The University 411: Flash Cards are for Everyone

The benefits of flash cards is that they’re versatile. You can make them out of everything from proper full-sized index cards, to apps (yes there are apps for this!), or even torn scraps of paper. I used to keep little sandwich bags full of torn up pieces of paper. They’re also convenient. They’re not the same weight as a heavy, lar textbook that you need to carry around everywhere. Which means you can slip them out while you’re waiting for class to start or on the bus.

The age old question ever since they decided to give people grades for their education: how best to study? There are of course countless ways to study for an exam situation and we’ll talk about one of them today: Flash Cards. Flash Cards are for EVERYONE, for any field of study, and for all ages.

But how best to use flash cards? There are multiple ways to go about this but first and foremost, don’t wait until the week before exams to prepare flash cards. For one, you’ll end up spending too much time on creation and not enough time actually using them. But also, as we talked about with note-taking, you want to review the information almost immediately after you learn it so that you can start processing that short-term memory into long-term memory. So if you’re re-writing your notes, you might want to consider creating flash cards at the same time or in lieu of re-writing in a notebook. Once you’ve done that, you should review your flashcards regularly, at least once a week. This means you’ve started studying as soon as semester starts and you’re not cramming in information right before the exam.

Whenever possible, your flash cards should have two sides: One side as a prompt – or word or a concept – and the other side with the related information. This way you can test yourself by reading the face card as a prompt and supplying the answer before your turn it over to check your response. Ideally, you should be able to use both sides as a prompt. For example, if you’re taking a language class, let’s say Spanish, and you’re making flashcards based on vocabulary. When you test yourself with your flashcards, can you look at the Spanish word and recognize the English translation? How about vice versa? Can you also look at the English word and supply the Spanish translation? If you’re unable to supply the answer using either side as a prompt, then you still haven’t mastered the concept.

When you’re reviewing your flashcards, divide them into two piles: cards that you know the answer to quickly and easily, and cards that you struggle with. This latter pile is the one you should focus on with *studying*. BUT don’t discard or ignore the cards from the first pile. Remember to review them occasionally to make sure you haven’t forgotten the information. If you have, move them back into your study pile. (If you’re using an app, find one that has a feature where you can decide to ignore or disable a flashcard temporarily.)

I’m of the opinion that flashcards can be used in every field and for any age group. They’re more likely used in fact-heavy fields, where you need to memorize information for multiple choice or fill in the blank like the bones of a body. But take a moment to consider what sort of test questions you will have and how you can utilise flashcards to help you. Things like conceptual knowledge and terminology (like what the heck is the difference between negative reinforcement and positive punishment? How do you conjugate a verb?). Maybe you need to remember equations and formulas. Or do you struggle remembering key names and dates? If so Maybe, think about what names and dates appear in your notes.Maybe you need to memorize the name of a painting plus the painter and date (put name of painting on one side, and date and painter on other). I always struggled with names; I still remember – 18 years later – writing a history exam with an essay response and completely forgetting the name of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. So I used a completely different first name EVERYTIME I wrote down Archduke, from Phillipe to Fitzgerald. Learning from that lesson, when I switched majors to literature, I made sure to study the names of all the characters in the novel or play.

While these examples focus more on short and simple facts, you can also use flash cards for big concepts. So you know the name of a painting and painter, but what next? What’s important about the painting? Or your on top of Spanish vocabulary but you’re still not sure how to conjugate a verb. Think about how to use flash cards irregardless of your field of study or type of exam questions. Even if you’re expected to answer essay questions think about what knowledge you need to memorize in order to get a good grade and turn that into a flash card to help you study. Think about this early, as you review your notes, so you can start creating and carrying around flash cards well in advance of your exam. You’ll thank yourself later when you’re not up all night desperately cramming.

The University 811: Using Outlines for Proposals and Redraftin

As I talked about in yesterday’s post, if you’re about to engage in a large project (such as a dissertation), outlines can be incredibly useful. You might already have an outline, although you might not consider it as one. If you’ve started thinking about your work in sections or chapters, you’ve technically started drafting an outline. The longer or bigger the project, the more outline drafts you will have, before you even start the project itself. I’m about to start my next big research project (a book) and I am currently on my 10th draft of the outline. As your outline might need to be reviewed and approved by another person before you even start (maybe your supervisor or the college/department that you’re applying to), you will have to revise your outline according to their feedback. That doesn’t mean you can’t move away from your outline later. Instead, your outline shows that you have some grasp of what you intend to do and can start your project immediately. You won’t be wasting crucial time trying to figure out first steps. In my case, my outline needs to be approved by the editors/publishers who are looking at my book proposal as well as the funding body for the fellowship I’m applying for. If you’re asking people to invest time and/or money into you, then you need to demonstrate that you can follow their guidance in order to create a strong product.

Draft 10 of the outline of my next book presented in outline view from Scrivener

But outlines aren’t only useful at the start of a project. If you’re engaged in a larger project, it can also be incredibly useful while revising your work. If you’ve ever received feedback that “your ideas are good, but your presentation needs re-structuring,” that means you need an outline; the person reviewing your work couldn’t follow the logical order of your thoughts. In this case, sit down with a new sheet of paper or a new document and go through your existing project. Identify the major point of each section without including any details. Just the key ideas, written up in short, simple sentences or phrases. If you have sections, then this can be just the key idea of each section, or maybe 3-4 ideas in each section. (I’m just throwing around numbers here; it depends entirely on the size of your project.)

In any case, the key ideas that you’ve extracted is your new outline. Looking at your new outline, make sure that every point leads the next logical point. Are there areas where you jump from one point to a completely different point without any connection? Are there ideas that you should move up front, in order to understand the rest of your project better? Honestly, I think almost every single editor, reviewer, or supervisor that has looked at my work had told me at some point “this needs to be moved up higher, Chuckie!” as I seem to write back to front. So it’s perfectly okay if your work needs a major overhaul. Keep in mind that, while it’s impossible to move EVERY single idea up to the front, you should gesture or foreshadow them; make a statement like “defined below,” or “see section x” or “we will come back to this in our discussion of x”. As well, your introduction or abstract (and every project regardless of the field should have one) should have a mini-outline, where you identify what you will be doing. Finally, make sure you’ve addressed all your objectives for each section and that this comes across in your new outline. If it’s not obvious from your outline of key pints and is instead buried in the details, then you might need to put more work into addressing your objectives.

If you’re getting close to submitting your dissertation – or are post-submission and are now preparing for publication, you might want to consider an outline taken at a paragraph level. Each paragraph should start with a sentence that introduces the topic of that paragraph. Ideally, if you look at just your first sentence of each paragraph, you should be able to identify if your thoughts are following a logical order. (See my example below.) Again, Scrivener is fantastic for this. You can split up the document paragraph by paragraph easily using the highlighted selection (the first sentence) with each split.

Screenshot of Scrivener

You can then go to outline view and drag and drop the paragraphs around if they seem out of place. A simple compile function will reintegrate all the paragraphs back into one document. (You should then go through and make sure that if you moved paragraphs, you’ve smoothed any awkward transitions.) Here in the example below, I’ve taken apart the introduction of my draft for chapter 5. Right away, I could see that a point is missing, that I’ve made a jump or buried a point that should be presented as its own paragraph/topic. I’ll go back and re-examine those paragraphs to see if I should split a large paragraph into two or if I need another new paragraph entirely. The objective of this exercise is by taking the first sentence of each paragraph, I’ve formed a mini-paragraph, one that’s comprehensible even without extraneous detail.

Outline of Draft Chapter 5 (i.e. just the first sentence of each paragraph)

Of course, there are other ways to ensure that your project follows a logical format. You don’t have to go to the sentence/paragraph-level that I have done. And if you have any tips or advice for how to (re)-structure your work, please do share! I’d love to hear more ideas for how you restructure and revise later stages of work.

Next time, we’ll continue this blog series with a discussion of study tips. Until then, take care!

The University 411: On the Use and Abuse of Outlines

As I promised in yesterday’s blog, today we’re talking outlines, and how to use them effectively. While sitting down and writing one sentence and then the next may seem a logical approach to tackling a project, processing information doesn’t always follow a linear trajectory. As we discussed with concept mapping, your brain might be jumping all over the place with ideas. So if you’re staring at a blank page and you’re not sure where to start, OR if you have a completed draft but you’re not sure if your work is coherent and logical to follow, you may want to consider creating an outline.

If you’re staring at a blank page, try concept or mind mapping first. It’s okay if your map is chaotic and all over the place. We’ll look at this as draft 1 of mapping. From there, take out a different coloured pen and number your map, or if you’re using an app, move the bubbles around. Identify the major concepts or ideas and identify a linear order. Identify your key components and sub-components in a 1, 2, 3 format. These should be simple statements that you can then expand or add details to. And voila! You no longer have a blank page. You have an outline that you can build off of.

Note that some instructors might require you to have an outline. If you’re submitting a science paper, you might have to use a specific format: introduction, hypothesis, methodology, data, analysis, conclusion. Technically, this format is an outline. If you’re in the humanities, your instructor might require you to submit a similar outline as an assignment before preparing a larger research project. However, unless it’s required by your instructor or you’re about to engage in a larger project (which we’ll discuss tomorrow), an outline isn’t strictly necessary. You haven’t failed or done something wrong because you haven’t used an outline. An outline should be used as an aid if you’re stuck – something to get you to the next step – and not something to focus on and worry about. So don’t stress if your outline isn’t neat and tidy, or if you end up moving away from it altogether. You don’t need to stick to your outline like you’ve taken a blood oath. You can revise your outline as you need to or ignore it completely if the ideas are just flowing out of you and looking at your outline will halt that process. Return to it if you get stuck again.

A handwritten outline of one of my job applications. Outlines are useful everywhere.

Although most people consider using outlines at the start of a project, it can also be useful at later stages. You should review your initial outline to make sure you haven’t forgotten to include a crucial point. As well, you can also make a new outline to confirm that your thoughts and ideas follow a logical process. Sit down with your project and identify the key points in each section or paragraph. Write this down on a separate sheet of paper. This is your new outline. Take a good look at it and see if, without needing any extra details, someone can follow your outline in a logical progression. If you’ve identified your objectives and audience before you started the project, go back to these and make sure your outline addresses all of these points (or sit down and identify your objectives now and make sure you’re tackled them all). You can also ask a friend or study group to look over the outline. (This approach cuts down work for your friends if they only have to look at a page or two instead of the entire project.)

If you discover with your new outline that your ideas are hard to follow, it’s okay to swamp around ideas and move them until they fall into place. This is completely fine and normal. Re-drafting is good because you’re making your work better. It’s not a failure if you need to restructure your work. Tomorrow we’ll continue our discussion of using outlines for the re-drafting process, focusing on students who need to create a large piece of work (such as a dissertation). Until then, take care of yourselves.

The University 411: Tackling the Blank Page by Identifying Your Objective

Earlier this week we discussed how the first step to tackling problems of the blank page is to identify the root of what’s causing it. If you’ve determined that the problem is because you have loads of ideas but are not sure what to focus on, or if you have no ideas at all, taking some time to clarify your objectives might be one way to address this issue (concept or mind mapping might be another, which we talk about here). What are you hoping to accomplish with your project? If your instructor gave you prompts (a selection of questions or ideas to chose from) then look carefully at the word choices and phrasing. Whether or not you’ve been provided with prompts, you may want to consider any of the following as either components of your project or the main focus.

For instance, prompts like “identify” or “define” require succinct and concrete answers. Don’t waffle. However, unless you’re in an exam situation or answering short questions in an assignment, it’s unlikely that prompts like “define” will be the main focus question for a larger project. But you may need to consider it as a central objective in the beginning stages of your project. Similarly, prompts like “outline” and “summarise” require you to focus on the main points and not on little details. Like “identify” and “define”, it might be useful to consider it as a central objective at the beginning of your project.

A prompt like “illustrates” requires specific examples. This may require and/or inform further “analysis,” where you take your raw data and form a narrative, looking how the data interconnects and drawing conclusions. Likewise, prompts such as “evaluate” or “assess” also requires analysis of data, but here you are required to take a position and make an informed judgment. Don’t forget to consider strengths and weaknesses of your position. Show awareness that you’ve considered counter-arguments and gaps and offer rebuttals and explanations. If this is a large project, you may need to identify and define your limitations, scope, or perimeters, i.e identify for your audience the specifics variables you are examining (in humanities this might mean a specific text or artist), and acknowledge what your study must leave out (the gaps).

While we’re on the topic, don’t forget to identify your audiences. Your instructor might ask you to address a specific audience; for example, the assignment might be to write a blog piece or design a pamphlet geared at a general audience. But if the audience isn’t defined then you can assume that your assignment will be primarily looked at by your instructor. That said, I recommend taking an approach where your classmates are the primary audience. This will allow you to gauge how much information and background knowledge you need to supply. For example, if you’re taking a class on biology and your project is on a specific organism, you likely won’t have to go back to the basics of defining the taxonomic ranks of kindom, phylum, class, order etc in order to identify and situate your chosen species within these ranks. By centering your peers as the primary audience, you can make some assumptions on what your audience might already know. While this can certainly include a brief review of the concepts discussed in class, it should not be a regurgitation of the entire lesson plan.

While I’ve thrown around a number of terms and prompts, there are a great many out there that I have skipped over. I hesitate from trying to list them all as I’m guaranteed to miss some. As well, I’ve limited my discussion of these terms as I am using them only as examples. There may be more nuances to how to approach the assignment depending on how the prompt or instructions are phrased. So if you’re struggling to get started, dissecting the question or assignment instructions may be a good place to start.

A couple of final notes: as I’ve said in earlier posts, if you’re unsure what’s required, don’t hesitate to ask the instructor – either in class or in office hours. If after you dissect the assignment and/or do some concept or mind mapping and you’re still struggling to get started, make an appointment with your instructor or drop in during office hours. If you can, email them in advance and briefly outline your struggles. This will allow them time to prep and consider the best way to help you.

DON’T put off asking for help until the burden of anxiety builds up to unbearable levels. Trying to fix the problem early will allow you more time to actually work on the fix. As well, the longer you put off asking for help, the harder it is to ask. However, I want to emphasise that it’s NEVER too late to ask for help if your struggling with an assignment or with understanding a concept. Instructors that want to see students succeed will find ways for you to make-up work if they are aware of your anxieties. Your undergraduate or postgraduate coordinator is also a good person to talk to. Hopefully this blog series will help anyone struggling to navigate university. But if anxiety is a major concern, as I talked about here don’t forget to take advantage of resources that may be available to you.

Tomorrow we talk about outlines. Until then, good luck, and don’t forget to take care of yourself.

The University 411: Tackling The Blank Page with Concept Mapping

Yesterday we discussed how the first step to tackling problems of the blank page is to identify the root of what’s causing it. If you’ve determined that the problem is because you have loads of ideas but are not sure what to focus on, or if you have no ideas at all, concept mapping (and its various iterations) might be a way to tackle the problem (identifying your objective is another). Go through all of your notes with a separate sheet of paper, and write down your main ideas, observations, and supporting points. You’re not re-writing notes here (as I recommended in an earlier post regarding note-taking); instead you’re reorganising your notes in a visual manner to establish connections and relationships.

Note that your bullet journal will work just fine for this activity. But, if you find yourself needing a larger canvas, hit up a noffice supply store and see if you can find some cheap easel/chart pads of paper. There are also apps and software out there that do the same (and you may already have some if you explore the features of your Office or iWork programmes). But DON’T waste time trying to find the perfect programme instead of sitting down to do your assignment. It’s a perfect procrastination tool and you don’t need the distraction right now. Instead, if you really want a software or app, make a note to yourself to find one when you’ve set aside time specifically for that chore. I use the Scrapple Software myself (from the same creators as Scrivener) as I tend to drag and move my concepts bubbles around, which a digital format facilitates better than handwritten. But I also rely on good old pen and paper (my bullet journal) for my smaller assignments or if I want to think through ideas as they occur to me instead of when I’ve scheduled time to work on a specific project.

You may already be familiar with concept mapping via its sibling mind mapping. To be honest, I use the terms interchangeably myself, but there are differences between the two and if you’re looking for an app to help you with your mapping, knowing the difference might help. Mind map focuses on one idea or concept as it’s central point, with other concepts radiating from it. If you’ve ever fiddled with graphic settings while preparing a presentation, you’re probably familiar with mind maps. While there are a number of types, I feel that, generally, they can be divided into two categories: radial display and linear display.

Radial Model
Linear Model

As you can see in the examples, while the radial model has a the central concept in the middle, with associated ideas organised around it, the linear model is hierarchical, with one point leading to the next. The linear model is probably better if you need to figure out how to structure a paper (i.e which idea to introduce first, and then second, and third). However, my mind refuses to think in a linear way and tends to jump around from idea to idea like a puppy. So I often start with radial models, and then turn them into linear models when I get to an outline stage (which we’ll discuss later).

Concept mapping differs from mind mapping in that you have several concepts instead of one focused concept. Where the bubbles in mind map usually have a 1 to 1 connection (one shape connecting to another shape in a one-directional/hierarchical way), concept mapping have lines and relationships all over the place, connecting together in multiple ways and in multiple directions. As you can see from my example below, this method is less organised than a mind map, but is extremely useful in collecting your thoughts. It’s my first step in beginning to impose some sense of order on the chaos in my mind.

Chuckie’s Concept Map for a Chapter on Performance/Performativity in Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind

If you’re struggling to get started on a project, concept mapping and mind Mapping are useful ways to set your mind the task of mulling over ideas. Don’t feel that you need to go straight from mapping to drafting your project. If it does inspire and excite you enough to start right away, then great! But it’s also perfectly fine to mull it over and sleep on it in order to come back to it with fresh eyes tomorrow. In fact, I recommend starting to think about your project as soon as the instructor releases the assignment details. Do NOT wait until the week of (or the day before!) to consider what your project is going to be on. Your brain needs time to incorporate all the concepts you’re learning and process it, before you can produce an acceptable piece for assessment. So grab your bullet journal and start jotting down ideas as soon as they come to you!

The University 411: Tackling the Blank Page

So you’ve gone to all of your lecturers and took notes like a diligent student. Now what? You’re sitting down at your desk to tackle your essay or research project, and you’re not sure where to start.

If you google “writer’s block,” you will probably discover pages of suggestions to address this problem. But, there are a number of scenarios which might have you staring at your screen or notebook in terror and we can’t find the right solution if we can’t diagnose the cause. So first, do a mental health check. If you’re in a depressed state, then you’re unlikely to have the energy or motivation to tackle work. While I talk generally about mental health here, I want to add advice I’ve seen floating around from Tumbler “redheadhatchet”: “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” I apply this advice almost daily to all sorts of scenarios. Consider my “exercise regime”; if I manage to do just one sit-up a day, that’s better than not doing anything. This is also the advice offered by the “Fabulous” App, which helps people establish healthy habits. Build on that one small habit a day (we’ll stick to exercise and the one sit-up example here, but it can apply to any habit). Start with one sit-up and move up to more. If one day, you don’t have the energy to do the 20 that you’ve worked up to, that’s okay. Do the one. Doing even one sit-up means you haven’t broken your streak of exercising every day. Doing one is enough. It’s better than not doing one at all.

Extending this advice to the university: Turning in a half-written assignment or a poorly-written one is better than not turning in one at all. (And, as my colleague Helga reminded me today, instructors also need to be aware of these hidden struggles that are students are facing; instead of condemning the holes, acknowledg the strength of the material that IS present and offer constructive advice for how to address and expand on the gaps). This is also the advice I would give for addressing anxiety (which might be combined with depression, but we’ll deal with it as separate entities for this discussion). Maybe you’re anxious because you’re scared of failing or because you want your work to be perfect. Unless you’re an prodigy – the university-assignment-writing equivalent of Beethoven – every mark you make on the page is NOT going to be perfect. I’ve heard rumours that Terry Pratchett operated like that; thought and thought and thought until he had the perfect sentence to write on the page. But we can’t all be on the same level as Sir Terry Pratchett. So go ahead and mark up your fresh new notebook with chicken scratch hand-writing. This is part of the process.

If you’ve done an assessment of your mental health and have determined that it’s fine (or manageable), then the next step is to determine what stage you’re stuck at: Is the problem that you don’t have any idea at all, or you have loads of idea and you’re not sure what to focus on? (Check out Concept Map as one of the tools to address this type of problem. Identifying your objectives is another.) Or do you have some semblance of focus, but you’re not sure what order to present them in? Or maybe the problem is you simply don’t know how to start; i.e. what the first sentence should be?

You can probably start to grasp why determining the cause of your blank page syndrome would be the first step in finding a solution. This is true in general about anything you’re procrastinating about or avoiding. Sit down with your bullet journal and dig deep into thinking about root cause. In my day job as a Quality Assurance Manager, we do root cause investigations routinely to determine what resulted in a part having flaws. There are a number of tools you can employ for root cause analysis. One of these is to keep asking yourself “why” (also called the Five Whys).


  • I’m late to work.
  • Why? I slept in.
  • Why? I forgot to set my alarm clock.
  • Why? I was so tired yesterday evening that it slipped my mind.
  • Why? My toddler was teething and kept us up late.

There’s not much further we can go with that unless we want to question the “whys” of evolution on the subject of teething pains. So we’ve identified the root cause and for there we can apply solutions to address it specifically, rather than investing it a new techy alarm clock that does a song and dance and shoots lasers at you. The alarm clock wasn’t the problem in this scenario.

The “Root Cause” of my Sleep Issues

Tomorrow we’ll dive deeper into the tools we can use to address the varying causes of blank page syndrome. As you progress through university, you’ll find that the fear of the blank page will have a number of causes, so keep track of a number of tools and techniques and what works best for you in each scenario. So until tomorrow, take care!

The University 811: Invest Time and Money in a Scrivener Programme (or Equivalent)

As promised in yesterday’s post regarding reading practices, today we’ll be talking about organizing your research through a programme like Scrivener. I’m calling this section University 811 to differentiate from University 411. My 411 blogs are applicable to all levels of students, whereas 811 (in Canada, a phone number for health services) will be targeted more towards researchers (masters, PhDs, postdocs, and beyond). If you’ve every done or about to engage in a literature review or have files and files of documents stored all so you can write one sentence in your article or chapter, this post is for you.

Note that I’m not a paid advertiser for Scrivener and there are tons of other similar apps or software out there (Dabble, Living Writer, Ulysses, to name a few). But I think these alternatives are geared more towards creative writing (novels, screenplays, etc) than non-fiction research. (And if you’ve used any of these platforms for creative writing, please drop me a line; I’m not completely sold yet on Scrivener for my fiction writing.) If you google “Scrivner alternatives” you will find plenty of other bloggers who discuss the pros and cons of these programmes. But as I’m familiar with Scrivener, that’s what we’ll be talking about today. It has a 30 day free trial based on usage. That means if you use it on 30 separate days spread out over years, you’re still covered by the free trial. At the moment it costs $67 CAD (or $57 if you have verified university affiliation as student or staff). They just released another update for Windows in 2021 – BUT, if you purchased version 1 after November 2017, then updating to the new version is completely FREE. If you purchased it before 2017, then you still get a 49% discount on the upgrade. (Mac upgrades are separate and I know absolutely nothing about it. Sorry!) While the price point might make you hesitate, I think they take good care of their new and existing customers. You can investigate cheaper options like Dabble but the cheaper price point means less features and I’m not entirely sure what gets cut. Admittingly, the other con with Scrivener is that it has a steep learning curve to figure out all of their features. But I highly recommend checking out their tutorial during one of your free trial days. And you can always go back to the tutorial as you need it.

Scrivener is another system that I wished I discovered during my PhD. It would’ve made things SO much easier. If you’re already well into your research, you can import your existing research files fairly easily, but I recommend you do small chunks at a time rather than crashing the system with 5000 documents. There are two main folder systems in Scrivener: drafts for writing and research for your notes. The research section lets you upload all different types of files such as powerpoints, pdfs, jpgs, etc but can also includes movie and audio files. So you should be able to organize ALL of your research in the same place and access it quickly.

View of Binder with fies in draft and research portions
View of Binder with files in draft and research portions

For each of my research files, I write a summary of each critical text in the “synopsis” or index card feature of my notes. I break down my notes for a book by chapters rather than having one document for the whole book. This way I can review the summary without having to flip through the book itself and the contents of my entire bookcase. You can colour code the cards with labels (I haven’t yet as I’m not entirely sure how to best use this feature but I’ve added both “label” and “status” in the example below so you can see how that works). As well, you can customize the presentation of the card itself. Actually, you can customize the look of the entire software at an insane level, so be careful not to get lost with fiddling with settings as a way to procrastinate from work. Once you twiddle with these options, you can view the cards in a handy corkboard view at multiple levels (folder or various subfolders) and you also have the option to drag and drop cards (when set to free style mode):

Corkboard View of My Notes from Cecire’s Re-Enchanted (2019)

While these features are helpful, the reason I personally love Scrivener is the tagging feature. I’ve tagged all of my notes with primary and secondary authors. This means I tag, not only the author of the text I’m reading, but also any fiction or non-fiction author that they cite.

A Selection of My Keywords
A Selection of My Keywords

This way if I want to search my research for all the critics that reference, let’s say, Ursula Le Guin, I just hit the keyword search button to find them. It’s also worth nothing that the search feature is fairly extensive and not limited to just a keyword search:

Screenshot of Search Window
Screenshot of Search Window

More importantly, I also tag my research notes with references to my planned article or chapter. Let’s say I’m sitting down to write my first draft for chapter 5. I do a search for that tag and it pulls up all the notes that I’ve made for the chapter. I can then save this search as a smart “collection” which updates automatically. This is the part of Scrivener which has become so essential for my research process: keyword tags means I don’t have to comb through all my files and pages of notes to see where I’ve made comments indicating I should include a specific piece of research in chapter 5.

I also use a combination of comments (much like comments in Microsoft Word), highlights, annotations, internal and external bookmarks, and project notes. We’ll be discussing these features more when I talk about first drafts (check back this time next week). But it’s a powerhouse tool and I highly recommend it for anyone who has gathered a lot of research and need a way to organize and access it efficiently.

Tomorrow we’ll continue the University 411 series with self-care advice. Until then, take care!

The University 411: Seminar Prep and Reading Journals for ALL Readers, Writers, Students

Hello all! Today we’re going to continue the University 411 which I started here and talk about reading journals. It’s a great tool for your seminar or lecture prep, but also useful for any reader (i.e outside of school). I can’t express how much I regret not keeping one until much later in life as I’ve been an avid reader since I figured out my ABCs. Have you ever thought back on a book that you really enjoyed, but can’t remember anything about it? You want to read it again, but only vaguely recall the scene or premise and can’t remember the title, author, or even character names to help you with a google search. Now imagine you had a reading journal where you wrote down this basic info!

For myself, I only started a reading journal last year after I became a mum. I wanted to read the newly released book 4 of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Usually, I’d re-read the entire series in preparation for a new book release. But throw in work, parenting, and the fact that I’m a fantasy researcher (i.e should be reading new books instead of re-reading my favourite mammoth series), I simply don’t have time to re-read 1000 page works every time a new book is released. So I am repeatedly kicking myself that I hadn’t kept a reading journal until now, especially as one of our university assignments in year 3 was to keep a reading journal; but the professor never explained the purpose of a journal, and so I saw it purely as a necessarily evil to get good grades and never considered it as a useful tool in itself. There are a number of reasons why a reading journal can be useful, in any field or discipline (in school), or if you’re a casual or avid reader (outside of school). I’ll try to cover the main advantages, but if you use your reading journal differently, please drop me a line in the comments!

First, a reading journal is a good way to log a list of your reading. Yes, Goodreads or equivalent can do this for you to. But you might also want to consider adding articles or other research to your reading log along with a 1-2 sentence summary. There’s been a number of times when I’ve re-read an article because I couldn’t remember if I had read it before or not. At the very least, consider keeping a log in your Bullet Journal (which we talked about last time). Include basic information in this log – Author, Title, and Initial Date of Publication (and a short summary if you’re not planning on keeping a full journal). For your reading journal, you may also want to consider recording the publisher and year of the edition published. Note that your paperback edition might be published at a later date than the original publication. If you’re citing the text in a paper, you will need to reference both dates. As well, making note of the edition might be important if you’re reviewing your reading journal years later. I say this because while I was editing my Shape of Fantasy manuscript, I realized that I had taken quotes from 3 different editions of Robert Jordan’s The Great Hunt – a US print, a UK print, and a Canadian ebook. The manuscript from start to finish took 8 years and I had moved back and forth between Canada and UK during this time. (It’s also worth noting that my ebook license purchased in Canada was invalid in UK, so if you’re planning to move out of country and think you’ve been clever with purchasing ebooks so you don’t have to worry about moving physical books, BE CAREFUL. Once you enter credit card info for your new country into your ebook reader, books purchased in your home country might become inaccessible.) With all that moving around, and with 3 different copies of the text to work from, I had a heck of a time confirming the edition of each and every page reference (i.e was this page in reference to my US print or UK print or neither?). As well, I soon found out that there were very small changes between the US and UK print; something as simple as “Rand said” was changed to “said Rand.” (WHY??? I have no idea why the editions differed). So take my experiences as a warning and log the edition information; thank yourself later.

Once you’ve logged the basics, next you want to focus on summarizing the piece. If it’s a length novel or a densely packed article, your summary can be pretty substantial. But I figure re-reading a 10 page summary is much quicker than re-reading a 1000 page book. For novels, I include character names and major plot points. Since I usually read fantasy, I also note down important world-building information. This is especially true for incomplete series, as I’m not entirely sure whether the piece of information will become useful. (For example, with works like George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, you might want to include information that you think foreshadows events or provides clues to unanswered plot questions.) While I keep a reading journal for my fiction reads, for non-fiction, I’ve switched to Scrivener, as it has a handy index card feature. (If you’re at a stage in your education or career where you need to make and keep lots of detailed notes for research, I highly recommend Scrivener and talk about it here.)

Except from my Reading Journal for Sanderson’s Steelheart

Next, you want to identify essential information. This bit is tricky, because what’s essential is highly subjective. If you’re using a reading journal as prep before class, then first I want you to take out your syllabus. Seriously. And a highlighter (either a physical one or use the highlighter on your ebook/pdf copy). Now go through your syllabus and highlight important concepts. Does your instructor provide objectives or key themes? HIGHLIGHT THAT. If you can’t find the information, take a look at the course description on your department’s website, or the table of contents in your required reading list, or the titles/labels of each lecture or seminar. What concepts jump out at you? Write them down in a handy list. (This is would be a good list to put in your bullet journal.) It’s also okay to take a quick look at google or wikipedia to skim through the key points of a topic or text. You’re NOT using wikipedia as research here (so don’t cite it in a paper); instead you’re using it as preliminary research to investigate the key themes and concepts of a work before you start reading. This will let you read the work as a more informed reader, with you eyes open for things you should be looking out for.

The next part is trickier to identify, especially if you’re a new student. What essential information is important FOR YOU? Why are you taking this course? What attracted you to signing up for the class? Take some time to reflect on this (yet another BUJO page. We seem to be wracking them up). These ideas are things that you might end up developing for an essay or project. For example, I remember one semester where I wrote all five final exams around the theme of gender. I had taken completely different courses (Children’s lit, Shakespeare, Roman mythology, etc), but feminist ideas was what appealed to me at the time and so it’s what I took note of. You want to take note of things that interest you while you read the work. Maybe quotes leap out at you or a particular phrase or definition. If you’re an aspiring writer, you might want to note technique or things that give you inspiration for your own work. Other things you want to take note of in your reading journal are things that confused you; make note if it so that you can bring it up in class or study group to discuss or to investigate further on your own. If you’re keeping the journal as prep work for class, think about things that YOU want to talk about in class; things that interest and excite you, or questions that you have. If you’re keeping the journal for pleasure, then the same still goes. A reading journal is exactly like any journal, only one focused on your reading content.

Since we’re talking about prep for class, I want to end on a note of caution. You do NOT have to read EVERYTHING on the recommended reading list. And, even if you instructor states that it’s required and not just recommended, I would still approach a heavy reading load with caution. Some instructors are just assholes. So if you’re meant to be reading 6 novels a week for just one of your modules, FAKE it. Focus on just one of the texts so that you can contribute to some part of the conversation, and do a quick internet investigation of the other 5 so that you know basic points and can identify points of comparison with the text you’re focusing on. While 6 books a week might be an exaggeration (the most I’ve had as a student was 3 novels a week for one of my senior-level undergraduate seminars), the point is that you shouldn’t be killing yourself to reach some unattainable model of perfection set by an instructor who thinks your university experience should break you. DO make note on it with student feedback/course evaluations. Even if you’re tenured professor doesn’t care to look at them (as The Chair so brilliantly depicted), the department should. That being said, I can’t guarantee that trying to keep a healthy work/life balance won’t come back to bite you. Usually (in the humanities) if your final exam is formatted as a series of essay questions, these will be presented as broad questions which lets you select any of the texts/topics/figures covered in class (provided that you didn’t utilize the text/topic repeatedly for each essay question). Alternatively, if the topic is pre-selected by the question, these are still usually written in a way that gives you a lot of choice. (For example, you might have a choice of 20 questions, with 1 or 2 works identified in each.) But I remember one experience where the professor told us the that the final exam will be essay questions with a comparison of 4 books for each essay, and then presented each question with the 4 works pre-selected. This meant that, rather than focusing on texts that we connected to, we needed to have detailed knowledge of each and every one. Unfortunately, sitting down to write my final was the wrong time to figure this out. While I had read every book, I hadn’t bothered to study all of them. A brief perusal through a reading journal (if I had had one) might have at least helped me avoid a failing grade. If you can, get some information about the lecturer from other students early in the semester (remember to step outside your bubble); that should hopefully give you some idea of what to expect for assessment and you can revise your approach accordingly. If you know in advance whether your finals will be testing for detailed knowledge of ALL the material instead of focused knowledge on your areas of interest, then you can figure out in advance the size of your work load and how best to tackle it (we’ll talk more about this on Friday). *Fingers Crossed* that you have instructors who genuinely want to see you succeed rather than setting you up to fail. And good luck! Tomorrow, we’re going to starting talking about tips for (post)grad students. Until then, take care!

The University 411: Bullet Journaling

As promised when discussing note-taking tips yesterday, today we continue our student life series with a crash course in Bullet Journaling. Bullet Journaling is a system of organization developed by Ryder Carroll, but if you take a casual scroll of the #BUJO hashtags on pinterest and instragram, you’ll quickly see how people have taken the basic premise and made it their own. A word of caution: do NOT look at these examples and think you need to recreate a beautiful, artistic masterpiece. Ryder Carroll’s basic premise is very, VERY minimalist. Start there. Don’t go overboard and get overwhelmed with any of it. It’s suppose to be a tool to help you and to have fun with, not an extra workload that you need to make picture perfect.

The name “bullet journal” comes from a specific type of notebook that uses a dot matrix, but you can use anything really. My first journal was in an art book for watercolours. At the time, I enjoyed doodling with watercolours to form as the background for each page. I also used a lot of washi tape and coloured pens. But I’ve had little time for that recently, so a simple black pen is my preferred weapon of choice now.

Primarily I use a bullet journal for my note-taking. This means that I have one notebook that I carry with me everywhere. I do not have subject specific notebooks or notebooks for different purposes. At the moment, I am independent researcher applying for lecturships and fellowships, co-head-editor of Fantastika Journal, and am employed as a Quality Assurance Manager at a manufacturing company. Despite these different hats, I use the same journal to record meeting notes for my manufacturing job that I would use to record meeting notes for Fantastika or for my fellowship application. It’s also a place where I jot down ideas. For instance, my journal includes: ideas for activities that I think my 2-year-old will enjoy; concept mapping for chapter drafts for my next research book; topic-specific list of books I want to read. (Yes, I have a loooong TBR list on Goodreads. But my Bullet Journal have more specific lists. For example, I’m organizing a digital symposium for Fantastika Journal which focuses on LGBTQIA+ graphics, so I have a list of Fantastika (science fiction, fantasy, gothic horror, etc) graphic novels, animations, and video games all which have strong LGBTQIA+ representations.) Number your pages so you can refer back to them easily. Ryder Carroll recommends having an index or table of contents on the front page of your notebook, which you can add to as needed when you want to find things. Personally, I tend to just flip through the book, or occasionally flag with stickies or washi tape. As this is my 3rd University 411 post, you probably won’t be surprised when I say ‘do what works for you.’ The important point is that you don’t need to write your notes in subject-specific sections. You simply make a note “continued on page 34” or “notes started on pg 6”. Or you can use a short form (<- 6 or -> 34). But the point is you write your notes on your next blank page without worrying about keeping your notes all grouped together in a sectioned off part of your notebook.

When all the pages are filled in your journal, or if you want to start a new one at the beginning of the school year, go through your existing bullet journal and copy out any items that you want to keep in your new one. If you find yourself copying out the same information every year, you might want to consider moving it to your subject specific notes. As I said in my previous post, The University 411: Note-taking Part 1, or the Jasnah Kholin Method, I use bullet journaling to take quick notes during lectures, etc, but I then rewrite the notes out in a different medium for studying. In some cases, I might have notes that I need every year, even after the module is over. Keep these in a *permanent notebook* and use bullet journal for your everyday/ on-the-go. These can be any number of things that you might want to transfer to a permanent notebook, depending on your field of study. Maybe you need a quick definition for the difference between socialism and communism when you argue with idiots online. Or maybe you really need to know Plank’s constant to save the world and you just don’t have time to sing a duet with your girlfriend to get the info. For me, I have a set of notes – a cheat sheet – identifying major theorists in my field with a few sentences explaining their main ideas. After 15+ years in university, I still sometimes need to pull out my cheat sheet so I can quickly confirm what the heck Adorno was going on about, and if I’m not mixing him up with that other guy.

From Stranger Things, season 3. When you have a monster on the lose and don’t have time to serenade your girlfriend so she will give you valuable information, BUJO might very well save your life.

While I use bullet journal for note-taking, the heart of bullet journaling is with rapid logging; a way to keep your to-dos and important dates organized. Carroll uses 3 simple icons for this. (If you add more, then make sure you include a key chart in your table of contents, so you know what the symbols mean if you look back at them later.) The 3 icons are:

• a simple dot for “tasks”

o an open circle for “events”

– a dash for “notes”

An example from Chuckie’s Bullet Journal

As you can see, mine isn’t pretty or perfect. It’s serviceable. The example shows my schedule for the week. If I have a lot of meetings, appointments, classes, etc then it’s a simple matter to switch to a daily format whenever I need to do so. If I have less going on (e.g. during holidays), then I use a monthly format. I use a combo of all 3 depending if I need more focus and organization during a particularly stressful time. I also keep a long-term schedule at the front of my journal (what BUJO experts call a “future log”). This includes things you might need to think about months in advance like final exams or deadlines for an essay. But it could also be something that occurs more regularly that you need to remember; things like birthdays and anniversaries, but also practical things like “renew car insurance every March” or “go see dentist in June.” At the start of every day (or week, or month, depending on which format you’re going with), take a quick look at your future log to make sure that you’ve included relevant items in your rapid logging.

Bullet Journaling is also a good place for “brain dumps”, where you have SOOOO many tasks or ideas and have no idea where to start. Write it all down. From the big to the little. Write it all down, and get it on the page. You can then pick the most important ones to include in your rapid logging or your notes.

At the start of each day (or week, or month, or year) take a look at your log. I like to do this before bed every night, or on Sundays at the start of a work week. It gives me an idea of what I’m expecting my day/week to look like. I then pick 1-3 top tasks and label them A, B, and C. It’s okay to change your mind (like I did in my example). But here’s the important part: these 3 tasks are NOT something you’re picking in order to feel productive or successful. They’re not do-or-die goals. Instead, they’re things I hope to get done. I focus on task A first, before I move on to B. I don’t move onto task C until A and B are both done. If I had time to finish A, B, and C, then I pick more. If I manage to do them all, then wonderful! If not, I copy out the tasks again in my next rapid log. DON’T leave unfinished items in a rapid log that you plan to look back on later. First, you will kick yourself if (*when*) you end up forgetting about the task. Second, rewriting out the to-do list over and over again should hopefully help motivate you; if you’re putting off a task for weeks, you might decide to get it done with so you can stop writing it down every day. Third, by re-writing the task, you’re continually gauging its importance. Can you drop the task completely? If you can’t, take some time to examine why you’re putting it off.

In cases like that, use your Bullet Journal as a “dear diary” reflection when you need to. Really, use your Bullet Journal however you want, for whatever purpose. Use it as a tracker for spending habits, sleep, exercise, and healthy eating. Use it to store ideas for recipes, date night, or that story you plan to write ‘maybe one day’. You can use it to plan your next vacation, or as a daily diary during vacation. BUJO users call these different uses “collections,” and I can assure you that if you go google or hit up pinterest/instagram with the BUJO hashtag, you’ll see hundreds of collection ideas as well as innovative formats and layouts. If you’re in back-to-school mode, this is the perfect time to break out a fresh set of coloured pens to start your new journal. There’s really no age limit on enjoying a new box of crayons, so go nuts and have fun.

Today we’ll continue talking about keeping a reading journal. Until then, take care!

The University 411: Note-taking Part 1, or the Jasnah Kholin Method

Continuing my series of “how to student effectively” which I started here, today we’ll be talking about approaches to notetaking. As prep for today’s post I did a quick google search for notetaking methods. And. Yikes. What the heck is the Cornell Method? Why does it matter if I write my notes in columns versus sections? Are we being graded on our notetaking presentation?

So I’m going to go ahead and propose my own method. I’m going to assume other people use it too simply because while reading Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives, I came across a scene where one of the characters describe their notetaking method and thought “hey! I do that too.” So I’m calling it The Jasnah Kholin method after Sanderson’s character.

Okay. First of all, it doesn’t matter if your first set of notes are in columns or sections or morse code. Just get words on the page. This is especially true if you’re taking notes during a lecture. There’s going to be a lot of information thrown at you. If you’re worrying too much about making every mark in your nice, new shiny notebook perfect, you will never get anything down.

So you want to think about what medium is the quickest and most convenient for you. As an undergraduate, I brought a laptop to lectures. I was a fast typist and I essentially wrote out every single word spoken by the lecturer. This is not an effective note-taking process, and of course it depends on your typing speed. BUT, while it’s not something I generally recommend, ultimately it DID help me start to process how to take in information disseminated via lecture. (If you recall in my previous post (Identify Your Learning Style), initially I struggled to pay attention in lectures. So writing out everything was the best way for me to start paying attention.) But once I started developing the skill of listening to the spoken word for an hour+, I eventually began to listen to the whole while only taking notes on the “essential” parts. (We’ll talk more about identifying “essential” parts as this blog series continues).

Some lecturers cram a LOT of info into their lectures with very little visual aids. So a laptop or a tablet with keyboard (if you can afford either) might be a way to go. If you have a smart phone, you can look into pairing a keyboard to your phone. (You don’t need a top software programme to take notes during lecture.) If you want to avoid tech altogether, thay’s fine too. If your instructor provides handouts, you can consider taking your notes directly on that, or even directly in your book/textbook (only if you’re not considering reselling it later). Or if they post their PowerPoints online before class, you can print out an outline version. Alternatively, a simple notebook works too. I’ve started using a bullet journal for everything. I.e. ONE notebook that I use EVERYWHERE instead of carrying several for each subject. (I talk more about bullet journaling here.)

As I moved into postgraduate work I began preferring hand written notes more because it lets me draw connections better – and I mean literally draw connecting arrows. When I used to type my first draft of notes on the computer, instead of arrows I’d make a note that said something like “this connects back to what lecturer said earlier about x” . But taking the time to write that sentence is time you don’t have, so I prefer symbols and shorthand: this part on page 3 of my notes connects back to page 1, so I’ll mark both sections with a quick astrix or some sign making a shorthand connection.

Oh. And speaking of shorthand, create a system for words that you use commonly. Maybe you use a forward slash / to replace the letters ‘tion’ or you write out just the initials instead of a person’s full name. Who wants to write out Shakespeare 50 times when you can write WS? You might also want to consider symbols for phonetic vowel sounds. This is for when you’re not entirely sure what word the lecturer is saying or how to spell it (especially for proper names or technical jargon). Rather than worrying over the spelling of the word, try to write it out phonetically to look up later. (Personally, I think the English alphabet sucks for phonetics. So maybe figure out what the heck is a macron and long vowel sound, or develop an equivalent short hand that works for you. I – honestly – use the Japanese alphabet. I have not been able to read or speak Japanese since I studied it in grade school nearly 20 years ago, but I remember the alphabet and it’s a phonetical system so that’s what I use.)

Keep a key or index somewhere so you remember what the symbols mean when you re-read your notes. And for goodness sake, label your notes. Write the date, the title of the course/topic, and the lecturer (or author if you’re note-taking during reading/research instead of during a lecture).

Now onto the nitty gritty of note taking itself. The key thing to keep in mind (IMHO) is that there are multiple layers to note taking. First you start with a fact or concrete concept: A historical date; A chemical property; The name and artist of a painting; A physics formula; etc

I’m going to use an English literature example because that’s my training. Author/playwright/poet wrote x. That’s your basic concrete idea. A quote from a text. Let’s take an important Sanderson Stormlight quote to stick with today’s theme: “You must find the most important words a man can say.”

Next you (or your lecturer) add(s) layering and depth. You’ve got a quote. What does it mean? What does it mean in the context of that particular scene? Does the meaning change as the narrative progresses? Maybe you gain additional information about the world building or events later in the text. Does the meaning change depending on the point-of-view character? Does the meaning change for you if you go back and RE-READ the scene, this time with the knowledge of how events unfold and characters develop? Does the meaning change if you have extra knowledge of the author’s background or events in the world at that time? These are some of the questions that your lecture or required reading might cover and essentially what you’re taking notes on. (You are unlikely to cover every single question; these are just examples of layering. While I use English lit as a example, think about how layers and depth works for your field.)

Ah, but wait. We still haven’t talked about the Jasnah Kholin Method of note-taking. This is the part where you REWRITE your notes. Your first set of notes will be scribbles getting info and ideas now. Now take that draft and make it coherent and legible. Pretty it up in whatever format you want (columns or sections or whatever). But also make sure you’re synthesizing the information: cut out extraneous words or ideas that don’t add much info or knowledge; write out the loose connections and ideas and layers you formed in your mind but didn’t have time to write out fully during lecture. Add MORE connections if you think of them off the top of your head or include examples or practice questions. If you have the time, you might want to consider how the material in front you connects to earlier lectures in the module, or to lectures from an entirely different module. Maybe your discussion on Brandon Sanderson has points of connection with your Shakespeare module. Note that down!

Format here doesn’t matter. And that’s why notetaking techniques/blogs which focus on handwritten format is baffling to me. Format and presentation is not the important part. So long as you write it in a way that works for you. Maybe you’re typing up hand written notes, or re-writing them in a different subject specific notebook. Maybe you have a recording app on your phone and need to talk our your ideas. Maybe you’re writing them out on index cards as prep for studying for exams. Or maybe you got a poster board of each of your courses/module and you’re concept mapping your ideas. Maybe you’re doing a combo of things. (And please share if you have completely different techniques/format. I’m always interested in using different approaches myself.). The important part is you’re reprocessing the information into a medium and method that works for you.

The Jasnah Kholin method: Rewrite your notes. Do this the same day or within the week so that your ideas are still fresh in your mind and you can figure out what the scribbles and half-formed thoughts mean. But DON’T stress overly about adding further connections and layering immediately. (We’ll talk more about stress/time management later). A thought or connection might come to you after you read something else, or maybe while you’re taking a walk or in the middle of a shower. That’s your brain mulling over and processing ideas. But you don’t have to write down every single thought or piece of knowledge in your head. The rewriting method is not meant for you to solve the world’s research questions. Instead, by re-processing the information, you’re making sure you know and understand the material to build off it for further learning. And if you find that you DON’T understand the material, that’s okay too. This is why you’re reviewing your notes. Make note of your questions! Try to find the answer by working through practice questions, or in a study group. Ask your instructor at the next lecture or pop in to see them during office hours. (Seriously. We’re not going to resent the opportunity to chat about the subject we’re passionate about.)

An incredibly underlooked aspect to note-taking is making sure you understand the material. Your note-taking for a lecture/research isn’t finished until you’ve done that. Your set of re-written notes are the foundations of your essay/ project/ exam prep. And it’s a good, solid foundation.

The first draft of my notes for an upcoming blog piece.

Check out my “Tackling the Blank Page” posts for next steps on how to start a project/assignment. You can find the first of this series here. And check back in a few weeks for a series on exam prep and study tips. But in the meanwhile, check out the seminar prep and identifying your objectives for some advice that may apply to you. And tomorrow we talk about bullet journaling. Until then, take care!