Better Exams Using Devon

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

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Using Devon:

I have been touting the uses of Devon Think for a while now to friends who use Macs, especially those who are writing. But if I were in the position of taking comphrensive exams for the PhD I think this would be the most useful application out there. What Devon allows you to do is make a searchable database of all of your documents. The uses for this are massive, but what I am going to try and outline here is how one might use it for the exam phase.

The first think one will notice when you open up Devon, assuming you are beginning with a fresh copy, is . . .nothing. This is probably one of the shortcomings of the program (at least to new users). When I open up a new program I want it to do stuff, and Devon doesn’t do anything, at least not until you feed it documents. So one of the keys here is building the database and buidling it in a way that is useful to you and the work you are doing. As Devon can handle pretty much anny snippet of text, full text document, webpage, or anything else you want, you don’t have to structure your database in terms of the format of information, rather you can build, by the type.

A database for exams.

I think exams have probably changed over the past years, once “comphrensive” in the full sense of the word, the amount of knowledge on any given subject is so incredibly vast that no one can be expected to memorize everything. What is useful it seems to me is being able to index concepts and connections, to link texts and ideas together. And in this respect Devon can be very, very powerful. Most exams are split into several phases, or lists of texts. Here at Albany we have to build three lists for our exams, so I will use this as an example, but it would work for any format. First create three groups, one for each list, so that the database looks something like this:

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Now open up one of the groups, lets go to group three, and I would create a folder for each text on the list. So for example if you had 30 texts, create 30 groups here, each with the name of the text. (The reason you want to do this will become clear in a moment.) So now your database list would look something like this (I only used ten books as an example):

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Within each text folder just place the notes for that respective text. What kind of notes? This I think is up to each student. But for me I studied for the exams by writing a two-three page “summary/take” on each book, so I would put that in this folder. But also I would type out a few of the key quotes, passages that I thought were central to my reading of the work. But you don’t have to stop here. If you are working with older texts you could download the whole text from a place like Project Guttenberg or if you are working on Emerson you could grab the whole text from Emerson Central and put that in the database. You could also throw in critical works about the texts. Now you have a searchable critical database about this work. If you need an overview you can read your summary take, or you could search through this whole section of the database (this is why I would give each text its own folder), this way you can search within one folder only for one text, or search just for texts in the first list, or search the whole database (Devon allows searches within folders). Now I think this coudl get out of hand, I wouldn’t want to feed Devon too much. Why? Because Devon learns. It look for and associates words together, feed it too much bad criticism, or criticism that doesn’t necessarily help you with your project and you might start returning results that are less than productive (if you are working in postmodernity throwing in a bunch of New Critical analysis might not help).

Ahh, but there is more, Devon allows you to summarize works. And this works ridiculously well (I have no idea how a computer can summarize, but it does work somehow). Also with the duplicate feature you can put a piece of text in more than one place. So you can put your Emerson analysis both in list one, and list two if there is an Emerson text in both places. I would also throw everything you have written about these texts into the database (where would depend on the topic).

So, this would give you a highly organized, searchable verision of your notes, criticism and in many cases the original texts. Then when you get the exam question and have 72 hours to write . . .you can spend far fewer of those on researching and finding those bits of text you need to reference, and you can ask Devon to help you think (as far as I know since computers are not supposed to think this would not be considered outside help by most standards, but this program does think) and it would show you connections that you might not have thought of.