Useful study tools: Part 1 — Zotero

Around col­lege it is cur­rent­ly essay time, with every­one seem­ing­ly busy research­ing and writ­ing, and gen­er­al­ly scur­ry­ing about in a height­ened state of anx­i­ety with the upcom­ing assess­ment. So in this cur­rent busy­ness with essays due in the next week I fig­ure the best thing to do is some Pro-cras­ti­na­tion1

Ive recent­ly been asked by a few peo­ple how I do my research (accord­ing to Gill appar­ent­ly I appear to do noth­ing and yet gen­er­ate results), and as such I am using this peri­od of pro-cras­ti­na­tion to write a series of posts on how I “do” study. It has also been informed and moti­vat­ed by a Studying Productivity post that a friend of mine wrote back in 2009 over on Goannatree.

But first some back­ground is prob­a­bly in order, first­ly and prob­a­bly most per­ti­nent I have been study­ing pret­ty much con­stant­ly for the last 14ish years. This isnt to say that I havn’t ever worked, but more that my work usu­al­ly revolved around study, and my last role as a research fel­low at Adelaide University is prob­a­bly typ­i­cal of this.
Add this to nev­er real­ly leav­ing uni­ver­si­ty in one way or anoth­er dur­ing that peri­od and I have had to pro­duce at least mediocre study rou­tines and meth­ods.

The next tid­bit of infor­ma­tion, which is prob­a­bly more telling than the first, is that I like to be fair­ly busy, and spend a rea­son­able amount of time jug­gling var­i­ous dif­fer­ent tasks, which means that at any giv­en time I’m also rea­son­ably dis­tractable by oth­er things going on, espe­cial­ly those that have rel­e­vance to any­thing else I’m inter­est­ed in.

Between those two aspects I have had to form a study­ing style and method­ol­o­gy that suits my per­son­al­i­ty and work­ing pat­terns. One impor­tant aspect of this is how I gath­er infor­ma­tion togeth­er and keep it col­lat­ed.

Over the years I have used var­i­ous dif­fer­ent solu­tions for doing this, all of which were suc­cess­ful to some degree or anoth­er. Firstly I start­ed back in the dim dark ages car­ry­ing around my 3.5″ flop­py disk with the var­i­ous files that I need­ed scat­tered all over it, but this, and the var­i­ous oth­er forms of lim­it­ed phys­i­cal media were nev­er par­tic­u­lar­ly robust.
After a while I moved to cen­tralised note tak­ing using OneNote, and then Evernote, but this was cum­ber­some to extract infor­ma­tion out of arti­cles and then to file it away with the var­i­ous hard copies of the infor­ma­tion that I required.
Next in the illog­i­cal line­up came the reams of sta­pled paper (yeah, you would think I would have start­ed here would­nt you…) and the asso­ci­at­ed scrawled notes all over the mar­gins, and copi­ous high­light­ing. But this has its asso­ci­at­ed prob­lems, pri­mar­i­ly being able to find infor­ma­tion if you need it, and sec­ondary (but prob­a­bly more com­mon) the fact that it rapid­ly soaks up spilled cof­fee and ren­ders the orig­i­nal doc­u­ment illeg­i­ble.

While this study­ing method­ol­o­gy did have its uses while I was doing the sec­tion on Rorschach ink blots dur­ing my Psychology degree it quick­ly ran out of favour in the rest of my days.

Then came along the acces­si­bil­i­ty of good qual­i­ty doc­u­ment scan­ning, decent res­o­lu­tion mon­i­tors, native­ly char­ac­ter embed­ded PDFs (rather than mere­ly images), and final­ly the won­der that we have now in tablet devices.
Undoubtedly the biggest change to my edu­ca­tion­al process has been try­ing to rid myself of the paper trail, and the capac­i­ty of my iPad (yes, Apple, but Android tablets are almost as usable), means I can car­ry an entire ref­er­ence set around with me. So here is the solu­tion to my piles of notes, and scrib­bled mar­gins, and spilling cof­fee on my desk. Ok well maybe it does­nt negate the last item, but it goes pret­ty close.