How Note Taking Can Help You Become an Expert in Ill-Structured Domains


Hatched by Glasp

Aug 28, 2023

3 min read


How Note Taking Can Help You Become an Expert in Ill-Structured Domains


In the world of learning and expertise, there are certain domains that are highly variable and messy, making it difficult to reason from first principles. These ill-structured domains require a different approach to learning and understanding. Cognitive Flexibility Theory (CFT) provides insights into how experts navigate these domains and offers a unique perspective on note-taking as a tool for accelerated expertise.

Idea One: CFT is Concerned With Ill-Structured Domains

CFT recognizes that ill-structured domains are characterized by highly variable concept instantiation in the real world. This variability makes it challenging to rely solely on first principles for reasoning. Instead, experts in these domains rely on comparing previous cases to make sense of new situations. The formal definition of "ill-structured" is when concept instantiation is highly variable for cases of the same nominal type.

Idea Two: In Ill-Structured Domains, Cases Are Important

Experts in ill-structured domains understand that cases hold as much, if not more, importance than concepts. Reasoning by analogy and pattern-matching becomes essential when faced with novelty. Rather than reducing complex concepts to a single prototype, experts maintain a collection of prototypes that can be assembled from fragments of previous cases. This approach allows for a more adaptive worldview, where experts update their understanding of concepts based on real-world instantiations.

Ideas Three and Four: The Two Claims of CFT

CFT proposes two central claims that shed light on how experts deal with novelty in ill-structured domains and what lies at the heart of adaptive expertise. Firstly, experts construct temporary schemas on the fly by combining fragments of previous cases. This ability to connect fragmented information is crucial for building a comprehensive understanding. Secondly, experts possess an adaptive worldview, which means they do not rely on a single root cause or framework to explain events in their domain. Instead, they draw on a collection of prototypes to create a more nuanced understanding.

Actionable Advice:

  • 1. Expose yourself to diverse cases: To develop expertise in ill-structured domains, expose yourself to as many cases as possible. Seek out cases that are different from the ones you already know to expand your collection of fragments. This will provide you with a broader range of examples to draw upon when faced with new situations.
  • 2. Utilize a hypertextual note-taking system: CFT suggests using a hypertextual system for note-taking, where concepts are backlinked to other cases. This allows for easy navigation and connection between fragments of information. Choose a note-taking app that supports backlinking capabilities to create a cohesive system for organizing and referencing your notes.
  • 3. Design a four-stage model for worldview change: When learning in ill-structured domains, it is essential to undergo a process of worldview change. This can be achieved by creating situations that highlight the limitations of a reductive worldview, demonstrating the maladaptive nature of certain metaphors or frameworks, introducing the adaptive worldview, and providing activities for mastery. By actively engaging in this process, you can cultivate a more flexible and adaptable mindset.


Cognitive Flexibility Theory offers valuable insights into how experts navigate ill-structured domains and learn from experience. By understanding the importance of cases, the limitations of first principles thinking, and the power of note-taking as a tool for accelerated expertise, you can enhance your learning and problem-solving abilities. Embrace the ideas and actionable advice presented by CFT to become a more agile and knowledgeable expert in your chosen field.

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