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Use Better Tools to Be a Better Student in 2010 [Students]

Despite the proliferation of laptops and netbooks, the vast majority of students still use their computers like $500 typewriters. Stop working so hard and be a better student by leveraging some clever computer tools to your advantage.

Photo by Brad K..

Every semester I get a new wave of college freshman into my classroom, most of them armed with laptops. For the last several semesters, I have been informally tracking how they use their computers. I always assumed that my students were using their computers to their full potential to help them with school, research, and such, but almost all of them were simply using their laptops as extremely expensive typewriters and instant-messaging terminals.

What good is all the computing power of the pre-1960s world sitting on your lap if you’re not using it to make college life easier? The following is a guide for students everywhere that want to spend less time on the tedious stuff, and more time on the things like study and research that actually produce results.

Never Do Anything Yourself That Your Computer Can Do For You

Never, ever, do something the hard way without checking to see if any easy way exists. Applications come in every shape and form to automate tasks on the computer. Never undertake a tedious task on your computer without first visiting a search engine and searching for a method of automating it. Whether you're resizing photos for a class project, renaming files, or crunching numbers in a spreadsheet, check for the simple—and automatic!—way first. Photo by striatic.

File Renamers: Renaming tons of files has to be one of the most boring and grinding tasks you can undertake. Never waste time renaming files. If you’re on a PC, check out the powerful Bulk Rename Utility for a dashboard of options and the less-overwhelming but still effective Ken Rename. If you’re on a Mac, you can download specialty apps like File List, but it pays to become acquainted with Automator, which can do so much more than simple file renaming.

Text Replacement: Unless you’re writing the next great American novel, chances are you type a fair number of things with a high degree of frequency. Your email address, common phrases you use, formatting you find yourself typing over and over again when working on papers or taking notes, and so on, it might not seem like much but you can easily save hours over the course of a semester by using text replacement. How does text replacement work? Each text replacement tool handles things a little bit differently, but nearly all of them have two basic methods: instant replacement and hot keys.

With replacement, you tell your computer to replace every instance of a string with another string—like notes1 becomes your favorite bullet-list format for taking notes, or mymail becomes your full email address.

Hot keys allow you to assign a phrase to a bit of shorthand plus a hotkey. For example, I have a phrase that is XXX+TAB. Typing it takes only four key strokes but it types out a phrase that would require 53 keystrokes if I typed it manually.

If you’re on a PC, you can try out our home-grown text replacement tool Texter, or other capable tools like Phrase Express. Mac users should check out TextExpander or become more familiar with the built in text-replacement tools in Snow Leopard, and Linux users can give AutoKey a whirl.

Regardless of what you’re trying to do, you’ll almost always be able to find a tool online to automate or at least make that task easier. Get in the habit of always asking yourself, no matter what the task, “Could the computer do this faster and with less input from me?”. Over time you’ll build up a set of tools for quickly completing common tasks.

Keyboard shortcuts

Learn the keyboard shortcuts for everything: your word processor, your note-taking tools, your email client. Slinging the mouse around for tasks that can be accomplished with a keystroke or two is a really inefficient way to work, and far less comfortable. If you’re furiously taking down notes in class do you really want to break your stride to dig around in the toolbar or menus for something like a bullet point activation? You can find shortcut lists for every operating system and application under the sun; hit up Google with a search query like “myapplication shortcut list” to find more shortcuts than you knew existed. Photo by John A. Ward.

Take Better Notes

Note taking is an art form, and it is most definitely not simply writing down everything your professor says or that is in bold print in your textbook. How you take notes is a highly personal thing and heavily influenced by your learning style, but everyone can stand to improve their note taking with a tip or two. Photo by D’Arcy Norman.

Study Note-Taking Techniques: We’ve shared tips with you on how to take more effective notes and how to utilize different note-taking styles and you’ll find no shortage of resources elsewhere on the web for being a more effective note-taker. You can further hone your note-taking skills by researching subject-specific note taking techniques—how you take notes in Medieval Literature won't be the same way you take notes in Organic Chemistry.

Ditch the Pen:

People who love to take handwritten notes love to take handwritten notes, and we don’t expect to dissuade the everything-looks-better-on-a-Moleskin crowd from abandoning their pens. For the rest of you, taking paper notes is, quite literally, so last century. It’s 2010, and there is no reason for you not to have dynamic, media-rich, cross-indexed, and always available notes. At the end of the semester, do you really want to pick through a hundred pages of hand written notes looking for specific bits of information? No, you don’t. You want to be able to search through your notes quickly and efficiently the same way you use major search engines like Google.

Two extremely popular note-taking tools are Microsoft OneNote and Evernote—so popular, in fact, we faced them off in a reader poll last year. The awesome features of the two applications are beyond the scope of a paragraph, but suffice to say they both have excellent systems for searching (with handwriting recognition!), organizing, and accessing your notes—I use OneNote for everything from graduate school to teaching to writing for Lifehacker. You can check out our overview of OneNote here and Evernote here.

Use the Computer to Network

We’re not talking about Facebook-ing everyone in your class. We’re talking about actively using online study and collaboration tools to interact with your classmates. Sharing notes, discussing assignments and class topics, and collaborating on group projects are but a few of the ways you can take advantage of the hyper-connectivity the information age has brought about. Photo by krossbow.

Share Your Notes:The first objection I usually hear to the idea of sharing notes is that people don’t want to share their hard work and they don’t think that other people should benefit from it. Fair enough, how you deal with who participates in your class-centered groups and note sharing sessions is your business but as an instructor I can tell you this: the kind of person who doesn’t bother to take their own notes isn’t exactly the kind of person you’re going to have to fight for the top grade in the class.

You can share notes and collaborate in quite a few ways but it would help your cause to stick with methods that have a low barrier to entry—most people don't want to sign up for a bunch of services just for a class. Google Notebook and Documents are great tools since having a Gmail account is nearly universal. You could also set up your own wiki with free tools like Luminotes or customize MediaWiki into your own personal collaboration server.

Build a Contact Web: Whether it's a group on Facebook, an email list, or a list of phone numbers for text messaging, it's wise to create a way you can quickly communicate with other students. Many times you have a question about an assignment, something that happened in class, or what you missed when you were absent and sending out an email to your fellow students will result in a faster response than waiting to hear back from the professor. It also helps you build a contact list of your peers—not as important in a freshman Psychology 110 course, but by the time you're in at the end of your schooling you'll be taking more focused classes and meeting people in your career path you'll want to stay in contact with.

Backup, Backup, Backup

You have no excuse for not backing up your data—none. The number and methods for backing up data, especially the small volume that constitutes text-based research and class notes, are so numerous that there simply is no excuse for doing something foolish like keeping all your hard work on a single hard disk or flash drive. Photo by Jeff Wilcox.

Dropbox: It's free, the basic account can more than hold a semester's worth of work—short of a film school project—and it syncs to all your computers and to the web. "I accidentally deleted my homework" wasn't a very good excuse ten years ago and it's an unforgivable one now. You can sync your passwords, your OneNote notebooks, and access your favorite portable apps from anywhere.

Online Backup: While Dropbox is great for syncing files, if you want to go all out you’ll definitely want to check out some full-fledged computer backup tools like Mozy and Carbonite. Check out our Hive Five on best Windows backup tools to get more information.

Have a tool you use to enhance your note-taking, studying, or school experience? Can’t believe we overlooked your favorite technique? Let’s hear about it in the comments below.

Set an Effective Out-of-Office Message to Reduce Workload [Communication]

It’s easy to leave a short and ineffective out-of-office message, especially when you’re leaving it on the eve of a vacation or a conference you’re excited to attend. Doing so however, just ensures more work upon your return.

Photo by makelessnoise.

Over at Ian’s Messy Desk, Ian outlines how to create a good out-of-office message. First, what does a terrible out-of-office message sound like? At the worst end of things the message simply tells the caller that you’re not there which gives them nothing to work with except that you’re unavailable to help them or answer their questions. Ian suggests including:

1. Dates of your absence. Let the contact know when you are out of the office. It helps them decide what their next step is going to be; whether to wait for your return or to direct their request elsewhere.
2. Reason for absence. I like to let my contacts know whether I am on a business trip or vacation. A business trip means I am connected to the office in some way and might be able to respond to a message. If I’m on vacation, I’m out of contact range.
3. Who to contact in your absence. I try and leave contact information for alternate contacts when I am out of the office; a minimum of one up to as many as are needed.

The emphasis on the last entry is ours. Most of the phone calls you receive while you’re out of the office will be for matters that will need to be resolved while you are gone; if you leave proper contact information for the people who would most likely be able to resolve issues that crop up while you’re gone, you’re all the more likely to return to the office with those things done and taken care of. Leaving an ineffective message creates a mountain of work for you to wade through when you return.

For more tips on leaving an effective message check out the full article at the link below. Have a tip or trick for leaving a good out-of-office message or any other aspect of preparing to be away from work? Let’s hear about it in the comments.

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