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Detailed Neurodiverse User's Guide to the Library: Executive Function and Working Memory

For neurodiverse users, by a neurodiverse librarian.

Short version

Start early and break things down into multiple manageable chunks

How small you break your tasks down is up to you and your current circumstances/state of mind. 

Treat the process of breaking down your tasks and sub-tasks as an important first step of the project, which deserves time, care, and attention. This kind of activity is called metacognition, and it is highly valued not only as a way of accommodating a problem with executive function, but enhancing higher order learning. It is a relatively small investment that has big pay-offs. 

We have some tools and resources to help with breaking down your project into manageable steps in a logical order. All of these are options - you don't have to do all of them, or do them in any particular order. They're just things that are available if they seem helpful to you. If you can't decide, default to Ask A Librarian.

  • The Research Skills Tutorial is a step by step guide to the research process that you can follow. Note the Research Portfolio activity in each chapter. You do not have to complete the Research Portfolio (there is no one to hand it in to) but each activity has questions that may be useful to provide supportive structure for the research process. (The library doesn't help with the paper writing process, but Academic Support definitely does.)
  • Try out the Assignment Calculator. This tool helps create a rough timeline of tasks you need to do in order to complete an assignment. It may not break it down in enough detail for you, but it's a start. 
  • Use Ask A Librarian - just say what your project is and tell us that you need help breaking it down step by step. We can help with that! 
  • If you have done your research and the part that's got you stuck or going in circles is the writing, then look to the resources from the Writing Center. They have instructions on how to develop your argument and how to support your arguments with sources. 
  • For individualized help with the writing process, contact Learning Support. They have professional tutors and peer tutors that can work online or in person, and an online tutoring service called TutorMe. Again, tell them that you need help breaking it down into manageable chunks and figuring out what to do first and next and so on. 

It helps many people to write notes and lists to themselves. Here are some tools to help with that.

  • Browser plugin allows you to write Sticky Notes ("Post Its") that display on your computer screen to remind you of things.
  • Create a checklist on the web with tasks and sub-tasks, which you can put in order and check off as you complete them. 
    • Checkli (requires a free account)

Consider using a Citation Manager

When faculty and advanced graduate students are working on books and dissertations, we recommend that they use a citation manager. These tools require some set-up and you have to go through the steps to use them, but if you struggle with working memory or executive function, front-loading the effort like that will make the later stages of research and writing a lot easier because all the information will be organized and easy to find.

What they do and how they work

Citation managers are free software apps that integrate with your web browser and your word processing software. (You will need to use the installed version of Microsoft Word or Open Office - you can't use Office 365.)

It saves your data to any computers that you use and to the cloud, and they sync either whenever you come online or whenever you tell it to. It helps you gather all the citation information about each source you use, store, and organize it. You can attach a copy of the pdf if it is an online source. You can also enter your notes on that source. You can keyword search for any source by its author, title, or keywords, and go right to the citation information, full-text, and notes about it. 

As you write, you use a tab that the software adds to your word processor to enter a citation. As long as the information you entered into your citation manager was correct, your citation will be correct. If you end up revising and moving paragraphs around, your citations move with the text. If you want to change the citation style from APA to Chicago, or Chicago to MLA, you can do that all at once. 

With all that taken care of for you, you can concentrate on what you actually want to learn and what you want to say in your paper. 

Which Citation Manager to use?

There are two high quality, full featured free citation managers: Zotero and Mendeley. They are almost identical, but:

  • Choose Zotero if you anticipate doing group projects with more than two other people, or if you use Google Docs. 
  • Choose Mendeley if you want it to be better at automatically "sucking up" the citation information from a database or web page so that you don't have to input it manually, or if you want more free storage space (only a concern if you store thousands of PDFs.)

Advanced Search may be easier - really!

Almost all of our websites show you the Basic Search when you log in. This is just one text entry box with a button where you can submit anything from plain keywords to elaborate Boolean strings. It works well enough for most searches, but Advanced Search has a few more features.

If you've got difficulties with attention or memory, the best feature of Advanced Search is that it remembers your previous searches, and lets you run them again, or make changes to them. You only have to type it in correctly once! You don't have to remember what you typed. Just keep going back to your saved search and making iterative changes, which the database will keep track of for you!