Zettelkasten for Students – A Complete Guide


Zettelkasten is a technique of note-taking, documenting research, studying, and in general, managing your knowledge. The method aims to make it simple for anyone to learn or remember things. 

Zettelkasten is a German word that translates to ‘slip box.’ Zettelkasten means a box of slips where:

  • Each slip is an idea that makes sense by itself
  • It can be combined with other slips or ideas in the box. 

So if you’re a student who wants to study or prep for their exams or do extensive research on complex topics, this is the personal tool for you! We’ll show you how you can use Zettelkasten in different scenarios with a few simple examples.

Before we get started with the tutorial, if you are looking to learn more about apps like Notion, Todoist, Evernote, Google Docs, or just how to be more productive (like Keep Productive’s awesome Notion course), you should really check out SkillShare. Skillshare is an online learning platform with courses on pretty much anything you want to learn. To learn more about Skillshare and its vast library of courses and get 30% off, click the link below:

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Other Zettelkasten Resources

ArticleLink
How to Use the Zettelkasten SystemLink
How to Use Zettelkasten as a Programmer or DeveloperLink
Zettelkasten vs GTDLink
Zettelkasten Articles and Tutorials

Let’s jump in!

How To Use Zettelkasten For Studying?

For you to be able to use Zettelkasten, you need to keep only two rules in mind.

  1. Atomicity: Anything you write – an idea or a thought, must make sense by itself.
  2. Provide two-way links wherever the idea pops up in your subsequent idea. 

index cards are great to use for Zettelkasten
index cards are great to use for Zettelkasten

Example 1: Using Zettelkasten for History

Let’s say you’re reading a history chapter and trying to remember the dates and the events. So instead of trying to learn everything linearly, do the following:

– Split the chapter into events. Each event now becomes a unique idea. 

– Wherever one idea is mentioned in the other, link the two ideas together.

You can either use papers/cards or online tools to do this. Since it’s a small chapter, cards are fine. But for more extensive projects and research, online tools are better.

So by the time you are done, you form this mesh of different events, and you can easily connect one with the other. This way, you can remember the information for extended periods. 

Example 2: Using Zettelkasten for Literature

In this case, let’s take the example of a novel. You’re trying to perform character studies on the different characters present in the story. The way their storylines progress and how they develop as people. All you have to do is make each event a unique idea and link it to the characters involved in that event. In turn, link the characters with the events they were a part of as well.

It might be intimidating, but give this technique a shot because it provides clarity, and the moment you have more clarity, you’ll be able to remember things much more easily.

How To Use Zettelkasten For Note-taking?

For taking notes using the Zettelkasten method, the format is pretty similar, with an addition of two steps:

  1. Always have a pen and paper or your online tools by your side while reading something. 
  2. Then, at any point, if you encounter information that you don’t want to forget, write that down in your own words in the briefest way possible. These are known as fleeting notes.

While reading, make notes that are essentially a combination of the information and what your argumentsthoughts, or doubts about that piece of information are. These are known as permanent notes. 

Once you read something: an online article or a book, write the reference details, such as:

  • the link or name of the book
  • a brief snippet of what it’s about. 

These are known as index notes. 

It would be best if you also went back to your fleeting notes to see which information you really want to keep. Then, pick those notes and elaborate on them by adding all the important information you got from the source. These are known as literature notes.

Linking all these notes together might seem like a challenging process, but it isn’t. Every time a term, jargon, or author name appears on one note, you link it to another note that defines it or talks about that in detail. 

This way, all your permanent notes will be related to other permanent notes while also being connected to your index notes and fleeting notes

Once this entire knowledge web is formed, your notes make coherent sense to you. So no matter what the task at hand is, you can quickly finish it without wasting too much time. 

Other Examples of Using Zettelkasten as a Student

A few places where Zettelkasten can be used for your studies are:

  • Researching a topic to write a thesis
  • Researching an article

How To Use Zettelkasten For Creative Writing

Zettelkasten is great for creative writing
Zettelkasten is great for creative writing

For creative writing, you might be writing a short story or even a novel. You can use the Zettelkasten method for the following parts of the story:

  • Characters
  • Settings/Events
  • Story direction

You can build individual character cards with their traits and personalities. After this, you can explore the different ways in which these characters can have their first interaction. Each of those events could be a unique card/slip. 

Once you’ve penned these down and created a mesh with all the characters and their first interactions, you can look at what works, what doesn’t and then eliminate the unnecessary

With the remaining cards, you can start building multiple storylines for each character and write subsequent events based on how you want the characters to develop. Then, repeat the process of filtering out the unnecessary. When you have a solid storyline and event that you know will be part of your writing, link it with the characters

This way, at every stage, you have a complete view of what’s going on, and at the same time, you can decide how you want the next part of the work to be developed.

How To Use Zettelkasten For Math

In mathematics and physics-related subjects, there is the usage of formulas and algorithms. However, if you’re into math, you’ll know that each of these formulas or algorithms has specific logic behind them. So Zettelkasten can link the different formula and algorithm usages with their logic and vice versa.

For instance, if you’re solving a problem that contains different kinds of formulas, each of those can be linked to the appropriate logic. That way, at any point in evaluating the formula or algorithm, you’re not lost as to how the formula was applied. 

For example, in problems that involve both integration and derivation, whatever rules you apply can link to their individual definitions and context as to why those rules are applied.

Best Applications to Help Students Use Zettelkasten

There are various software tools out there to help you implement the Zettelkasten method. The best applications for implementing Zettelkasten are:

  • Obsidian
  • Notion
  • Roam Research
  • Zettlr
TutorialLink to Tutorial
The Beginner’s Guide to ObisidianLink
Beginner’s Guide to NotionLink
Beginner’s Guides to Zettelkasten-friendly applications

Except for Roam Research, the other tools are available for free. However, Roam gives you a free trial so that you can explore and find out if it’s suitable for you. 

So if you’ve got exams coming up or you’re working on your next project/thesis, use the Zettelkasten technique, and you’ll be able to complete your work in a much more efficient manner. 

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