Online Research with Evernote
This is not how online students study. Except for the screaming. That may sometimes occur.
Studying as an online student
The traditional student cram session, as it appears in the movies, takes place in a checked-out library study room, books piled high to either side of one disheveled, hangdog face. Maybe some of us have put ourselves in exactly this situation only to realize that neither the process—as romanticized through montage backed by a brass section—nor the outlook—always the climactic moment when the protagonist’s furious-if-tardy efforts are finally rewarded—are as rosy as is portrayed.
- First, because cramming before a test is a good way to come away having learned none of the material (and probably with a bad grade to boot);
- second, because most upper-level assessments demand levels of effort in research and paper-drafting that cramming simply cannot fake;
- and third, because our courses are offered online, there is often no campus library in which it is possible to fall asleep face first in a textbook.
Organizational challenges in our paperless society
More and more of the scholarly research and writing processes take place entirely on computers—for many of us, entirely on the same computer. For non-traditional students whose primary experience is with physical media, the shift is disorienting and presents loads of new organizational challenges. For students born to the digital age, the emphasis on research, collection and organization may itself be difficult to assimilate into organically grown online habits. The web promotes habits of content consumption that are not necessarily valued, or acceptable, in scholarly circles.
Keeping track of your resources
Unlike the library, where books may be checked out for weeks at a time and filled with colorful sticky notes, the web browser is good for zipping through material quickly and then forgetting where you saw that one useful stat or graph that you really wish you could find again because it would be so perfect for you paper. The issue of resource organization is compounded by the fact that, because most of us have only the one computer, there is no clear distinction between where we do work, where we study, where we play, and where we store all the fragments of that novel we’ve been writing for the last three years.
There’s an app for that
Research, bookmarking and curation apps developed in response to this very problem, and any student not already doing so may benefit from integrating their functions into the research process. The tool that I want to cover in this article isn’t the only one to do what it does, and it may not be even the best (look for an upcoming article on Zotero), but it is widely used, easy to introduce into established study habits, and very likely to remain the standard tool in its field for a long time to come.
Evernote allows users to collect, organize and sync PDFs, links, notes, annotations and more across innumerable devices running any number of operating systems. It is my favorite repository for all the different things that I find interesting, and I would like to share why it may be useful for you.
1. Collect your resources using bookmarklets
The primary function of any research tool is to collect resources, and I find that if I have to click around too much to save a resource I’ve found, I just won’t save it. I know I’m not alone in this. Most good research tools provide a bookmarklet (a button that sits at the top of your browser window) for saving the resource directly from where you’ve found it, giving you options for how you want to organize the resource where it’s stored. Evernote is a class-act in this department.
Click the bookmarklet, and a dropdown list of all the different preferences for how you’d like that particular resource saved pops into view.
Along with a multitude of options for how you want to save the resource, you have options for where you want to save it, which brings us to the next facet of Evernote that may be especially useful for students.
2. Organize your data – Notebooks and Tags
Notebooks can be shared among collaborators or kept entirely private. I keep to-do lists for around the house, here, next to research notebooks for work, and never find myself unable to find a resource when I need it. Everything’s organized: PDFs, links, notes, etc.
3. Annotate your sources
Finally, research tools should allow students to annotate the resources that they collect. In Evernote, the annotation function allows users to highlight, circle, type upon and flag sections of the PDFs or text files collected therein, automatically popping copies of the annotated sections to the top of the document so that each resource is headed by what you found most pertinent for your research.
Experiment and find what works best for you
The purpose of this article isn’t to advertise on behalf of Evernote—there are other options that may work better for you, and as I wrote previously you should expect a colleague of mine to share words on the tool, Zotero, which by his description sounds even more specifically tailored to the process of research.
There’s also Mendeley. The important thing is to recognize that online research may benefit from different habits of mind than what we may have developed either for more traditional research or for casual web use. In some cases online research can be particularly frustrating, but in other cases there are tools available which make the computer an extremely handy research portal. Experiment with the tools that are out there, yourself, to see how you may best integrate their functionality into your study habits.