Organising study notes

Near the beginning of my studies, I realised I needed days to make sure I remembered what I read. I tried many different things. I like writing notes into notebooks as I read – so started with different exercise books (the ones from school but A4 size) to make notes about the books I was reading and making sure I kept up with the references.

Then I realised this might not be the most effective. I have lots of notebooks I use for work and am not the tidiest person in the world. I decided to go ‘electronic’.

So each book or paper I read, I made notes on a different Word document with thoughts as I make my way through the relevant reading. Sometimes with useful quotes added. It’s like creating a précis that I can go back to.

I saved each one as a separate Word document with the name of the article, paper or book/book chapter into a folder called ‘articles read’ (it’s not just articles of course). Because I got a bit paranoid about losing data, I back it all up to a USB stick, DropBox and OneDrive – cos I just can’t trust only one cloud storage space!

I have another folder with all the papers I have collected along the way, mostly in PDF – that’s the ‘articles PDF’ folder (they aren’t all PDF but this is just in my head!). When I started, I printed all the PDFs off and had them in separate paper folders depending on the topic – so one for ‘Human Rights’ and one for ‘Mental Capacity’ etc – but the numbers of articles grew and the printer ran out of ink…

That’s when I started to think about reference management software. I bought EndNote at student discount rate and used that the first year including for my initial literature review work. I liked a few things about it and I’d never used reference management software – but my organisation wasn’t very good from the start. I liked that it ported Harvard style referencing (and lots of others) into my essay but I did have to do a bit of tweaking as well. EndNote synced well with my iPad as well.

In year two, I kept EndNote (because I bought a copy!) but decided to try other reference managers. Not quite sure how I ended up with Readcube Papers, it certainly isn’t the best known or most well-used (that must be Zotero/Mendeley), but I ported my library over and quite like it. That might be because I am only comparing it with EndNote but I’ll stick with it for a bit. I like that I can (although I can do this with EndNote as well) store my PDFs within it. Probably because I started when I was in year two, I was able to ‘organise’ from the start. I imported all my links from EndNote but was able to tag and sort them into topics that made more sense. It was like ‘starting afresh’. Of course, it was also entirely unnecessary. But (did I mention my obsession with backing up), I also went back to my Word document summaries and copied and pasted them into the ReadCube ‘notes’ so when looking at my references, I don’t have to go back into the Word documents I’ve created and can read my summaries, thoughts, relevant quotations etc directly from the references.

I don’t know if this is the system I will continue to use. I also use OneNote as my ‘research diary’. I started a paper-based research diary where I made notes on my thoughts and feelings and different approaches (including ongoing tweaking with research questions – ideas about developing methodologies and methods). Then I lost my paper-based notebook. I’m sure it’s still in my house somewhere but got lost in a ‘tidy’. So I use OneNote. I have a ‘notebook’ called research diary and add a page for each day I write in it. It’s just thoughts as I go along. I also have notebooks within OneNote for tweaking research questions and I like it because it is accessible from my phone and iPad but also because I can import links, documents, webpages and PDFs into it. It’s a bit messy but it means it won’t be ‘lost.

I have also played with Mindmaps. I struggled a lot to make sense of my research topic and research questions. I knew the area I wanted to delve into but was having difficulty breaking it down and identifying specific research questions that worked. The mind mapping really helped – just a bit of brainstorming and putting words and ideas together and seeing how they fit together visually. I use Apple infrastructure – I have computer that runs MacOS and have a iPad and iPhone (I know, I know). I tried Mindnode but didn’t get along with it so well (that is entirely about how my mind works and the things I wanted the software to do). Eventually I settled on iThoughts – and putting out my ideas and plans on a Mindmap really helped. I’m sure I’ll come back to that as a specific post later.

I can’t ‘advise’ that any of these systems ‘work’ because I honestly don’t know but sometimes it’s a difficult terrain to navigate, especially coming back to studying after many years when technology, apps and programmes are much more well-developed than they were when I last studied.

But this was a basic run-through on what I do to try and remember things at the moment!

Author: Vicky

Social worker based in London

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