Computer advice for the undergrad

It’s no secret that university is time consuming, or that many university students are perpetually broke. Let’s kill both birds with one stone: I’m deviating from my usual journalistic voice this issue to share some of my personal, tried-and-true computer advice for saving valuable time at absolutely no cost. All you need for these to work is access to your own Windows, Mac or Linux-based computer.

Here are a few things you can try that might make your tech life a little easier.

Use Zotero to automate your citations and bibliography

In-text citations and bibliographies are essential for research papers and reports. They are also a real pain in the butt, espe­cially if you are still learning how to put a bibliography together.

Use Zotero to take the guesswork out of your citations altogether. The software pro­gram will build you a database that stores the necessary info for all your sources, both digital and print, in one place that is search­able, organisable, and accessible from any computer that has Zotero installed.

Zotero integrates seamlessly into most popular web browsers as well as Microsoft Word, if you can afford it, or Word’s free alternative LibreOffice Writer, if you can­not.

The browser integration means that if you are citing sources from online journals (and honestly, who isn’t these days) you can often let Zotero pull the details you need directly from its webpage without having to lift a finger. At the very least, you can bookmark all your online sources with a single click, and the “last accessed” and “URL” info will already be filled in when you come back to them later.

Zotero’s word processor integration means that you can pull up sources for in-text citations without leaving your doc­ument. It will let you bring up a search bar that lets you find the sources you need with a few keywords, then automatically generate an in-text citation. And yes, Zote­ro supports all the citation styles I’ve ever encountered at TRU. From here, building the bibliography at the bottom of your pa­per literally happens with one click, as it will build it using all the in-text citations you placed throughout your paper.

There is a bit of a learning curve to this software so, if you don’t consider yourself a fast learner on the computer, take some time to experiment with it before you begin your research. Once you become comfort­able with the software, it can be a real time saver in your essay writing.

Read more at 

Use add-ons in your browser and office software

One of the fastest ways to get more functionality out of your browsers and office programs is to install add-ons or extensions. Most of them are free. For example, if you are browsing through an online academic journal and stumble across a big word you don’t understand, there are add-ons that will enable you to double-click that word and get an instant, in-browser dictionary defini­tion. In Chrome, an extension called “Google Dictionary (by Google)” will serve this in pur­pose. A Firefox equivalent is “Wiktionary and Google Translate.”

Browser extensions aren’t a huge secret among the tech savvy, but less people are aware that office software can also benefit from add-ons. Want to spice up a presenta­tion with an interactive poll? There’s a Pow­erPoint add-on called “Poll Everywhere” that will generate an interactive survey – your audience can input answers by SMS text and their results will update in real time on your slide.

Installing add-ons for any program is generally a simple process. For browsers, you can find the “add-ons” or “extensions” settings within the “settings” tabs of their menus.

Visit or extensions.libre­ for more information.

Back up your files in the cloud

There are few things worse than working for hours (possibly through an all-nighter or two) on a research pa­per only to find that your computer has crashed and all your hard work was for nothing. Worse yet, explaining this scenar­io to your instructor probably won’t get you an extension, seeing as this kind of story has become the digital age equiva­lent of “my dog ate my homework.”

So, to avoid this scenario, regularly save a spare copy of your assignments on a cloud-based storage system like Drop­box, Google Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive. In the event of serious computer issues, you will be able to access your spare copy from any computer, including TRU’s lab computers. Dropbox offers 2 GB of free storage, while Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive both offer 15 GB. If you need to, get an account with all three services and you’re up to 32 GB of free storage.

Why not check them out for yourself? Check out these sites for more details:

Use a spreadsheet to track your grades in real time

Time management is key to success in university. Part of time management is know­ing where your grades stand in each of your classes, so you can focus more of your ef­forts in the classes you are struggling in, or in the classes that matter most to you.

The following spreadsheet trick will tell you where you stand, grade wise, in each of your classes based on (a) the scores you have received on your completed assignments to date and (b) the weight that each assign­ment carries on your overall performance in a course. Follow these steps:

  1. In your spreadsheet program, begin labelling off four columns (A through D) with different names. In row 1, column A, type the word “assignment name.” In row 1, column B, type the words “grade received.” In row 1, column C, type “assignment weight.” In row 1, column D, type “overall contribution.”
  2. Move down to row 2 and begin inputting data. In column A, label an assign­ment you’ve completed using a name that makes sense to you (for example, “midterm exam” or “research proposal”). In column B, type the score you received on that as­signment, as a decimal equal to or below one. For example, if you received 75 per cent on an essay, type “0.75” or, if you received 100 per cent, write “1.” Sometimes instructors will simply give you a letter grade instead of a percentage. If this is the case, type the percentage value that is equivalent to your letter grade. In column C, type the weight of your assignment, again as a decimal equal to or below one. In other words, if a paper you write is worth 25 per cent of your over­all course grade, you would write “0.25.” In column D, write down (without the quotation marks) “=B2*C2” to multiply row 2, column B by row 2, column C. The resulting number will tell you the overall impact your assign­ment has made on your final course grade. For example, if you received 70 per cent on your term paper, and it was worth 25 per cent of your overall grade, your paper earned you 17.5 points out of 100 towards your overall grade. A perfect paper would have earned you 25 points out of 100.
  3. Repeat step two for each assign­ment you have completed, moving down one row each time (for example, move from row 2 to row 3). In column D, make adjust the num­bers in the formula to match the row you are working in (for example, write “B5*C5” if you are working in row 5).
  4. Once you are done adding in all the assignments you have completed, find a new cell in a column beyond column D (for example, select row 1, column E). In that cell, write the following formula (without quotation marks): “=SUM(D1:D100)/SUM(C1:C100)” The result of this formula will tell you what overall grade you are currently receiving in your course, based on the assignments you have completed so far. For example, if you received 70 per cent on your term paper weighted at 25 per cent, and you received 90 per cent on your midterm exam weighted at 25 per cent, your overall course score to date would be 80 per cent.
  5. Now that you have this formula down, you can also predict the effects that your future assignments could have on your scores. Simply add uncompleted assignments below your completed ones and, in column B or “grade received,” experiment with differ­ent hypothetical scores to see how they will affect your overall grade. For example, if you want to bump your final grade up to at least 85 per cent when you are currently at 80 per cent with 50 per cent of your assignments completed, and you have an upcoming final worth 50 per cent of your grade, you would find that you need to score at least 90 per cent on your final to move your overall grade above 85 per cent.