Category Archives: Study Skills

Using a Wiki to organise your notes

There’s a recent post up at Cal Newport’s blog that’s very interesting. He discusses the study strategy of a man known only as Ricardo. His method is to using a wiki app installed on his iphone to type his notes onto. He then whips out his iPhone whenever he’s got a spare 10-15 minutes, and goes over the notes. The idea is that over long periods of time, these tiny chunks add up to a lot of study without any additional inconvenience.

I used to do a similar thing with software that converted text files into audio. I would copy and paste journal papers into textpad, convert them to mp3, and listen to them as I travelled around. At one point I had a job which basically entailed walking around London (distributing flyers), and I essentially got paid to listen to papers and my notes. It sounded robotic but you could understand it.

But using a wiki on-the-go is an excellent idea. If I had an iphone I would do it. However, I do use one for ordinary sitting-at-a-desk type studying. The one I use is called ZuluPad, and I’ve found it to be a really useful tool.

ZuluPad has two features – writing text, and adding pages. That’s it. When you add a new page to the wiki, you give it a name. Anywhere else that that name appears in the wiki is automatically transformed into a link leading to that page. So, say a few weeks ago I write a page with notes on intrinsic motivation. If today I’m writing notes on the effects of meditation, and I put down some comments about how it links in with intrinsic motivation, I instantly get a link back to my notes on that.

Compare this to the analogue paper and pen system. If I want to look up related notes in folders or notepads, I can index the notes as well as I want but it still requires getting the right folder or notebook out, going to the contents, checking the page number, flicking to the page. With ZuluPad, I don’t have to do anything I wouldn’t already do. I’m a big fan of simple programs that have zero learning curve, and ZuluPad is exactly that. Oh, and it’s completely free too.

So give it a go for a while, see if you find it useful. By the way, I highly recommend Cal’s blog too – go and subscribe to it if you haven’t already. You won’t regret it.

Note: I’m going to add study tips to the blog more regularly now. My aim is to put a post up every Sunday, though I’m not promising I won’t miss one here and there.

How to find elusive papers and books

You may be familiar with this scenario. You’re doing an essay, or revising for an exam, and there’s one annoying paper or book that you just can’t seem to find. Before you shell out for a full price book or a pdf paper (pdfs can cost $20 each!), there are a few tricks that improve your chances of finding the elusive literature. Follow the steps below in the given order. They rarely fail. In fact I can think of only one time that I’ve had to buy a paper online, and even that was some rare FBI report on serial killers.

Finding elusive journal papers

1) Online Databases

Start by searching the online databases you have access to through your university. If you have an ATHENS account, EBSCO is where you can find PsycINFO and PsycARTICLES. Check your universities intranet portal, if they have a useful papers section or something similar. Also register at Science Direct and check there. These should be your first ports of call.

2) Google Scholar

Search Google Scholar. Search for the full title of the paper first, and if that doesn’t work, just search for a snip of it that has no question marks or colons in it. Sometimes searching for the full title doesn’t bring up a paper that’s actually there, for some odd reason.

3) Normal Google

Search for the title of the paper in normal Google. Sometimes this will bring up a page hosting the paper, or the author’s personal website.

4) Authors’ websites

Google the names of each of the researchers in the paper. Check all their personal websites, just in case the Google search didn’t pick them up for some reason. If none of the authors have the paper available for download (sometimes, annoyingly, they just have a list of papers without download links), email the first author and ask if they have a pdf they could send you. Say your doing an essay and really need the paper for your assignment. Don’t write a seven page explanation of why you want it, and don’t be surprised if you get a reply with no content, just the paper as an attachment. They are not being rude, they just get about a million emails a day. The times I’ve had to do this I’ve always gotten prompt replies. If the first author can’t or won’t send you a copy, email the second author, and so on.

5) Fellow students

Email/ask your fellow students who are doing the same assignment if they have it. Ask the lecturer who is giving the class if they have it.

6) Hard copies

Check your universities holdings to see if they have a paper version of it. This is unlikely if it doesn’t show up in the online searches, but possible.

7) Other universities

Check other universities. Search their online catalogues first, to see if they have the journal you want. Obviously start with the closest one and move outwards. I don’t know about the US, but here in the UK there are schemes to allow you to access other libraries and get books out (SCONUL), and most will also allow you to join as a guest for the day (sometimes for a price).

Finding elusive books

1) University library

Obviously, start with your university library.

2) Google Books

Search Google Books for it. If it’s on there, you are able to search inside the book, and you get a few preview pages. By using relevant search keywords, you can often bring up the few pages of the book that you need, get the info you want, and copy and paste a quote if necessary. Amazon‘s ‘Search Inside’ feature serves a similar purpose.

3) Bookstores

If you don’t need to read a whole book, go to a bookstore that will have it. At this point you’ll have to use some stealthy method to extract the information you want. If your phone has a good camera, you can photograph the pages, else you can copy out the quote you need into a text message and save it into your drafts. At the very least, you can read the section you want.

4) Amazon/Ebay

Check Amazon and Ebay. Can you get a used copy for just a few quid? If so, consider buying a copy. It might cost you the same as it would to travel to another university, so this is worth checking first. I once got a copy of Dan Dennett’s Elbow Room for less than £2. If you won’t need the book after the assignment, donate it to your university library when you’re done (do this whenever you have psychology books you no longer need – you will feel good inside, and the library staff will look kindly upon you, which is always useful).

5) Other universities

Check other universities’ libraries. As with journal papers, check the online catalogue before making the trip!

6) Local libraries

Look in large local libraries. This is a long-shot if the above methods haven’t worked, but if it’s a large one like the British Library, there’s a chance.

These should do the trick. If you get an electronic version of a paper, make sure you keep it! Then if you need it again you won’t have to go through this whole process again. Make a folder called ‘Journal Papers’ and inside that have a folder for each particular field. Another big time saver is to write your references in a text file as you go along. With text edit on the mac you can ‘paste and match style’ (command+alt+shift+v), so that it’s pasted in the same font and font size.

Also, you can google the name of the paper, not to find the paper itself but to find one in which it has been cited in APA format. Then copy from their reference list, paste and match style into your file, et voila – a full reference list in proper APA format, all commas and dots in the right places. EBSCO has a ‘cite this paper’ button at the bottom of each page that you can use for the same purpose.

Is time management important for students?

In the first half of my degree, my focus was not entirely on my studies. I spent most of my time in bars and clubs, getting drunk and chasing girls. So naturally, I failed to complete a few essays here and there. In atonement for this, I had to do extra work over the summer break, including some rather humorous makeup assignments. One was a 600 word essay on “The importance of time management skills for students in higher education”; which appears to be the higher education equivalent of writing lines (I found this hilarious).

Anyway I came across this essay recently on my computer, and had a read through. It’s actually quite interesting, even if I do say so myself! The theme is university study, of course, but it should be pretty universal in terms of procrastination-related stress. Have a look.

fingers on keyboard

Students in higher education may have other activities and tasks to balance. In addition to academic responsibilities, there may also be paid or volunteer work, and other commitments to consider.

If these demands are not managed effectively, the result will be inadequate time to complete projects, missed deadlines and the quality of the work may also suffer as a result. Time management relates to techniques or methods of scheduling time, which result in the efficient organisation of outstanding tasks in order to meet deadlines.

“Procrastination is associated with increased susceptibility to cold and flu”

Time management strategies can begin with breaking the outstanding projects into smaller tasks. Each task is then listed in order of priority, giving a list of smaller goals in place of a large task. These goals are then given deadlines for them to be achieved by. The result of this will be a plan covering the entire process of completing the project. When this plan is complete, the tasks should be completed sequentially and without skipping or leaving tasks partially completed.

If time is not managed properly, it can become too simple to put off tasks and projects in favour of other activities; procrastination becomes most likely when there is the least time management.

A study conducted in 2002 by Sirois and Pychyl found that students who procrastinate on the completion of academic work are prone to unhealthy diet, sleep and exercise patterns, digestive ailments, and higher susceptibility to cold and flu. Additionally, the study also reports that students who procrastinate are less likely to seek medical treatment for health problems (Glenn, 2002).

Britton and Tesser completed a study in 1991 in which they intended to discover whether students who actively applied time management techniques in their education would achieve higher grades than those students who did not. Their results not only showed a relationship between effective time management and higher grades, but also other benefits.

They found that students who applied time management techniques were more likely to say ‘no’ to unprofitable activities, feel they are in control of their time, and set goals for longer time periods than students who do not (Britton and Tesser, 1991)

“Students who use more time management techniques tend to have higher GPA.”

Macan et al. Conducted a similar study, they created a questionnaire which had a list of time management techniques such as setting goals, to-do lists etc. This data was correlated with their grade point average, and a self-reported assessment of how well they believed their studies to be progressing. The results of the research indicated that the students who scored higher on the list of time management techniques, were more likely to have a higher perception of their performance as a student and also have a higher Grade Point Average.

The study also noted other benefits, participants perceiving themselves as having less ambiguity concerning their role, tension, were more satisfied with their lives and jobs where applicable (Macan et al. 1990). In cases where students do not apply any time management strategies, additional negative side effects can result. The quality of the work produced may suffer where less time is spent on it, and poor use of time is a major contributing factor to stress.

The capacity to manage time in an efficient way is a skill, which is not only applicable in an academic environment but also in future careers or situations after graduation. Time management is employed deliberately by managers in many fields, and learning this skill before employment is useful in complying with strategies in use in future workplaces and if in management careers themselves. As such time management skills give a legitimate advantage when seeking employment.

Unlike in studies, in these environments deadlines are often set daily and as such the environment is structured and suitable for time management methods. Students that can effectively manage time in a more unstructured environment will find time management much simpler in the workplace.


Britton and Tesser (1991) Effects of Time-Management Practices on College Grades. Journal of Educational Psychology. Vol. 83 (3) pp. 405-410

Glenn, D (2002) Procrastination in College Students Is a Marker for?Unhealthy Behaviors. Retrieved 12/01/06 from:

Macan et al (1990) College Students’ Time Management: Correlations With Academic Performance and Stress. Journal of Educational Psychology. Vol. 82 (4) pp. 760-768

Image Credit: StuartPilbrow

Where to find good information online

Are you sick of looking for information on a topic, but only finding the standard “Four Secrets Of….”, or “The Ten Best Ways To….” articles?  You know what I mean, they usually have about 3 sentences for each point, no depth, no meaningful commentary, just a few of the author’s unsubstantiated opinions puked onto a web page?  If you’re like me, you don’t just feel disappointed or let down, you feel…what’s the word?


“OK pal, great, you fooled me.  You got your God-damned page view.  Happy now?  Hmm?!”

I throw my keyboard across the room every time it happens.  Thrown that damn keyboard about 500 times now.

Don’t get me wrong.  Snippet articles can be good: they can be used as refreshers, the can have references and links to related good stuff.  They can even make good points by themselves.  But let’s be honest, maybe 75% of them are crap.

“Good information can be hard to find…”

This kind of comes with the internet.  Boundaries to publishing are lower, anyone can do it.  This gives us a huge knowledge base literally at our fingertips.  For example, my shower is quite weak, I wanted to know how to increase the pressure.  Ten years ago I’d have to ask around, maybe visit a DIY shop for answers.  Yesterday, I found out in about 11 seconds. 

But this has downsides.  Lowering entry requirements generally lowers quality.  Well, it lowers average quality; the good stuff is still there, it’s just harder to find.  For example, my shower is still weak.

As boundaries are lower only in cyberspace, some of the highest quality sources of information are outside of the web.  Books, journals, magazines.  College courses, university degrees.  Experts’ brains. 

If only there were some way to get this type of information onto the web, in an easily digestible format!  Of course, that’s the primary purpose of the site you’re reading now; but luckily I’m not the only one with this goal.  

In fact, there are sites which get information, often cutting-edge, up onto the web in the YouTube generation’s favourite format: video.  

People have been recording university lectures and posting them up for a while now, although I’ve only just become aware of this.  The sound quality of these videos range from absolutely crisp to barely coherent, but the content is usually going to be good stuff.  Plus, there are other clever sites with good information.

Here are the ones I’ve looked at so far:


TED is made of talks – up to 20 minutes long – given by experts in all kinds of fields, focused on Technology, Entertainment and Design.  See their about page for more details on why they do this.  

Really, really good site: short and digestible talks, good video and sound quality, and big name speakers.  If you haven’t seen it already, you’re in for a treat.  

Some of my favourites:

Vilayanur Ramachandran on Your Mind

Barry Schwartz on The Paradox of Choice

Martin Seligman on Positive Psychology

Richard Dawkins on Our Queer Universe


Academic Earth

Academic Earth‘s mission is to make a world-class education available to everyone with internet access, by getting courses and lectures from leading scholars up on their site and available for free.  You can browse by topic or by university, with the big names like Harvard, Princeton and MIT up there.  

There are 1500 videos up at the time I write this, although some subjects covered more comprehensively than others (psychology only has a few up, but they’re good introduction ones).   Many of the lectures are grouped into courses, and they are all downloadable.  Also, by registering, you can save your favourites for easy access next time.


Big Think

In Big Think you’ll find various experts giving their big thoughts on specific questions.  It’s not quite as in-depth as the sites above, from what I’ve seen so far, but still very interesting.  

Experts range through many fields, from academics, to celebrities, to journalists and so on.  Maybe you’d like to see Dan Dennett explain the mechanics of studying consciousness, or maybe you’d prefer Ricky Gervais’s take on animal rights instead.  Of course you can search by category or by expert, to find what you like.

I haven’t tried this, but you’re able to suggest questions for the experts, and new experts to ask the questions to by email.  There also appears to be a big community section to the site, which again I’m not really interested in, but you might be.

Good for getting some basic ideas or perspectives on different topics, and probably a better way to spend time than strange YouTube videos!


iTunes U

iTunes U is a section of iTunes, where you can get over 100,000 educational audio and video files, coming from universities, museums, and other institutions. 

Of course, you’ll need iTunes to access this, but even if you prefer to use some other media playing program, it’s worth getting iTunes just for this.  The information is all in the iTunes store – but don’t worry, it’s downloadable for free.  You can search by category or institution.  This is easily the largest resource of the four.  There really is a staggering amount of information on here.


That’s it!  If you’re like me you’ll like these sites.  You don’t get to ask questions or speak to the lecturer after the class, but you do get to rewind and fast-forward as you like.  I don’t watch TV (something I highly recommend), because I prefer to watch more constrictive things; these sites are one way to do this.  

All four are a great way to look for expert opinions on subjects for which there is little information on the web, or where the information is of lower quality than you might like.

Plus they’ve saved me a fortune on keyboards. 🙂