Despite the proliferation of laptops and netbooks, the vast majority of students still use their computers like $500 typewriters. Stop working so hard and start being a better student by leveraging computer-based tools to your advantage.
Photo by Brad K..
I always assumed that my students were using their computers to their full potential to help them with school, research, and such, but almost all of them were simply using their laptops as extremely expensive typewriters and instant-messaging terminals.
What good is all the computing power of the pre-1960s world sitting on your lap if you’re not using it to make life easier? The following is a guide for students everywhere that want spend less time on the tedious and more time on the things like study and research that actually produce results.
Never Do Anything Your Computer Can Do For You:
Never, ever, do something the hard way without checking to see if any easy way exists. Applications come in every shape and form to automate tasks on the computer. Never undertake a tedious task on your computer without first visiting a search engine and searching for a method of automating it. Whether you’re resizing photos for a class project, renaming files, or crunching numbers in a spreadsheet, check for the simple—and automatic!—way first. Photo by striatic.
With replacement you tell your computer to replace every instance of a string with another string—like notes1 becomes your favourite bullet-list format for taking notes or mymail becomes your full email address. Hot keys allow you to assign a phrase to a bit of shorthand plus a hotkey, for example I have a phrase that is XXX+TAB which is four key strokes but it types out a phrase that would require 53 keystrokes if I typed it manually.
If you’re on a PC you can try out our home-grown text replacement tool Texter, or other capable tools like Phrase Express. Mac users should check out TextExpander or become more familiar with the built in text-replacement tools in Snow Leopard., and Linux users can give AutoKey a whirl.
Regardless of what you’re trying to do you’ll almost always be able to find a tool online to automate or at least make that task easier. Get in the habit of always asking yourself, no matter what the task, “Could the computer do this faster and with less input from me?”. Over time you’ll build up a set of tools for quickly completing common tasks.
Take Better Notes:
Note taking is an art form and it is most definitely not simply writing down everything your professor says or that is in bold print in your textbook. How you take notes is a highly personal thing and heavily influenced by your learning style, but everyone can stand to improve their note taking with a tip or two. Photo by D’Arcy Norman.
Study Note-Taking Techniques: We’ve shared tips with you on how to take more effective notes and how to utilise different note-taking styles and you’ll find no shortage of resources elsewhere on the web for being a more effective note-taker. You can further hone your note-taking skills by researching subject-specific note taking techniques—how you take notes in Medieval Literature won’t be the same way you take notes in Organic Chemistry.
Ditch The Pen:
People who love to take handwritten notes love to take handwritten notes and we don’t expect to dissuade the everything-looks-better-on-Moleskin crowd from abandoning their pens. For the rest of you, taking paper notes is, quite literally, so last century. It’s 2010 and there is no reason for you not to have dynamic, media-rich, cross-indexed, and always available notes. At the end of the semester do you really want to pick through a hundred pages of hand written notes looking for information? No, you don’t. You want to be able to search through your notes quickly and efficiently the same way you use major search engines like Google.
Two extremely popular note-taking tools are Microsoft OneNote and Evernote. The awesome features of the two applications are beyond the scope of a paragraph but suffice to say they both have excellent systems for searching (with handwriting recognition!), organising, and accessing your notes—I use OneNote for everything from graduate school to teaching to writing for Lifehacker. You can check out our overview of OneNote here.
Use The Computer To Network:
Share Your Notes:The first objection I usually hear to the idea of sharing notes is that people don’t want to share their hard work and they don’t think that other people should benefit from it. Fair enough, how you deal with who participates in your class-centered groups and note sharing sessions is your business but as an instructor I can tell you this: the kind of person who doesn’t bother to take their own notes isn’t exactly the kind of person you’re going to have to fight for the top grade in the class.
You can share notes and collaborate in quite a few ways but it would help your cause to stick with methods that have a low barrier to entry—most people don’t want to sign up for a bunch of services just for a class. Google Notebook and Documents are great tools since having a Gmail account is nearly universal. You could also set up your own wiki with free tools like Luminotes or customise MediaWiki into your own personal collaboration server.
Build A Contact Web: Whether it’s a group on Facebook, an email list, or a list of phone numbers for text messaging, it’s wise to create a way you can quickly communicate with other students. Many times you have a question about an assignment, something that happened in class, or what you missed when you were absent and sending out an email to your fellow students will result in a faster response than waiting to hear back from the professor. It also helps you build of a contact list of your peers—not as important in Psychology 100, but by the time you’re in at the end of your schooling you’ll be taking more focused classes and meeting people in your career path you’ll want to stay in contact with.
Backup, Backup, Backup:
Dropbox: It’s free, the basic account can more than hold a semester’s worth of work—short of a film school project—and it syncs to all your computers and to the web. “I accidentally deleted my homework” wasn’t a very good excuse ten years ago and it’s an unforgivable one now. You can sync your passwords, your OneNote notebooks, and access your favourite portable apps from anywhere.
Online Backup: While Dropbox is great for syncing files, if you want to go all out you’ll definitely want to check out some full-fledged computer backup tools like Mozy and Carbonite. Check out our Hive Five on best Windows backup tools to get more information.
Have a tool you use to enhance your note-taking, studying, or school experience? Can’t believe we overlooked your favourite technique? Let’s hear about it in the comments below.