At the end of my first year of university, here’s a review of the tools I’ve used to learn.
This is where lecturers interact with students—from presentation slides and discussion fora to past papers and online submissions, so much happens through Blackboard. The Updates and My Grades views are particularly useful for keeping track of things.
I’m not exaggerating when I describe Todoist as “the dashboard to my life”. I put everything in this task manager, because it’s so easy to forget when you’re juggling lots of commitments. Tasks can be organised by project (I have one for each course), priority, tag, due date and with more complex queries using filters. The education discount makes it incredibly good value too!
Pro Tip: enable the Google Calendar integration to see the day’s tasks in your calendar, then drag them out from the ‘all day’ section to make a schedule for the day.
All my files are stored in OneDrive, synced between my personal MacBook and university laptop. The iOS app’s integration with the system-wide document picker makes it really easy to access files on the go as well.
I decided at the beginning of the year that every bit of paper in a ringbinder would have a digital duplicate in OneDrive. I did have to spend time scanning documents (love ADFs), but it was useful in the end.
The better way of collaborating in a team—set up a Team Site or a Group to provide file storage and collaboration tools. Because it’s not in any one member’s personal OneDrive, it doesn’t matter if members come and go.
Pro Tip: use the built-in document revision history to resolve any edit conflicts.
The usual suspects. Favourite features this year include PowerPoint Designer (though be careful of its foibles) and Excel’s Solver for things like double-interpolation. Visio can manage simple P&IDs (pretty important for a chemical engineer) with its built-in symbol library for both European and American standards.1
Being in the right place at the right time is pretty useful, even in the age of lecture recordings!
Pro Tip: if you’re syncing timetable information from an external system, iOS will learn the meaning of event locations like
ACEX 250 - Lecture Theatre 1 over time, allowing it to alert you when it’s time to leave.
For power features beyond your default PDF reader, Acrobat is the answer. It’s got more advanced markup tools, and things like digitally signing PDFs using my university-issued cryptographic identity make me especially happy.
This time-tracking utility logs how I use my computers and gives me a productivity score each day. The weekly summary email provides a nice overview of how I spent my time—and there’s no hiding from the statistics! Expect to be motivated to increase your score.
The time tracking continues—but with Toggl you log hours yourself. I’ve used it to track how long I’m spending in lectures, working on problem sheets and revising content. It’s nice to know that you’ve achieved a good week’s work when you get home on Friday evening.
Having reached the limits of what Quizlet (below) could manage last year, Studies has proven to be more than capable of doing everything I wanted. Notes don’t just have 2 sides—now they can have unlimited facets. The choice of algorithms provided by the built-in study scheduler is also pretty clever.
Pro Tip: get the free iOS app and sync your notes for offline access—now you need never be bored on the Tube again!
For simple notes, Quizlet is still great. I’ve used it in particular for foreign language vocabulary, since its fuzzy matching can cope with acceptable similar answers—such as the interchangeable use of “le / un” in French.
For graphing functions and playing around with variables, Desmos is great. Whether it’s wavefunctions or Fourier series, adjusting and animating variables using its sliders is a fun way to make complex functions easy to understand.
A “computational knowledge engine”. Useful.
It’s particularly good at obscure unit conversions (just give me SI, please!), computing nasty limits and integrals and plotting functions that Desmos can’t handle. There are some fun bits too!
Ever wondered just what that medicine looks like? MolView allows you to explore molecules in 3D, play with structure and view spectroscopy data—or you can just put some atoms and bonds on the page and see what you get. Particularly useful for organic chemistry.
A neat bilingual dictionary, available for loads of languages.
Pro Tip: the verb conjugator (available for some languages) is great for things like irregular subjunctives in French.
A useful reference manager, with PDF storage and annotation. Save journal articles to your library and use the iOS app to read, highlight and comment on the go. Another great app for long tube journeys, though the Mac version is desperately in need of a facelift.
Pro Tip: use the BibTeX export to reference with ease when writing LaTeX documents.
Pro Tip: sync your documents to GitHub for full version control.
More to explore
MATrix LABoratory. Not only can it handle lots and lots of matrices very well, but it also does things like machine learning! It’s brilliant for manipulating large datasets much more easily than with Excel, plus the ability to make perfectly-consistent and infinitely-customisable graphs is really handy.
Pro Tip: learn how to use the
I’ve only scratched the surface of what this chemical drawing package can achieve, but it’s made me some very pretty 2D structure diagrams. Its tools for converting between name and structure are pretty helpful too.
I’ve been experimenting with automating my document filing process within OneDrive using this handy utility. I haven’t had time to explore everything it can do, but I’m keen to learn more about how to make the most of it.
The big plan for next year is to become paperless—at least for lecture notes—using one of the budget-friendly new iPads with an Apple Pencil. This should reduce the amount of scanning I have to do, and make the content of the notes even more accessible to search (there’s only so much you can do with OCR…). Problem sheets will probably stay paper-based though.
- AutoCAD Plant 3D is the ‘proper’ way of doing a P&ID, but I’ve been too busy to learn how to use it. Next year maybe! ↩
- I found an old blog post which helped a lot with this. ↩
- ShareLaTeX was acquired by Overleaf (another LaTeX-in-the-browser service) just under a year ago. I’ve used both and prefer the editor in ShareLaTeX, which thankfully will survive going forwards as part of Overleaf v2. ↩