Notion.so – A review

I’m a little excited about this – not going to lie. I’ve always been intrigued with what certain online “containers” can offer. I love the idea of these containers keeping my digital life in order. Helping my categorize and organize important bits of information. While sites like Apple Notes, Google Keep and Evernote offered this type of organization I always felt they were all lacking.

Now I am introduced to notion.so. This isn’t a new company, its been around for the past 7-8 years, but it is new to me. Upon first looking at it, I was unsure what it was. Was it a Microsoft Office replacement? Was it an Evernote replacement? How about an easy database replacement? Well it does all of those things, but does it do them well enough to keep me here?

Getting started & price

Like most websites these days, you need to log in/create an account before you can start using it. Notion offers single sign-on (SSO) with Google and Apple accounts, you can also sign up with an active email.

The free account is pretty robust and what I will be using here. What is missing from the free account compared to others is you do not have access to version history (so no rolling it back several days) and there is no real-time collaborative options (again fine for just the individual) and there are some limits to how many individuals you can invite to your page(s) and a limit to 5MB file uploads. I believe that last one applies to the individual file sizes. I think you can have more than 5MB in total uploaded, but an individual file cannot exceed 5MB in size.

What can it do?

A lot!

When I first logged in, I was taken aback of what it can offer.

There are quick examples of what you can do with text (add checklists, collapsible blocks to hide or show info) and some basic formatting. At this point I am thinking that this is just a note taking app and nothing more. Then I watched some videos.

They offer an app that can create databases – offer lots of ways to input text (like using Markdown). The ability to embed PDFs, Google Docs, Word Docs – hell if it can be uploaded or is already online, you can probably put it on a page in Notion.

I quickly started to realize that this was not just a notetaking app. It was more. It could flex to be what you need/want it to be. Want an online grocery list? Done. Want a way to keep track of your contacts and keep notes on them? Done. Want a place for all your lesson plans/notes for a class? Done. How about a simple to-do list? Done. Need a place to manage projects and who is working on what? Done.

Not only was it powerful it works on anything that has an Internet connection. There are apps for Android/iOS devices, there is a dedicated app for Mac and Windows, but honestly, it works great in the browser on all of these devices anyway.

Layout

The layout is very simple. On the far left you can organize all of your pages. Below that is the option to create a new page and the majority of the white space in the middle is where you actually do the work. In the top right hand corner is where you share and your page options. Pretty straightforward.

Using it

This is not as straightforward. There is a learning curve here and I am going to be the first to say that I am far from fluent with everything you can do. Let’s start with these basics.

  • Blocks
  • Adding text
  • Formatting text
  • Adding images
  • Adding videos
  • Arranging your content

If you are a user of WordPress.com then you know what a block is. It is a piece of content. I honestly think that WordPress is trying to achieve what Notion has with its blocks. The blocks define what type of content you are adding. Is it text, images, header, video, lists, checkboxes? Those are all different block types. To see what Notion has to offer, just type a “/”

Yeah there are a lot of different blocks

Not only can you add all those types of blocks, Notion gives you lots of felxibilty with how it can layout on a page. For example, I can take 4 text blocks and place them side by side. Check out the GIF below.

The fact that you can layout just about anything, super easily in different columns give people a bunch of layout options which is something you do not see too often in services like Notion.

Adding text is pretty easy, you can just start typing in a new block – no need to have to pick a text block. What is also pretty fantastic is that you can convert the block to another type. So if it is a text block, you can change it to a todo list. When you move your mouse onto a blog you will see these six dots show up. You can grab and drag that block anywhere you want, but if you click on it, you get a menu that shows up allowing you to change the block type.

If you link websites, you get a little preview like you see below.

Videos can also be linked to or you can embed them. What’s cool here is that you can also arrange those links and videos into columns. Granted an embedded video looks pretty small, but maybe you don’t need the whole page for both.
Overall – this is pretty easy, but if you know those shortcut keys – you can really fly with Notion. Here is a list of all the extensive shortcuts.

Databases

OK – now here are the big guns. The feature that I think really makes Notion stand out. It is the ability to create or to make it a database. Now granted, this isn’t going to replace a school information system or help you organize a conference of 400 people, but if it is a fairly simple need, this will work quite well. Let’s take a look at their database for a CRM (customer relationship management).

It’s like a contact list but much, much more. Since it is a database you can filter it (unlike most contact apps). You can filter it by last contacted, associations, just about anything you want. Also, since it is a database you can also add your own custom fields. For example, I wanted to add “Colleague” to Associations. I just open up the contact I want and in the association box type it in. That’s it. Now when I add a new person to my CRM, that option is available. Since it is a new field in the database, I can sort by it or create a new view.

There are a bunch of database templates you can chose from and what is great about all of them is that you can take it apart and customize how you want. It’s not a rigid framework where you have to learn how to be productive. You can find its weakness, add your own touches to it and make it your own. It is a pretty great tool.

Templates

Yes, Notion has a great number of templates to chose from, but that is not the only place to find them. There are plenty of people out there who have made their own that you can bring into your account and use as your own. Some of free, some cost money, it just depends.

Here is website that has an inventory management system template you can use. In short there are lots out there to chose from and a lot that you can pick from. Again, this goes back to how flexible Notion is for the end user. It really is up to you to decide how best Notion can suit your needs.

Sharing

This is as simple as you would think.

You hit the Share button in the top right hand corner, type in their email address and their level of access:

  • Full access (can edit and share – only with a Pro account)
  • Edit
  • Comment
  • View
They get an email and then have access to it nearly immediately – as one would expect. The weird thing is I invited myself with a different email account and it worked fine and I could edit and see those changes in real time.

If I had shared it with a bunch of people (I think the limit is 5 for a free account) then I couldn’t see who is making what changes in real time, but if I click on the block it will show me who made the last edit and when but not what that edit is.

One thing I like about it, is that there is no public link you can give anyone. A person has to be invited or at the very least have a Notion account. No anonymous viewers really.

Organizing your pages

This is super easy. You just drag and drop them. You can make new categories and drop them there and even reorganize them within. This could be handy when taking notes or making lesson plans and keeping it all organized by units or even units inside grading periods.

One thing I discovered is that if you drag a page to a database the page kind of disappears as you can see in the GIF above when I drag Just another page into the Travel Plans section. It just kind of goes away. Not sure where it goes or how to get it back but it is something to know about.

Using it with students

One thing you need to know is that most students will use Notion for taking notes. It certainly lends itself to this task and with its easy organizational and sharing tools a motivated student can make very good use of Notion.

One thing to keep in mind is that students should know how to take notes before using this. I cannot stress that enough. If you take your students and dump them into Notion and expect them to take good notes you will find a class that will quickly devolve. Taking notes on a laptop/device takes practice and skill. I personally prefer a notebook myself, but for there are certainly good arguments for taking notes digitally and being able to easily share those notes.

If students are not practiced note takers, then they will have trouble keeping up with with a discussion or lecture. They will become frustrated and that will certainly show in their attitude in class as well as their work, or they may be used to taking notes with paper and pencil. Taking notes electronically is a different beast. People can easily get caught up with the formatting or trying to fix small mistakes and end up missing important content. It takes practice and time.

On the other hand, if they are seasoned note takers, then Notion should be worth their time. The fact that it is easy to organize and even go back afterwards and organize and customize make it very powerful. The only drawback is that you cannot use a stylus with it. I don’t think that will make a huge difference for most, but it is worth noting.

I would consider using this with a high school class, maybe an older middle school group, but not much younger. There is just too much freedom here and that can lead to its own type of distractions.

Teachers using it

I mentioned earlier that this would be great for lesson/unit plans. They have a timeline template so you can layout your entire year here. Then you can even link your individual units to those timelines making it a good place to keep everything in one place.

Of course you can type up all your lessons with all its links and resources right here in Notion, then organize those lessons into units. It is super handy. It may be a little easier to use than a curriculum mapping software since it works on every device you can have.

It also makes it a lot easier to share those units with colleagues for cross curricular opportunities or for others in your department if you are working collaboratively on units.

Conclusion

I really, really like Notion. I think its upsides are nearly limitless, but with a tool that is this flexible and this powerful, I think it could intimidate teachers and students alike. I suggest people (like myself) ease into Notion. Don’t try to jump into the database stuff right away. Start with what tasks you are familiar with like a todo list or maybe taking notes. Once you get some shortcut keys down and get into the flow of what it can do and how it works I think you will like it too.

There are even workspaces for teams but I believe that is in the paid version. Give it a try, get comfortable with it and then introduce it to your students and see what they have to say. I am curious of what you think about Notion, please leave your comments below!

Study smarter – not longer

Three posts in two weeks my lord! What will happen next? Will Omar actively use Facebook or even post an article – only time will tell 🙂 Now onto the topic at hand. I saw this post in LifeHacker titled “Study Less, Study Smart”: The Best Ways to Retain More in Less Time by Patrick Allan.

The article has a great video from Dr. Marty Lobdell from Pierce College where he gives compelling evidence to back up these tips, so this is not just a this worked for me scenario. Then I’ll talk about some tech tools to help you follow through with these tips.

  • Study in chunked sessions
  • Have a dedicated space
  • Recognition vs Recollection
  • Take good notes
  • Can you teach it?
  • Read effectively – not quickly

Now let me go into these in a little more detail.

Study in chunked sessions

Dr. Lobdell tells us to study but when you feel your mind starting to wander or slide, then take a break. His recommended time is 25 minutes study, 5 minute break. Now, during the break do something you enjoy for about 5 minutes, it can be anything but it should be something you enjoy.

Now here is the problem I’ve run into. Sometimes, I’ll be working on something and lose track of time so how can you keep track of that? Simple download a pomodoro timer program. You can find some free ones or very inexpensive ones for your computer or smart phone. I use Tomighty on my Mac. It’s free and works very well. There are plenty of others out there for all platforms including Android, iOS and Windows phone so you shouldn’t have trouble finding one.

Dr. Lobdell further says that this technique is a type of training that will eventually allow you to study for even longer sessions between breaks. As our students get older – the material gets more difficult and the volume of material certainly increases. This technique will greatly help you no matter what you’re studying.

It also goes without saying that those 25 minutes should be uninterrupted, so silence your phone or even switch it off. Make sure that distraction is kept in check for those dedicated times of study.

Have a dedicated space to study

Dr. Lobdell says that we unconsciously associate function to certain areas. For example the bedroom is to sleep or relax. That is its function and if you have a crap ton of studying to do that is probably where you don’t want to be. Too many distractions and comforts.

Of course, as a middle or high school student you may not have as many choices as a university student, so here is his suggestion. Get a lamp. I know it sounds a little silly but hear me out. Get a small lamp and a desk (which hopefully most students have). The lamp is used only to study – nothing else. So when the light is on, you’re studying. When the light is off, you’re just hanging out. Then apply the chunking technique mentioned above. This is essentially you carving a dedicated study session

The more you do this technique, the better trained you will become and the faster you can get “in the groove.”

Whatever your space is, make it more appropriate for studying. If you study at the kitchen table, clear it off. Take away all the food or any food cues. Are you studying in the living room – take the batteries out of the remote. If you are studying in a place that gets a lot of people coming by maybe think about changing locations to give yourself a place where you won’t be interrupted or distracted.

Recognition vs Recollection

There is a lot in this section here. Dr. Lobdell starts talking about facts vs. concepts. He said a lot of teachers value concepts more than the facts (especially as you get older). That’s not to say facts are not important but facts that aren’t attached to a concept are basically useless. For example, Dr Lobdell splits the class into two. One half is instructed to count the number of vowels in a list of words. The other half is said to rank the words on a scale of one to five of their importance if you were stranded on a desert island. Then he asks the groups of people to write down all the words they remember.

The group counting the vowels on average could remember only five words. The other group was able to do about ten. – nearly double. Cool huh? The words by themselves have no meaning, but by associating the words with a scenario gives it meaning, therefore it is easier for people to remember them.

Now let’s get knee deep into recognition or recollection. For example, re-read a magazine that you haven’t read in a while. Everything feels familiar as if you remember it. Not true, can you predict what is on the next page? Can you predict the pictures or advertisement? Probably not. That is the difference between remembering and recognition.

What you need to be able to do is restate in your own words what you’ve just studied. Then you know. Another thing that helps in a big way is to get proper sleep.

The last thing he mentions is to have a study group. Yep, strength in numbers or misery loves company. Whatever the catch phrase, more people studying together tend to have better success on tests and assessments.

Taking proper notes

Taking notes is vital for success. I don’t think I need to talk to you about this, but the real important part of the process is to revisit those notes. What I like to do is to take notes by hand in a class or meeting and then revisit them and type them in Evernote.

One of the best professors I ever had told me this technique as a freshmen in university. I blew it off at the time thinking I could do just fine on my own. Then one day, while working on a big presentation that needed to accompany a research project I was having difficulties distilling the info. So I gathered up all my note and research and then started retyping it. Sure enough within an hour I had a good idea of how to compress all this information into a coherent presentation. It didn’t just work, it worked great.

Can you teach it

Being able to take a concept and to then explain it to another person helps you internalize it and better understand it. This goes back to recognizing vs recognition. This also links back to study groups.

If you don’t have someone to “teach” – that’s cool. Just do it in the mirror or to an empty chair. If you’re alone who is going to catch you? A lot of people I know do this and it works. It helps them visualize and internalize what it is they are working on.

Effective reading

S – survey – Go through each chapter and get a feel for it
Q – question – As you survey you should ask some basic questions
R – read – Read the sections you need to review
R – recite – Recite it to better internalize it
R – review – This should be done before the assessment, project or presentation. Think back to the advice of good note taking.

Otherwise know as SQ3R.

Dr. Lobdell’s last advice is to use mnemonics to remember straight up facts.

So be sure to use these tips yourself but at the very least pass them onto your students so they can have the tools to better prepare themselves for their academic and post academic careers.

iPhone app of the week – Catch

wpid-penzu_a0053-2012-08-29-21-29.jpg

Are you a teacher or student that needs a little help organizing? Do you need something that will let you just take a few notes (audio, typed, image) and then help you organize it? I encourage you to try out Catch. It is a very streamlined app that makes creating and organizing notes, not just easy, but fast! That last part is what makes this app stand out in my opinion. It has a unique interface that allows you to create any type of note, reminder, to do task, etc. with just two clicks. Now that is what I call handy. While I was really impressed with it, an app like this is not that powerful if it doesn’t have some sort of desktop counterpart. The people of Catch certainly didn’t ignore this either by adding extensions to Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer (sorry Safari users) so you can add notes directly from web pages. They also have a web interface so you can peruse your notes, organize them and stay up to date even if you’re phone is not handy. You can create a Catch account or sign in with your Facebook or Google Account credentials. Check out the app for free here and for Android here.

wpid-img_1715-2012-08-29-21-29.png wpid-img_1716-2012-08-29-21-29.png wpid-img_1717-2012-08-29-21-29.png

wpid-img_1720-2012-08-29-21-29.png wpid-img_1723-2012-08-29-21-29.png

Taking notes on your computer?

Try these apps

woman-writing-notes-at-home-2011-11-20-12-25.jpg

When I was in school we had to walk across three continents to get to school, make our own textbooks and construct our own environmentally friendly schools. Oh yeah, I also had to learn to take notes. This skill has served me well and over the course of my lifetime my skills have evolved but my choice of median has not. Every time I head to a meeting or workshop, I reach for my trusty notebook and pen/pencil. That’s my preference of course, but there are plenty of people out there who reach for their laptop or iPad. I’ve tried them, but it’s just not for me.

However, if that’s your preference, I’ve compiled a quick list of note taking applications that you should check out. I’ve used all of them and can recommend that they all work pretty well. This is by no means a definitive list but it’s a good place to start. I had two requirements for this list: it had to be free and it has to be simple. Read on past the break to see my choices and don’t forget to add your own choices in the comments. We love to hear what you have to say.

Continue reading “Taking notes on your computer?”