7 Types of Exam Markers

I recently messed up a biochem exam. During the exam viewing session, I was appalled at how many marks I lost because of silly mistakes. This exam was marked based almost strictly on the final answer for each question. It didn’t matter that I got the process and 90% of question right – one silly mistake would throw off my final answer and blow the entire question. This experience reminded me about how important it is to take the marking of a question into consideration when formulating my answer.

It’s important to know how a grader grades the exam so that you can best display what you know. For example, you wouldn’t bother writing down all your thought process in the neatest hand possible for a multiple choice exam, would you?

Without further ado, here are the 7 types of exam makers.

1. The Nit Picker. 

This marker analyzes EVERYTHING. Every pen(cil) stroke, every errant dot. Detail-oriented and sharp-eyed, this makers will zone in on that tiny thing that you were unsure about and calls you out on it. Being specific is very important to this marker. He or she expects you to know definitions, applications, examples, and exceptions to all of the material. They also have little patience for people glossing over the parts they don’t know. He or she expect you to know everything, so you better deliver.

2.  The Process-oriented Thinker.

This marker cares about how you think. He or she wants to clearly see your thought process from A to B, taking into account any assumptions, theories, or definitions used. I had one physics prof who didn’t really care what numbers were plugged in as long as the equations were derived and manipulated correctly. In that case, I spent a lot less time crunching numbers (sometimes forgoing it all together) in favour of ensuring I used the right equations in the right way. Math, physics, and even chemistry (especially organic) often focus on the process, although that’s not always the case.

3. The Result Seeker.

This marker just cares about the final answer, not how you got there. Multiple choice and true and false questions are perfect examples of this type of marking scheme. This marker wants to see your (correct) answer bolded or otherwise nicely presented so her or she can find it quickly. The biochemistry exam I messed up what very much this type of marking.

4. The Keywords Scanner. 

This marker scans everything you write for keywords. To this marker, using the right words in the right context is most important. If you write “an area with a lot of trees”, they might mark it wrong if they were looking for “forest”. Biology, psychology, and some social sciences rely heavily on this marking scheme. If you get an exam or a paper back and see check marks at specific words, your work was probably graded this way.

5. The Big Picture Dreamer. 

Everything is about the big picture for this marker. It doesn’t matter how you write it, as long as he or she can tell you’re on the right track, everything’s good. Sometimes questions may be very abstract. Lower level economics, higher level math and physics, and some social sciences mark like this. Biology, chemistry, math, psychology, English (or any other language) except for creative writing do not conform to this scheme. This is arguably the most subjective way to mark, so think like your prof (who probably made up the answer key).

6. The “No-tolerance for BS”-er. 

This marker only wants to see correct statements on your paper. He or she will subtract marks for every wrong statement you make. This can be problematic if the question asked for 3 examples, but you gave four and one was wrong. This marker might very well give you fewer marks than someone who did not write a wrong statement (even though you both have 3 correct examples).

7. The Benevolent Mark Giver. 

This marker is everyone’s favourite. He or she wants to give you marks, you just have to give him or her opportunities to do so. It doesn’t matter if you’re using keywords, writing down handwavy concepts, or emphasize the process – he or she will give you marks as long as you demonstrate you know something along the lines of what the question is asking. This marker is almost the polar opposite of the No-tolerance for BS-er. For example, if the question asks you to draw the process for forming the major product of something and you can’t remember which process was major and which was minor, draw both. This type of marker will give you some marks for drawing the right one (although they may take a couple of marks off for not selecting the right one as the major product). The No tolerance for BS-er would not give you any marks because you put something wrong down. So if you get a benevolent mark giver, write away. It’ll almost always be helpful.

Of course, these categories are slightly exaggerated and each exam may have different sections that are marked differently. Nonetheless, next time you come to a question, ask yourself “what am I being marked on?“. If it’s on results, skip the neat scripts and the detailed explanations and jump to the right answer. If it’s on keywords, make sure you use the correct words and be as specific as possible. If it’s someone a nit picku… well… be really, really, really careful!

Good luck on your exams! 🙂

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How to Properly Use a Textbook

Girl reading a German book while sun bathing

Image "Studious Andrea" courtesy of Flickr user Robert Wallace (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Student: I failed my midterm(s).
Me: I’m sorry to hear that. Why do you think you failed?
Student: I don’t know! I’ve been studying really hard.
Me: So how do you study?
Student: Well, I read the textbook…

On a good day, I inwardly sigh. On a bad day, I want to *headdesk* and *ragequit* (yes, I just said ragequit). Why? Because reading the textbook is NOT a study technique!

Why not? Because deliberate practice is the best way of understanding or getting good at something. Deliberate practice is:

1. Studying with focus and without distraction…
2. With a goal in mind…
3. While being challenged by the contents (of what you’re studying)…
4. And using feedback to make adjustments in approach…
(repeat)

Reading a textbook may satisfy criterion 1 and maybe criterion 2. However, even though reading the textbook may feel challenging, it’s not the good type of challenging when you feel your mind bending around and understanding a concept. No, reading a dense textbook sometimes feel like hitting a mental wall with no hope of going around and usually breeds frustration. Furthermore and perhaps most importantly, the textbook offers no feedback and there are very few ways to track how you’re learning objectively. Sure you could do the in chapter questions, but even that is usually about memorization and not understanding.

The high school way of simply reading through a chapter from beginning to the end is passive, not active, learning and is highly ineffective.

So how can you use your textbook properly? That depends on the course. If…

… The course is memory intensive and you will be tested directly out of the textbook (e.g. psychology, history):

You’ll have no choice but to read everything. BUT, don’t just read. Do something active while you’re at it. Write summary notes, create study questions, note down how all the key terms link to each other, etc. This helps retention and prevent you from having to re-read the textbook for the midterm or the final (because you have notes!).

… The course is memory intensive and you will not be tested directly out of the textbook (e.g. biology, physiology, pharmacology, genetics):

Don’t read any more than you have to. If your professor states that he or she won’t test you anything that haven’t been covered in class, then there is no need to read your textbook unless you don’t understand a topic. Use the textbook like a highly specialized encyclopedia (er… Wikipedia or Google). Read the section you don’t understand (plus any other sections necessary to understand that section). Then move on to higher yield study techniques.

… The course is not memory intensive and is more about problem solving (e.g. math, physics, some chemistry):

Use the book for the questions (if they are like the ones your prof asks on exams). Don’t simply read the example questions in the textbook – actually do them! Cover up the answers, read the question, and go as far as you can. If you solved the question, move on to the next one. If you are study, look at that section of the answer key, then cover it up again and redo the question! This may take some more time than straight up reading, but you will learn and retain so much more.

… You’re pre-reading. 

Figure out if you need to pre-read first, then act accordingly.

The textbook is a reference material. For better understanding and retention of topics, you must supplement it (or replace it) with more effective studying techniques.

 

You are not stupid, you are awesome.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve written a poem outside of high school English. Nonetheless, I am in a poetic mood today and this poem summarizes my attitude about university (and should prove entertaining if nothing else). If you’re on this blog because of my recent Science One presentation, I will have the PowerPoint slides and handout from the it available soon. 

You are not stupid,
You are not dumb.
You are not less intelligent,
Than anyone else. Really, it’s true.

This is first year,
And everyone struggles,
Your really smart friends,
Are working their butts off too.

Chemistry, math, biology, and French,
Physics, economics, poli sci, and English,
App Sci, forestry, F & H, and philosophy,
Will be be challenging at the beginning.

Hang in there,
And don’t doubt yourself.
This is where you’re supposed to be,
You are capable!

To overcome the learning curve,
And to learn more efficiently,
Discover and use excellent study skills,
And brush up on your time management too.

Learning and getting good grades aren’t easy,
And there are potholes in your way.
You may feel dumb ocassionally as you progress,
But that’s ok – soon you’ll be well on your way.

It might take a while,
To get to where you want to be academically,
But fret not and you will get there.
As long as you keep believing and trying.

This is university,
Where learning occurs,
Both from within the classroom,
And outside in the “real world”.

University is what you make of it,
And no one will hold your hands.
It is up to you,
To discover your passions and dreams.

Take advantage of opportunities,
That will fly your way.
Stretch your wings,
And turn your dreams into reality.

You are not alone,
And there many people who can help you on your journey.
Whether you want to learn how to learn or grow personally,
Reach out! Be proactive! Find resources!

Your education is more than a piece of paper,
And while your studies are important,
Don’t neglect balance and personal well-being.
And be wary of the insidious “burning out” bug!

And while this poem,
May not always rhyme,
Its intentions are sincere,
And its logic mostly sound.

All the best for the future.
You will be successful, have no doubt.
You are not stupid or dumb.
You are awesome.

Have a great weekend and Remembrance Day

Reader Questions: Should I Pre-read?

Meeting the Three Little Pig on Main Street

Image "Meeting the Three Little Pig on Main Street" courtesy of flickr user Loren Javier, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

“My professor tells me I should read the textbook before each lecture, but I’m so busy and don’t have time to do it. Should I pre-read?”

This is a question I get very, very, very often. The answer is simple (though somewhat unfulfilling): it depends.

But first, what is the point of pre-reading? Pre-reading is used so students get a basic understanding of a topic before it is covered in class. After pre-reading, a students should recognize (if not understand) key terms, be able to follow most of the images and diagrams, and know enough background information to learn the new topic. Unless the professor is terrible, it is NOT necessary to understand everything. Pre-readings should NOT be used by students to learn everything by themselves. You know you’ve done enough preparation work (including pre-reading) if you can follow the prof in lectures and not feel completely overwhelmed.

But what determines whether one should pre-read? Let’s say Moe, Larry, and Curly are in a first year differential calculus class. Moe has taken calculus Advanced Placement in high school and did well on his AP exam, but elected to take the first year differential calculus class anyway. He has a very good grasp of calculus. Larry, on the other hand, did a little bit of calculus in high school. His teacher taught him what calculus is, how limits work, and basic differentiation. He’s not very comfortable with the calculus, but he understands the basics. Curly, by contrast, has never taken a calculus class before and doesn’t quite know what it is. He also did not do very well in math in high school and is only taking calculus because it’s part of his program.

In the above example, Moe doesn’t really need to pre-read. He already has a good grasp of calculus and just needs to listen to the lecture to remember everything again. Larry could benefit from some pre-reading, but he’s got the basics and thus just needs to quickly skim the book to ensure there isn’t anything too out there. Curly, on the other hand, really needs to pre-read or he won’t be able to follow the lecture at all. He’ll probably have to spend some time going over the key terms, interpreting the graphs, and filling in any gaps in his background knowledge (for example, if he’s learning how to differentiate trig functions, he’ll need to brush up on his trigonometry).

In first year, students’ arrive at university with different levels of skills in each topic and subject. Pre-reading should put everyone on a more similar level and allows the prof to focus on what is new without reviewing everything.

The bottom line is to pre-read if you can’t follow the lecture or if you think you can understand things more thoroughly. Pre-read less if the topic feels repetitive or boring because you’ve seen it 200 times before.  

Get a question about first year or studying? Let us know what they are and we’ll try to answer them the best we can. 

The Mental Battle

Overwhelmed

Image "Overwhelmed" courtesy of flickr user Walt Stoneburner, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Feeling overwhelmed by university is normal. Everything is new and adjusting takes time. Unfortunately, the adjustment process isn’t always (never?) smooth and may be littered with missed assignments, forgotten deadlines, bombed exams, and crappy essays. Every student is different, and some adjust faster than others. Contrary to popular belief, poor academics is not the reason why people don’t do well in university – adjusting mentally to the fundamental differences between university and high school is. Poor grades is often a symptom, not a cause.

So what can you do? Keep the following things in mind:

1) Most people also feel overwhelmed.

Yes, some students adapt to university like fish to water, but most students adapt to university like dog to water (initially disoriented, but gradually getting use to it and even liking it). You’re not the only one, so don’t be shy and talk to other students about your questions and concerns. Ask others how they deal. If possible, find a few friends a couple of years ahead and ask them how they lived through it all (talk to the survivors!). Ask for advice, guidance, and maybe even mentorship. In fact, some schools offer mentorship programs for new students, so take advantage of them. Use the wisdom of people who’ve “been there, done that”.

University is NOT high school and you cannot think of it in the same way! <– This is possible the most important sentence of the entire post, so I’ll repeat it: University is NOT high school and you cannot think of it in the same way!

2) Professors are professors, NOT teachers.

University professors are generally hired for their ability to do research as opposed to for their ability to teach (in fact, more than one professor/instructor have told me that they were only asked to provide a short teaching statement, and nothing else teaching-related, before being hired).

Thus professors, brilliant people that they are, don’t always understand or appreciate undergraduate students. Some of them hate teaching, but have to. Others just can’t seem to connect with the students. Yet others can’t seem to present the topic in a coherent manner. Some are monotonous, others have an accents, and a few speak too softly. Even worse, some profs simply don’t understand why you don’t understand the perfectly understandable topic they just presented to you. Yeah. I got that too. Add that to the fact that university classes proceed at 3 to 5 times the speed of a high school class and most of the learning is supposed to occur outside of lecture time, and it’s no surprise students feel in over their heads.  What can you do? Realize that:

3) It’s all about you.

No, the universe does not revolve around you, but your academic success does. In high school, it was all about the teacher. He or she wrote out careful notes on the overhead, taught you the 20 types of questions that are likely to show up on an exam, chased you down for homework, and talked with you when your grades are suffering. The teacher was expected to teach at a certain level and model tests after practice questions. The teacher held your hand and made sure you didn’t fall.

That won’t happen in university. Profs won’t write out nice concise notes, teach you every possible application of a theory, chase you down for anything, or worry about your grades. Profs won’t hold your hand and he or she won’t be there to catch you when you screw up.

What’s especially unnerving is that while professors may do their best to teach you, they probably don’t have time to teach you everything on the curriculum and they certainly won’t show you each permutation of a type of problem. I remember mentally blaming my professor the first time I did terribly on an exam. I thought “well, it’s all the prof’s fault because he didn’t teach us everything”. BUT that’s just it – in university, it is not your professor’s job to teach you everything. It is your job to learn everything – the professor is merely there to help. 

This is why studying outside of class hours is so crucial. Typically, the ratio of out-of-class to in-class time spent on a course is:

Easy course – 2:1
Medium course – 3:1
Hard course – 4:1

Yes, that’s 2-4 hours of outside time for each hour of in-class time!

Profs won’t care about you if you don’t make a conscious effort to help yourself. A high school teacher is like a shepherd – he or she kept the herd together and every sheep safe. On the other hand, a university professor is more like a train conductor. He or she will open the door and help you on the train, but his or her main aim is to keeps the train on schedule for the majority of travelers. In high school it’s about making sure no one fails. In university, it’s about making sure most people succeed.

The onus is on YOU. You have to make sure you find your seat on that train. You have to ask for help if you need it. You have to find ways to get back on if you miss it. No one else will do it for you.

4) So what if he/she is smarter than you?

We all know someone like him/her (or is him/her!). The keener at the front of the class. The one with an answer to every question. The Hermione. He or she understands a topic intuitively and has flawless recall. Being the professor’s favourite, a high A in the course seems guaranteed.

So what? Your classmate’s smart. What does that have to do with you? The answer is really “nothing”, but no one likes the keener. Why? Because he or she makes others feel inadequate. Not smart enough. This is especially hard because you were near the top of your class (if not at the very top) in high school. You’re use to being outstanding and being simply “good” takes some getting use to.

This is where I’m going to use tough love. Suck it up. You’re not the best but you don’t have to be the best to get an outstanding grade! If you really care about being the best, work harder at the class. But really, let it go. You don’t like the keener, why are you trying to be him/her? Furthermore, looking like you’re the best is NOT the same as actually being the best. Which one is more important to you…?

5) Don’t write yourself off.

While it’s one thing to be upset about not being the best, it’s another to keep thinking you’re not as good as anyone else. You’re at the same school, the same program, and the same class as whomever you’re comparing yourself to. You are just as good if not better. Don’t believe otherwise! Hang in there, by your fingernails if you have to, and you’ll succeed spectacularly. *Cue bunnies and rainbows and other feel good objects*

6) Perfectionism doesn’t pay.

I’m a perfectionist. There, I said it. I proof-read papers dozens of times before handing it in and can’t seem to send off an e-mail with a typo or a missed capital letter. But I really shouldn’t be (and am working on it) because perfectionism is not a good thing in university. A student only has limited time to study. Being a perfectionist eats into valuable time that could be spent on something that has a higher payoff per time spent.

How do I avoid the perfectionism trap? I allocate an x number of proof-reads for anything I have to hand in and tries to stick to that number. I also have friends who warn me if I’m starting to go into the “this has to be perfect” zone. I still drive myself and others nuts sometimes, but it is slowly getting better.

7) Have a life.

Piano, violin, clarinet, ballet, ball-room dancing, tennis, soccer, ultimate Frisbee… the list of extracurricular activities students give up once starting university is a mile long. While it is a good idea to put some activities on hold to focus more time on school (you’ll find yourself studying a lot more than high school), dropping all activities and JUST studying isn’t a good idea. Actually, your grades will probably suffer if your brain doesn’t take a break once in a while.

This is not an argument for getting drunk every weekend (or every night).

Drop some of your least favourite or important extracurricular activities, then slowly pick them back up again throughout the school year to ensure it is adding joy to your life and not just causing you stress. Don’t just stick to activities you’re comfortable with – try something new! Your university probably offers a wide range of activities, so give some of them a shot.

8 ) It gets better.

While 15% of students drop out of Canadian university, most students head in that direction during or right after first year. Hang in there and if you make it through first year, you’re pretty much set.

9) It really is all about attitude. Short of sounding like a Hallmark card, it is about staying positive and believing in yourself. If you’re really feeling down, talk to someone! A friend, a parent, a trusted professor, etc. If you prefer, talk to a professional. Most schools have free counselling services for students. Go, unload yourself. You’ll feel better, I promise.

Since adjusting to university is largely a mental battle, some students do fall through the cracks. I knew of one student whose parents were getting divorced and were constantly fighting so he could never study in peace. Another student was so shy she couldn’t talk to anyone on campus for a month. Other perfectly capable students fail exams for the first time in their lives and couldn’t climb back out of the “I’m a failure” hole (in fact, this is probably the most common red flag).

If you feel yourself slipping the cracks through academically, emotionally, or personally, don’t be damsel in distress. Don’t wait for anyone to save you. NO ONE ELSE cares about how you do as much as you. Plenty of people will be willing to help you, but you have to be proactive, not reactive.

If you’ve read through this extremely long blog post and actually think it makes some sense, you’re all set for university. The battle is mental and it’s initially a war of attrition. Hang in there and have no fear, you’re going to kick some serious ass 🙂

Your First Day (Of University)

That Huge Lecture Theatre!

Hopefully your class isn't this big! (Image "That Huge Lecture Theatre!" courtesy of flickr user teddy-rised. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The first day of university is very much like the first day of elementary or secondary school (except without your nice first grade teacher and the bully that always stole your lunch money). Don’t believe me? Here is what you can expect on your first day:

8:50 am. You walk into the lecture hall for your first ever university lecture. The class is ¾ full and people near the door look at you, sizing you up, as you walk in. Miraculously you find an empty seat without tripping over a dozen people. Taking out your new notebook, pens, and a 50 pound textbook (that won’t ever be used in the lecture), you say a tentative “hi” to the people around you.

8:52 am. 8 more minutes to go. You look to the front, where someone – probably the prof – is setting up. People are trickling in through the doors of the lecture hall.

8:53 am. A quarter of the class seems to be asleep. A few people are looking around anxiously, almost furtively, as if they are puzzling out some great mystery. Your neighbour to the left is looking decidedly hang-over and is chugging coffee the way he probably chugged alcohol the night before. The two girls to your right look to be best friends and are chattering incessantly about that hot guy at the party last night. There are a couple of people with computers in the row ahead of you. Some are reading the course syllabus. Most, however, are on Facebook or playing distracting computer games.

8:56 am. The class is filling up and people seem to get just a tad bit louder. Your professor is looking at the clock on the wall, debating the best time is to start.

9:01 am. The prof introduces herself, then hands out the syllabus. It’s 8 pages long and contains her information, a summary of the course, the learning outcomes, and a schedule of the term. She details her expectations and talks about how performance will be graded. Most people listen (or at least pretend to), but a a few people sitting right behind you just won’t shut up. The professor draws your attention to the reading list. You realize you have to read 3 chapters – at least 50 pages with tiny words – each week just to keep up. You start feeling just a tad bit anxious.

9:15 am. The professor spends a few minutes demonstrating how to use the online system for the course. She tells you you are expected to check the website frequently for announcements. The website will also be used to assign additional readings and collect homework. The system seems way more complicated that it needs to be.

9:23 am. The professor asks for questions regarding the course. Someone in the first row puts up their hand and asks about scaling. The prof says something about not bell curving. A big sigh of relief arises from the person who asks the question. You’re not quite sure what is going on. A few more questions were asked, but you were starting to get distracted by the chatting behind you and the Facebook page of the guy who’s on his computer in the row in front of you.

9:32 am. The professor starts the lecture on the first topic. She says it’s mostly review from high school and that you should know it already. You don’t and struggles to follow along.

9:39 am. The professor asks the class some questions. You don’t even understand what she’s asking, but some one sitting near the front of the class rattles off an answer. The professor asks a few more questions. You still don’t know how to answer them. Not all of your classmates are struggling though, a couple of students consistently got the answers right, seemingly without any effort. They must be really smart, you think.

9:46 am. The professor finishes her lecture and reminds the class to pre-read before the next lecture. People positively swarms out the lecture all. You follow slower, feeling dazed.

10 am to 4 pm. You attend a few more classes and they pass pretty much the say way as the first one. Some of your professors were nice, others didn’t seem to care. Some spoke clearly and eloquently while others mumbled or had an accent you had to strain to decipher. Some profs looked at their students while talking, others seemed to have an intimate relationship with their laptop or the blackboard. Your classmates ranged from the very eager to those that fell asleep (and snored).

5 pm. You’re feeling drained and ready to crash. You go home, eat dinner, and starts going over the material from your classes, but you’re too tired and falls asleep early.

7 am the next morning. Your alarm wakes you up. You groggily starts getting ready for class while realizing you didn’t get any work done the night before and must make up for it tonight. *Cue mini panic attack*

Thus concludes your very first day. Welcome to university. Really.

So now that your first day is done, how can you ensure that the rest of the year goes more smoothly? Check out this post!

Email Management for Students

Gmail - Inbox (10 000)

"Gmail - Inbox 10000" Courtesy of Flickr user paperjam. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Dear New First Year Students: be prepared for war with your email inbox throughout your university/college career! The influx of school/course/club announcements, work-related emails, and SMA (Save My Ass) messages from classmates can be dizzying. Sometimes staying organized seem to be an illusion, and while there are many email organization systems on the internet not all are suitable for students. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way. Here is an email management system that works for me. I hope it can help you on your quest to staying organized.

First a note on my e-mail habits:

  • I use Gmail* and receive 2 – 20 emails a day
  • I strongly dislike having unread e-mails in my inbox
  • I receive school, work, and communication from close friends in this e-mail. As well, my “official” school email is forwarded to this account
  • I do not receive facebook emails, twitter updates, product promos and other crap in this e-mail (that’s taken care of through a “crappy stuff” e-mail)
  • SotN-related email doesn’t get forward into this account, but I use the same system on my SotN inbox

* This system can be implemented for Hotmail/MSN/Window’s Live/Yahoo!/Your official school e-mail, but Gmail has the best set of tools for organizing and managing the email inbox.

Most importantly…

  • Messages must be easily locatable
  • Messages not immediately useful is filed out of the way
  • Emails requiring reply are answered as soon as possible
  • Documents for course work are stored for record unless they exceed 50 MB in size

The Basic Elements are…

1. Labels and Priority Inbox

Gmail labels are awesome because they allow one message to have multiple affiliations. They are also the cornerstone of this management system. The labels I use include “university”, “work”, “miscellaneous”, and “awaiting decision” as well as the inbuilt “important” and “starred” functionality. Each incoming message is tagged with at least one label. Furthermore, I use Priority Inbox with 4 levels: “important and unread“, “all starred“, “all awaiting decision“, and “everything else“.

2. Filters

All incoming e-mail forwarded from my “official” school e-mail has “university” as a label. Those from my boss and coworkers are labeled “work”. E-mail with certain words in its title – such as the name of a school club – is tagged with the name of the club, and so on. When set up properly, filters minimize the amount of time spent manually filing e-mails, so its worth the time investment.

3. Keyboard shortcuts

Enabling this (in Gmail settings) greatly speeds up the email filing process. Press “l” for labels, “j” for the next email, “e” for archive, etc. Don’t know what shortcuts to use? just press “?” (question mark) for a full list right on your screen. If you’re new to keyboard shortcuts, this might take some getting use to. Accidentally pressing a key in Gmail can result in unwanted archivals, deletions, and mutes, so be careful.

4. Gmail Labs

Labs are amazing! My favourites are:

  • Signature Tweaks – a must as it puts the signature above any quoted text when replying to or forwarding a message (this is a lot more logical than the other way around so I don’t know why this isn’t the default…)
  • Undo Send – a must for anyone who’s trigger happy with the send button
  • Inbox Preview – shows a preview of the inbox while Gmail is loading and is useful for slower computers or turtle-speed internet connections
  • Refresh POP Accounts – useful for checking POP accounts (e.g. that “official” school email forwarding into Gmail) without going into email settings.
  • Some other useful labs: Filter Import/Export, Google Calendar Gadget, Send & Archive, Title Tweak, Preview Pane (New!), and Unread Message Icon.

Yeah… I really do love labs 🙂

So how does this all work together?

When I open my inbox, I first check to see if any messages can be deleted. These include random chain letters from friends, ads from websites I shop at, and the occasional junk email. If there is an email I have been waiting for, I open that first. If nothing jumps out, I open the first message in the “important and unread” section of the inbox and skim through it. If it’s some sort of announcement or something not requiring a reply (e.g. notice about homework from prof), I’ll make sure it’s labeled correctly and archive it. If it is something that requires a quick reply, I reply, ensure the labels are correct, and then archive it. If I’m in a hurry or the email entails doing something I’m not sure about yet, I ensure the labels are correct on that e-mail, add the “awaiting decision” label, and archive it. If it’s something really important and I know I’ll have to look at it again soon (e.g. exam location announcements), I ensure the labels are correct, star it, and archive it. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Once there are no more new messages, there should be no messages in the “important and unread” and “everything else” sections of the inbox (as archiving a message removes it from the inbox). Everything important has a star and shows up prominently near the top. Everything about which I have to make a decision has an “awaiting decision” label and shows up just below the starred messages.

After going through the new messages, I take a quick look at the starred messages. I note anything important coming up and remove stars from things that are no longer important. Then I move on to “awaiting decision” to see if I could make any decisions or reply to any emails. If I can, I do whatever’s necessary, then remove the “awaiting decision” label.

Whenever I need something, I usually use the search function, so you might ask: why bother applying labels if you’re going to search for something anyway? Let’s take the example of my coworker Bob and my professor Bob. If I want a message from my professor, I can limit the search to the “university” label. If I want a message from my coworker Bob, I can limit it to “work”. This is especially helpful when I try to search for something ambiguous like “report”, “deadline” or “meeting”.

As I don’t receive too many messages a day and I check my e-mail just about every day, this system works well and I rarely feel overwhelmed. However, I know this system isn’t for everyone (200 new incoming messages anyone…?) For more email management tips, check out this comprehensive source for some ideas. There are some great tips herehere, and here for Gmail users, and if you don’t use Gmail, switch to it! (but some general tips are here and here for those of you still dragging your feet).

How do you organize your e-mail? Do you use another tool I’ve missed? Share 🙂