I’ve heard it said that uni students don’t have opinions, only references.  I’m already starting to feel that.

My last TMA came back marked this morning, just as I finished off my second draft for TMA03.  (I gave it an early submission just in case something happens and I forget to submit my final draft later.)  The last one had its own share of references, which I did by hand, and it took me ages to get them formatted correctly into the OU’s particular flavour of the Harvard referencing model.  This time, the references section was literally the largest portion of my TMA, and there’s no way I could do it without quitting my job and saying goodbye to my children for a few months a year.  Enter reference management software.

On one of the multi-module Facebook groups I’m in, someone asked what reference software everybody used.  I had no idea what they were even talking about, so was very interested in the discussion.  Somebody mentioned that they used CiteThisForMe, so I gave it a look.  It was like Christmas, but if you had super boring parents.

Different reference management software packages have different functionality, but in general they try to identify a source (typically by being fed a URL or by clicking a browser plug-in button when on a cited page) and extract information from that source.  This includes things like the author’s name, the date of publication, journal titles, volume numbers, etc.  It then plugs that information into a template for your desired reference model, either letting you copy-and-paste it, or inserting it for you with a word processor plug-in.

I tested CiteThisForMe with a reference I’d done for my last TMA, which took me three or four minutes to write with the OU Library’s help page up on the Harvard referencing FAQs.  It took a single cut and paste of a URL!  Everything was more or less correct, but the formatting was slightly wrong.  That’s when I noticed that I could refine the Harvard reference to Harvard referencing for Open University.  Sadly, it still wasn’t quite perfect, as it had formatting for a previous year.

I soon discovered that most reference management software get their formats from an open source program called BibTeX.  BibTeX itself is hard to use, but other fantastically easy tools make use of it as a resource.  Not all tools kept their formats updated regularly, though.

I tried out a few other tools, and was happy using RefME for a few days before I was approached by the head of an academic institution asking for assistance in assessing and choosing a reference managagement tool.  Coincidentally, she had also recently been exposed to them for the first time, and wanted to know how the one she saw, Zotero, stacked up to the rest of the field.

In her case, Zotero turned out to be the best fit due to its browser plugins, Word plugins, and ease of use.  If I had my summer of pre-uni study prep back, though, I’d heavily invest time into figuring out how to make Docear work for me.  It’s an entire suite for academic writing, and in addition to a decent (if slightly unweildy) reference management tool, it also includes things like mind mapping, PDF annotating, and other things.  For many, it would be perfect for the TMA notes document of my last post.

You can’t just leave your references to the software.  They get the references slightly wrong often enough that you have to go over each one and tweak them.  But it takes a three or four minute job down to just half a minute.  That makes a large difference when you’re writing a TMA and cycle between eight web sources before finally deciding on two and tossing the other six away.  After you’ve already re-written that section four times.

While the TU100 module doesn’t actually start for nearly three weeks, I’ve gotten a fair head-start on it, so that I could learn more about how I’m currently learning.  The Good Study Guide hits the concept of self-evaluation quite hard, and I agree with it.  Six years is a long time, there’s an enormous amount of work ahead, and I want to give myself the best possible chance.

One problem I have with this is that once I start, I’m finding it difficult to put down.  First of all, it’s fun. I really enjoy this limbo of structured independent study.  Second, I’m desirous to prove to myself that I can make this a habit, and stick with it.  I find myself making excuses so that I start working as soon as the children go to bed so that it becomes second nature to me. (For example, last night I spent ALL my down-time in the kitchen, but with the door open so I could still share snarky comments about the TV with my wife, and didn’t even realise I hadn’t had any relaxation time.)  So the end result is that I’m a good deal further ahead than I’d really wanted to be.

I’d finished Block 1, Part 1 (‘Parts’ seem intended to basically take a week) after a few days.  I’m now in the middle of Part 2, but have also already completed my first TMA.  So that people understand what I mean when I say ‘finished’ a part or session, I thought maybe I’d describe some of the techniques I’m putting into effect so far.

I have difficulty concentrating while reading text, and I don’t think I’m alone there.  I can read the same passage of text about a dozen times without concentrating well enough to absorb any meaning, or even remember what I’d just read.  The most useful active learning technique that I’ve found to counter this is taking notes while reading.  Basically, it just makes sure that my brain engages in comprehension at every thought along my reading.

I use a 10″ tablet to flip open to my reading material (so far in e-books), then go online with my laptop to fire up OneNote Online to take notes in the cloud.  My notes then progress paragraph-by-paragraph, because I often find that doing so retains the clustered ideas found in each paragraph, and linking from paragraph to paragraph serially helps the flow of my notes.  (I said this much more succinctly in my TMA, and may be back to edit this section after the TMAs are marked, but I’m leaving my exact words out in case someone else subconsciously uses similar wording on their TMA and it triggers the OU’s anti-collusion software.)  I then write out a simplified bullet-point outline of the text.  So by the time I get done with a section of reading, I’ve re-written that section with a handful of words.

Then when I need to revise, I can read just my notes, which bring up the memories I associated when taking the notes, and I retrieve the entire meaning in a fraction of the time.  So how much writing am I doing, and how much time am I saving during revision?  Good question.  Let me check my numbers.

TU100 My Digital Life Block 1 Part 1 is roughly 14,000 words long.  Reading all of that and taking notes on it took approximately 6 hours (including activities), and condensed it down to roughly 3000 words (not including activities).  3000 words may seem like a lot, but I can barely keep birthday cards down to 3000 words.  (Imagine how I feel when a TMA says I have 200 words to say something!)

But that’s an excellent example that I have to do better.  I’ve cut down what I’m reading a lot, but 1 in 5 words still leaves a loooot of words behind.  On the other hand, it doesn’t take me much time to type the words, and the result is that I can recall them and their meaning very easily.  It might take MORE time to try increasing brevity beyond what I’m already doing.  If retyping every word would help me learn the information better (which, it won’t) I’d probably do it.

On a completely separate note, I’m also concurrently doing the MIT Introduction to Computer Science & Programming Using Python course on edX.  I really want to complete the entire course, but worried that I wouldn’t have enough time for both that course and my actual university course.  But it seems I needn’t have worried.  The MIT course takes about a night of my time a week, and the TU100 stuff (so far) takes about 4.  But we’ll see, as they’re both likely to ramp up.  As it stands, though, I could stop working on TU100 entirely until a week and a half before the end of the MIT course before I had to do any more work.