Obsidian for Students: Time to Take Your Studies Seriously

Meet Gregory, a writer and the brains behind Face Dragons. He's the go-to guy for getting things done. Gregory's been living the digital nomad life in Asia for as long as anyone can remember, helping clients smash their goals. He writes on topics like software, personal knowledge management (PKM), and personal development. When he's not writing, you'll catch him at the local MMA gym, nose buried in a book, or just chilling with the family.

We’re in the middle of a personal knowledge management revolution right now. The software has caught up to the ideas. It’s changing how we work and learn, and Obsidian is emerging as the number one note-taking or second-brain application. With its ability to mimic how our minds work, no one will benefit more than students. Learn how to use Obsidian for students.

Table of Contents

Why Students Should Use Obsidian

As you take your studies to higher levels, you need a tool that will grow with you. In high school, you can get away with taking notes in a notebook and still making the grade. But when you get to the undergraduate level and beyond, things start to get more complex, so you need a sophisticated tool to keep up with you.

There are plenty of reasons to use Obsidian.

All of our knowledge is linked together in the mind. You think of your friend and remember that you need to give him his headphones back. That gets you thinking about music and looking for a new playlist for the journey home. As your thoughts go from one idea to the next, you’re surfing this interconnected web of ideas and creating new ideas where they intersect.

By linking your notes together, you create a web of your academic ideas you can browse in the same way.

Wikipedia is a web of knowledge. You look at one article, then click on a link to see something related, and you end up reading something seemingly unrelated to the first page.

Obsidian takes this idea a step further with bidirectional linking. In Wikipedia, links usually only go one way; once you’ve clicked through to the second article, there is no link back to the first. In Obsidian, each note keeps a record of all the other notes that link to it; these are called backlinks.

Backlinks are a great way to come up with new ideas for writing. Suppose you wanted to write an essay about “Roman Currency” first, you can take a look at your note about it and the wiki-style links there. Then check the backlinks to see which notes link to your “Roman Currency” note. All of these connections will give you ideas to explore and write about.

Obsidian Templates for Students

As a student, you likely make similar kinds of notes every day.

  • Lecture notes
  • Essay Outline
  • Brainstorming
  • Journals

Using Obsidian’s templates core plugin will help to automate some of the repetitive aspects of keeping your notes. You need to know some Markdown when using a note-taking app like Obsidian and for creating these templates. But you can learn Obsidian’s markdown syntax quickly here.

Creating a template with the date and sections for course details and assignments can save you a few seconds and let you jump right into taking your notes. Use this template for lecture notes by just adding a link to your course MOC (explained below.)

Year: [[College MOC]]
Course: [[]]
Date: {{date}}
Lecture {{title}}

## Main Points

## Related Books

## Things to Memorize

## Assignments

Obsidian Plugins for Academics

Perhaps the biggest advantage that Obsidian has over other note-taking apps is the huge number of plugins available. P

If Obsidian doesn’t do exactly what you want, someone has probably already made a plugin that does. Install the best Obsidian Plugins in seconds and create unique ways to keep your notes and a truly customized academic experience.

Here are the top three you must have as a student:

  • Dataview
  • Calendar
  • Homepage (for your College MOC)

What’s wrong with making handwritten notes?

Students in higher education and graduate schools have written their notes for decades, and techniques like the Cornell Method, which uses pen and paper, have consistently produced student success. Is it really time to declare that digital note-taking is now king for college students?

Leaving aside your messy handwriting for now, there are many reasons that Obsidian and other second-brain software are the most effective note-taking methods used by graduate students today.

Say you take an introductory history course in your first year. You take out your notebook and jot down important ideas while the lecturer talks. Then, you look back at the notes when you want to write an essay or revise for a test.

The following year, however, you take another history course that goes more in-depth. You can’t add notes to last year’s notebook, there’s no space, but you also don’t want to rewrite the ideas you learned last year (some of which you’ve already forgotten.)

You need a system where you’re old notes don’t become obsolete at the end of a course, notebook, or year.

Instead, a digital system will let you reuse the previous year’s notes. In a note-taking application like EverNote, typing more to the note you wrote last year is always an option. But that brings up more problems. Do you move the note into a new folder? What about the stuff I don’t need from last year?

Obsidian will let you refer to previous notes much more sophisticatedly. Consider migrating from EverNote to Obsidian if you haven’t already.

In Obsidian, you can link to another note just like a Wikipedia page does. Or you can embed last year’s note directly into this year’s one. You can even embed just the relevant section of the note.

How to Use Obsidian for Students

Step 1: Setup

Start by downloading Obsidian on all your devices. You can go to Obsidian.md to download the Windows, macOS, and Linux versions. Android and iOS apps are available in their respective app stores.

Once installed, you need to create your Obsidian vault. I recommend you do this on your laptop or desktop and then sync your Obsidian vault to your devices.

Now is the time to decide how to organize your notes. There are an infinite number of ways you could do this. Here is a good starting place using maps of content; make it your own.

  1. Create a college MOC – a list of every course you take with links to your Course MOCs (number 2)
  2. Create a dynamic course MOC, e.g., “History of Rome MOC,” “Roman Literature MOC,” etc.
  3. Create a folder for each course

Install dataview to make the following dynamic Course MOC work.

# History of Rome MOC

## Themes

FROM "History of Rome"
WHERE !contains(file.name, "Lecture")

## Lecture Notes

FROM "History of Rome"
WHERE contains(file.name, "Lecture")

When you write notes in lectures, you simply need to include the word “Lecture” in the title, and it will automatically appear in the lecture section of your Course MOC. If you like, you can create a third section for reading notes or other resources. Build whatever might be useful to you!

Any other notes you create within the “History of Rome” folder will appear as a list of links in the “Themes” section.

A section for notes with a certain tag could also pull in notes from other courses. For example, suppose you are also taking a “Roman Literature” course and reading Tacitus. In that case, you could tag the note with #RomanHistory and use dataview to pull that into your History of Rome MOC.

Step 2: Take Notes

This first step may seem obvious, but you must get your laptop out and make notes. During your lectures, seminars, while reading, or during discussions. If you don’t take notes in the first place, you’ll have nothing to manage or draw from later on. You’re just letting all that knowledge slip through your fingers.

Jotting down notes in Obsidian is simple, just hit the “New Note” button and start writing. Ensuring Obsidian is installed on your phone is a huge advantage; you can still write down your digital notes even if you don’t have your laptop with you.

When taking your initial notes, don’t worry too much about formatting, category, linking, or organizing your notes; just summarize and get the information into your system. Then, you can come back later to tidy it up.

Step 3: Process Your Notes

Taking notes is a good start, but it isn’t enough to help you produce a world-class thesis or ace your exams. The real magic comes when you go back through your notes, delete what is unhelpful and move the useful information into a “theme note.” Within our example, “The Gallic Wars” or “Caesar’s Murder” might be themes you use.

A single lecture may include information about many different themes, so keeping only lecture notes is unhelpful when writing an essay on a certain topic, i.e., a theme. Instead, you want all the knowledge and references about that theme in one place. Of course, you can link to other themes or other notes when necessary when you need to draw in extra information.

  • Lecture notes are for input, i.e., gaining knowledge
  • These notes are for output, i.e., using that knowledge

Here’s the process:

  1. Take lecture notes or reading notes or capture other information Input
  2. Read your notes and look for emerging themes
  3. Create a theme note
  4. Add information from your input notes to your theme note, rewrite and expand the knowledge
  5. Create links and add tags to other notes where appropriate

Step 4: Review Your Notes

Obsidian has a “viewing mode” for when you want to browse through your second brain. You can toggle it on and off in the top right of the screen. If you’re not editing your notes, this is how you should view your PKM; it’s especially useful for revising and preparing for exams. In view mode, you can click links and tags to see the connections you made between your notes.

Go Study

All that’s left is to go hit the books! Don’t forget to take notes!