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Digital study aids

Dissertation 4.0

München, 08/22/2016

Countless apps and programs are designed to help students write their dissertations. But which ones are actually helpful?

Foto: Jan Greune / LMU

Digital aids can be a real support when writing a term paper or a dissertation – if they are used correctly. The spectrum of aids on offer for students is extensive, ranging from classic reference management software to apps which monitor dissertations for plagiarism to other apps which block Facebook on smartphones. Yet few students actually use these apps and programs, despite the fact that digital aids can be of tremendous benefit.

At the end of the day, digital aids obviously can’t replace the real nitty gritty of writing a dissertation. “In a best case scenario, the apps and programs act as a turbo engine, adding impetus to the work of writing,” says Dr. Cornelia Rémi from the LMU Writing Center. “But you should never invest too much time or energy in such programs. Instead, you should target the specific programs that fit your style of writing.”

Reference management programs: Citavi and Endnote
Good reference management programs such as Citavi or Endnote are a good and meaningful choice. They simplify the job of managing quotes, and independently generate footnotes and bibliographies. These programs can be downloaded from the University library via the LMU campus license. “Both are excellent reference management programs,” explains Benjamin Rücker from the LMU library. In general, social science students opt for Citavi, whilst scientists usually prefer Endnote. “It’s definitely worth familiarizing yourself with one of these programs before beginning work on your dissertation,” Rücker recommends. The library offers e-tutorials for those who require support. There will also be various training courses on offer again in the winter semester.

Literature research: OPAC can’t do everything
The first port of call for literature research is OPAC, the University library online catalogue. However, students should not rely solely on this source. “OPAC isn’t an oracle,” says writing advisor Rémi. “Typing keywords into the online catalog search mask just isn’t enough.” She strongly recommends attending the University library introductory lectures to find out more about this subject. Here, you’ll also receive lots of advice on further research options. The specialist libraries in the individual faculties can also provide specific help for research in your particular subject, as can your tutors or lecturers.

Note apps: Ordering and structuring
Apps are great when it comes to managing and structuring your notes. Rémi recommends the app Evernote, for example. Evernote centrally collects all your files for a particular paper, regardless of whether you work on your computer, smartphone or tablet – and no matter whether the files are audio, video or text files. “The important thing is to think carefully beforehand about categories and a filing system!”

If you want to give fellow students feedback on their papers, the app “titanpad” is a good choice. “This is a virtual notebook that allows students to work simultaneously. Which is handy if you’re working together on a presentation, or if you want feedback on your dissertation,” Rémi explains. “I tested this app in one of my seminars, and the students found it made life much easier.”

Fighting procrastination: An alarm clock is just as effective
Even the best of apps can’t stop you procrastinating. “If you still want digital support, just use an alarm clock!” laughs Rémi. The “Pomodoro system”, developed by Francesco Cirillo, is based on this simple idea. Cirillo developed a time management system which subdivides work into short, rhythmic work steps – using a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato. “This method is a sort of salami tactic. You work for 20 minutes, take a five-minute break, and then begin again,” explains Rémi. “This way, you don’t feel overwhelmed at the thought of having to write 60 pages; you can just take it step by step.”

Student Lilli Hölzlhammer, who is currently in the process of writing her final dissertation, recommends programs and apps that block sites such as Facebook. “I use “Productivity Owl”, for example. It’s a browser add-on that reacts if I spend too much time on pre-selected websites. An owl suddenly appears on the screen and prevents me from continuing.”

The same applies to the “AppBlock” app. “You can set a period of time during which you don’t allow yourself to access certain apps,” explains Julia Anton, who is studying journalism. If you try to use the apps nonetheless, a comment appears saying that you tried to open the app “without permission” – and the app keeps track of how often this happens. “It works really well,” Julia reports.

But you should take the time to familiarize yourself with these programs when you’re not under time pressure, Rémi recommends. “And right from the start, you should exploit them for your own work processes.” She also recommends playing around with the various programs long before you actually need to use them, in order to find out which ones work best for you. “And remember – digital aids are only as clever as you. They can never replace your own timing, structure and work.”

If you’re still stuck in front of a blank piece of paper, despite using digital aids, contact the LMU Writing Center. For more information, please see: www.sprach-und-literaturwissenschaften.uni-muenchen.de/studium/schreibzentrum/index.html