Best Practices for Students #2: Know Your Software

Learning is a craft, a set of skills that you put to use over the course of your life to construct your education. Like any craft, your mastery of the tools at your disposal is crucial. One of the most overlooked tools in the learner’s toolbox is your computer and its software. Your instructors have probably spent a lot of time teaching you how to use books and the research library, maybe how to glean information from the Web, and definitely how to use language to put forth and defend an argument, but how much time have you or your professors spent on how to use your computer? Yet in today’s world, your computer is arguably your most important tool – it’s where you store the notes you compile from your reading, where you surf the Internet seeking out statistics and definitions, where you write your papers – it’s the tool that, in a way, enables us to use most of the rest of the tools in our repertoire.

There are several reasons why so little attention is paid in college to the technology that gets you through day to day. One is that many academics themselves don’t really know much about computers. All but your youngest professors came of age when typewriters were still in common use, and have only barely mastered the fundamentals of computing, often in bits and drabs accumulated working on their own. Another reason is that there are so many programs, operating websites, and services that do the same thing that there are often no generic ways to do anything, and teachers fear that explaining how to do something in one program might hopelessly confuse students who use a different program. A third is that some professors are intimidated by the knowledge their students already have – many of you are so-called ‘digital natives”, with thumbs the size of oak branches that move at the speed of light over your cell phone keypads. It is often though, erroneously, that students have nothing to learn about technology from us old fogeys.

And yet… I’ve had to teach students how to attach documents to emails, how to format their margins, how to save in file formats other than their program’s defaults. While most software promises to make whatever it is a program is supposed to do easy and painless, all software comes with a learning curve. Most often, we quickly master the rudiments of a program’s functions and then ignore the other 80% of what the program does. Here’s an interesting fact: while planning the latest release of Office, Microsoft surveyed thousands of computer users about the functions they’d like to see in their office suite. Almost without exception, people wished for features that were already available — they just hadn’t figured out how to access them.

Take some time to get to know the software you use the most – especially your word processor, spreadsheet, email, and Internet browser. Go through all the pull-down menus and google anything that isn’t self-explanatory. “Mail merge”, for instance. “Pivot table”. Check the various file types available under the “Save As” menu (usually there’s a drop-down menu with all the formats you can save a document as). If possible, change the default file-type to a standard format like “MS Word .doc” for word processors – your professor will thank you when you email her a paper and opening it doesn’t produce pages of gibberish! Read a couple of reviews and a tutorial or two about your software – learn its strengths and weaknesses and some of its obscure functions. Check the import and export options, if there are any, and see what programs you can swap data with.

Unless computers hopelessly confuse you, you don’t need to take a class to learn how to use most software. But you should spend a few minutes here and there studying your programs – mastering the functions you use already and learning new ones. You may well discover new ways to do tasks that are otherwise painstakingly difficult, or ways to integrate programs that increase your productivity. In any case, you’ll become more and more comfortable with your tools, until using them becomes second-nature and you can spend your time figuring out the solutions to the world’s problems instead of the solutions to your formatting problems.

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