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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!

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on March 31, 2020

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why We Procrastinate After All?

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    Is Procrastination Bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How Bad Procrastination Can Be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    Procrastination, a Technical Failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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