second, these cards all discuss an interlinked set of Concepts - Plasma Membrane, DNA, Cytosol, etc., but these concepts aren't actually written down anywhere. Further, the links are not explicitly represented on the flashcards (ex. through Hyperlinks). Even worse, some of these Concepts are missing completely. For example, Cytosol isn't explained anywhere, even though it's used in the second card. There are many risks associated with practising cards of this nature. For example, you might start memorizing the sound of the word Cytosol without even realizing you are doing so. Here's the underlying problem: the cards refer to other concepts, and you want these concepts to be linked in your brain, but the links do not explicitly exist in the cards.

Third, if you later go learn more about DNA and add more cards, this new knowledge won't be connected to the rest of what you know about DNA. At best, you could search through your prior cards to find the text "DNA". This disorganization makes crystallizing and refining your models challenging. It would be better to build a single cohesive model about DNA to connect these ideas together.

Another underlying problem is that the flashcards only capture a single sentence. However, the single sentence is inextricably connected to many other sentences associated with a much larger concept. The underlying concept isn't explicitly written down anywhere. This is little better than a shadow of the real, interwoven, structured understanding of the idea in your brain. The concepts don't truly exist in the tool, so the tool has limited leverage for helping you understand the concepts.

Using RemNote

In contrast, RemNote's Concept/Descriptor Framework helps you explicitly capture and build knowledge structures. Explicitly writing down a knowledge structure lets you manipulate it, add new parts to it, question it, and identify weaknesses in your understanding. Additionally, explicitly capturing knowledge structures unlocks exciting new user interfaces for note-taking tools that understand the structure of your knowledge web.

Here's how we (RemNote) would break down the same excerpt with the Concept / Descriptor Framework. There are a few important things going on that will be explained below.

Each of these Rems (the bullet points above) is either a Concept or a Descriptor.

Concepts represent something "real", such as a Cell, Plasma Membrane, or Cytoplasm. By convention, Concepts are formatted in bold. Descriptors describe attributes of Concepts. By convention, descriptors are formatted in italics. Here, Cell > four components, Plasma Membrane > protects against, and Plasma Membrane > job in the cell are all descriptors describing their parent Concept.

Concepts are broken down hierarchically, by placing "smaller" components underneath "larger" components that they're a part of. For example, Plasma Membrane is a child of Cell because the Plasma Membrane is a part of a Cell. This hierarchy can be purely conceptual in addition to being literally inside. For example, you might put 'Neural Network as a child of 'Machine Learning'. You likely already think in terms of Concepts - although you probably haven't explicitly framed your thinking that way before. The Concept / Descriptor Framework just gives you a representation for writing those concepts down.

The arrow -> in each bullet point (Rem) denotes the presence of an active flashcard. The front of the flashcard is before the arrow and the back is after. For example, the following cards are generated for Plasma Membrane. These flashcards are automatically added for spaced repetition practice.

Structuring knowledge in this way invites you to challenge and strengthen your own knowledge representations. As I look at the above content, I can explicitly see the connections I'm trying to make. I can also immediately see actions that I can take to better format the knowledge. Example questions that come to mind:

  • What is the 'surrounding environment' of a cell? (Give definition to surrounding environment)

  • What does a cell's interior need to be separated from its environment? (Provide descriptor for Plasma Membrane > protects against)

  • I see that I know Plasma Membrane's job in the cell. What are the jobs of the other parts of the cell I'm learning about? (Provide "job" in the cell" descriptor to other concepts)

  • What is a protein that these Rhibsome synthesize? (Give definition to protein)

You might have noticed that I couldn't refrain from adding a prompt to visualize why the Plasma Membrane must be flexible. If this was my personal flashcard, I would probably have also added a gif.

Answering these questions would help you as a learner better understand what you're reading. You could easily add them to your growing knowledge structure. This process lets you take control of your own learning and work to clarify your understanding as an active learner.

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