A wise teacher once told me that half of college success is just being organized, and I'm sure the same is true for any work. Yet we provide precious little guidance to students on this critical life skill. Lack of organization leads to students who fail or burden us with late assignments and excuses.
David Allen has created an excellent organizational method he calls “Getting Things Done.” I will lay out how to apply this organizational philosophy with Evernote in order to better manage tasks. This will work for both you and your students, and I've included a link to a tutorial at the end that will show your students how to use it to get organized. Since the basic organizational principles can be used with a variety of technologies, I will finish with some student organization systems that you can suggest to your students as alternatives to Evernote.
Evernote and Getting Things Done
There isn't enough space in this article to cover all the ins and outs of the Getting Things Done system here, and most people will modify it to suit their needs anyway. But the basic idea is that you create a note in Evernote for each task. For students, that task may include an assignment, studying for an exam, or doing an outside job. For faculty, that task can relate to their courses, research, or committee work. That note includes information on what needs to be done as well as any attachments related to the tasks. In other words, you are translating information from an email message, class assignment, or other attachment to a task, which means that you are already organizing your work.
A critical element of the system is to tag each task with information that allows you to sort your tasks later. The power of Evernote is that it has a built-in tagging function that allows for easy organization of notes. For instance, a student might create a note about a paper due in a class in two weeks. The student would then add a tag related to the category of the task, such as “work” or “school.” This allows the student to draw together all school-related tasks at once. Another tag might identify the course itself, such as “Bio 354,” so the student can find out what is coming up in a particular course.
Beyond subject matter, it is important to also tag tasks with importance and urgency. A common organizational error is to confuse urgency, and especially someone else's urgency, with importance. An email asking for your opinion on the Green Bay Packers' first-round draft pick right now, with that little red exclamation mark at the end, is not giving you an important task, but we tend to respond to urgency as if it were. Separating the two puts them in perspective.
Students and instructors should tag their tasks by importance from “high” to “low” and urgency from “immediate” to “long-term.” The latter is best for tasks that do not have a set due date. For those with a due date, it is better to tag them with the actual date itself. This allows us to quickly see what is coming up.
A secret to being productive is to understand that importance always trumps urgency. High importance and low urgency trumps low importance and high urgency. From students' perspectives, that means they should work on the term paper that is due in a week before the “Top Five YouTube Cat Videos” list that a friend wants within an hour. Not understanding this principle is at the heart of most students'—and other people's— organizational problems.
Faculty will also benefit from using Evernote to organize their tasks. A good start is to create notes for work related to their courses. I like to create a note for each of my courses that records student issues. Many learning management systems (LMSs) have a place to record grades, but not the conversations that you have with students. It is easy to forget that you granted a student an extension on an assignment when he or she corners you after a class or sends you an email. I have one note where I record all this information. This also helps me identify patterns when I see that I have granted extensions in the past, and especially to defend decisions when I can provide the exact dates and descriptions of past events. This record is also valuable when someone else asks you for information about a student.
Another good use of Evernote is to organize your research. We constantly run across articles that we save for future reference, but can't find later. Evernote is an ideal system for gathering together research. When you find an article that you like, simply create a note with your thoughts on the content of the article and how it relates to your current research. You can then attach the article to the note and even annotate it with comments or highlights if it is a PDF. You then tag it according to its topic and source, and when you are writing a paper on a particular topic, you can simply pull up in one place all the resources you have saved on that topic.
Students should also be encouraged to use this method to save the resources they get from their classes, what they find outside class, and even resources from their past work. Tagging that information by class and subject will also help them keep track of class resources and do their own research. In this way, each student will create a growing repository of information that will serve them not only in future courses but throughout their lives.
Teaching organization not only will improve students' performance in school but will provide them with a life skill that will serve them long after college. This, after all, is the whole point of education.
Here's a tutorial on how to use Evernote with Getting Things Done:
Other organizational tools are as follows:
John Orlando writes, consults, and teaches faculty how to use technology to improve learning. He helped build and direct distance learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University and has written more than 50 articles and delivered more than 60 workshops on teaching with technology. John is the associate director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Northcentral University, serves on the
- myHomework (https://myhomeworkapp.com) is a free app that will help students track their course schedules, assignments, and due dates. It works on nearly any mobile device, from iPads and iPhones to Android devices. It also will sync what students enter across all their devices, so that, for example, they can check on their iPhones over lunch what they entered into their iPads in class.
- Studious (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.young.studious) is a personal to-do list and calendar designed for students. You enter your assignments as notes and can even set your phone to ring or vibrate as they are coming due.
- GTasks (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.dayup.gtask&feature=nav_result#?t=W251bGwsMSwxLDMsIm9yZy5kYXl1cC5ndGFzayJd) is a task list manager from Google (enough said). It allows you not only to enter descriptions of your tasks but also to organize them by due date, priority, and subject. Of course, it also syncs with your Google Calendar, so a quick peek at your calendar gives you an overview of your tasks.
Online Classroom editorial advisory board, and is a regular contributor to