The best way to acquire knowledge through reading

Repost Explanation#

This article is authorized for reposting, and the author is Alan Chan, the founder of Heptabase. The original article can be found at The Best Way to Acquire Knowledge from Readings.

During the reposting process, some typos have been corrected, and the expressions in Taiwanese Chinese have been replaced with Mainland Chinese, such as "软体 → 软件" and "实作 → 实现".



As someone who reads frequently, the most challenging aspect of reading for me is that the best books often contain a large amount of content, and it is not always easy to fully digest this content. Even if I do digest the content, over time, it is often difficult for me to recall what I have learned solely from memory when I suddenly want to apply my previous knowledge in my work.

This problem is not unique to me; it also happens to many people I know. I think this is also the problem that most note-taking software (also known as knowledge management software) aims to solve. Unfortunately, I feel that most note-taking software focuses too much on teaching you how to organize notes using certain frameworks (e.g., hierarchy, network, database), but does not propose improvement solutions for the most critical aspects of the learning process, such as knowledge acquisition, retention, and application.

In this article, I will share practical examples of my own learning and demonstrate a method I have designed using Heptabase to effectively acquire, retain, and apply knowledge. This method is not the only way to learn, but it is a method that I have verified to be highly effective, and I believe that most people can quickly learn to apply it to their own learning.

Method Overview#

The well-known Feynman learning technique suggests that the best way to deeply learn a topic is to try to teach it to a child. My idea is that no matter what you want to teach others, you must first clarify the knowledge framework you want to teach and have a way to articulate this framework clearly. In the method I propose, we can achieve this through five simple steps:

  1. Record all important paragraphs seen during the reading process.
  2. Break down the recorded important paragraphs into smaller concepts.
  3. Draw the relationships between concepts.
  4. Group similar concepts together.
  5. Recall and use the concepts.

The following video is the process of me practicing these five steps. The video is a recording of a real case, without any prior planning. In this video, I demonstrate how I break down the concepts of the book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas and gain a deep understanding. You don't need to watch the entire video (as it is four hours long), but quickly scanning through different sections of the video will give you a clearer understanding of how I extract ideas from books and build understanding. If you want to play with the whiteboard I created in the video, you can click this link.

Step 1: Record all important paragraphs seen during the reading process#

In the first step of my methodology, we need to record all important paragraphs seen during the reading process and organize them by chapter. The implementation of this process may vary depending on the tool you use. If you are using a computer e-reader, you can directly copy and paste the text from the e-book into a Heptabase card. If you are using a Kindle or iPad e-reader, you can export all highlights as a Markdown document and then import it into Heptabase. If you are reading a physical book, you can take notes after finishing each chapter.

Regardless of the method you use for note-taking, make sure that you eventually produce a book card containing the important paragraphs you recorded from different chapters of the book.


Step 2: Break down these recorded important paragraphs into smaller concepts#

Once you have organized your reading notes into a book card, you can create a whiteboard and use the Import Panel in the upper right corner of Heptabase to import the book card from the Card Library into this whiteboard. For example, I created a sub-whiteboard called Mindstorm under the parent whiteboard Reading Notes and placed the card notes from the book Mindstorms on this sub-whiteboard.


After placing the card, I will open it in the right sidebar for easier browsing of its contents. I usually quickly scan through all the content of this card and identify a few concepts that I consider important. When I decide to extract a concept, I will select the blocks related to this concept and drag them onto the whiteboard to create a new card.


Creating a card is not enough; I will also summarize the core concept of the card in one sentence and use this sentence as the card title to ensure that it is clear what it is about at a glance. Next, I will reorganize the content of this card to make its structure more intuitive. I will also check if there are any blocks in the original book card that are related to this concept card, and if so, I will drag them into this concept card.


Step 3: Draw the relationships between these concepts#

As I extract more and more concept cards from the book cards, I will gradually start drawing arrows between these cards or grouping together cards with similar content. If I find that two concept cards discuss the same idea, I will merge them. If I find that a card contains too many concepts, I will break it down into multiple smaller cards to maintain the granularity of the cards.


Step 4: Group similar concepts together#

After converting all the content of the book cards into concept cards, I will close the right sidebar and focus on establishing the relationships and grouping between these concept cards. When I find that multiple cards are related to a subtopic, I will enclose them in a section and give the section a name. When naming a section, I am as cautious as when adding titles to cards because these names will be the first thing you see when reviewing the whiteboard in the future.


After completing the final layout of the whiteboard (including all arrows and sections), I will paste the links to all the sections back into the original book cards, and Step 4 is complete. Completing Steps 2 to 4 usually takes one hour to one day, depending on the length and depth of the book.

In this process, the real value lies not in the final whiteboard you produce, but in the thought process you put into establishing the knowledge framework, titling each card and section. True understanding and insight often come from the process of breaking down and reorganizing knowledge. Only after going through this process will this knowledge truly become your own.


Step 5: Recall and use these concepts#

Once you have produced the final whiteboard, the stage of knowledge absorption is complete. If you want to retain this knowledge, I would recommend using the theory of spaced repetition to schedule the review of the whiteboard.

Based on my experience, even if I don't use spaced repetition, I am still able to know which knowledge should be in which whiteboard and directly go to that whiteboard to find the concepts I need while working. Therefore, although review is beneficial, you don't need to be too strict with yourself and strictly follow a schedule.

In the long run, saving knowledge in the form of concept cards on a whiteboard will bring great benefits.

For example, suppose you are researching how to improve children's memory, and you have read five books in the past that mention ideas related to this topic to some extent. In this case, you can create a whiteboard called "Improving Children's Memory" and reuse the concept cards related to this topic from the whiteboards of those five books to establish a new understanding framework in this new whiteboard. This way, your past learning is no longer just lying quietly in a folder, but can become the foundation of your new research. You can even combine these concept cards to quickly and directly produce a thematic article.


Although this article discusses the methodology of knowledge acquisition, retention, and application, I want to emphasize the importance of tool selection because the design of tools often subconsciously changes our perception of learning and develops good and bad learning habits.

Seymour Papert, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence and the constructivist movement in education, explores the idea of how tools influence thinking in his book Mindstorms:

For me, writing means drafting a first version and working on it for a long time to revise and improve it. I have an image of myself as a writer that includes an "unaccepted" first draft, which is polished into the final presentation through continuous editing. But if I were a third-grade student, I couldn't imagine doing this because the physical act of writing is slow and laborious, and I don't have a secretary to help me write. For most children, rewriting an article is so laborious that the first draft becomes the final version, making it impossible for them to develop the ability to critically review their own writing. However, when children have a word processor, this situation changes dramatically. The first draft becomes something created on the keyboard, and correcting errors becomes easy. The current version is always clean and tidy. I have seen a child who went from refusing to write to actively participating (with a rapid improvement in quality) after using a computer for writing for a few weeks. This situation becomes even more dramatic when children have difficulty or even impossibility in handwriting due to physical disabilities.

Word processors can make children's writing experience more like that of real writers. However, if the adults around them, including teachers, cannot appreciate the writer's experience, this point will be weakened. For example, it is easy to imagine that adults would express the view that modifying and re-editing text is a waste of time ("Why not do something new?" or "You didn't make it better, why not correct your spelling?").

Writing, music composition, skill games, complex graphics, etc., can all be viewed in the same way: computers are not an independent culture, but they can be used to promote very different cultures and philosophical views.

When we developed Heptabase, our goal was to design an environment that allows you to externalize the process of learning knowledge from your brain, allowing you to use your eyes and hands to recognize, break down, connect, and group concepts. That's why we developed features such as card breakdown, moving blocks between cards, establishing card relationships on a whiteboard, and reusing cards across multiple whiteboards. These features together create an environment that allows you to better utilize human visual understanding and visual memory abilities, as well as the persistence and retrieval capabilities of computers for learning. As you use this tool for structuring your own learning over time, you will subconsciously turn the learning method described in this article into your own habit, and that is the most important thing—tools not only allow you to take notes but also make you a proficient learner.

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