Being productive in college.
September 25, 2005 10:33 PM   Subscribe

Two part question. 1. I want to organize my college life. Digitally. 2. Also, I want to be productive with my scholarly pursuits, how did you/do you do it?

1. I'm looking for a program. One with maybe a calendar and a todo list for each day.

I want to be able to put all my assignments in the calendar ahead of time, and then each day look and see the assignments that I have to do.

I'm hoping this will help me to become more productive with my college endeavors.

2. Also, are there any general tips/hints/suggestions to being more successul regarding the scholastic aspects of college?
posted by petah to Education (23 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'm looking for a program. One with maybe a calendar and a todo list for each day.

I still use Outlook 2003 for this purpose, bloated though it is, but friends swear by Mozilla Sunbird for calendar + task management.
posted by musicinmybrain at 11:01 PM on September 25, 2005

I just graduated myself, and the only piece of advice that I give to anyone asking me how to do better in school is to go see your teachers at their office hours. If they can connect a name with a face, they will help you out more then the average joe sitting in the back with his cap off, snoring.
posted by Derek at 11:35 PM on September 25, 2005

Microsoft OneNote and Mozilla Sunbird.

OneNote has been a godsend for organizing my notes. I can't imagine doing it any other way.
posted by Brian James at 11:36 PM on September 25, 2005

Honestly, there are tons and tons of programs out there with calendars and todo lists. My big problem was actually using them when I got them. If it's difficult for you to be organized (lord knows I'm not that great at it), a spiffy program is only the first step. Once you find the right program (I too have heard that Mozilla Sunbird is awesome), it would be a good idea spend some energy working on building it into a routine. They say it takes 3 weeks before something sticks without effort.

As far as being successful in college there are four things that really help me:

1. Always go to class, even if you don't feel like it. Mental health days are ok, but probably not more than one per quarter or two per semester. Part of that is getting enough sleep.

2. Take notes and do the reading. You'd be surprised at how engaging with the actual classwork and course material will help you. After getting to know the professor and the nature of class, it will become clear what reading is necessary and what is probably filler.

3. Buy office supplies you really love so you'll be more inclined to use them. Get a great pen, and a nice folder system. They have things that go way beyond Trapper Keepers these days that will help make sure that you have everything you need for class in one place.

4. Really pay attention to what the professor wants and then give it to him or her. Sometimes it may feel like a copout to give the professor exactly what he or she wants if it runs counter to your objectives for the class. There are two parts of being in college academically speaking though: Getting the grades, and learning what you need for your life. Part of being successful in school is balancing the two.

Good luck!!!
posted by Kimberly at 11:42 PM on September 25, 2005

Here's what worked for me in college:

1) Start taking public transportation and do class reading during the commute.

2) Don't do homework at home. Do it at a library or someplace where you won't be easily distracted.

3) Bring a CD player or a DAP when you do your homework. Set it to play an entire album, and work steadily throughout the entire period (only taking a break if you have to go to the bathroom). At the conclusion, take a 5-15 minute break. Come back, set up another album, and go back to work. Do this every day for 4-8 hours until you're a week or two ahead of the class schedule. I'm still shocked to this day how much I was able to get done in those 45-60 minute bursts when I had my mind set to it.

4) Write down all your additional assignments in your syllabus for each class. If in one week you have a paper that you need to start the week prior in order to finish it to your satisfaction, then write down "start on paper" as an assignment for the previous week, &c. Staple your syllabi together and carry that packet around with you. Highlight or underline or circle all the assignments you've completed. I suppose this is the no-tech version of the calendar you want.
posted by aiko at 12:01 AM on September 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

I've been a student on and off for the last 12 years, and have been teaching at a uni part or full time for the last 9. These are a mixture of the things that worked for me, and the things I have noticed about the students who do well.
  • Unless you are really confident that you can complete a task without assistance, start it early. Asking for help the day before a deadline comes across as slack. Teaching assistants and lecturers are an order of magnitude more helpful if asked for assistance a week in advance.
  • If you have any problems (health, personal, whatever) that might affect your work make them known to your personal tutor or pastoral tutor or whoever as soon as they arise ("this is happening. I hope it won't affect my studies and I will try and soldier on, but I thought I'd let you know"). That way if the worst does happen, not only do they know who you are (as Derek said above) but they know you're making the effort.
  • Find someone on your course who you get on with and can trust to take decent notes. You will miss lectures, and having someone else to talk you through what you have missed will help you loads
  • Teach others what you have learned. There is no better way to learn something than to teach it. For revision, split up what you need to learn, get a group of people together, and teach each other parts of the course.
  • Work out what proportion of the final grade comes from each piece of work you are handing in. You will not belive the number of people who, when working on a project worth 1/3 of a whole year, will take three days out to do a piece of work worth 10% of a module worth 1/12 of a year. Be strategic.
  • If you get an opportunity to do a placement - be it a year, 6 months, 3 months, in industry or abroad - take it. The students I've supervised who have additional experience like this invariably do better. It gives you a fresh perspective on the whole student thing
  • I do that cd thing aiko suggested too. It works

posted by handee at 2:58 AM on September 26, 2005

The key to doing well, I think, is to do much more than is asked of you.

For example, if you're studying one of the natural sciences, try to do all of the problems in the book, not just the ones assigned for problem sets. Read papers on the subject matter. The most valuable experience is going to be research, so try to find a position doing some during the summers. You'll find that, after having spent a few months working on one or two problems, you'll have gotten a solid grasp on a lot of different areas of study.

Similar statements apply to other types of study, as well. If you're interested in writing, don't just do the assignments for your writing class. Write constantly, about everything you think of. Then, ideas come quickly and easily when you have to write, and you'll be much better at putting them down on paper.

Also, I'll echo the comments about finding a good place to study. Never try to study at the bar. It doesn't work.

As for calendars, I'd recommend a paper datebook rather than something digital. Banks often give these things out for free, too. It's always there with you, so you don't have to remember to write something down later. After all, if you can remember it, why write it down?
posted by dsword at 3:17 AM on September 26, 2005

Not to open the big can of worns, but you should check out 43 Folders and all the Getting Things Done related stuff around the web. I also wholeheartedly recommend John T. Molloy's book How To Work the Competition Into the Ground.

I'd recommend against a digital system because so much of your work in college is paper-based. You're going to receive lots of handouts, syllabi, etc.; and you're going to be reading lots of books. At any given time, only some of your work is going to be computer-based. It's not like an office job. There's a lot of stuff in those books that helps you make a truly watertight paper-based organization system.

One reason I recommend the Molloy book is simply because most college students are totally lazy. (I know I was.) I would do stuff like read my assignments while listening to incredibly loud and distracting music; write papers between the hours of midnight and five a.m.; and, in general, just not do the work I was assigned. This made it seem like there was endless work. In fact there was very little, and with focus and concentration, you can power through it and get everything done and then some.
posted by josh at 5:14 AM on September 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend the cards method from 43 folders, called the Hipster PDA (google it). It's a stack of index cards, one per class and then one for each other area of your life (one for "home" (for stuff like "Pay cellphone bill!"), one for "Someday / Maybe"). Then you write next actions on the cards. When the cards get full / messy, you copy the stuff over onto a new card.

This aint digital, but analog is so much more expressive / rewarding. The idea that really really important must be conveyed by "!!!" is just silly. Convey that to yourself in the size you write, underlines, coded circles, doodles, whatever.

It's also free, or nearly free.

I am working on a PhD and I'm trying to implement the "listen to a whole album and work the whole time" thing. There is a site I just found called "phinished", which is for advanced graduate students. It has a 40/20 rule. Do your work in 40 minute blocks with a twenty minute rest between each. This is a set. Then, if you've got 3 hours between classes or in the afternoon, do 3 sets of work as above. Though you'll only work two hours, you'll get so much more done! Swear.
posted by zpousman at 5:45 AM on September 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

Whatever type and amount of digital organization you end up going with, I have one piece of advice: BACK. IT. UP. ALL THE FREAKIN' TIME.

You will be very, very sorry if you don't.
posted by bcwinters at 5:53 AM on September 26, 2005

1. Ditto Josh on Getting Things Done.

2. Actually do work on a regular basis. Putting things off to the night before is setting yourself up for failure -- the same problems that could be solved trivially if you could ask your professors and TAs questions can easily be insurmountable at 3 AM the day it's due.

To the extent possible, read the textbook to stay one lecture ahead. That way you can start formulating your understanding of something before the prof lectures about it, so you're ready to ask questions about the bits that might confuse you.

Take advantage of professors' or TAs' office hours and your college's tutoring program, if any.

I didn't do all these things all the time, but when I did, I did better.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 6:02 AM on September 26, 2005

This is what's working well for me this year:

I have a (paper) planner, free from one of the colleges at my university. I don't use it to plan my weekends very much, so the Sunday space is now given over to a list of my readings for the week. I'm trying to stay a week ahead. As I finish readings, I tick them off. If I'm finished that week's readings and I have extra time (usually on public transit), I move on to the next week. This way, I'm not flipping through various syllabi. Everything is in one place, it doesn't run out of batteries or crash on me, and if I know I'll have some extra time in a day, I can bring one or two textbooks along and refer to my planner for what to read. All due dates, holidays, weekends I'll be away, etc., are already in my planner for the entire semester so I can plan around them.

Of course, any system is going to be useless if you don't actually sit down and do the work.

Take breaks. If you know you were distracted when you read a certain chapter, read it again. Talk to your profs -- not only are they more willing to help you out, I find they're very interesting people who are more than willing to talk about their research (cool!), plus it's a good network to have when you're looking for research positions.
posted by heatherann at 6:07 AM on September 26, 2005


Yes! And keep the backup somewhere different than where your main computer is in case of fire/theft/whatever. A friend kept her back up disks in her laptop case, and lost two years of dissertation work when the case was stolen.
posted by LarryC at 6:33 AM on September 26, 2005

Thoughts on scholastic success (some of these are mentioned above, but when you see them repeatedly, sometimes their value sticks better):
  • Go to office hours. Preferably, when you go you have an idea how to do the problems or have questions lined up. At the very least, it is dedicated time for specific classes. Seriously, few people show, but it is the best way to get help and make your face known to TAs and professors.
  • Should be obvious, but go to class.
  • Set aside non-work time. Many of the people around me who are happiest with their work have specific times that they don't work. Common rules include "Saturday" or "after midnight."
  • Make class reading more effective by taking notes and writing down questions on what's in the text. If appropriate, work out the sample problems or proofs, so things start to make sense to you internally.

  • posted by whatzit at 8:18 AM on September 26, 2005

    I used a program like 4.0STudent on my PDA to keep track of all my assignments. I found this worked best since I always had my PDA with me so I was likely to actually USE it.

    For general advice:
    1. Don't be afraid to let your professor know that you're struggling and ask for help. The earlier in the semester you do this, the better.
    2. Start projects and studying early.
    posted by geeky at 10:57 AM on September 26, 2005

    I'm trying to make a habit of visiting office hours myself. It really is the difference between a 4.0 and a 3.5 (at least at my school).

    Also, I'll second the GTD system. I just started in May, and I'm setting aside this Friday to get back into it. The sense of calm and control you'll feel once you've "got" it is the best thing in the world.

    What else? Join a group that pertains to your major. Actually, join a lot of groups, but be sure you meet some people who share your academic interest. They'll be the ones you can rely on when you're a senior and you need people who are going through the same thesis process. ;)
    posted by electric_counterpoint at 6:36 PM on September 26, 2005

    I'll add that I read GTD a few months ago and I've been far better at keeping on top of things ever since. It's important to adapt it to the way you work and not get too caught up in following his system to the letter though.

    Since you'll be in school and maybe not near your computer at all times, I'd recommend an online program for scheduling, which you can check from anywhere. For a calendar, kiko looks quite nice. I personally use tasktoy, which I wrote as an implementation of GTD that works best for me.

    As far as learning and studying goes, I think it's most important to figure out the way you learn best. Many people I know found lectures useless and had to learn everything from the notes or textbook. Others had to go to lecture and make their own notes which they then copied when they got home. I found that I could only really learn by doing practise problems and finding old tests to apply stuff.
    posted by kiwitobes at 7:43 AM on September 28, 2005

    I agree with the office hours advice everyone else has given. I was a TA for a logic course in the philosophy department for two semesters. It's a course that all philosophy majors must take and do well in, even though some very smart people have a lot of trouble with it because it's so unlike other philosophy classes.

    Obviously not everyone who came to office hours got an A. Many came because they were really struggling with the material, and maybe they had done poorly on the first few weekly quizzes. But in general, the people who showed up for help really improved over the course of the class and ended up doing fairly well, while most of the strugglers who I never saw continued to struggle all semester.

    If you are working through a proof (or whatever) right in front of your TA or professor, he or she can see where you might be going wrong and help you understand why. But if all they see is an incorrect answer on a quiz or exam, there's nothing they can do but grade it accordingly.
    posted by emmastory at 9:20 AM on September 28, 2005

    is there a quick way to access sunbird?
    posted by at 11:48 AM on September 28, 2005

    If you are a Mac user, I have to recommend OmniOutliner Pro. It is becoming one of my best resources for keeping my academic life in order. Here are some of the features that have been helpful for me.
    Outlining with attachments and notes: This is helpful for keeping things "together." I take my notes in OOP and when I go back over them to synthesize the information, I can add notes and questions without cluttering up my class notes themselves. If a note item (outlined, not an added note; confusing, I know) references another file, email, web address, or something else, I can link to that resource directly within the outline.
    Export to Keynote: When I research a presentation and have an outline meticulously lain out, the Keynote presentation will follow that outline almost all the way down. In OOP, I can just click Export and select Keynote and I have my presentation created. This is a great time saver.
    Kinkless GTD: This is basically a set of Applescripts and templates that work within OOP to create a centralized Getting Things Done environment. It is very cool. One of the best things you can use here is the Due Date and Start Date features. If you know when you need to start that paper, set that up in your KGTD and then it will start showing up when you told it to. For papers that have to be done that I have listed as Projects, I link to the other OOP file that I am using for taking my research notes.

    If you have an iPod, I recommend Pod2Go for synching Notes and other useful information such as movie times, weather, news, and stocks.

    I use iCal for scheduling, and while there are some features it is missing, I like it overall for tracking my appointments, work schedule, class schedule, and lots of other things. I sync this with my Sony-Ericsson T637 and my phone automatically switches to silent profile when it needs to and back when my appointment is done. This is one less thing I have to worry about.

    It's obvious that you are digitally minded. With that in mind, one of the things that I have found that keeps me from getting distracted is shutting down programs that distract me, namely Safari, Mail, and my RSS reader. If I really have to concentrate and don't want to have the temptation availbale, I will work in a place that doesn't have wireless internet or turn off Airport. I think one of the most important thing is to figure out where you are vulnerable to getting distracted and thwart those ahead of time.

    For me, going to class is essential. I try to do the reading ahead of time and take notes on it and then supplement my notes when I go to the lecture. OOP also has a recording feature, so I suppose you could record the lectures and discussions directly into OOP, although I haven't done this yet.

    In my academic pursuits, especially in graduate school, the key to motivating myself has been to find things that really interest me. A common characteristic of any topic I get truly interested in enough to work for hours on end on it is if it is something new and fresh that no one has looked at before or if it is a new angle of looking at something that has been done to death. Those sorts of things will make your life very fulfilling in school.

    Sorry for this long post, but this is one of the things that I am just beginning on (getting organized, etc.) so I am very eager to share my experiences with others. Hope it helps!
    posted by jxpx777 at 9:31 AM on October 11, 2005

    the best advice is to treat it like a job. work 9 until 5. if you are not in class, then study. the toughest thing is the lack of structure - you always feel like you could or should be studying more and you are also screwing around and not being productive. if you set up these time frames for your self you will do very well.
    posted by BigBrownBear at 3:07 AM on October 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

    Here are a few things that have helped me:

    * Learn to use the library, especially the online databases (such as Academic Search Premier, Expanded Academic ASAP, and LexisNexis Academic). Most libraries now grant access to their databases via the Internet, so you can do a lot without having to actually visit the library.

    * Learn a simplified shorthand, for taking notes.

    * I got a lot out of the book "What Smart Students Know." If you're interested, I posted my own notes on the book.

    And if you're not already overwhelmed with tips, here are three more sites with tons of good information:

    * How to Study: A Brief Guide

    * Study Guides and Strategies

    * Helpful Study Skills Links
    posted by xulu at 1:10 PM on October 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

    If I could sum up the top tips for academic success in college, I'd say the following.
    1. Search for a purpose- Identify why the work that you're doing is important to you and your overall reason for being in school.
    2. Get involved in something outside of school- One of the most problematic issues for college students is getting disconnected from the goings on of 'real life.' Don't allow yourself to get isolated in only campus life.
    3. Manage your time- The paradox of college life is that most students have a ton of free time. This is the ultimate productivity killer. Try and limit your free time to an hour or two per day at most and you'll see your success rocket.

    I've posted a number of useful links for college students about productivity and academic skills in the post: Good links for college students.
    You will also find 5 of the most successful tips for college students in my post : Tips for successful students.
    I hope that those links are helpful to you.
    posted by haydencoach at 1:55 PM on August 3, 2006

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