“Research” in the context of this article refers to how instructional designers, developers, and their managers collect information about a particular topic. There are many ways to do research; what I will present here involves a system for capturing ideas over a period of time, restating the ideas in your own words. This may be for a specific project, or it may be for the sake of organizing captured ideas over a long time. This makes it possible for you to access the ideas for your own purposes: a summary, study notes, video scripts, exercises, experiences, documentation, or input for ISD authoring.
Nobody is an expert on everything, but many experts provide information that, properly collected and presented, can help others develop knowledge and skills to achieve expertise. In this article, you will find an outline of the elements of a process that will improve your ability to do this.
This process is not one that will necessarily give results in a matter of a few days. Instead, it will accumulate information and ideas over a span of time, organize it into notes that will be useful for reference in many projects, and provide you with insights that make a difference in your professional practice. There are three parts.
- Read a lot more, watch more videos and podcasts, interview more people, and take better notes that are organized in a way that facilitates retrieval and reflexive thinking.
- Set up a Zettelkasten. This is a way to approach note-taking based on an original approach that used index cards, improved by the use of information technology that makes information capture fast and reliable. This article will sketch out the Zettelkasten concept and its use.
- Use better capture software. While a Zettelkasten can be set up and maintained with Apple Notes or One Note, other software released in 2020 and later will be more useful.
One idea at a time
This change in approach has everything to do with knowledge management, done in a way that will not overwhelm you. The amount of information and knowledge that is now available on the web as text, multimedia, and data is enormous. Add to that the resources (human beings) you can contact online for answers to questions that arise in your work, and the data available through apps, networks, and knowledge engines such as Wolfram|Alpha and Wikimedia. Yet a substantial amount of knowledge can be collected just one idea at a time, a few ideas per day. With organized and effective research methods, an individual can become knowledgeable in any field.
Use more than one source, take notes on each, compare what they say, and try to identify issues with biases or conflicts of interest. Be open to new ideas, but don’t be afraid to drop the ones that are not supported by actual research or other findings. Be reflexive: your notes should include your reaction to ideas and claims that you find online or in interviews.
Zettelkasten: a systematic, personal approach to note-taking
Zettelkasten is a German word that means "note box." This is an idea that originated with Niklas Luhmann, a researcher and author. With his method, Luhmann collected tens of thousands of notes, enabling him to publish 600 articles and books on a variety of topics. His system has grown in use and benefitted from advances in technology.
Each note in a Zettelkasten has a unique identifier, a title, and a body containing the idea it describes. An ordinary notebook is organized from the "top-down" as a hierarchy where topics and ideas are separated from each other. A Zettelkasten is organized "bottom-up": you add new ideas one note at a time, and link new notes to existing ones. The structure of a Zettelkasten grows from the interconnections of individual notes. Each note is a building block, one idea that is connected to other notes via references (links).
The individual notes are developed using a handful of principles:
- Each note should contain one idea and one idea only ("atomic notes"). A note may be a paragraph or only a couple of sentences. This facilitates linking notes.
- Each note should be independent: self-contained and understandable on its own. Every note has a home and a name. Notes can be mixed, moved around, rearranged.
- Link each new note to existing notes. By being connected to a network of notes, no note will be lost or forgotten.
- Don’t delete old notes. They may be useful later, and they will at least give you an idea of how your understanding of a topic has grown.
- A note doesn't contain all the information related to one subject. Each note is an entry into a line of thoughts.
Taking comprehensive notes, organizing them, and relating them to other notes are all actions in a single workflow that leads to a completed product.
With the high-level understanding of research as the collection of ideas around a topic, rewritten in your own words as notes within a Zettelcasten, all that is needed to spark the conversion from atomic notes to finished product is software that facilitates the collection and use of the ideas. There are two, or possibly three, candidates for this.
While a Zettelcasten can be set up and maintained with Apple Notes or One Note, other software released in the last few years will be more useful to make this happen.
- Roam Research (macOS, Windows, Linux)
- Obsidian (macOS, Linux, Windows, iOS, iPadOS, Android)
- Readwise (Kindle, Instapaper)
Each of these has its own characteristics but all are valuable for note-taking and research. There are many articles available online that compare these tools, and careful study will help you select the software best matched to your situation.
Roam and Obsidian both use bi-directional links as fundamental building blocks that can provide context between notes. These notes can then be displayed as nodes in a knowledge graph, sometimes referred to as a "second brain." However, this does not mean that they are functionally identical.
Readwise is a bit different, in three ways. First, it is a way to capture quotes from Kindle books and from Instapaper. Second, it captures exact quotes: to create Zettelkasten-style notes, you will need to change these into your own words. Third, Readwise does not create a knowledge graph. The main reasons for using Readwise are that it supports quick capture as you read, and it also helps you remember more from what you read, which will be important when you are retrieving information from your notes. The workflow with Readwise is also different because of this and because of the "in-out" retrieval pattern when you use the Daily Review feature. In addition, you can tag your notes in Readwise.
Improve your research, improve your results
If you consistently apply the ideas presented here and that you learn as you work with smart notes and Zettelkasten, you will produce better materials, scripts, videos, and other content for synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences alike. Getting started will take two or three weeks of consistent daily use, including time to reflect on what you discover as you go. You might even start by using smart notes and Zettelkasten to explore and document the process!