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College Study Hints
How to Prevent Homework From Screwing Up Real Life

How to Study With Computers


Okay, so you got a new computer as a high school graduation present, or as a hand-me down from your wealthy great uncle, or in a drawing at the mall, or in a fit of enthusiasm. Can it help you do something that profits you academically? The answer, as for most questions, is both yes and no:

Part I: Your Computer As Your Enemy

The fact is that recreational computer activities (music, Email, text-messaging, gaming, on-line shopping, MyFace, &c.), although (mostly) perfectly legitimate ways to spend recreational time, easily work as distractions from mastering the material you need to understand in order to do well in the courses you are taking. This happens in a couple of ways:

  1. You can use the various recreational possibilities of the computer to defer doing needed class preparation. Procrastination is one of the greatest obstacles to student success —maybe the greatest— and you probably do enough of it without electronic assistance.
  2. Taking class notes on a computer makes it hard to copy diagrams or draw arrows.
  3. These points can be combined: You can try to "take notes" in class with the computer and get distracted doing Email or surfing the web rather than paying attention. (Repeated studies have shown that multi-tasking works better for young students than for old professors, but that it doesn't work really well for anybody. Your roommate may claim to work better while multitasking, but your roommate is also an Olympic-level ninny. There's a lot of that going around.)

Multi-tasking works better for young students than for old professors, but it doesn't work really well for anybody.

Research announced in 2009 strongly suggested that the use of the social media site MySpace alone was correlated with a GPA difference of about half a grade among college students. Users, for example, might have a GPA of 3.0, while matched non-users might have 3.5. Presumably studies of FaceBook and Twitter would produce comparable results. The cause was almost certainly due to attempted multi-tasking. As a rule of thumb, it seems likely that in-class computer multitasking probably results in a drop of about half a grade, for example from A- to B+ or from C to C-.

Computer multitasking probably results in a GPA drop of about half a grade, for example from A- to B+ or from C to C-.

Your computer can also be your enemy in another way: As a source of information, it can deceive you with foolishness and falsehood. Most professors think this happens far more often than it really does. (Professors probably deceive students with more foolishness and falsehood than the Internet does, but that is not something anybody really wants to investigate. Talk about embarrassing!) Therefore you must be constantly skeptical —"critical" is the preferred university buzzword— and ask yourself about whether what you are viewing on-line makes sense to you, and what sources of information it is based on, and how trustworthy the author probably is, and what the probability is that an error is likely to be corrected if a site is wrong.

Finally, because so much is available on-line, it is easy to copy stuff. That too smoothly merges into plagiarism, which leads as directly as the university authorities can manage to getting you kicked out. More about plagiarism and other academic no-nos can be learned from a separate page on that subject, complete with true and sad, if darkly amusing, case histories of a hapless soul named Jimmy Gimmie. (Link)

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Part II: Your Computer As Your Friend

Computer As Fancy Typewriter. A computer can be used to prepare class assignments, of course. It even has a spell-checker. (Use it, dammit!) But we all know that it is far more helpful than that.

On-Line Research Resources. At this point it is safe to say than no traditional, paper-source library will ever again be bigger than the Internet, which provides the best access in human history to nearly every kind of information. And Internet resources are not limited to what you already use or know about, no matter who you are.

If you are on a college campus (or use a VPN client or follow the instructions on the university library web site to activate the "proxy server" function in your web browser so that you fool the Internet into thinking you are on campus), then you have university-paid access to a vast world of subscriber-only professional journals and library collections, hugely increasing your access to responsible scholarship on all topics.

Basically, every university in the world today has a bigger and better library than any university in the world did thirty years ago. (Wow!) Learning to exploit it is not rocket science. Not bothering to exploit it is just stupid. (You are not stupid, right?)

On-Line Class Materials. For better or worse, in most classes some needed material (including reading lists, assignments, and whatnot) is posted on a class web site. Some of it is static enough it can be printed out, but some of it (usually the best of it) changes constantly or is interactive, and your computer provides excellent access to it.

Nowadays many assigned readings are on the Internet, and more soon will be as publishers join the rush to provide Internet resources that can't be sold as used books at the end of the term. (They sell you a password that expires. Publishers have been looking for something like this ever since the first public library let more than one person read the same book.)

Taking Notes. Some students prefer to print out the electronic materials, on the theory that it is easier to take notes on a paper copy, with its attractively empty margins, than on an electronic version. In my term-end survey, most students still prefer paper and pen to any computerized note-taking software or machinery. Is paper really best? Maybe.

Other students have got used to using an ordinary word processor, or a dedicated note-taking program, and simply shifting between the window being read and their note-taking window. Some students have specifically recommended Microsoft's OneNote (Link) (packaged with the student version of Office or sold separately) and the freeware TiddlyWiki (Link). A little web browsing will bring you to other possibilities, including the cloud-storage Evernote program. (Several possibilities are listed here.) Unlike paper notes, with an electronic note file it is easy to insert URLs, to cut and paste passages, or even to copy a map. However most such programs don't provide easy links to specific parts of the source being read, so it takes some getting used to and it requires creative use of search terms to make this truly efficient. Experiment with your options early in the term; do NOT procrastinate on the assumption that an untried system will turn save you from the Final Exam Monster just because your cousin liked it four years ago.

Semi-Computers. Some students experiment with smart phones, PDAs, and various kinds of electronic readers and tablets. Although an occasional student claims that it "works fine" to do the day's readings on a smart phone in the bus on the way to campus, most students, in the end, dismiss such semi-computers as inadequate substitutes for the real thing in at least some of the tasks students need to be able to accomplish. (Nobody tries to write a termpaper on a smart phone and lives to tell about it, as far as I can discover.)

Because they do not have cursors, tablets and smart phones cannot respond as a laptop or desktop computer can to "hovering" the cursor over part of the screen (for example to reveal a picture caption or a problem solution), and some have limited character sets that may turn accented letters into blanks. Some cannot display some kinds of videos. Experiment carefully before you depend on a given machine. And don't forget that if you have a machine you like that is no good for something you only rarely need (like streaming video), you can always supplement by using a student computer lab. All universities have them.

Computers must be an integral part of your study world, and you must be open-minded to their strengths, patient with their quirks, aware of their weaknesses, and ready to nurse them when they are sick. Just like other friends.

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