Study Hacks Blog Posts on Tips: Organization

The Unsinkable Student Organization System

August 25th, 2009 · 27 comments

Back to BasicsFiling

As the back to school season transitions from looming to present, it’s time I turned our attention back to the technical details of becoming an outstanding student. In this post, I want to tackle a topic that’s relevant on the very first day of your new semester: staying organized.

Here’s the thing about student organization: what seems like a smart, comprehensive system to today you, will be later seen as a terrible prison that blackens your heart and steals your freedom by the future you mired in the middle of the semester. As you might have guessed, this future you will abandon your smart system and fall back into unorganized chaos.

I want to help you avoid this fate.

Below I describe a dead simple student organization system. It’s a collection of the three basic rules that I’ve used for the past nine years to keep on top of the information in my student life.

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Monday Master Class: How to Build a Knowledge Vault and Avoid Wasting an Entire Semester’s Worth of Work

May 19th, 2008 · 23 comments

If a Course Ends in the Forest, and No One is Around to Remember it…Vault

Across the country, college semesters are winding down. Final exams: over. That massive research paper: handed in to your professor and exiled from your nightmares. In your near future: blissful, relaxing nothingness.

But something doesn’t feel quite right…

You just dedicated five hard months of mind-melting concentration to conquer a full course load of difficult subjects. If you’re like me, you are probably already feeling that hard-fought knowledge starting to slip away. By June you’ll have a hard time even remembering their names. All the work will go to waste. And this just seems like a shame.

In this academic year-end post, I want to offer up a simple system that helps make sure that you get some lasting value out of your courses.

The Knowledge Vault

The basic idea: During the first week after your courses end — that is, before you start forgetting everything — enter the most important ideas, insights, and resources into a long-term system that you can later easily reference. I call such a system: a knowledge vault. There are an infinite number of possible variations for constructing such a vault; here, I describe just one to get you thinking.

What to Track in the Knowledge Vault

You generate hundreds of pages of notes and papers and readings during a typical course: way too much material to be usefully stored and looked up again later. So how do you pare this pile down to the most important nuggets? Focus on the following:

  1. People. What important figures did you come across in the course? This could include, for example, important political figures from a history class or an influential philosopher from a philosophy class. You will want to capture in your system, for each such important person, 2 -4 sentences that captures who they are and what — at a very high level — they did or thought.
  2. Ideas. What were the major ideas that popped again and again in your class? Did a certain Marxist framework, for example, keeping slipping into your anthropology lectures? What are the major points describing the idea? Again, 2 -4 sentences.
  3. Books. Did any books (or articles) prove particularly influential to you? If so, title, author, and a — surprise! — 2 – 4 sentence description will work wonders.

(For the sake of simplicity, I will use the generic term “info-nugget” or just “nugget” to refer to each individual person, idea, or book that you want to store.)

How to Store the Knowledge Vault Information

Each class will generate its own collection of info-nuggets. The obvious question is how to best store these data. Numerous formats will work. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Index Cards. For the old-fashioned at heart: buy three plastic index card storage boxes, one each for people, ideas, and books. Store one info-nugget per card. Record at the top: the nugget’s title, the course number, and the semester you took it. The description goes below. Looking up info is as simple as flipping though a box full of cards.
  2. PBWiki. For the less old-fashioned, use a free wiki service like PBwiki. True to its name, it makes setting up a private wiki as easy as constructing a PB&J sandwich. You can construct a separate page for each of the three main categories. Within each category you can create sub-categories if you feel like getting advanced with your organization. Bonus points: share the wiki with several classmates and have them add their own info-nuggets, creating a truly massive collection of knowledge.
  3. Database. The most tech-savvy might consider building a custom database. Each row can store, in addition to the description itself: type of entry (person, idea, or book), title of entry, course number, course date, and, perhaps, some extra descriptive tags. You can then pass the database advanced queries to sort out exactly what you are looking for (e.g., show me people or books from classes taken in the year 2007 that involved science.) Free web services like Zoho make the construction of such databases easier than you might suspect.
  4. Gmail. The poor man’s database. (Or should it be the “especially clever man’s database”?) Construct a separate label for each of the three nugget categories. To add an entry, e-mail yourself a message with the nugget title in the message subject. In the body of the e-mail, include the course number and course date as usual. Once received, label the message with the appropriate label and archive it. Later, to search through your nuggets, type “l:<relevant-label-name> <various search terms>” into the search bar, and then let Google work its magic.
  5. [Update at 5:51 PM] Two readers wrote in to suggest two additional storage apps that have worked well for them. These were: Evernote and Google Notebook. I don’t have direct experience with either, but they both come highly recommended by these students.

The Advantages of a Knowledge Vault

There are several advantages to maintaining a knowledge vault through your college career. The first is short term. As David Masters discussed in a recent interview, the most engaged students are constantly integrating material between courses. You’d be surprised how often, when working on a paper in one class, you’ll discover that some person, idea, or book from a previous class will provide a whole new insight. It saves time and makes you look exceptionally smart.

Another advantage is long-term. The vault helps you stay in touch with what you learned in college. When someone mentions a name that sounds familiar, you can quickly determine what you know about that person. When struggling to figure out a complicated problem in your life, you can turn back to the big ideas from your college career to see if any might prove useful. Similarly, providing book recommendations becomes a snap when you have a list of the most interesting books that you have read.

A final, somewhat stealthy advantage, is that just taking an hour or two to record, with just a few sentences the most important information from your courses, does wonders for cementing this information in your mind — even if you never explicitly seek it in your vault down the road.

(The alert reader might have noticed that maintaining the vault during the semester might aid exam review and paper prep. I agree with the alert reader. Keep this in mind as a new term dawns.)

In Conclusion

This might not be for everybody. It’s extra work and doesn’t necessarily provide immediate tangible benefits. But if you do try this technique, in the long run, you’ll be happy to have captured the benefits of all those hours of hard thinking. In other words: you’ll get your money’s worth from your education.

Monday Master Class: The Wonders of Bare Naked Filing

April 14th, 2008 · 24 comments

FilingFiling Sucks

To the novice undergraduate, the need for a filing system reeks of overkill. “I’m a student, not a business executive,” smugly chirps the oddly matter-of-fact hypothetical freshman I’m currently imagining. “Folders suck ass!”

Oh, poor, naive, hypothetical freshman. How little you understand. Every class is going to give you paper to handle — lots of it. You are going to print hundreds of pages of readings. You will have syllabi and notes and articles you xeroxed and study guides. They are all important. They all need to be saved and accessed later.

You will constantly find yourself in situations in which you are late to class and desperate to find that one crucial handout that you absolutely need but know you will never find amidst the post-apocalyptic rubble that defines the area formerly known as your desk. Yes, my unnecessarily profane hypothetical friend, though folders may, indeed, “suck ass,” without some filing system you will face constant organzational headaches.

A Non-Sucky Solution to Your Filing Woes

In this post I describe a system I call bare naked filing. It is the absolute simplest possible way to keep track of paper. It requires minimal time. Almost no thinking. And is incredibly easy to maintain. It is what I use at MIT (after several failed attempts to make peace with labelled hanging folders) and it’s saved my ass numerous times. I swear by it.

Bare Naked Filing

The bare naked filing system works as follows:

  1. Buy a box of 100 plain manila file folders. Put it near your desk.
  2. When you come back from class with something important, jam it in a new folder and drop it on a pile.
  3. Bonus points for scribbling a name on the folder.

Assuming you were able to follow the intricacies of this scheme, let me add two super advanced tips:

  1. If you think an existing folder will work for a piece of paper, stick that paper in the existing folder.
  2. At the end of the term, dump out the folders, cross out the labels, and put them back in the box. You can now use them again during the next term.

That’s it. Though you’re free to customize. (Once, in a fit of organizational mania, I switched to using two piles. One for classes. One for other stuff. Those were heady times.)

The Magic of Nude Filing

Yes, it’s simple. But trust me, anything more complicated and you won’t make it past midterms without resorting to your somewhat less rigorous “toss randomly on floor” method. Every time I’m late to class and am able to just grab a folder from that pile near my desk, and know that it contains everything I need, I give thanks for the wonders of bare naked filing.

It’s so dumb that it actually works…