Organizing Graduate Study Class Materials

Q: Do you have any specific suggestions on organization ELP class materials?
 
I collected, managed, and updated all class materials electronically using Evernote, text files, and tools to make pdfs searchable. This post describes my system and a few related ideas.
 
These are the types of things you get in a typical graduate school class: electronic copies of readings, books that you buy, paper copies of readings provided in class, paper handouts, electronic and paper copies of syllabi, notes you take from class and discussions with other students, and electronic and paper copies of PowerPoints.
 
If your school uses Blackboard or equivalent tool as the primary tool for communicating with students, that is how you will access most of the class material supplemented by email to the some form of group address. There may be blackboard sections for each class.
 
Some people print everything for each course and collect the paper copies in notebooks. The notebooks can get quite large or numerous so then you need a system for carrying them all around. Plastic crates and wheeled carriers used to be quite popular, but I did not see any of my classmates using them.
 
I kept *everything* for each class electronically. If a journal reading or book excerpt was not in searchable pdf form, I used PDFPen (Mac program) to convert it. I used Prizmo for my iOS devices to convert pictures of text in physical books to searchable pdf to help me take electronic notes. All the notes I took for readings were electronic, from the searchable pdf, I usually kept my notes in Evernote and backed them up later to text files or Word if formatting was important. I took all my notes in class electronically on my MacBook Air or iPad except for classes that had lots of diagrams like adult learning and research methods. For those classes, I used a Livescribe Pen and notebooks. I created an electronic copy (scanned pdf from my iPhone or electronic text depending on multiple factors) of any physical notes I took outside of a Livescribe notebook. Later, I converted Livescribe notebooks to pdf (very easy to do). I have notes about these tools in my blog post on that topic.
 
I used file folders with labels for each class to collect the handouts until I could convert them to electronic form. If we were given paper journal articles, I would always ask for the electronic version to be placed on Blackboard. For handouts less than five pages, I used Prizmo to convert them to searchable pdf right in class or during a break. On my MacBook, I created electronic folders for each class, organized by semester, and put all the electronic materials there.
 
If I had it all to do over again, I would have started using an electronic reference manager right away. They are designed to manage your library of references and pdfs and most come with the ability to add notes, tags, and support very powerful search. This probably would have been better than the manual methods I used for Comprehensive Exam preparation. The reference manager I use now is Zotero, but there are others like Reference Desk and Mendeley. Reference managers are like luggage and other things: everyone uses what works for them. I like Zotero because it is easy to learn, has lots of tutorials, and is open source. Mendeley and similar tools work best when you are sharing notes and reading with peers, which strikes me as unlikely for ELP learners for some time since they tend to be more mature and not as comfortable with electronic collaboration. I probably would not have kept my only copy of article notes in Zotero or any other reference manager, however. As much as I use Evernote, I try to back up all my notes from dedicated tools into text files so a proprietary file system does not get between me and my stuff.
 
Three keys to "keeping up" with readings and classwork when you have a day job or other responsibilities. It is hard to read everything. Only a few people have jobs or situations where they can. If you cannot read an article, you can still benefit and participate from class discussions if you have read a summary. For me, the most time consuming part of the pre-class preparation was preparing a summary even when I did the reading. If you don't use summaries, all the readings start to blend together after the fourth of fifth article for a particular class for a particular weekend.
 
First, set up a group reading and summarization system for the reading assignments. One person coordinates who is assigned to summarize each reading before class. You also need to agree on a template for the summary (I have what we settled on). At the beginning, it is best to include everyone in the class that expresses interest in participating. After the first semester, you will figure out who is the most reliable and has the greatest interest in participating in producing the summaries, which for us was 5-6 people depending on the class. You will also discover who understands what a summary is and who basically dumps the entire article into the summary. I had to redo many summaries because the summary of a 30 page article would be 20 pages! You will refer to these summaries again and again during the semester and they will be incredibly useful as you prepare for the comprehensive exam in January of your second year.
 
Second, I prepared for each class by adding a key points, questions, and discussion points for each reading at the top of my electronic notes in Evernote. I could walk into any class and be ready for the discussion right away because I had these notes. I saw other cohort mates flipping rapidly through their paper copies of articles looking for their highlights and margin notes, which would not have been as effective for me. After class I would separate all my notes about particular readings from general class notes. I kept class discussion notes with reading notes in the same file or Evernote "card." These notes were very helpful for comprehensive exam study. That is another topic, but probably too advanced for this minute, how to build comp study into your routines for each class to be more prepared and organized when you *do* begin studying for it in the fall of your second year or spring of your first year (my group).
 
Third, don’t fall behind with assignments. My motto for graduate studies was: an average paper completed before the deadline is ALWAYS better than an above average paper turned in late. Adhering to this motto required me to make hard choices about when to move on to other assignments and discipline to accept “close enough” when I would liked to have taken more time to do better work. For readings, you may only have time to skim the abstract, introduction, and conclusions before class.
 
More important for me than organization of class material (since doing it electronically is so versatile) was setting aside the time to study each day. I have notes about this in my blog post. I used a spreadsheet at first, but later I just used a text file to keep track of every hour I studied so I could see every day and weekly how many hours I was investing (2-4 on weekdays, 4-6 on weekends, more near paper deadlines of course).