The Benefits of Going Low-Tech in College

Stefanie Weisman

Low-tech tools

USA Today‘s College Blog just posted my article on the benefits of going low-tech in college!  In it, I explain why ditching your laptop may be good for your GPA.  There were a bunch of things I didn’t get to include in the article, though, so here’s some more advice about how to avoid the pitfalls of technology in the classroom.

  1. How to use slides.In my article, I caution against relying too much on the professor’s PowerPoint presentations, which are now commonly posted online.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them at all – they can make taking notes easier and faster, if you use them the right way.  Here’s one way to do it:
    • If the slides are posted before class, print them out and number each one.  Bring the print-outs and a notebook to class.  Write today’s date on your slides and…

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Quick Tips Part 7: Using Technology for Group Projects

By Stefanie Weisman

Group projects are an unavoidable fact of life in high school and college.  Whether you love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no denying that technology can make them a whole lot easier.  Here’s some great free software that will let you share documents, set up meeting times, work remotely, and lots of other cool “teamwork” stuff.

Google Docs: Allows you to share and collaborate on documents in real time.  You and other members of your group can make changes to docs simultaneously; the app will show you who changed what, and when.

Skype: If one of your members can’t meet in person, bring a laptop to the meeting and have him/her participate through Skype.

Trello: Trello is a project management program that can do wonders for group work.  With this program, you can share documents, make lists of tasks to be done, and keep track of progress.

Dropbox:  Allows you to store and share large files with a group.

Lastly, use a program like Google Calendar or MeetingWizard to plan meeting times.

What are your favorite group project apps?


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Quick Tips Part 4: How to Use Google for Academic Research

By Stefanie Weisman

Sure, you use Google to look up cute cat videos, but it can also be a great tool for academic research.  Here are some tips on how to use Google to find sources good enough to cite in your papers.

  • Use double quotes to search for an exact term or a set of words in a specific order.
  • Include “site:” to limit your search to a particular website (e.g., “site:nytimes.com”) or top-level domain (e.g., “site:.edu” – this is useful if you only want to search websites hosted by universities).
  • If you’re looking for pdf documents – which tend to be more scholarly than regular websites – enter your search term(s) followed by “filetype:pdf”.
  • When trying to find a term on a web page, don’t forget about Ctrl-F (or Command-F if you use a Mac).  Just type the word or phrase you want to find in the box that pops up, and it’ll show you all the places where it occurs.
  • Use Google Scholar to search for academic articles, and Google Books for easily searchable texts.

What are some Google search techniques you like to use?


For more tips on writing and research, check out The Secrets of Top Students.

Thinking outside the box on education: 4 great books with a fresh new perspective

Some of the books with the most original, thought-provoking ideas about education these days aren’t even on education. They’re on subjects such as sociology, psychology, technology, and self-help, among others, but they challenge what’s going on in schools today. Here are some books that don’t fall into the category of education, but which have a lot to say about the way we learn.

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (Crown, 2012). This book is ammunition against a school system that increasingly views classroom education as an endless stream of group projects. While it’s important for kids to learn teamwork, all too often we forget the importance of solitude, concentration, and deep thought in the learning process. I know that when I was in school, I did my best work alone. As Ms. Cain writes:

What’s so magical about solitude? In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only useful – they’re counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them. Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class – you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.” [page 81]

Another book about deliberate practice is Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin (Portfolio Trade, 2010).

2. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), by Mark Bauerlein. (New York: Penguin/Tarcher, 2008). The title says it all. Technology may be causing untold damage to the brains of young people. I’ve written two articles about avoiding the pitfalls of technology in education (see my piece in USA Today and the follow-up post on my blog). In this passage, Mr. Bauerlein paints a disturbing picture of this country’s rising generation of scholars:

Most young Americans possess little of the knowledge that makes for an informed citizen, and too few of them master the skills needed to negotiate an information-heavy, communication-based society and economy. Furthermore, they avoid the resources and media that might enlighten them and boost their talents. An anti-intellectual outlook prevails in their leisure lives, squashing the lessons of school, and instead of producing a knowledgeable and querulous young mind, the youth culture of American society yields an adolescent consumer enmeshed in juvenile matters and secluded from adult realities. [page 16]

There’s a book on a similar topic, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), which I hope to read soon.

3. Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008). In addition to talking about the 10,000 hour rule (the theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice for someone to become an expert in something), Mr. Gladwell also discusses why Asian students often outperform their American peers, especially in science and math:

We should be able to predict which countries are best at math simply by looking at which national cultures place the highest emphasis on effort and hard work. So, which places are at the top of both lists? The answer shouldn’t surprise you: Singapore, South Korea, China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Japan. What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture and meaningful work. They are the kinds of places where, for hundreds of years, penniless peasants, slaving away at the rice paddies three thousand hours a year, said things to one another like “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.” [pages 247-49]

4. The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss (Crown Archetype, 2009). This one may be a bit of a surprise. Am I suggesting that you can get great grades by working four hours a week? Not at all. Nor am I encouraging you to outsource your schoolwork to India. But Mr. Ferriss does present some useful advice on how to work more efficiently and effectively, whether you’re a student or an entrepreneur. Here’s an example:

Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials. If I give you a week to complete the same task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. . . . The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus. . . . . There are two synergistic approaches for increasing productivity that are inversions of each other:

  1. Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time (80/20).
  2. Shorten work time to limit tasks to the important (Parkinson’s Law). [page 75]

What are some of your book recommendations?


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The Benefits of Going Low-Tech in College

Low-tech tools

USA Today‘s College Blog just posted my article on the benefits of going low-tech in college!  In it, I explain why ditching your laptop may be good for your GPA.  There were a bunch of things I didn’t get to include in the article, though, so here’s some more advice about how to avoid the pitfalls of technology in the classroom.

      1. How to use slides.In my article, I caution against relying too much on the professor’s PowerPoint presentations, which are now commonly posted online.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them at all – they can make taking notes easier and faster, if you use them the right way.  Here’s one way to do it:
        • If the slides are posted before class, print them out and number each one.  Bring the print-outs and a notebook to class.  Write today’s date on your slides and in your notebook.
        • Take notes directly on the slide printouts as they are covered in class.  Flesh out the slide’s outlines with details and examples provided by the professor.
        • If you run out of space on a slide printout, write that slide’s number in your notebook and continue taking notes there.  That way, when you’re reviewing, you can easily match up the slide with the relevant section in your notebook.
        • If the slides are posted after class, take notes as you normally would and use the slides as a supplement.

The benefits of paper

    1. When in doubt, print it out. Many professors have joined the environmental movement by posting syllabi and assignments online instead of printing them out.  This is all well and good for Mother Earth, but it may not be the best thing for your GPA.  If you don’t print out important documents, there’s a much greater chance that you will overlook some key detail.  I observed this numerous times in my paper-free classes.  For example, when essay assignments were posted online, many of my classmates were unaware of essentials such as the due-date and topic.  During finals, they often lost points because they hadn’t noticed certain required readings on the online syllabus.  During meetings for group projects, I was often the only one who could clarify the requirements because I had the assignment right there in front of me.  Printing out documents saves you from having to turn on your computer and navigate to your course’s web page every time you want to check something. If your conscience nags you about killing trees, remind it that you can recycle the paper when the term is over.
    2. Books aren’t dead yet. Dr. Jakob Nielsen, a web usability expert, has some alarming things to say about how technology affects reading comprehension.  “The online medium lends itself to a more superficial processing of information,” he says. “You’re just surfing the information. It’s not a deep learning.” Although reading speeds on electronic devices have improved, they’re still not as good as reading on paper: in Mr. Nielsen’s study, the iPad measured at 6.2% lower reading speed than the printed book, whereas the Kindle measured at 10.7% slower than print. And if you’re even thinking about doing serious reading on your iPhone, I have one word for you: don’t. Reading comprehension scores are 48% of the desktop level when using the iPhone-sized screen. That is, it’s twice as hard to understand complex content when reading on an iPhone versus on a full-sized computer screen.
    3. Be more independent. Lastly, this week’s Time magazine provides more evidence that we’re becoming overly dependent on technology and losing our ability to contextualize information. According to Annie Murphy Paul in the article “Your Head Is in the Cloud”

      Research conducted by Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, and published last year in the journal Science has identified three new realities about how we process information in the Internet age. First, her experiments showed that when we don’t know the answer to a question, we now think about where we can find the nearest Web connection instead of the subject of the question itself. . . . A second revelation: when we expect to be able to find information again later on, we don’t remember it as well as when we think it might become unavailable. . . . The researchers’ final observation: the expectation that we’ll be able to locate information down the line leads us to form a memory not of the fact itself but of where we’ll be able to find it.”

      Scary stuff. You can’t have an intelligent conversation if you have to look something up on your computer every 20 seconds. We must use technology with restraint, both in school and in our post-graduate lives.


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