Learning Tools: A Roundup of Tools to Help You Through College

In the summer of 2009 I began working on my Master’s degree part time. In addition to my degree I also work full time and keep up with other activities (such as writing for this site) all while trying to have some semblance of a life. In December I should complete my Capstone project and graduate.

It’s taken a lot of careful management of time and more importantly energy to keep moving to this point. When I moved to a MacBook as my primary computer last summer, I had to redo my workflow and evaluate the best tools to keep up with my courses. Here I’m going to look at a few of the tools that I’ve used to keep my notes, organize my assignments, complete assignment, and work on my thesis project.



My most important tool for managing my schoolwork is a reliable calendar.

The calendar is my most important tool. I’ve used Exchange for my email for years and my main calendar still rests there. I can access the calendar from my laptop through Outlook, through my phone, and on the web. I use this setup for the simple reason that I trust it. I’ve used it for several years and if I put a due date for a paper, project, or assignment into my calendar I feel confident that it will be there when I need the reminder. The calendar reminds me of deadlines and keeps me from getting behind.

With a busy schedule it’s very hard to catch back up. The calendar gives me confidence that my system won’t be why something isn’t done. At the start of each semester I put the important assignments dates off the syllabus into my calendar and block out lecture times. For weekly homework or a quizzes I can add a reminder the day before the assignment is due. For longer assignments, such as semester projects, I’ll create separate events for each step, meetings, and other activities along the way of completing the project.

There’s many great calendar apps you can use on your Mac. The built-in Calendar app is great for many, as are menubar calendar apps like Fantastical. If you need more features, Outlook (my pick) or BusyCal might be better options.


I use Evernote for notes because of two features: tagging and the ubiquity of the client. I can tag every note with the course, the subject of lecture, and the topics covered in the lecture. Tagging makes it easy to find my notes when it comes time to study for a test, reference the notes during a test, or working on a bigger project. I might label the notes from a lecture with the date, but what really matters is what topics were covered in that lecture. Tagging lets me add a one work reminder for each topic. For a lecture that includes employment law I might have tags for ADA. For a lecture that covers marketing a new product I can tag marketing. When I need to find those marketing lecture notes again, I just search for the tag.


Evernote works well for gathering notes where they can be more easily found later.

In addition every device I own has an Evernote client available letting me take notes anywhere. I might come up with an idea for an assignment while waiting in line. I can bring up Evernote on my phone and make update or create the note then instead of waiting until I get back to the office or back home that evening.

Evernote also lets me attach files to my notes. In a course, I may have a fully worked out sample problem as an Excel file. I can simply attach that to my other lecture notes to reference later. Many files worked best for me when directly attached with the notes supporting the file. This also is handy for the common practice of posting PowerPoint slides before class. I can simply attach the PowerPoint file to Evernote and then make my notes on top of that.


There are other files that don’t really tie into notes. Case studies, assignments that are in progress, or semester long projects often stand alone. Projects also often involve multiple individual files that need to be combined into a single final paper. It’s also not uncommon for a semester project to be part of a group activity meaning I and other students need to share and exchange files. Dropbox works wonderfully for these files. I created a top level folder in Dropbox for my coursework. For each course I then create a folder to hold everything for that course. I create a folder within the course folder for anything specific such as homework or semester projects and files related to that project go there.

Having a folder for each course makes it easier to find my notes when I need to refer to them to complete homework. I can keep material from completed courses for later reference since course content often overlaps or references concepts in a previous course. The organization makes studying for tests easier since I have my notes already collected. Having a single folder for each assignment makes keeping the notes and drafts for that assignment together simpler and less frustrating. The ability of Dropbox to share files also comes in handy when working on group projects as we can share a common work area and refer to older drafts when needed.


I really like Scrivener. It’s a complex product and has a learning curve, but the time you invest in it is more than paid back in productive gains while writing. Since discovering it last year in the early Windows beta I’ve gradually moved to where all much of my writing begins in Scrivener. It focuses on just the text which helps you get the words down on first and then come back and worry about formatting and the other details of the final paper.


Scrivener includes several templates for non-fiction and academic writing.

Scrivener makes it easy to rearrange and rework a paper without cutting and pasting. You can structure your document using folders, sections, and subsections based on your content. If I decide that one section better fits earlier or later in the draft, then I simply drag that section to the new destination and the document takes on the new ordering. If I want to split a section it can be done with one keystroke.

Scrivener’s weakness comes in formatting. If your paper consists of just text, Scrivener may be all you need. When I need more complex formatting or the inclusion of graphs, charts, or figures, I find I have to go to Word or a similar tool. In those cases I write in Scrivener and then compile it into a Word document which as much of the final formatting as I can where I complete the formatting.


Completing my degree required balancing many aspects of life. A key to complete this is the efficient management of my time. I take advantage of what might otherwise seem to be downtime. I’ve completed assignments while sitting in a restaurant waiting for a friend or at lunch. I can’t have my work tied to a single computer and the tools I’ve discussed all help make my work accessible from wherever I am.

Anyone pursuing a degree has to juggle much whether a full time or part-time student. Anything to ease tracking of course material, notes, and assignment make this easier. These tools I’ve found help me to complete my studies as efficiently as possible. They let me learn and apply the material more efficiently and get back to the other things in my life more rapidly. What have you found to help you in your education?