The best apps for returning to study

Time is tight for most people returning to study as an adult. In many cases, you’ve still got all the grown-up responsibilities of work and family, but now with classes, essays and revision on top.

The good news is that technology can buy us time by making us more productive, and app creators have been hard at work developing tools to study more efficiently. We rounded up some expert views to help find a few of the best.

Make citations easy

If you’ve ever frantically chased around a library on a deadline trying to find out what year a stray text was published to put it in your bibliography, you may need a reference manager app. There’s now a huge choice of software which helps you collect and organise your research and then formats your citations automatically.

Bad Science author and Oxford professor Ben Goldacre recommends Paperpile ($2.99 a month) for its Google Docs integration and ease of use. (“Paperpile is the first time I’ve used a reference manager where it didn’t make me want to punch myself in the face on a regular basis out of sheer rage.”). Alternatively, Zotero, is an open-source app which is free for 100MB of storage, and it also has its academic fans.

If you’re dealing with more paper books than online PDFs, you may find the Citationsy app invaluable on your phone. Just scan the barcode with your camera and it “takes away the hustle and bustle of referencing and creating a bibliography”, says City University’s Michelle Sarkisyan.

Turbocharge your note-taking

Gone are the days when a yellow highlighter pen was the last word in note-taking technology.

Now, instead of copying down from the classroom whiteboard, students can take a photo with an app like Microsoft Lens and let the software scan it into text that can be copied, pasted and edited. The same goes for handouts or your own scrawled notes. Veronica Lewis, who blogs about life as a student with low vision, says it’s a lifeline for her and an app “every student needs”.

You can also keep your laptop notes organised, link to extra data and combine them with whiteboard or paper scans in an app like Evernote or Microsoft’s OneNote. Thomas Frank, who runs the popular College Info Geek site, calls Evernote his “second brain” and the “ultimate repository for information I want to remember”.

Test your progress

Research suggests the best way to remember your study material isn’t by taking notes, but by testing yourself – the effort of trying to retrieve the information in a quiz causes your brain to embed the memory a little deeper each time.

That’s where flashcard apps come in, like Quizlet or StudyBlue. Both apps allow students to create digital flashcards from their notes to test how well they recall the material. They’re both widely used, so you may find your course material is already uploaded.

Eman Ismael, an Arabic teacher at King’s College London, says Quizlet’s multimedia tests have made her students “more enthusiastic” and boosted their interest in learning vocabulary.