Study skills guide

Tech Tuesday – Noisli

Noisli is a web and mobile application that allows you to listen to different sounds in order to create your perfect sound environment. This can then help block out background noises and improve concentration and productivity, and given that most of us are working or studying at home presently, help with creating a more productive environment may be just what is needed.

With 16 different sound background sounds (on the free plan) to play individually or in combination, customised sounds can be quickly created and listened to while studying or working in order to drown out distracting noises, or to help switch off and relax when taking a break. If you don’t fancy making your own mix, Noisli provides pre-mixed playlists for productivity, relaxation, noise-blocking and more.

With a sound timer and distraction-free writing tool also available on the web application, we think Noisli is definitely an application worth checking out. The free plan gets you 16 sounds and 1.5 hours per day of streaming sounds. For $10 per month, you get unlimited streaming and 28 sounds, plus a more advanced timer and writing tool.

See our study software and applications guide at https://ultimaeducation.co.uk/software-guide/

How to study smarter on screen

Studying online can sometimes feel like an assault on the senses. A bombardment of fonts, features and multimedia content can make it harder to stay focussed, but there are a few quick things you can do to improve your screen reading experience.

If you find that you’re often losing your place and getting distracted, it can help to evaluate the format of the material you’re reading. One of the benefits of digital text is that you can manipulate your content at the click of a button, and with a few simple tweaks to change how the text looks, you may find that you read faster and take in information more effectively. 

Tip: To edit a PDF, change it to a Word doc first.

Change the font to a style you’re more comfortable with. Generally, san serif fonts such as Arial and Calibri are easier to read, but there are also specialist fonts, such as Open Dyslexic which have been designed specifically to support dyslexic readers.

Try changing the line spacing to 1.5 so that the text doesn’t feel too cramped and it’s easier to follow without jumping to the line above or below. It’s also worth making sure that text is left-aligned so that it’s easier to visually identify the end of each line.

Play around with different text and background colour combinations. A white background can often cause a glare that distracts from the text so a cream or pale-yellow background can be easier to read from.

Do you find it tricky to track text along a line? Consider increasing the size of the margins so that the text is narrower on the page and each line is therefore much shorter.

Once you’ve found a format that suits your needs, Word gives you the option to save your customised style in the toolbar to apply to future documents. 

If you are mainly reading online material, a browser extension that changes how text is displayed on websites may also be helpful. Try OpenDyslexic Font for Chrome (Chrome extension) or Mobile Dyslexic (Firefox add-on) to change all fonts on web pages to the OpenDyslexic font or Clearly and Mercury Reader (Chrome extensions) to remove ads and distractions from websites. Another option is BeeLine Reader (Chrome extension or Firefox add-on) which uses an eye-guiding colour gradient to pull your eyes from one line to the next.

And finally, give your eyes a break and enable the text-to-speech feature to have long passages of text read aloud to you. The language, voice and reading speed can all be set to suit your preferences.

By making a few small adjustments like these, you can study on screen more efficiently.

If you have a disability, long-term health condition, specific learning difficulty or mental health condition that affects your studies, you may be eligible for the Disabled Students’ Allowances. The package of support you receive is individually tailored to your specific needs and includes specialist software to help you reach your full academic potential. Find out if you are eligible for DSA funding here.

If you’d like advice or more information, get in touch and we’ll go through the options available to you.

Why printing can be a quick win

Do you sometimes struggle to take in information when studying on screen? 

As well as using our screens for education, we use them for casual communication and multitasking so are often tempted to apply the same techniques to online study texts – scrolling through at speed and not making a deeper connection. Most of us spend a considerable amount of time on our digital devices and when we’re given something important to read here, like an academic paper, it can be challenging to give it our full attention.

Some experts think that these factors combined with the constant glare and flicker of a screen can make screen reading more taxing than reading on paper, making it harder to retain what we’ve read and contributing to visual and mental fatigue. 

Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that many students feel more comfortable printing out their study materials. 

Evidence also demonstrates that reading text in a printed form can help you absorb, retain and recall information better; particularly for longer, non-fiction study texts. Reading printed material is a more tactile experience and one in which you are physically involved. It’s something tangible – you hold the text in its entirety and can turn pages, visibly see the beginning and end, and where you are within the document. You can also annotate directly on the page and pick it up to reread and review at your own pace.

If printing is your preference, it’s worth being selective on what you plan to put to paper. Do you need all that material printed out or just a few key sections? It can also be useful to reformat the text before hitting the print button to ensure it is presented in a way that works best for you. For example, change the font style and size to something clear and readable, alter the line and paragraph spacing so the text is easier to follow and text-heavy documents are broken into easy to follow chunks. 

So, if you feel you’d absorb something better on paper, print away – it just might improve your comprehension and give you better results.

If you have a disability, long-term health condition, specific learning difficulty or mental health condition that affects your studies, you can access a package of support that’s tailored to your specific needs. See if you are eligible for the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA). DSA funding can include specialist software and equipment such as a printerGet in touch with us today to see what support you could receive through the DSA.

Creating your study space

As a student, you’re expected to spend a considerable amount of time on independent study, but how, when and where you do this can have a big impact on your productivity.

If you’re feeling frustrated and unmotivated, it’s worth reviewing your workspace and making some changes to build better habits. It’s time to create a study sanctuary.

Balancing a laptop on your knees in a noisy communal area or multitasking at the kitchen table probably isn’t the best environment for effective learning. Consider where you feel calm and comfortable when studying and most able to focus. This could be your bedroom, a corner of a cosy café or the library. If you decide on a spot in your bedroom, clear anything that could divert your attention and try physically dividing it off to create a dedicated study area. Wherever you choose, your surroundings should have minimal distractions, a suitable temperature, good ventilation and ideally natural lighting to help prevent visual fatigue from your screen. 

Next, assess your equipment to ensure you have a good sitting posture and neutral wrists to avoid discomfort and prevent injuries. Adjust your desk and chair height if possible and the position of your monitor so the top of the screen is at, or slightly below, eye level and about an arm’s length away from your eyes. A quick way to do this is to place your laptop on a pile of books to bring it up to the correct height. There’s no need to purchase specialist equipment, however, an external keyboard and mouse may be worth investing in to allow a more flexible typing position. 

Now take some time to organise your space by checking you have all essential tools to hand such as chargers, pens, notes, drinks and snacks. Remove all unnecessary paperwork and devices and close any applications that aren’t critical to your current assignment. Empty your head of other tasks onto paper or perhaps as notes or voice memos on your smartphone. 

As well as where and how you study best, consider when you are most productive. Are you an early bird or a night owl? Experiment with a few different times, then once you’ve found a routine that works for you, you can schedule all your study sessions in advance.

If you work better with ambient noise, try Noisli – an app that allows you to custom mix your own calming sounds to play. Need complete silence to concentrate? Try a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. 

It’s also important to take regular breaks to prevent boredom, eye strain and to release physical tension from sitting in the same position for a long time. Frequent breaks improve focus and reduce stress and if you can get outside for a few minutes, even better – a quick walk in nature eases brain fatigue and enhances wellbeing. Alternatively, a pause in the form of a meditation session can work just as well using tools such as HeadspaceStop Breathe Think and Calm.

And lastly, it’s useful to keep your goals in mind while studying, perhaps by placing words of motivation on your desk and to regularly reward yourself with simple treats such as a coffee with a friend or a TV break.

Once you have your new space prepared, you’ll be ready to enter ‘study mode’ and focus on reaching your full potential.

If you have a disability, long term health condition, specific learning difficulty or mental health condition that affects your studies, you can access a package of support including specialist software and equipment that’s tailored to your specific needs. Jump to our guide to see if you are eligible for the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA). 

Get in touch with us today to see what support you could receive through the DSA.

Get more from Office 365

If you experience difficulties with motor skills, reading, listening, comprehension and maintaining focus, every assignment can feel like a mountain to climb.

Your university can offer many useful resources for improving and developing these skills such as online guides, courses and workshops but there’s a set of tools already at your fingertips.

You’re probably already familiar with Office 365 and its suite of productivity apps, but are you using them to their full potential? There are many features built-in that you can customise to create and consume documents faster and more efficiently.

To save you time exploring all the options, the experts at Ultima Education share six of their favourite (and free) Office 365 features that help with reading, writing, spelling, presenting, notetaking and getting organised. 

MS To Do is a task management app that allows you to keep on top of whatever you have to do, wherever you are. Everything can be organised quickly and easily, and your assignment deadlines can live happily alongside your shopping lists. Simply set up your categories, drag tasks to re-order them and add details such as reminders, due dates and supporting files. If you have a larger project to tackle, you can also add steps here, breaking it down into bite-size sections. 

You may already use OneNote to take notes in lectures, but a feature that’s often overlooked is the ability to record audio at the same time to ensure you never miss a thing. What makes this especially useful, is that the program automatically syncs with your notetaking so you can play back a specific point just by selecting a section of your notes. You are then free to concentrate on actively listening and taking your own notes which further aids your understanding.

Find out more about how tech can take the stress out of notetaking.

If you struggle with concentration and think faster than you can write, MS Word Dictation can help. This function creates content with your voice so you can get down your ideas quickly and easily. It’s simple to get started and you can edit, format, add punctuation and comments all while dictating. Your transcribed text can then be used to create essays, presentations and coursework.

Discover more dictation software options with our comprehensive guide. 

Another quick win in Word is Read Mode which changes the document layout for a more comfortable reading experience. Read Mode automatically fits the page layout to your device, opening full screen in a landscape format which is ideal for absorbing long documents. When you read in this view, you get fewer distractions from menus so you can remain focused on the text itself. You can also make changes to the page colour, text size and brightness to suit you.  

One aspect of essay writing that can feel a bit intimidating, is correctly recording your source materials to avoid plagiarism. Luckily, MS Word makes this easy with their referencing tool which automatically formats in-text citations and generates a reference list. To add a citation, position the cursor at the point in your text where you want to reference something and click Insert Citation. Once you’ve added all the sources, you can use the tool to create a bibliography. 

After all that effort, you want to present a polished piece of work which is where Presenter Coach in PowerPoint comes in. Having to showcase your work in front of your peers can be daunting, but Presenter Coach gives you all the skills you need to confidently deliver an impactful presentation. This feature allows you to rehearse your presentation whilst getting real-time feedback and guidance on your pacing, recommendations of inclusive language and even letting you know if you’re using too many filler words. At the end, you’ll get a summary so you can see how you performed and advice for making improvements. 

If you have a disability, long term health condition, specific learning difficulty or mental health condition that affects your studies, you can access a package of support including specialist software that’s tailored to your specific needs. Jump to our guide to see if you are eligible for the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA). 

Get in touch with us today to see what support you could receive through the DSA.

Sharp Focus

Student life is busy. You’re juggling a constant stream of new information, meeting new people and settling into new surroundings not to mention the impact that mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, attention-impairing conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and epilepsy can have on the way you organise and process information.

Luckily, there are many tools and techniques that can help improve your focus and manage your time more effectively.

As study needs assessors, we have extensive knowledge in assistive technology and the various software programs that aid reading, learning, comprehension and organisational difficulties. Read on to discover some of our favourite free and DSA funded apps.

Trying to study in a communal area can really impact concentration but you can improve your focus by using Noisli to create your own calm space by custom mixing your own sounds to play while studying to block out annoying noises. This also works well while travelling and winding down after a stressful day. 

If constant pings and pop-ups on your devices are affecting your ability to concentrate, there’s a clever app and website blocker for Mac, Windows, Android, iOS, and Chrome from freedom that can give you control to temporarily block distracting websites and apps when you’re trying to study. This is a great tool to help you stay on track and build better habits.

Do you have lists coming out your ears? Global Tasks helps you do away with all those to-do notes by keeping all your tasks and projects in one place. Colour items to group them, prioritise important stuff and add due dates so you never miss a deadline. You can also temporarily hide less urgent jobs to improve focus and help reduce stress levels. It’s an effective way to plan and organise activities and can be used for everything including work, social and personal reminders. 

Students with conditions such as ADHD may find mind-mapping tools extremely helpful and MindView is a leader in this field. This intelligent piece of software turns critical information into visual maps where the user can quickly organise their ideas, time and resources by simply dragging and dropping pictures, text and more. These mind maps can then be easily exported into a range of different formats including Microsoft Word to create a polished piece of work.

Other useful (and fun) tools to boost memory include flashcard programs such as Anki which uses the evidence-based learning technique of spaced repetition to help you remember things quickly and easily and Quizlet, which enables you to create your own flashcards for any topic you like or the option to choose from sets created by other students online. 

As well as tech solutions, there are also many study skills anyone can use to improve concentration such as the Pomodoro technique. This simple time management method is based around breaking down work into short intervals which helps reduce overwhelming tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. 

Another free but powerful technique is a meditation method where you count your breathing cycles. This exercise in mindfulness focuses on your natural breathing rhythm which can improve your concentration skills and help you focus on the task in hand. Headspace, Stop Breathe Think and Calm are all great meditation apps.

If you struggle to stay focussed and keep on top of your workload due to a disability, long term health condition, specific learning difficulty or mental health condition, you may be eligible for the Disabled Students’ Allowances. The package of support you receive is individually tailored to your specific needs and equipment such as the specialist software mentioned here can make a huge difference to your studies. Find out if you are eligible for DSA funding here.

In the meantime, check out our extensive guide to find the software that best meets your needs.

What are your tips for staying on track when studying? Join the conversation on our Facebook and Instagram pages.

If you’d like advice or more information, get in touch and we’ll go through the options available to you.

Take Note

Notetaking is a part of everyday life for students but it can also present challenges, particularly if you have a disability, a specific learning difficulty like dyslexia, dyspraxia or ADHD, a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression or a long-term health condition such as diabetes, epilepsy, RSI or hypermobility.

Taking notes in fast-paced lectures requires a great deal of multi-tasking; listening to what is being said, writing at speed, deciding what information is relevant and organising notes in a logical way.

When we are bombarded with information, it can become overwhelming and even more so if you struggle with maintaining focus, reading and listening comprehension and difficulty with motor skills.

If you want to make notes faster and spend more time actively participating in lessons, we’ll show you some examples of the assistive technology that you could get as part of your personalised support package with the Disabled Students Allowances (DSAs).

Typing versus writing

A laptop, iPad, smartphone or good old pen and paper – whatever your preferred method of making notes, you’ll encounter similar problems.

No matter how fast you write or type, it’s impossible to capture everything that is said. Then there’s illegible handwriting, sheets of paper to lose, distracting noises, notifications on your laptop…

Information overload.

If you can find a technique to take down information in a way that works for you, it’s a powerful aid to understanding what you have learnt and remembering it in the future. Effective notetaking isn’t just important for your studies – it’s a transferable skill that can be applied to all areas of your life. 

Time-saving tech

There are other methods of notetaking that could be better suited to your needs so you can be more confident, productive and independent in your studies. Let us take you through a few of our favourites:

Livescribe Echo Smart Pen

If you’re a fan of handwriting notes, the Livescribe is a natural fit for you. This clever smartpen allows you to record everything you hear, say and write, helping to improve your notetaking and saving time. Being able to record audio and write at the same time means you can capture a lecture or conversation at a meeting, alongside your own written notes. Audio can be quickly replayed from your Livescribe paper, a computer or a mobile device by simply tapping your handwritten notes.

Sonocent Audio Notetaker 

Do you spend more time and effort writing notes than taking on board what is being said? Sonocent Audio Notetaker would be a good choice for you. This programme allows you to record complete sessions which you can interact with at the same time; colour-coding important chunks of info and adding images as you go. You can either use the software on a laptop to make recordings and type notes during classes or lectures or the companion Sonocent Link app on a smartphone. 

Notability 

For iPad fans and more visual students, this iOS app is a great option as you can use it like a virtual whiteboard, using the Apple pencil to make notes, annotate material and record audio all at the same time. Notability allows the user to combine handwriting, photos, pdf documents, typing and recording in a single note making it ideal for jotting down your ideas, creating on the go and organising all areas of your school, work and home life. It’s simple and convenient to use with the additional benefit of writing your own notes and a great way to keep everything digital.

Microsoft OneNote

This digital notetaking app is free and already available through your college or university’s Office 365 subscription so is well worth exploring. OneNote makes capturing, storing and sharing information easy and has a multitude of features such as recording audio and video, the ability to highlight your notes, scan your handwritten text and convert it into typed text and even draw using your stylus or finger. It can also be used on any device meaning you can access your notes and create new ones wherever you are. Some students report that it’s tricky to get to grips with at first due to the sheer amount of options, but it’s user-friendly and once you get familiar with it you may find it becomes an essential productivity tool. 

If you like the sound of the specialist software mentioned and feel it could help you study better, jump to our guide to DSAs to see if you are eligible. And to discover more recommended assistive software, check out our comprehensive guide.

For more information and for advice on your individual situation, call us on 01252 721095 or email us today.

SnapType

A common barrier facing students who find using assistive technology useful is how to implement these strategies when given paper-based tasks to complete.

In a previous post – ‘Yes you scan‘ – the Claro ScanPen app was proposed as a way of using text-to-speech support when reading from printed material, letting you use your phone to take a photo of printed text, then select what you want read with your finger, and hear it spoken straight back to you.

What about when you need to write on a printed worksheet or form though. If you struggle with writing legibly or with spelling, losing the support you get when typing work can cause significant challenges, and despite the plethora of technology surrounding us, there are still many situations in which a form needs to be filled by hand.

However, there is a solution. SnapType is an IOS and Android app which lets the user take a picture of a worksheet or form using the phone or tablet’s camera, or import a document from email, photo library or Google Drive. You can then tap anywhere on the screen to start typing in text. Instant support with handwriting and spelling at your finger tips. You can also use your finger to draw lines and zoom in for easier reading.

Sound good? Check it out at http://www.snaptypeapp.com/

Happy Phrase

A really quick tip for anyone studying at University who may be struggling with the sort of academic writing style that you need to master to get the top marks in yours essays. If that sounds familiar, have a look at the Academic Phrasebank set up by John Morley at the University of Manchester. This offers a wealth of support with academic writing by providing sample phrases to use, along with advice on what to include in the different sections of your writing (introductions, conclusions etc).

So, not sure about how to define one the key terms in your essay? How about ‘The term ‘X’ was introduced by Smith in her …‘ or ‘Historically, the term ‘X’ has been used to describe …‘ or ‘It is necessary here to clarify exactly what is meant by …

These are just a tiny example of hundreds of phrases you can use and adapt to suit your need. And, no need to worry about plagiarism – as the site explains; ‘The items in the Academic Phrasebank are mostly content neutral and generic in nature; in using them, therefore, you are not stealing other people’s ideas and this does not constitute plagiarism.’

Happy phrase!

What’s your type?

If you struggle to take in information when reading, find that you lose your place or reread lines, it’s worth taking a few minutes to evaluate the format of the material you are reading.

With a few simple tweaks to change how the text looks, you may find that you can improve your reading experience, helping you to read faster and take in information more effectively because you are not having to apply so much effort to visually following the text.

Here are some things to try (tip – with Office 365 you can open a pdf document directly in MS Word these changes can be made):

  • Change the font. Generally san serif fonts such as Arial and Calibri are easier to read, but there are also specialist fonts, such as Open Dyslexic which have been designed specifically to support dyslexic readers.
  • Change line spacing to 1.5 so that text doesn’t feel too cramped and its easier to follow a line of text without jumping to the one above or below.
  • Make sure text is left aligned so that it is easier to visually identify the end of each line.
  • Try different text and background colour combinations. A white background can often cause a glare which distracts from the text so a cream or pale yellow background can be easier to read from.
  • If you struggle with tracking text along a line, consider increasing the size of the margins so that the text is narrower on the page and each line is therefore much shorter.

If you are mainly reading online material, there are a few browser extensions which you could use that will let you make some of these changes to how text is displayed on websites:

  • OpenDyslexic Font for Chrome (Chrome extension) or Mobile Dyslexic (Firefox add-on) – changes all fonts on web pages to the OpenDyslexic font
  • Clearly and Mecury Reader (Chrome extensions) –  remove ads and distractions from websites, leaving only text and images for a clean and consistent reading view
  • BeeLine Reader (Chrome extension or Firefox add-on) – uses an eye-guiding colour gradient to pull your eyes from one line to the next