This may actually wind up being two posts in one if I end up getting long-winded.
Before I get into it, I want to say thanks to all my readers – I started this blog a bit over two years ago, a couple of months after I decided I wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor. I never figured that anyone would actually read it, let alone other intelligent people that are on this road with me. Comments, emails, dialogue, and discussion are really encouraging and the whole premed / application process can be incredibly demoralizing. Anyway, thanks a lot for reading everyone.
Alright, onward and upward. My last post, prior to the start of the term, was on my intent to start taking notes electronically and more or less abandon trying to write everything down during lecture. I got a lot of comments and suggestions on other people’s perspectives and they were all extremely helpful. I purposefully avoided giving my thoughts early because I wanted to give it a really solid chunk of time before passing judgment, as one of the commenters had suggested. Thanks Josh.
A little background on how I’ve been doing all this. I use a MacBook Pro with a lot of memory, so running multiple apps (as long as it isn’t Microsoft Office) doesn’t really have much of an effect on its performance. Both of my professors post their lecture notes on the course website prior to class in PowerPoint format. A PDF would be nicer, but it’s not too much of a problem. Anyway, here are my thoughts so far.
- For note-taking purposes, I’ve been using the free version of EverNote, which is limited to 60 MB of online space per month. I honestly don’t use the web clipper or insert a lot of images in my notes, so I haven’t found this to be a problem. If I eventually wind up using a lot of images and things off the web, this might change.
- Multiple desktops are a necessity when note-taking, at least for me they are. I was raised on Unix, so I suppose it might only be a personal thing. Mac OS and all the flavors of Unix can do it – Apple calls them spaces - but I’ve no idea if the current iteration of Windows is capable or not. I find that keeping EverNote maximized in one space and PowerPoint in the other works pretty well. I follow along in the notes and when I want to document something from the lecture, I can quickly switch to the other and do so without having to deal with minimizing or shuffling windows around.
- As I had suspected, having all my notes from the entire semester in one place without having to worry much about organization is absolutely incredible. Without a doubt, one of the biggest bonuses to taking notes digitally. I use EverNote when I’m doing the reading and it’s great to be able to quickly look things up there. I keep two different notebooks for each class – one for reading assignments and one for lectures.
- Having Google at the ready during lecture is a convenience that I never realized until I actually had it. Looking up a key term or asking Google for an image of something referred to during lecture is really cool. Resisting the temptation to use the internet recreationally hasn’t been too difficult, although lectures tend to get stuffy sometimes – genetics is particularly prone to this, since my professor tends to just read the slides at us. Also, since both professors are notorious for posting lecture slides 10 minutes before class, it helps to be able to get to class and just download the lecture notes.
- By default, EverNote stores my notes on the cloud and can be synced with my iPhone. This is really nice, since I spend about 45 minutes on the train each way. I tend to review things (e.g., biochemical pathways) while I’m commuting, so being able to quickly look something up on my phone is nice. So far, I haven’t had any issues syncing or connecting – sometimes, I can’t connect to the wireless router in the classroom, but EverNote caches the latest copy on my machine and I’ve never had any problems accessing my notes.
Nothings perfect though – now for the bad.
- The text formatting in EverNote is terrible. Even though font sizing has a key-binding, it doesn’t usually work too well – trying to separate things out by text, typeface, or things like is a real pain. This is doubly true if you’re trying to keep a color scheme going on. For instance, the color “blue” in my notes means that it’s something I want to look up or review from the text or elsewhere. “Red” is used for a topic that I should bring up in recitation or in an email to the professor. I’ve yet to find an efficient way to do this without removing my fingers from the keyboard and hunting around for the formatting ribbon, which sucks. Then, once I’ve finished typing and select the normal font again, it usually doesn’t actually change the typeface. Electronic note-taking seems to be all about efficiency and for lots of text, EverNote isn’t all that efficient. I’m not too bent about this right now, since I’m sure there are ways to make it faster and I just haven’t found them. Once I do, this whole problem will go away.
- The copy-and-paste feature doesn’t work all that well. It has no problem copying images in from the web, but if you try it from other applications like Preview, Adobe Reader, and others, it usually shrinks the images down which is annoying because of the lack of a zoom feature. For small images, charts or diagrams that have text, this can be really annoying.
- The lack of a zoom feature like every other application in the universe has is more than a little bit annoying. I honestly have no idea how none of their beta testers didn’t whine about this incessantly. Once you can click-zoom in one application, you just sort of start to expect it. Even Office has a zoom feature.
- No ability to do subscripts or superscripts is just plain stupid. There are something like a billion fonts available, but when it comes to typefaces, you get standard, bold, and italics. No support for superscripts or subscripts. Granted, EverNote has the ability to recognized and render LaTeX markup, but most of the time, that’s overkill.
- EverNote has the ability to make tables, which is nice. The only problem is that, once you’ve defined the number of rows and columns in your table, you can’t alter or extend it. Seriously? Have any of the designers actually made a table before?
- The screen capture / web clipper only copies images to a new note. There is no option to insert it to an active or most recent note. Instead, you have to clip it to a new note, then switch and find the note, copy it from there and then paste it into the note you want. Afterwards, you have to go back and delete the new note that was created, otherwise you’ll get a lot of duplicates. I don’t use the clipper much, so this is only mildly irritating, but if I used it a lot, I’d be ready to throw my laptop through a window.
Those are most of my thoughts at this point. Admittedly, I get spun up and irritated by little things so I should be clear that I’ve really appreciated the transition to a digital format. The organizational benefit alone has been huge, particularly with my notes from the reading always a click or two away. Also, the convenience of having the internet available during class is often really useful.
A couple of parting thoughts and then I promise I’ll stop – I guess I got long-winded after all.
- Both of my classes use PowerPoint lectures prepared beforehand. I’m not sure how easy this would be if no lecture slides were available at all. My guess is that it would depend a lot on the nature of the material
- By my estimation, a few classes wouldn’t work too well with this approach – physiology, organic chemistry, anything from the physics or math departments, and certain sections of biochemistry. Anything with lots of diagrams, structures, or mechanisms seems unlikely to be amenable to this type of thing, but I suppose craftier people than I may be able to find a way to make it work.
Anyway, so far the experiment has been a relative success – I haven’t felt like I was missing anything in lecture and the organizational advantage has been a really nice study aid.