Author Archives: Ben Johnston

Where your book meets the map

placingliteraturePlacing Literature is crowd-sourced online database of locations from literary works launched in June of 2013. Users of the site can add markers to the shared map, indicating not only the title and author of the book being charted, but also a description of the location, the time of day, the characters present in the scene, and other notes. In keeping with the crowd-sourced nature of the site, the map data is freely downloadable as a spreadsheet so that you can work with the information using other tools or in your own applications.


A (not so) recent article in the New York Times entitled ‘The Trouble With Homework‘ describes several study techniques that have been shown to enhance retention and aid memory. Spaced Repetition, which should be familiar to anyone who has studied with computer-based flashcards, presents the material in small chunks and in timed intervals. Often these timed intervals are gradually increased until the materials is memorized. The second technique described in the article, Retrieval Practice, is a practice that seems very obvious but that is often not explicitly promoted. The idea is that every time information is pulled out from memory, those memories are made stronger and more long-lasting. Re-reading lecture notes or study materials is a very common way of studying, but it doesn’t force you to pull any information out of memory. Regular, low-stakes quizzes can provide this kind of repetitive, memory-muscle building retrieval practice. The third method outlined in the article, called Interleaving, dictates that the subject matter of homework or quizzes should be varied or even ‘mixed-up’ in order to create a ‘cognitve disfluency’. In this way, the brain must work harder to retrieve the information, and associations to those memories are enhanced.

All three of these methods have one thing in common: quizzing. Quizzing yourself forces you to retrieve information from memory and verify that that information is there at all. Much of this depends upon the type of materials being taught, but adding regular informal quizzing to the curriculum can be a very useful tool for instructor and student. Every Blackboard course website comes equipped with a quiz-building tool. Quizzes can have a wide variety of questions types, questions can be randomized, students can take the quizzes as often as they like, and the results can be added to the gradebook or not recorded. Another benefit of creating quiz questions in Blackboard is that the can be added question pools from which future quizzes, or end of the semester quizzes, can be generated. The quizzes can also be exported and transferred to future semesters.

One possible drawback of the Blackboard quizzing tool is that only instructors can actually add the quizzes to the Blackboard site. If you wanted the students themselves to pose questions and create the quizzes, they would have to do so either in the course discussion board or outside of the Blackboard site. This could be done in an online shared document or on a course blog. You could also use a course blog to construct quizzes. Princeton WordPress Service, the blogging platform available to Princeton faculty, students, and staff, comes with a simple Q and A plugin that would work well in creating simple flashcard type quizzes.


SimpleTCT is a textual analysis tool for making thematic annotations developed by OpenDAHT, Open Digital Arts & Humanities Tools. Collections of text files can be opened and viewed within the application, themes can be defined and given unique color coding. The user can then highlight passages in the texts, assign themes to those passages and write notes associated with those passages. These themes and notes can then be exported to nice concise and simple Word document (.rtf) containing all the selected passages, organized thematically, alongside the relevant notes.

Although lacking a search tool which would be very useful in finding passages to associate with themes, SimpleTCT would be a useful tool and satisfies a need that I have had in past projects. The software runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux using the Java runtime environment, but can be a bit confusing to get set up and running. Contact the ETC (etc@) for assistance.

A video demo of the software can be found on the SimpleTCT website: