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Monday Master Class: How to Build a Knowledge Vault and Avoid Wasting an Entire Semester’s Worth of Work

May 19th, 2008 · 22 comments

If a Course Ends in the Forest, and No One is Around to Remember it…Vault

Across the country, college semesters are winding down. Final exams: over. That massive research paper: handed in to your professor and exiled from your nightmares. In your near future: blissful, relaxing nothingness.

But something doesn’t feel quite right…

You just dedicated five hard months of mind-melting concentration to conquer a full course load of difficult subjects. If you’re like me, you are probably already feeling that hard-fought knowledge starting to slip away. By June you’ll have a hard time even remembering their names. All the work will go to waste. And this just seems like a shame.

In this academic year-end post, I want to offer up a simple system that helps make sure that you get some lasting value out of your courses.

The Knowledge Vault

The basic idea: During the first week after your courses end — that is, before you start forgetting everything — enter the most important ideas, insights, and resources into a long-term system that you can later easily reference. I call such a system: a knowledge vault. There are an infinite number of possible variations for constructing such a vault; here, I describe just one to get you thinking.

What to Track in the Knowledge Vault

You generate hundreds of pages of notes and papers and readings during a typical course: way too much material to be usefully stored and looked up again later. So how do you pare this pile down to the most important nuggets? Focus on the following:

  1. People. What important figures did you come across in the course? This could include, for example, important political figures from a history class or an influential philosopher from a philosophy class. You will want to capture in your system, for each such important person, 2 -4 sentences that captures who they are and what — at a very high level — they did or thought.
  2. Ideas. What were the major ideas that popped again and again in your class? Did a certain Marxist framework, for example, keeping slipping into your anthropology lectures? What are the major points describing the idea? Again, 2 -4 sentences.
  3. Books. Did any books (or articles) prove particularly influential to you? If so, title, author, and a — surprise! — 2 – 4 sentence description will work wonders.

(For the sake of simplicity, I will use the generic term “info-nugget” or just “nugget” to refer to each individual person, idea, or book that you want to store.)

How to Store the Knowledge Vault Information

Each class will generate its own collection of info-nuggets. The obvious question is how to best store these data. Numerous formats will work. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Index Cards. For the old-fashioned at heart: buy three plastic index card storage boxes, one each for people, ideas, and books. Store one info-nugget per card. Record at the top: the nugget’s title, the course number, and the semester you took it. The description goes below. Looking up info is as simple as flipping though a box full of cards.
  2. PBWiki. For the less old-fashioned, use a free wiki service like PBwiki. True to its name, it makes setting up a private wiki as easy as constructing a PB&J sandwich. You can construct a separate page for each of the three main categories. Within each category you can create sub-categories if you feel like getting advanced with your organization. Bonus points: share the wiki with several classmates and have them add their own info-nuggets, creating a truly massive collection of knowledge.
  3. Database. The most tech-savvy might consider building a custom database. Each row can store, in addition to the description itself: type of entry (person, idea, or book), title of entry, course number, course date, and, perhaps, some extra descriptive tags. You can then pass the database advanced queries to sort out exactly what you are looking for (e.g., show me people or books from classes taken in the year 2007 that involved science.) Free web services like Zoho make the construction of such databases easier than you might suspect.
  4. Gmail. The poor man’s database. (Or should it be the “especially clever man’s database”?) Construct a separate label for each of the three nugget categories. To add an entry, e-mail yourself a message with the nugget title in the message subject. In the body of the e-mail, include the course number and course date as usual. Once received, label the message with the appropriate label and archive it. Later, to search through your nuggets, type “l:<relevant-label-name> <various search terms>” into the search bar, and then let Google work its magic.
  5. [Update at 5:51 PM] Two readers wrote in to suggest two additional storage apps that have worked well for them. These were: Evernote and Google Notebook. I don’t have direct experience with either, but they both come highly recommended by these students.

The Advantages of a Knowledge Vault

There are several advantages to maintaining a knowledge vault through your college career. The first is short term. As David Masters discussed in a recent interview, the most engaged students are constantly integrating material between courses. You’d be surprised how often, when working on a paper in one class, you’ll discover that some person, idea, or book from a previous class will provide a whole new insight. It saves time and makes you look exceptionally smart.

Another advantage is long-term. The vault helps you stay in touch with what you learned in college. When someone mentions a name that sounds familiar, you can quickly determine what you know about that person. When struggling to figure out a complicated problem in your life, you can turn back to the big ideas from your college career to see if any might prove useful. Similarly, providing book recommendations becomes a snap when you have a list of the most interesting books that you have read.

A final, somewhat stealthy advantage, is that just taking an hour or two to record, with just a few sentences the most important information from your courses, does wonders for cementing this information in your mind — even if you never explicitly seek it in your vault down the road.

(The alert reader might have noticed that maintaining the vault during the semester might aid exam review and paper prep. I agree with the alert reader. Keep this in mind as a new term dawns.)

In Conclusion

This might not be for everybody. It’s extra work and doesn’t necessarily provide immediate tangible benefits. But if you do try this technique, in the long run, you’ll be happy to have captured the benefits of all those hours of hard thinking. In other words: you’ll get your money’s worth from your education.

22 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: How to Build a Knowledge Vault and Avoid Wasting an Entire Semester’s Worth of Work

  1. Tazdad says:

    You might want to add Evernote to your “how to store information” section. I can’t believe how useful it’s become.

  2. Gaston says:

    Nice article. I would recommend Google Notebook instead of GMail; I think that is better suited for knowledge management and you can also use it to organize your notes and quoting from the Web, thanks to the clip funtionality.

  3. Study Hacks says:

    @Tazdad and @Gaston:

    Thanks guys. I updated the post to add your recommendations.

  4. waley says:

    i use wikidpad, it’s like linked textpads that are connected through wikilinks, you can use it from your desktop

  5. Christopher Weuve says:

    I tried doing this in real-time with a class I just finished. (A monster, too — in my program the three core classes are 8 months long and are worth 7 credits.) The problem I ran into was the software I was using (VoodooPad Pro). But now that I have worked out the kinks (including the fact that I should use Scrivener instead), I’m done with the masters. Hmm, guess I’ll just have to get a PhD…

  6. GordonG says:

    I’ve been doing soemthing similar to this for 5 years now. I have 40,000 files (nuggets) in HTML, Doc, PDF, rtf, etc formats and can search them all in a very short time using my Desktop search engine (I use X1, but Google desktop is just as good I gather). I call my system my IRS – Information Retrieval System – any system MUST be easy to retrieve from or the time spent filing is wasted! I tried all sorts of ‘filing’ systems first, and they kept failing the retrieval test, before coming to this which is just so easy to use.

  7. Eric Blue says:

    Great article! I really do like the term Knowledge Vault.
    This topic has been on my radar for a while, and I’ve recently started blogging my progress with my own personal knowledge manager.

    I’ve used quite a bit of applications over the years to help with storing my research information (both for classes and my own personal research). I’ve tried tons of PIMS, outliners, knowledge managers, web-based applications, etc. I’ve recently started using a wiki (MediaWiki with Semantic extensions) and MindMaps to organize all my notes.

    If you or your readers are interested, check out some of my quick posts on this topic:

    http://eric-blue.com/blog/2008/02/wiki_hunt_wikis_for_personal_knowledge_management.html

    http://eric-blue.com/blog/2008/03/document_management_systems.html

  8. Abdullah Siddiqi says:

    I think better option than PBWiki is TiddlyWiki. Its much more easier to edit and share. check it out on tiddlywiki.com

  9. Study Hacks says:

    Thank you everyone for sharing which tech worked best for you. It’s great to see that I’m not the only one with faith in the vault idea.

  10. Greene says:

    Cal,
    Thanks for the great post. I’ve been thinking of starting a knowledge vault especially now that I’m starting PhD research and will need a lot of info on one specific field of research (btw, I’m a science and engineering student – so my reading focuses a lot on remembering key words in physiology, and learning experimental methods/results from scientific papers).

    As a PhD student yourself, do you have any specific advice for storing research and what is the method that you use?

    Thanks!

    P.S. If you get time, a post about your experiences about the PhD process and tips would be awesome.

  11. Chris Yeh says:

    I’m a huge fan of doing this, and even more so of doing it electronically.

    I spent four hours today cleaning out my office. Or more precisely, my old office at one of my old companies. It’s been a year since I worked there, so perhaps I’m a bit lazy.

    At any rate, it was fascinating to me, because I ran across all these articles that I had printed, and pages and pages of notes dating back to 2002.

    The thing is, I’d never have to do that today, since I put all my notes online (like you, I use PBwiki). It’s much more searchable. One of my tricks is to use TextPad to record notes offline if I don’t have internet access, then paste into PBwiki later on.

    The other key to my knowledge vault is del.icio.us (http://del.icio.us/chrisyeh) where I’m approaching 6,000 bookmarks.

    Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out my book outlines wiki (http://bookoutlines.pbwiki.com/). Now that I’m out of school, I learn a lot from books, and I find writing an outline that I can refer to later invaluable for retention.

  12. Study Hacks says:

    @Greene:

    I definitely do plan to speak more about the PhD process at some point.

    @Chris:

    I love your book outlines wiki, so I’m glad you mentioned it. A great example of a slightly more involved idea storage approach.

  13. Brandon says:

    This is a really good idea. I’ve actually been using something called SuperMemo. I enter all my notes into it, then process them to eventually create questions and answers, like flashcards. It asks them every so often, depending on how well you remember the information, to make sure you don’t forget.

    I think it’s useful because you just keep the information in there, even after the semester ends, and it will quiz you occasionally to make sure you still remember. If you’re not interested in knowing something anymore, you can just dismiss it from the learning process.

  14. Neoma Panama says:

    I hope you would not mind if I posted a part of Study Hacks » Blog Archive » Monday Master Class: How to Build a Knowledge Vault and Avoid Wasting an Entire Semester’s Worth of Work on my univeristy blog?

  15. Kuhan says:

    Please copy this entire Study Hacks blog into a book and sell it on Amazon.

    By the way, I plan to buy earplugs to help me study with noise and music and people talking in background. (just sharing with you)

    Wondering if I should keep all my old textbooks to make the knowledge database.

    Thanks,
    Kuhan.

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