It’s back to school time, and it’s time to make good on the promises you made yourself last year to be more organized this time around! One of the stumbling blocks I see most often in my students is taking — and keeping — good notes for their classes. Ideally, you’d like to have notes on all your reading, as well as notes from lectures, and you’d like to have both available when you need the to study for an exam or write a paper.
Enter the wiki. While wikis are generally seen as part of the trendy “Web 2.0″ phenomenon, they are actually one of the older technologies on the Web. Named after a Hawaiian phrase meaning “quick”, wikis are easily-edited, automatically interlinked sets of documents. Pages can be created and edited on the fly, and most track changes and additions, allowing for effective collaboration between multiple writers.
Wikis have been especially popular with students, and a number of specialized wikis have been developed specifically with students’ needs in mind, including NoteMesh, stud.icio.us, and PBwiki. Wikis are a great way to keep, organize, and instantly access class notes and other school-related information. Wikis offer students:
- Legibility: No more squinting over class notes taken while half-asleep, bored stiff, or hung over!
- Durability: Wikis can be developed over the entire 4 (or 5, or 6, or…) years of a student’s education, allowing him or her to access notes taken years earlier if necessary.
- Searching: Wikis can be searched, in the page and across the entire collection of pages, allowing immediate access to their contents.
- Links: Students can link to other pages within their wikis as well as to other sites on the Web, bringing new bodies of information together in one place.
- Collaboration: Several people can collaborate on the same wiki, allowing you to benefit from the strengths of your classmates.
- Affordability: Wikis are still closely tied to the open-source movement, so many wiki programs and services are free.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of wikis out there — the wiki matrix lists dozens of wikis, all with a different approach to the basic problem of storing and editing information. I recommend the hosted services offered by PBWiki and WikiDot, both of which offer free, highly-configurable wiki sites oriented towards education. NoteMesh and stud.icio.us both offer good services, though they encompass much more than just note-taking. TiddlyWiki‘s all-in-one wiki is run from your local computer, and can be stored on and run from a thumb-drive, making it a good portable solution.
Using a wiki
Once your wiki is set up, you can begin to add your notes. Most wikis have an “edit page” button placed somewhere prominently on the page (a handful allow changes to be made directly to the page); click the button and a text box appears to make your changes in. Wikis use a special set of text cues called markup for formatting and manipulating text, though most also have a command bar at the top or bottom of the text box. Learn at least the basic markup syntax your choice uses — although this will likely slow you down at first, it will save a great deal of time in the long run.
For this article, I set up a wiki at dwax.wikidot.com and entered notes from a few of my class’s readings. Wikidot uses a simple markup syntax for formatting: putting text inside double slashes, like //this// makes the text italic; using double asterisks like **this** makes it bold. There’s also a toolbar above the text editing box in case you forget a command or prefer to click buttons instead of typing formatting symbols.
The real strength of wikis, though, is the ability to create links on the fly to other pages on the wiki. On Wikidot, you put the text you want to become a link in triple brackets, [[[like this]]]. If the text inside the brackets is the same as the title of a page already created, the new link will automatically link to that page. If not, clicking on the link will allow you to create a new page. So while you’re working, you can link to other pages, tying for instance theories and their creators in a science class, or dates and events in a history class.
In many wikis, pages can also be tagged with keywords describing the content, allowing you to quickly see related pages (and often to bring out otherwise hidden relationships between different readings). So, for instance, in my admittedly scanty sample wiki, I can call up all the pages tagged “race” — useful in my case for creating a syllabus.
Another very useful feature wikis offer is the ability to collaborate with others and to track changes and revert to earlier versions when needed. If you ever accidentally erase something you wrote or “miscorrect” an entry and later realize you were right the first time, you can easily find your earlier thoughts and restore deleted text. This is especially useful if you share a wiki among several other students — you can pool your collective wisdom, correcting others’ mistakes and counting on them to help catch yours.
Some suggestions for your wiki
The collaboration features of wikis make organizing study groups easy and very effective. Gather up a few students in your class and divide your topic up into pieces for each person. As you work, you can link to your co-students’ pages, and vice versa. As new material is covered, you can go back and edit each other’s pages or correct each other’s mistakes.
Whether you create your wiki with a group of on your own, the ability to link topics and ideas creates a very effective review tool. Before a test or while preparing a paper, browse through your wiki, following links from page to page to refresh your memory of how things fit together.
Wikis are also useful for making connections between topics in different classes. While this might not be relevant for every class you take, for classes in your major be especially diligent in creating links to existing pages. At the end of your studies, you will have a rich repository of ideas and work in your discipline to call on as a reference.
Wikis are incredibly flexible, and these are just a few ways to apply them to your studies. If you are already using wikis as a study tool, let us know your tips for getting the most out of them!