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Advice for Students: Use a Wiki for Better Note-Taking

Advice for Students: Use a Wiki for Better Note-Taking
Use a Wiki for Better Note-Taking

    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:

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    • 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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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!

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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