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,, 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 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 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!

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No


    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.


    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.


    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.


    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via


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