5 easy steps to get and stay organized this semester

An achievable resolution for the new year

Image: javier trueba on Unsplash

At the beginning of a new year, there’s often the temptation to formulate resolutions: do more exercise, stop smoking, or eat fewer sweets are a few of the most common that we tend to make again and again.

Too many resolutions can be overwhelming, though. At some point the mountain of new habits you’re trying to build is simply too high to climb. Another difficulty is knowing which method to use to implement your resolutions step by step – and if you don’t even know how to approach your resolutions, there’s a danger that you’ll give up on them pretty quickly.

This year we have a more doable resolution for you: be a better organized student this semester. We’ve broken this resolution down into 5 easy-to-follow steps below.

  1. Keep track of important dates and deadlines

    The Amtrak passenger train system considers a train to be on time if it reaches its destination less than 10 or 30 minutes late, depending on the distance. You can do better than that!

    To stay punctual and never again miss a deadline, enter your class schedule into your calendar. Until each week becomes more of a routine, you can then quickly look up when you have to be where.

    Do the same for key semester deadlines. When you get a syllabus in a class, check right away for important due dates to add to your calendar. For example, you might see when your semester project is due, on what day you have to give a presentation, or when the final exam will take place. Entering these dates into your calendar lets you then also plan out enough time to prepare and you can even begin entering study sessions into your calendar now. Other dates you may want to keep track of are any special planned study sessions, and office hours for your professor or teaching assistant.

    Your calendar will also help you see where you can expect an especially tough week. For example, if you have three big projects for three courses due in the same week, you will see that in your calendar and can prepare a little more in advance than you otherwise might have. If you later need to adjust your plan, that’s no big deal. Check your calendar at least once a week to add new tasks and reschedule unfinished tasks where needed.

    In addition to your longer-term dates and deadlines, you’ll also have more short-term deadlines that crop up throughout the semester, for example, the due date for the books you borrowed from the library and the date on which you can expect the scanned article you requested from interlibrary loan to arrive. It’s best to note any of these tasks having to do with your sources in Citavi.

  2. Store handouts and other course materials in a single location

    Last semester did you end up with class materials all over the place? Handouts and lecture notes in a binder, course readings on the floor near your bed, and a syllabus stuck randomly in a pile on your desk, never to be found again? Don’t make that mistake again! Especially when it comes time to study for a test, the last thing you want to do is waste precious minutes hunting down what you need.

    Decide where it best makes sense to keep all of your course materials and follow cleaning guru Marie Kondō’s principle of keeping all items belonging to one category in the same place. In this case the category would be “Spring Semester 2020”.

    We recommend that this place be a digital location. If you receive hand-outs or have several print-outs of course readings, scan them. Your library will usually have a high-quality scanner, but you can also use a smartphone app, such as Adobe Scan. Make sure that you also run OCR text recognition on your scans so that you can later use the annotation tools in Citavi or search for terms in the document.

    Then, to keep handouts for a particular course together, save them in a corresponding folder. Alternatively, save them along with course readings and reading recommendations from your professor in your reference management software. For example, in Citavi you can create a project for all class-related materials and then assign each document to a category with the specific course name. If you have a reading used in more than one course, it’s no problem to add it to two categories. You can also add tags or assign keywords to make it easier to find certain documents later on. Want to make sure that the date of a particular lecture is saved as well? It will be automatically included if you add the lecture notes to your Citavi project directly after the lecture. Try to make a daily habit of saving all documents from each day of class in one location. If you don’t have time to organize everything on busy days, create a task for yourself to do so the next day.

  3. Take better notes

    If you’re sitting in a lecture hall but your head is somewhere else, you could have just as easily stayed home. Since it’s all too easy to drift off during a lecture, we recommend a more active listening strategy. Although you can often view presentations or download lecture notes on the course platform or copy notes from your friends, taking notes yourself can aid your memory and make it more likely that you’ll remember – and understand – the information come test time.

    Your note-taking will be more effective if you don’t write down exactly what the professor said word-for-word. Instead, re-formulate the lecture content in your own words. In this way, you can create your own personal, external memory. Many universities offer additional tips for taking good notes, such as this guide from Penn State.

    If you later digitize your notes, you can save them along with the other documents from your course. You can simply photograph your notes, use an app, such as Office Lens, or take notes with smart pens and special notebooks that automatically save your handwritten notes in digital form.

    Why not just type your notes? There seems to be some evidence that handwritten notes are more effective for learning. What can help you learn even more is to take your handwritten notes and type them up in a Word document, revising and re-formulating them as you go. You can then save this document along with the instructor’s lecture notes for the course.

    Of course, note-taking isn’t an activity limited to the lecture hall. You’ll also take notes when reading textbooks, journal articles, and other materials for class. For this type of note-taking there are a number of helpful strategies you can employ, which are discussed in another of our blog articles. And if you want to learn more about writing summaries, which is another specific technique for better retaining and understanding what you read, this blog article can help.
  4. Study for tests more effectively

    Before you know it, the first test of the semester will be there. If you planned enough time for studying (step 1) and are able to look back at good notes while preparing (step 3), you should already be feeling relatively relaxed.

    Next, take your notes and formulate them more in a more compact way, for example in just a few words that you can use to jog your memory. Then, try to develop mnemonic devices to remember otherwise dry facts.

    Your reference management software can help, too. For example, in Citavi you can create a knowledge item for each fact and then create a compilation for studying with just a click. If your instructor allows you to refer to your notes during an exam, this can be very helpful indeed. Additional tips for using your reference management program to study for a test can be found in this blog post.

    While preparing for a test, it can also help to know what goal you have. Do you only need to pass the test or is it important to you to get the best possible grade? Knowing what you want to achieve can guide how much time and effort you want to put in to studying. Whichever goal you pursue, you should try to remain calm. It’s also important for long-term retention to take regular breaks while studying instead of trying to cram everything into your head in a single session.

  5. Get a little help from your friends

    Don’t make your studies more difficult than they need to be by trying to do everything on your own. Forming a study group can help you and your classmates better prepare for tests because you can practice explaining new concepts to each other. This is an effective technique as you can only teach someone else something if you’ve understood it yourself. It’s also helpful for your peers to listen to your explanations since they might pick up a new aspect of a concept that they had previously missed. Being part of a group is also extremely helpful for motivation.

    Just as you can organize yourself using the four steps above, you can also organize your group. For example, you could create a team project in the Citavi Cloud. In the Task Planner you can then save the time and dates when you’ll meet. If you’re working on a presentation or paper together, you can use Citavi for that, too. Each team member can add sources to the project, and you can discuss them in the chat. When it comes time to write, all that will be left to do is selecting a citation style. 


We hope that these five steps will help get you through the new semester in a more organized way. Let the new year inspire you to make each of these practices a regular habit. It may not be easy at first, but the more you do them, the quicker they’ll become second nature. And there's always next year for giving up sugar.

What do you think about our tips? Did we leave anything out? Let us know on our Facebook page!

For further reading
Kondō, Marie (2014): The life-changing magic of tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever. Kindle edition. London: Ebury digital.

Mueller, Pam A.; Oppenheimer, Daniel M. (2014): The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science 25 (6), S. 1159–1168. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581.

Piolat, Annie; Olive, Thierry; Kellogg, Ronald T. (2005): Cognitive effort during note taking. Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 19 (3), S. 291–312. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1086.

Created by: Jana Votteler – Published on: 1/14/2020
Tags: Organization Teamwork Good to know


About Jana Votteler

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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