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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 July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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