I participated in a great Twitter conversation yesterday about studying and notetaking tools. I have my surgical second part coming up in 2011 (ugh). Last time I studied for an exam (2002, if you believe it), I used Word documents organised in folders to make my summaries. My life has changed since then, and I want to make notes that combine PDFs, and online images, links to online sites, and links between documents. This post is effectively collaborative, and draws on the opinions and experiences of Symtym, Ruraldoctoring, Scanman and Mexico Med Student
What a good study system needs
In order to use a study system, it needs to perfom different tasks:
- Collate and reference PDFs (self-created, curriculum, presentations)
- Collate and organise Scientific Journal Article (usually in PDFs)
- Collect and organise links to relevant websites
- Collate images (internet collected medical images, screenshots, clinical photos)
- Word processing
- Interlinking between documents in summaries
- Export to a generic format for back-ups, email sharing and future proofing
- Import notes written in other formats
- Work simply to accomodate non-linear studying, so that the system doesn’t fragment
- Smart folders (in 2008, this is pretty core)
Some of these tasks may be more or less important to you. In our discussion, everyone had a different system. Some had one system to rule them all, and some used a combination to cover all their needs.
Interlinking, media-managing, word-processing (Offline Wikis)
Journler (OSX, $35)
This is marketed as a journaling tool, but also can compile images and PDFs. Entries can interlink, and are automatically time-dated.
Advantages: Time stamping, interlinking and media managment. Recommended for personal journalling.
Disadvatanges: Non-standard format, so not future proofed. Word processing is not a major focus, so doesn’t deal with multipage documents as well.
Scrivener (Mac OSX, $40)
This is marketed as a writing tool, without formatting
Advantages: Interlinking and media management works well. Also good fullscreen writing mode for distraction free notetaking. Ability to form outlines and plans of documents, in order to plan study according to a curriculum. You can also drop the curriculum right in the reference material. Exports to basic text formats. This was the pick of Symtym who is currently in full-study mode.
Disadvantages: Documents must be structured (in outline structure), so may not work for “unstructured” people.
Devonthink (Mac OSX $40-80)
This is another collation and tagging tool. Devon offers generous demo time, which is excellent. I much prefer the method of sucking users in and making them pay only when they realise they can’t live without a product. The Pro version is required for OCR, email archiving, webserving. If you only want notetaking, you could look at the cheaper Devonnote, which doesn’t support other formats.
Advantages: Good handling of multiple formats. Contains RTF editor. Mexico Med Student uses this for all his personal note/image/screenshot collation.
Disadvantages: Price, really. (Which doesn’t mean it would be perfect if cheaper)
Voodoo Pad (Mac OSX, $30, demo text only version free)
This is one of the pioneers in personal wikis. There is a free version to play with that allows linking and word-processing, but doesn’t support embedded images, or a lot of the other features you would probably need. If you pay, you can embed PDFs and images and even sketch. You can publish your notes to a server if needed, and it has quick linkbacks.
Advantages: Great wiki, supports Linkback (which can integrate documents from Omniplan, Keynote, Novamind, Omnigraffle, Omnioutliner, and probably more). Full screen editing. Smart folders. Spotlight support. Lots of cool features.
Disadvantages: Poor outline/structuring of pages. This software seems to run on the big bin and search theory, but if you need a more formal structure (to make sure you cover a curriculum, for example), then it is not so good.
True Wiki Programs
Wiki programs tend to use a web-browser and can be configured to be collaborative. This may be an advantage for study groups, but can be a disadvantage if you want to study offline. They can often be installed on a single computer for single person access, as well.
PmWiki (Mac OSX, free)
It works through your web-browser and can be maintained by collaborative input. This is not a great solution for personal study, but may be worth looking at if you are studying from external computers, or you have a study group.
Advantages: Collaborative - can be edited by more than one person on a network, or even can be set up to be managed online, with password protection
Disadvantages: Less fully featured , therefore harder to interact with. Doesn’t support drop box functionality etc.
Other free wikis that might be worth checking out include Notebook, Wikinotes (which looks like a really nice “small feature” note-taking app. You may also want to look at Zulupad, particularly if you want to use a wiki on a thumbdrive. (But there is no PDF or image support in the free version). Luminotes is a lovely free online version (which can be downloaded to your desktop)
This is an area for much discussion. Depending on how paperless your office is, you may have more or less PDFs. Digital filing is becoming more important. Most of the packages mentioned previously will catalogue PDFs, and may be sufficient if you have a few PDFs of varying type. We had two dissenters in our discussion.
I study a lot from scientific journal articles, so I have a heap of these specialised documents. So I favour organising these separately in Papers, which gives me the option of organisation, and automatic keywords etc. I can make notes and mark PDFs as read or unread and all the other things you would expect. There is also the ability to search PubMed from within the database. Although a separate DB, the flexibility is worth it for me. You could also read my previous review of Papers.
Symtym, on the other hand, has a largely paperless office and prefers to manage all his PDFs with Filemaker, which lets him manage his multiple varied types or purpose of PDF.
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