To succeed as a student, you need to use information technology. But IT is a two-edged sword. Use it well, and you will learn better and get higher grades. Use it poorly, and you will be too distracted and disorganized to excel.
Here are six technology-enhanced learning strategies that can make you a better student. Each learning strategy is a desirable difficulty, meaning it requires a bit of extra upfront effort but pays off cognitively.
Strategies for technology-enhanced learning
1. Be organized
Organizing and connecting academic information helps you understand it. It can also help you quickly find the information later.
For each course you are taking, consider creating a central hub—a folder or tag—on the Mac, iPad, or online. Then systematically aggregate information about each lecture and other learning resources such as PDFs there.
PDFs can also be stored in bibliography managers such as Bookends.
Either way, ensure you can quickly find course information. Many of these apps support tagging. You might, for instance, create a tag for each course and a tag for each topic.
Similarly, if you use an online bookmarking service such as Pinboard, Pocket, or GoodLinks, consider tagging relevant web pages with it. For example, if you’re taking a course on memory and read an important web page on amnesia, you might tag it with “memory” and “amnesia”.
2. Be prepared
Before attending a lecture, it’s a good idea to prepare yourself by doing the readings your instructor recommends. Let yourself become curious about what will be taught. Ask yourself what you already know about the subject. Create a notes document, or entry, for the upcoming lecture, reading, video, or meeting.
3. Take notes mindfully
Taking notes optimally is one of the most critical study habits. It’s also trickier than you might think. The goal is to understand the gist of the material while capturing enough detail to meet your needs.
Every discipline has its jargon—terms that are frequently used. For instance, the expressions “classical conditioning” and “operant conditioning” are common in psychology.
Using TextExpander can help you take more accurate, detailed, and legible notes. You could, for instance, define the abbreviation “cc” for “classical conditioning” and “oc” for “operant conditioning”. Being able to quickly expand these abbreviations may help you focus on the gist of a lecture without having to decode your shorthand later.
It’s also a good idea to insert tags in your notes that express your response to part of a lecture or PDF. For example, you can tag text as
* a key term or concept
* a key bibliographical reference
* contradicting something or someone
* something you don’t understand
* something to follow up on
You can define TextExpander abbreviations for these reflective tags. This strategy can help ensure you’re processing the information deeply, as opposed to acting like a stenographer. And it will help you during your review.
4. Review and elaborate your notes
It’s important to review and flesh out lecture notes soon after taking them, otherwise, you may forget their meaning. When doing so, try to elaborate on them.
Explain the material in your own words. Work through examples and exercises. Pay special attention to the key concepts you may have tagged. Try to fix the gaps in your knowledge, some of which you may have marked with TextExpander as “don’t understand”. Ask for help when you need it.
Don’t limit yourself to text. It’s often helpful to draw diagrams about what you are learning.
5. Make connections
To understand the material, you need to make mental connections between it and other information. You can record some of these connections by copying and pasting links to information resources directly in your notes.
Using the Hook productivity Mac app, you can bi-directionally link your PDFs to information in other apps: notes, diagrams, tasks, emails, web pages, and more. For example, Hook allows you to copy a link to the PDF file that is currently open in PDFPenPro. You can then paste the link anywhere, including your reading list. That way, when it comes time to read the PDF, you won’t even have to search for it; just click on the link to open the PDF in PDFPenPro.
6. Practice productively
Reading, attending lectures, and note-taking is not enough. To master content-rich information, it is helpful to repeatedly practice answering questions about it.
Re-reading is easy, but it’s not an effective way to memorize. In contrast, practicing is a desirable difficulty.
It helps you realize what you don’t know, and where to focus to improve your understanding (and grades). Also, it primes knowledge in your mind; so you’re more likely to connect it to other knowledge. That’s a virtuous cycle.
We recommend using powerful flashcard software like Anki. Anki is free for the Mac and it has an iPhone companion with a sync service. You can practice while you’re on the go.
Keep using technology-enhanced learning strategies
One of the main purposes of higher education is to help you learn how to learn with technology. No one becomes a learning wizard overnight. Everyone should keep working at it, even after they graduate. The payoffs are huge: being in control, feeling less stressed, and becoming increasingly effective.
So, stay tuned, because over the next year, Smile will publish more articles that help you use knowledge and technology to do great cognitive work. Next month, we will focus on productive practice.
My two books, Cognitive Productivity with macOS: 7 Principles for Getting Smarter with Knowledge and Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective explain these technology-enhanced learning strategies in more detail.