I am an educator and author, working at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. I am writing here because I am a #roamcult convert and have been loving it for writing, preparing classes, and other academic work I am involved with.
For the uninitiated, Roam is a note-taking app, where you write out and store your ideas for later. However, to call it a note-taking app is to really under-sell its magic.
It is a note-taking app that does at least three things:
1. Prioritizes writing over organizing,
2. Links ideas together (manually and automatically),
3. Harnesses Return on Attention in ways that other apps cannot – the more you use it and the more notes, research, and information you put into Roam, the better it gets.
Here is a tweet that offers a helpful metaphor for understanding the power behind Roam:
— Kevin Smith (@kvnsmth) March 10, 2020
What I like about Roam
One of the things that is most useful, not only to me, but to getting students and others to use an app like Roam is that it cannot be overly complicated. With Roam, there is very little setup. Basically, create your account and then you can just start taking notes (both Evernote and Notion don’t allow for this kind of quick start). When you are ready, you can then learn a few of the more basic features and see how the experience dramatically improves.
I recommend starting with this short video below. Khe does a fantastic job of showing some of the basic uses for Roam.
I'm not interested in the note-taking tribalism. I love Notion, but use Roam as a creative bolt-on (or "magical junkyard").
Here's how I separate my uses cases:https://t.co/bBDsCnPRCq
— Khe Hy (@khemaridh) February 27, 2020
– Next see this great article on using Roam for research from Ness Labs: A beginner’s guide to Roam Research: getting started in 5 easy steps.
– Roam offers great demo videos that are short in length and give you a great start to understanding the system.
– A more in-depth page with multiple examples and use cases can be found on the Welcome to Roam page.
I can’t recommend reading the above documentation enough to get a good understanding of the ins and outs of Roam. For those wanting to use it for their research and classes, knowing some of the basic features and use-cases early on will help you leverage the power of Roam.
I am known as a diehard Evernote user. I’ve been using Evernote since 2009 and have over 12,000 notes in my database, so I don’t move around that much when it comes to committing to new apps for my “Second Brain.” While Roam is the new player, it offers some things that Evernote doesn’t and improves on other things that Evernote does offer.
Evernote can be a challenge for folks for a number of reasons:
First, it is common that the first time someone uses Evernote, they say they “don’t get it” and end up moving away from it before they learn how to harness its power. I have heard this over and over again. Evernote and Notion both have steep inclines when it comes to onboarding and “figuring it out.”
On the other hand, as I mentioned above, Roam requires almost no onboarding to get the core features. Not only does this lessen the friction to start with, it means that the entire architecture fades into the back, allowing your writing and thinking to take main stage. It is as if Roam disappears the more you use it, allowing for a seamless experience of “thinking out loud” to occur with little structure to get in your way.
Not only do I find this design and architecture of Roam inspiring to use, freeing me to write and reflect in ways that I have not be able to before, I find it addictive.
Add to this, a few key commands – making new pages (by typing “[]”), internally linking to links (or blocks as Roam calls them) within a note (by typing “(())”), and accessing other shortcuts and formatting features by typing the forward-slash “/” – and you will be off to the races.
Second, Evernote uses the classic “filing cabinet” approach to file management, and while this is the most common way for us to file information on our computers even in 2020, it is not necessarily the best, nor does it mirror how the mind works.
Instead of working like a filing cabinet, Roam works like a web, or network of ideas. Some commentators have even suggested that it feels like you’re working in 3D in Roam and 2D in Evernote.
The structure of “networked thought” allows for a free flow of information. As you write and link, you build your database and surface ideas that you hadn’t seen before using Roam’s bi-directional linking.
I have not given up on the filing cabinet approach completely. I continue to use Evernote for a number of things, and because I’m good on keyboard shortcuts I can file pdfs, emails, etc. in Evernote very quickly. Looking back, I’m not sure how I would have written my 10,000 word chapter in a week, without Evernote’s ability to capture all kinds of media in and store it in one place.
But I see these things working together. It is easy to find files in Evernote and add them to Roam as I’m working. I like using Evernote to link out from there and into Roam to traverse app borderlands. I have on more than one occasion had Evernote on one side of the screen, copying and pasting into Roam on the other.
Perhaps for me, Evernote is the filing cabinet and Roam is the canvas. For me, Roam is the cutting board of ideas where all my thinking, connecting, and combining comes to life.
Using Roam in Academia / Higher Ed
So how can you go about using Roam for academic work? Before I share how I’m using it, let me share some of the great tutorials I’ve used to adapt into my own process:
I use Roam throughout the day: from notes in my classes, to reading notes, meeting notes, and research. Here is one simple use case from a couple weeks back – when we were all still meeting in person. My students did presentations on some research they were doing.
Here’s what I did in that situation. In the Daily Notes part of Roam, I create the page for my current class:
[[Theories and Methodologies of Quaker Studies]]
Then on the day of presentations, I would add under this title:
[[Topic/title of presentation]] [[Name of Student – Student]]
Then I take notes underneath this heading. Repeat for each new presentation.
I use the “- Student” to help make my searches a little quicker when I looking for notes on previous presentations, conversations, etc.
Taking Notes in Roam for Reading and Research
Here’s what I do for this:
1. First, create a new page with the title of the article or book you are taking notes on and include the author’s name in the title. I’ve found that I may have more than one note with the same title depending on if there are reviews or other writing on that person’s work. This helps me identify it more quickly in search.
2. Second, include some metadata at the start of your notes page. I have a TextExpander shortcut tied to “xmeta” which creates the below snippet, then I fill that out. This not only gives me the needed information for when I return later, but it helps me connect this note to other notes and ideas in my Roam database.
3. Here is what I would put in each of these lines for an article on “Introduction to Liberation Theology.”
Source: link to article, pdf, website, etc
Date: Date it was published
Publisher: if appropriate in [] connecting to other books by that publisher
Author: Full Name of Author in [] so that it connects to that author’s page
Tags: Appropriate tags
Topics: Use this section to connect to more topical pages
Then start taking your notes. You can extract highlights from PDFs, Kindle Notes, etc. and drop them in here. Or you can take you own. I do a combination of both.
Implementing Progressive Summarization in Roam
Sketchnote from Maggie Appleton.
– The first layer is the main text, with direct quotes from the author.
– The second layer is bolded text, key phrases that you find to be key to the overall arguments
– The third layer is highlighted text which are usually a few key words or ideas that will catch your eye as you skim your notes.
– The fourth layer is your personal commentary. In Roam, I usually use the code block for my own commentary and indent it under what I am remarking on. So, when I see a code block, I know it is my own commentary, questions, or further connections to ideas based off of what I’m reading. I have also seen the use of an indented paragraph under what you want to comment on along with the tag #comment (via: CortexFutura). I have begun using this along with the code block because it accentuates the comment visually.
– The fifth layer in Roam is a process of going through and looking for more pages to link pages and sections to tag to tie these notes into other parts of my database.
Progressive Summarization is a way of helping to design your notes in a way that will help your future self identify what is most important (highlighted), what is next most important (bolded), and where you had sparks of ideas (links to other pages or code blocks).
One caveat: Roam is currently designed for a “highlight first, bold second” approach so if you are new to progressive summarization, you should consider switching my two layers above to match the design. For me, I’ve been doing bolding then highlighting for too long to switch, so I just deal with the issue.
Here is what this section above looks like in Roam:
I have implemented Progressive Summarization in my undergrad classes over the past three years, as the central way my students read and take notes. You can read more about how we do progressive summarization at Guilford College here:
Using Favorite Problems and PARA in the Roam Sidebar
Another aspect of using Roam in Higher Education is an adaptation of Tiago Forte’s “Favorite Problems” and the organizational structure he calls PARA.
The concept of the “Dozen Favorite Problems” is related to what are the big questions that really drive your research. Developing these first – as we do in all of my classes – is the first step in helping to create a framework for what you are going to be researching and writing about. I think of it as creating clothes hangers where you can hang ideas you discover later. Developing these kinds of questions are your incubator in your second brain. Tiago pulls this concept from Richard Feynman who said:
“You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!””
In my Roam sidebar, I have created a Favorite Problems page and in there are all my questions. As I develop them, I can turn them into pages so that when I find ideas, references, etc., I can drop them there or link to them. This enables me to create even more value in my second brain for the big questions I am working on.
Using PARA as a Means of Keeping Track of Research and Projects
I wrote a long twitter thread about how to implement this and added it to a Roam page for easy sharing. Here is how I use PARA with Roam.
This is a quick summary of what PARA is and how I use it in the side bar for “light organization”.
PARA stands for:
1. Projects (everything with a due date),
2. Areas (ongoing areas of responsibility with no end date),
3. Research (live research topics I am currently working on),
4. Archives (a log of what I have completed this year).
You can then add things to each page that match those descriptions, or tag things as you go. Tagging something as
#Projects will add it to my Projects page. This gives me a quick way to glance through what I am currently working on.
The Research category is particularly useful as an incubator or “back burner” for ideas you are currently working on. I have many research questions found under my “Favorite Problems” page that I work on over the course of a couple of months or even years. But the “Research” page features those ideas which I am actively pursuing. These are smaller in number or are related to upcoming classes, projects, things I’m writing, etc. This page allows me to remind myself of what’s there, refresh my lenses for things I’m looking for as I go through my days and gives me quick access to those pages for things I might want to add.
Writing with the Sidebar – Side by Side Writing/Researching
The sidebar to the right (shift-click on a link or a word you search for in Roam) will allow you to open multiple pages and stack them on the right side of your browser (here I have four notes I can open and collapse using the dash next to each note’s title). This means you can have multiple pages/notes open at once, which makes working back and forth as you write way less cumbersome than pretty much any other app I’ve ever used.
Here’s how Nat Eliason explains it:
“Create: Roam has turned into my “staging ground” for new things I create. A few examples will probably help best. For the Monday Medley, I tag ideas and articles with next week’s Medley as I add them to my Roam throughout the week: Then when I want to pull out the best ideas from those articles to include, I can open them in the sidebar and start drafting out the Medley right in Roam. Here’s what last week’s looked like as I was going:”
“The Sidebar!!! This barely missed the cut for the big things, it’s so darn cool. Roam lets you work on one main note and then open another note in the sidebar just by shift-clicking a link. For example, if I want to clean up the Blog Articles I have in progress, I can open them up in the sidebar from the Blog Articles page: Or if I’m working on my Meat article, I can open up the other pages I’m referencing to pull out notes from them:”
Find your Way Back With Bi-Directional Links
Bi-directional links are one of the most lauded features in Roam (seen by the small block numbers off to the right side). These are visual indicators (and active links) that tell you how often that block of information has been referenced by other notes, and if you click on it, it will take you to those other notes. These bi-directional links were created by using “[]” “#hashtags” and “(()).” So in a way, these are the footnotes of those earlier references.
But what is nice is that they can navigate back and forth through the links, which is not unlike “Pings” on blogs. This is really where the web of your second brain gets really powerful. These links provide a mapping of your research, as well as help surface things you will undoubtedly have forgotten were there in the first place.
Let me recommend this article from Ness Labs that pulls a lot of this together and walks you though how to write an article from start to finish now, using Roam:
Next Steps, Further Resources, and Advanced Topics
Finally, a few places to go after you’ve worked through what I’ve shared above:
– If you’d like to go in depth around using Roam with the PARA Method, I would check out this article on Building a Second Brain in Roam.
– Learn how to use Roam with templates. Here are two threads I shared on Twitter to get you started.
— ?? Wess is "Quarantined in a bad dream" (@cwdaniels) March 5, 2020
— ?? Wess is "Quarantined in a bad dream" (@cwdaniels) March 5, 2020
– One thing I know academics among us will enjoy. Check out the Roam White Paper for the philosophical backdrop to the tool: White Paper.
– And finally, while I haven’t taken Nat Eliason’s Online Course yet, I continue to hear that it is amazing.
I hope you have found this a helpful guide for seeing why Roam is really useful within academic contexts, and for implementing some of these processes into your workflows. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@cwdaniels) if you have ideas, feedback, or questions.