Advice and Suggestions for First-Year GWU ELP Cohorts

(Updated for Cohort 26)

The GWU Human and Organizational Learning (H&OL) Executive Leadership doctoral Program (ELP) is divided into Cohorts as opposed to class year. I am a member of Cohort 24. This blog post is a collection of my lessons from the first year that might be of some interest to members of future cohorts (or anyone else starting graduate school). See the last paragraph for my thoughts on the "just one thing" necessary (there are more than one, of course) to be successful. As I update this note, I add new text in italics and remove the old italics.


  • Group collaboration tool (
  • Listserv warning
  • Notetaking
  • Strategies for dividing the reading (aka "cooperate to graduate")
  • Software tools I use
  • Create systems/process for everything
  • Completing Assignments
  • Class Discussions
  • Study hours and efficiency
  • Cohort 23 "Pearls of Wisdom"
  • Planning the Time Between Cohort Weekends
  • Semester Planning Process
  • Other quick notes

A. -> wiggio is a collaboration support tool that is wonderful for group work and the entire class. It allows you to store files, create discussion threads, arrange conference calls (even providing free numbers to use), and other things. As soon as you can, create a class group on this collaboration site. I have attached a guide I wrote for using wiggio. You should also consider setting up wiggio groups for the separate Leadership, Culture, and Change electives and within class projects because it makes collaboration so much easier than bombarding email inboxes. I encourage using wiggio to post files instead of sending them as email attachments because they are easier to manage this way. For communications, wiggio discussion threads parallel the functionality of the private listserv for the cohort with the added advantage of keeping discussions more coherent and you do not need to be a member of the listserv to reply to the wiggio group address. Asynchronous email among 20 or more people gets confusing very quickly. The wiggio site has very good tutorials. Here is a link to the one I created.

B. Listserv email replies are not the same as regular email. When you reply to  a message someone sent to the group, the reply goes to the entire group, not just the sender, unless you manually copy the sender's address and replace the listserv address in your email client's To: field. This can cause embarrassment if the sender does not intend remarks to be read by the entire group. My own view is that it is a bad practice generally to send strongly negative comments in email. You should avoid writing things about another person using email that you would not want them to read because there is no such thing as "private email."

C. Class Notes. I try to keep my notes in electronic format as much as possible. I do not print any of the articles assigned for class. I recognize that this approach may not work for everyone (or possibly anyone), but it keeps the material much more accessible and easier to share with others. I don't print any articles because I can access them on my Mac and iOS devices (via Goodreader and Dropbox, see below in software). The tools and practices (high level) that I use to do this are:

1) OCR all reading assignments. This allows me to cut and paste text from the article to summarize it in a document and serve as class notes. I used to use Word for this, but then switched exclusively to Evernote my second year because of its cloud functionality (available on all my devices all the time, easier to share, and constantly backed up). At the top of my notes for each article, I create a section that I label "key points" that are just the essential ideas or questions I want to ask. I can review these just prior to class and be ready to discuss and ask questions. This is very helpful when there are a lot of articles assigned for reading (which is almost every class the first summer and fall). In "key points," you should include questions, disagreements, or things you thought were particularly interesting in the article that you think might be good material for a class discussion.
2) When I used Word for class notes, I put all my notes for a class in a Word document that has the class date as the first part of the file name (I add this prefix to all article titles so I can quickly tell which articles I am responsible for reading for which class days). I use a standard file naming convention for the articles although I am sure everyone will come up with a system that works for them. My format was: Class date (YYYYMMDD format) Authors (last names, just the first two) Year of publication (two digits) short title. Including the author names is helpful when searching for the article. This is a template I use.
3) I take notes for most classes by typing them on my laptop. This did not work for Adult Learning because I cannot type as fast as Dr. Scully-Russ speaks (alert), but it did for most of the other classes.
4) When I do take notes on paper (only necessary for a few classes or to record some diagrams), I use a Livescribe Sky wifi "smart" pen because it automatically transfers the notes to Evernote (see below) in pdf format, and it records the audio of the speaker. This makes the notes much easier to share with others. I prefer drawing diagrams in Penultimate because I can add them to my Evernotes very easily.

D. Dividing the reading. Prior cohorts recommended we split up generation of article summaries (not the reading, you still need to do that).

1) Books. I take electronic notes on books (in a Word, text, or Evernote document), but we did not assign others to do this. Some people felt that this process was too idiosyncratic to use shared notes.
2) Articles. You should try to read all the articles yourself even if you are not producing notes/summaries to share with others. However, real life can intrude on school and sometimes you will just run out of time so you may only have time to read a classmate's summary (this is why "key points" come in so handy). If that is not an option and you run out of time to prepare,just read the abstract, introduction, discussion, and conclusions. Agree as a cohort early on a single format (just use the one from our cohort and don't spend too much time on it). Even when you agree on a single format, some classmates will provide more detail than others so you will just have to deal with that.
3) Assigning articles. Some instructors will assign groups to do this (like Culture and Leadership) and others will not. It is possible to assign articles to each member of the entire class, but very hard to manage so I have worked with a smaller group, which I expand when someone expresses an interest in participating. If anyone that reads this wants more details on this, send me an email so we can set up a time to talk.

E. Software Tools.  I use a variety of software tools to support my academic work beyond such staples as MS Word and Excel. I use a Mac, but most of the programs  have Windows equivalents. I also use an iPad because the battery life is superior to my Mac and you might not always be able sit by an outlet in the classroom. Many of these programs require an investment of time to learn so it behooves you to start learning as soon as possible because you won't have much time for that during the semester.

1) Scrivener. The program is a writing tool optimized for complex writing assignments with many tools to support the writer. I started writing my assignments in Word, but shifted to Scrivener and now prefer it because it automatically takes care of many things that must be done manually in Word and has great tools to support the creative process. I have created a quick user guide to writing projects that I can share.
2) Evernote. This is a cloud-based program that has Mac OS X, Windows, Android, iOS, and browser-based access so your notes are always synchronized among all devices. It has a browser-based widget to facilitate web-clipping (very handy when you are scanning lots of journal articles so you can clip notes and URLs as you go). I use it constantly to create notes for each class, action lists, master lists of assignments for all classes in a term, and project notes for each class among other tasks. Because the notes are synchronized among all my devices, I can work on projects no matter where I am located. It performs handwriting recognition on pictures you take of notes or text on plane paper and specialized Moleskine notebooks (if you pay for the premium version, which I do). It does not convert handwriting and pictures via OCR, but the search capability is amazingly good. It is integrated with Livescribe Sky pens (see below), Penultimate (an electronic "ink" notebook for the iPad), and Skitch (a tool to visually communicate ideas, share feedback and collaborate with friends and co-workers on existing image or new ones). What I really like about Evernote is a) the integrated tools like Penultimate and Skitch that synchronize with it and b) the extensive video tutorials and use-case strategies contributed by users (Evernote calls them "ambassadors") on the support website. My workflow for each semester is to create several Evernote notebooks and notes: Notebooks for each class that contain the syllabus as both a file attachment and plain text (just the good parts), notes for class notes for the class, notes for the each of the class reading assignments, and notes for each individual assignment (this is where I put my notes and rough drafts for the assignments). I use several GWU non-class Evernote notebooks: GWU Schedules, GWU Reference, and GWU Action. In GWU Action, I create a master note for all the assignments for all classes so I can tell at a glance what is due and when. I also place a note, GWU Fall/Spring/Summer Actions, which is a master list of all classes and assignments and actions. If you are familiar with Getting Things Done terminology, this is where I put my master list of "next actions" for all GWU work that I keep up to date throughout the semester. I can share samples of any of these tools on request as well as the workflow I wrote for the semester planning process to reduce the "mental load" of getting set up for the semester. If you sign up for Evernote based on this recommendation, credit me ( and I get some usage credit. I have also used Evernote Moleskine notebooks to plan assignments, which helps me manage time between assignments. I am not always in places where I can use my Livescribe pen or a tablet/phone with Evernote. Sketching plans in an Evernote Moleskine notebook is sometimes faster than using Penultimate even when I do have access to it. Sketching plans this way sometimes helps me overcome planning or creativity "block" when my thinking needs to be a combination of text and diagrams such as creating a calendar of milestones for assignments or deciding how to budget my time across the four weeks of preparation time between classes. With the Evernote Moleskine paper notebooks, you can take pictures of the pages with your phone/tablet and add them to Evernote. If you pay for the premium version of Evernote, your handwriting gets recognized (not converted to text) and can be found in searches (you need to write neatly, of course).
3) Refworks. This is an online research, writing, and collaboration tool. It is web based bibliographic management software. It is very complex so you should set time aside to watch the tutorial videos before you are writing too many papers. It allows you to gather, organize, store, and share research articles and to quickly create bibliographies. Not all document retrieval systems work with it, however. There are very good video tutorials, but I have not been able to spend as much time on them as I should.
4) Goodreader. This is a robust pdf reader application that allows you to read virtually anything, anywhere: books, movies, maps, pictures. I keep it synchronized with the file directories for GWU articles so I have them with me all the time via my iOS devices.
5) Prizmo. This an iOS application that allows you to take a picture of just about anything and convert it to text. I use it all the time to make electronic notes (and copy diagrams) from things I read in books that I cannot get in electronic form.
6) Dropbox. This is cloud storage that keeps any files you want accessible via the web on all your mobile devices. I purchased an annual membership. If you sign up for this program because of me, please credit me ( and I get extra storage.
7) Skitch. I started using this tool my second year and it is a wonderful way to annotate diagrams you cut and paste from the readings. It is integrated with Evernote.

F. Systematize everything you do more than once. I have strategies and templates for article notes, semester course assignment set up (how I "dissect" a syllabus), and how I take class notes. Using Dropbox and Evernote, I have access to the assignments and notes on all my mobile devices, which is handy because often I will not have an hour to work on something, perhaps only 15 minutes. I try to make sure that 15 minutes adds value and having ubiquitous access to most of my class plans via Evernote and Dropbox helps. I wrote this blog post in 5-15 bursts of time between article reading/summarizing. This is a link to my summer master list of assignment due dates (I produce one of these master lists each semester so I can see all assignments and when they are do at a glance), my study hours spreadsheet (useful for managing your study hours as you build the discipline necessary to spend nearly every waking moment on your assignments and ready), and I can provide a dropbox link to anyone that wants to see the other tools I use. If you are not a dropbox user and you sign up because of me, credit me for this and we both get more storage. The study hours record (I switched to using Evernote my second year), is also a record of the hours I spent studying, which is a great way to hold yourself accountable for the hours you MUST put in to be successful in the program.

G. Assignments. The most important point about assignments is to get them in on time (this is why creating master lists of assignment due dates are so important) so you do not fall behind. The corollary of this point is that a B quality effort turned in on time is better than something higher quality turned in late (say this over and over to yourself). Often, the hardest part of an assignment for me is deciding what approach I want to use for the project and developing a strategy for doing it. Sometimes, I did not develop a strategy for an assignment until I started writing. This is not a good approach and is bothersome for an engineer like myself, but I figured out how to get over it. I tend to "break down" assignments into steps and actions (much like a "Getting Things Done" project). It is just the way I am most comfortable with planning. The key is to plan enough to make steady progress, but don't over-engineer or overwrite the papers. Don't worry if you don't get much guidance on an assignment (freedom for creative approaches). If format/structure are important, you will get guidance on it. If it is not, you will not get any guidance so take that as a signal that creativity is encouraged (which it is most of the time, embrace it). Worry less about what the professors "want" and more about what you want and what you are learning. It is hard to know how long a paper is going to be until you actually start writing so after some experience I set targets/goals for how many words/characters to use in some sections (ex: half-page for introduction, one page for conclusion, two pages for first section, etc.) to keep track as I went along and pace myself to reach the desired length. Before I took this approach to assignments, I tended to over research (wasting time looking up twice as many references as I needed) and over write the papers and had to spend a lot of time at the end cutting them down This is because I spent too much time researching before writing. You have to find your own balance, of course. By setting pages/section targets and starting to write before I actually feel comfortable that I have done enough research, I tend build up to the page limit of the assignment rather than cut down. It also counteracts my tendency to research too many sources for the shorter papers. The "build up" approach is easier for me because the outline I produce before I start writing nearly always supports going into more detail if I am significantly short of the length target (which I almost never am).

H. Class Conversations and Participation. There is an art and balance to contributing to class conversations (not discussions most of the time). These should not be "clashes of ideas" or competitions for attention, but rather opportunities to share perspective and learn from others. Your comment does not have to be in the form of "here is what I thought was important and blah, blah, blah." It can be things like, "I thought this was interesting because ... That is a really interesting observation or point [commenting on a classmate's observation]." Try to relate your comment to your own experience and try to build off of the comments of others, when you can. If you tend to dominate the conversations or your comments are in the form of "look at me, look at me!," your classmates will soon find it irritating. Everyone in the program is smart and the professors know this so there is no need to call special attention to it. The "points" for contribution to class conversations are pretty liberally provide so you only have to speak up from time to time to get full credit. I am sure my classmates will find this note amusing, should they stumble upon it, since I struggle with this myself.

I. Study Hours and Efficiency. Take micro-breaks when you are studying such as five to ten minutes out of every hour, to keep yourself fresher and avoid falling asleep reading on your screen or daydreaming or surfing the web or doing email or ... I tend to write a study plan every day based on my semester action list (remember, this shows assignments, readings, and other actions I needed for each class). I would divide my study periods (0430-6 am and 6-9 pm each day) into one hour blocks. I try to lay out my study plan in Evernote for the next day before just after I finished studying at night. This was when I am clearest on what I need to get done tomorrow. Yes, I would get up early to study because I like the idea of making progress on the assignments and reading before I go to work. You can make your study hours and work plan as general or specific as you want (or forgo doing it at all), but it can keep you focused on setting goals, not spending too much time one one course (easy to do) and making progress in each course. I found it useful to keep myself from spending hours and hours on a single course and neglecting the others. I stopped being so disciplined after the first two semesters, but found I had to go back to it the second fall to make sure I used my time effectively. This is a link to the pdf version of an Evernote card I use for my study plans. Next to many of the dates are the number of hours I studied each day, another useful reminder.
J. Here is a link to the Cohort 23 "Pearls of Wisdom" they provided us when we started last summer. I found a lot of it very useful.
K. Planning the time between cohort weekends. Make good use of the time between classes since the time passes faster than you think. Creating a schedule of work to do in support of written and read assignments could help. I started using an index card near my computer labeled “Weeks until next GWU class” with four post-it notes (small size) layered on top of each other, with the numbers 4, 3, 2, 1 enabling me to reorder the one on top each week to provide a countdown to the next class session. I divided my daily study plan into “must do” and “should do” sections to help me prioritize the actions I planned. Try to break assignments into pieces of work or milestones you can schedule to keep the work manageable. This allows you to work on assignments in discrete elements (or “chunks”) and supports setting deadlines to keep from working at the last minute. You will do this many times anyway, but you should not plan to do so. For example, since I used Scrivener to write papers, I created a work breakdown structure for setting up a Scrivener project file for writing papers. I also did initial project planning in Evernotes created for each assignment (outlines, key references, notes, etc.).

L. Semester Planning Process. I have a detailed Evernote card on this that I can share, if desired. This is likely very ideosyncratic and the approach you develop will probably differ. Step 1: Create an Evernote card of the syllabus for each class. Each class syllabus note contains the syllabus document as an attachment and the text for assignment details copied into the note. Near the top of the note, I create a list of all assignments, which I later copy into a master note for the semester as noted above. Step 2: Create an Evernote master list of assignments for the semester showing due dates and grading weights. I find this essential for staying focused on doing the right things next. Step 3: Create an Evernote master list of "actions," organized by course. I use this to capture all my "next actions" for the courses and it is the first place I go when I am planning my study time each day. I also use it as a place to record questions I want to ask for the next class. Step 3: Consider enlisting colleagues in a reading summary plan (assign articles and dates). Step 4: Start creating Evernote cards for upcoming assignments.

M. Other quick notes

1. (this might not be valid any longer) Don't take HOL 6706 in the first Fall since the Fall semester was the hardest we had in terms of coursework and papers. This may not always be true, however. Perhaps a better way to write this is, "I do not not recommend taking HOL 6706 in your first fall semester if your workload is anything like our's was."
2. Use Google Scholar to look up full citations for articles since they are not always provided and they are handy to have in case you want to reference the reading in one of your papers. This is very easy to do by searching for the title and then using the "cite" link. Recognize that Google Scholar is terrible at providing citations for collections of works with editors. Make sure you associate Google Scholar with GW libraries (done via settings) and you can go right to GW's libraries to locate articles you find via Google Scholar.
3. I have Poster Guidance I can share. Posters are a way to briefly provide highlights of your research on paper or cardboard the size of a poster. If you have ever participated in a science fair, the display is similar. A "poster session" is an opportunity for you and colleagues to inform others of your research.
4. If you are confused or stumped about something, ask for help (via the listserv or from your classmates right away. While many might have the same problem, it is likely someone has figured it out or knows enough that can help others. If you ask a question of one of the professors, quickly share your answer. They presume you are doing this so they will just reply to the person that asked the question.
5. If you think you have figured out something important that was stumping you, share your insights right away. It may help others and you might find out an even better approach when you get feedback.
6. One of our classmates created a list of definitions for some of the fundamental sociological terms. Start with this and then keep your own up to date over the semester. You will refer to this often.
7. Remember that the library can make electronic copies of book chapters if that is all you want. I used Text-Expander to create a template for requesting books/articles that makes it a snap.
8. Try to collected related categories of notes that will come up across the classes such as what a scholar practitioner actually does, key ideas from guest speakers, comprehensive exam, dissertation, etc. Ideas in these categories often do not come up all at once in class discussions or professor advice. They tend to come up in discrete points of time and you will definitely want to refer to them later.
9. Take the time to set up notifications in Blackboard. You can be alerted to assignment due dates, when assignments have been graded, and many other things automatically so this is well worth the effort. There is a Blackboard Student Guide for "Setting Your Notification Options" that describes what to do in detail, but the essence is sign in to Blackboard, select "My Places" in upper right hand corner of the page, and select "edit notification settings." You will be presented with a long list of all the Blackboard notification options that can appear in your Blackboard dashboard, email, or have sent to a mobile device (this option did not work well for me).
Of course this is a lot to digest for students just starting, but I thought I would err on the side of putting a lot in one blog post (more efficient for me). You can always come back to it later. If I were going to pick just one thing to make sure you do, it would be to keep a study hours log and daily work plan. They should be in the same file/Evernote note so I think that they still count as "one" thing. Getting through the program is a combination of support you get from each other and building the disciplined habits to GET THE WORK DONE. I found that the study log was absolutely essential to building the study habits I needed. Right after this comes the development of a strategy to keep organized so you are using your time efficiently. If anyone that reads this has questions, you should just post it in the comment area of this blog so others can see it and my answer. For more personal questions, you can contact me through this website (I get comment email through an alias, which keeps spam down) . Here is a link to where I put all the files (and a few more) that I mentioned above. I plan on doing future blog posts about comprehensive exam preparations and the second year of the program.