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Getting Good Grades with Gadgets

Getting Good Grades with Gadgets is a resource for anyone who wants to learn how to use mainstream and/or assistive technologies to succeed in school. John Lee, Assistive Technology Specialist at the DRC, has compiled the following list of gadgets that can assist students with note-taking, reading, writing, studying, research, time management, organization, and math. Many of these gadgets include software, apps, and built-in utilities that students may already have on their computers and mobile devices or can download for free. If you have questions, feedback, or gadget suggestions, please email John at jlee245@calpoly.edu.

Quick Links

Gadgets for Notetaking

Livescribe smartpen

  • Costs: $180 (new 2 GB pen); $25 for a 4-pack of single-subject notebooks; eligible DRC students can check out a Livescribe Echo smartpen as a notetaking accommodation
  • Echo Desktop companion software (free) allows you to backup, view, organize, share, and search your smartpen notes on your PC or Mac.
  • Ideas for notetaking/studying:
    • Print prof's PowerPoint slides on Livescribe dot paper before class
    • Create flashcards using Livescribe dot paper or Livescribe Sound Stickers

Windows options:

Mac options:

iPad options:

  • Notability app ($8.99) and AudioNote 2 Pro app ($9.99/year subscription option) - synchronize audio recording with what you type; similar to how the Livescribe pen works. With Notability, you can also import PDFs (e.g., from PolyLearn) and annotate them as desired.

  • NoteTaker HD app ($4.99) - Excellent handwriting notetaker app that also supports typing and drawing. Loaded with features, including wrist guard, support for left-handers, zoom, and PDF markup. The Penultimate app (free) is a similar handwriting app, but with a simpler layout. 

  • OneNote app (free; iPhone/iPad/Android) - create notebooks/sections and synchronize them with OneNote on your Windows PC or Mac. *Does not include synchronized audio recording feature, which is only available in desktop versions of OneNote.

  • Evernote app (free) - allows you to access your notes on your iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone and sync them across all of your devices. Also available for Android, Blackberry, and Windows Phone.

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Gadgets for Reading

Windows options:

  • Immersive Reader (free; Microsoft Office) - reads text aloud with synchronized highlighting in Word/OneNote/Edge/Outlook to aid in reading comprehension and fluency; focus mode to minimize visual clutter; color background, font type/size/spacing can be adjusted; color-code parts of speech for emerging English readers. Immersive Reader can read aloud PDFs that you open with Microsoft Edge (go to Reading View in the address bar, then choose Read aloud).
  • Speak tool (available in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook; this is a built-in feature that you must activate in order to use; select text then click the "Speak tool" button to have it read aloud; great for proofreading). You can also use the Read aloud feature to have documents or emails read aloud with synchronized highlighting (in an Outlook email, it's located under the Message tab; in a Word document, it's located under the Review tab).
  • NaturalReader Free version (simple text-to-speech software that reads aloud any selected text using built-in Microsoft voices)
  • Balabolka (free) - advanced text-to-speech software that reads aloud any selected text using built-in Microsoft voices; allows you to open PDF and Word documents directly within Balabolka and have the text read aloud with synchronized highlighting; allows you to convert text to mp3; allows you to save text as an LRC file (lyrics file) that is paired with the mp3 and can be played karaoke style on Windows computer via free MiniLyrics software, or via MP3 player app ($1.99) for iOS.
  • Read & Write – Reading Features (highlights and reads aloud text in Word, web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, IE), Adobe PDF, email, etc); need headphones on library PCs (Available on all library PCs)
  • Learning Tools add-on for OneNote -  free Add-in for OneNote that helps everyone improve reading and writing skills, including gifted learners, students with learning differences or a combination of any of a broad range of unique learning abilities. Immersive Reader highlights text as it's read aloud. Also available in Word Online.
  • Open Dyslexic font (free) - open sourced font created to improve readability of text for readers with dyslexia. Once downloaded, use it in Microsoft Word and other applications.
  • Kindle for PC (free) - search for and read e-textbooks or PDFs for a better reading experience than in Adobe Reader. To import PDFs: copy desired PDF, then paste it in My Documents > My Kindle Content folder. Your PDFs will appear in the Kindle Library the next time you open the software. Lots of ways to customize the display settings for e-books. To have your PDF or e-textbook read aloud: first turn on Windows Narrator (click Start > type "Narrator" in Search box), then use the Kindle for PC Keyboard Shortcuts to control playback and navigation. Kindle for PC will then use the high-quality Nuance Vocalizer voices (Samantha and Tom) to read your text aloud. Once you start reading with those voices, you can turn off Windows Narrator at any time.

Mac options:

  • Built-in OS X features (can be used in TextEdit, Preview, Mail, Safari, and Word for Mac): Text-to-speech (System Preferences > Speech); iTunes mp3 track creation (Word/Safari menu > Services); Summarize feature (Safari/Preview menu > Services); Reader (located in Safari's address bar)
  • Immersive Reader (free; Microsoft Office) - reads text aloud with synchronized highlighting in Word/OneNote to aid in reading comprehension and fluency; focus mode to minimize visual clutter; color background, font type/size/spacing can be adjusted; color-code parts of speech for emerging English readers.
  • NaturalReader Free version (simple text-to-speech software that reads aloud any selected text using built-in Mac voices)
  • Open Dyslexic font (free) - open sourced font created to improve readability of text for readers with dyslexia. Once downloaded, use it in Microsoft Word and other applications.

Web browser options:

  • Read&Write for Google Chrome (read Google Docs with text-to-speech output and dual synchronized highlighting; includes translator feature; can also hover over or select text on most webpages and have it read aloud with synchronized highlighting); premium features disappear after 30 days but not the reading features
  • Immersive Reader (free for Office 365 subscribers such as Cal Poly) - reads text aloud with synchronized highlighting in Word/OneNote/Outlook on the web to aid in reading comprehension and fluency; focus mode to minimize visual clutter; color background, font type/size/spacing can be adjusted.
  • SensusAccess (free, web-based, alternative format self-service) - upload PDF or Word documents to be converted to mp3 audio that you can listen to on the go. * You must use your Cal Poly email address. You can find a shortcut to SensusAccess in PolyLearn (under the "hamburger" menu at the top left) and Cal Poly Canvas (under the Help menu). 
  • BeeLine Reader (free browser extension for Chrome) - makes reading faster and easier by using a color gradient that guides your eyes from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. This gradient makes you less likely to skip or repeat lines, so you read faster. 
  • Instapaper (free browser extension) - bookmark or save important/interesting articles and videos to read/watch later; read saved articles in a reformatted, uncluttered view.
  • Website-based summarizers - Summarize tool from Tools4Noobs; Smmry; Rewordify.com (simplifies difficult English; helpful for English Language Learners)
  • WordReference.com - online language dictionaries with definitions, translations, pronunciations (via audio output), and language explanations (helpful for English Language Learners)
  • Open Dyslexic font (free browser extension for Chrome and Safari) - open sourced font created to improve readability of text for readers with dyslexia. Enable/disable the font in the browser's Extensions settings.

iPad/iPhone/iPod/Android options:

  • "Speak Selection" feature (built in to iOS Accessibility) - select text then tap the "Speak" button to hear it read aloud.
  • "Speak Screen" feature (built in to iOS Accessibility) - swipe down from top of screen to hear text read aloud in email, webpage articles, and OneDrive docs.
  • Voice Dream Reader app ($14.99) - Text-to-speech app with built-in high-quality female voice that reads text aloud with synchronized highlighting; support for Word, PDF, and ePub documents; Reading Mode to aid with focus; built-in Web Browser and text editor; OpenDyslexia font option. Annotation features include ability to highlight text and add notes, which can all then be exported into a separate document or email. Also available for Android.
  • Instapaper app (free; iOS/Android/Kindle) - bookmark or save important/interesting articles and videos to read/watch later; read saved articles in a reformatted, uncluttered view.

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Gadgets for Writing

Windows options:

  • Windows Speech Recognition - built into Windows 10; go to Control Panel > Ease of Access.
  • Dictate - built into Word/Outlook/PowerPoint in Office 365; available only for Windows 10 and 8.1.
  • Dragon NaturallySpeaking - Home Edition ($150; cheaper on Amazon) - the gold-standard for speech recognition in the consumer market. Can be trained to specific vocabulary and your writing style. Hands-free voice control of the entire Windows environment
  • Ginger and Grammarly (free; premium versions available) - advanced spelling/grammar checkers.
  • Read & Write – Writing Features - phonetic spell-check, word prediction, mind mapping/graphic organizer, etc.  (Available on all library PCs) 
  • iA Writer for Windows (free trial; $19.99) - Basic, easy-to-use word processor with a distraction-free layout that helps you focus on writing; unique Focus Mode allows you to concentrate on only 3 lines of writing at a time. 
  • FreeMind (free mind-mapping/brainstorming software)

Mac options:

  • Enhanced Dictation (built into Mac OS X) Press Fn twice to bring up mic and start dictating; Press Fn once when done). Speak clearly and enunciate your words for best results. Does not require an Internet connection.
  • Voice Control (built into Mac OSX starting with Catalina) - allows voice control and dictation throughout the Mac OS environment.
  • iA Writer for Mac (free trial; $29.99) - Basic, easy-to-use word processor with a distraction-free layout that helps you focus on writing; unique Focus Mode allows you to concentrate on only 3 lines of writing at a time. 
  • FreeMind (free mind-mapping/brainstorming software)

Web browser options:

  • Google Voice Typing - Dictate directly into any Google Doc and have your words instantly transcribed. Speak clearly and enunciate your words for best results. Requires an Internet connection. Install and use Read&Write for Google Chrome extension to proofread what you've dictated so that it's easier to catch any recognition errors made by Voice Typing. 
  • Ginger for Chrome and Grammarly for Chrome - free advanced spelling/grammar checkers

iPad/iPhone/iPod/Android options:

  • Siri Assistant (iOS) - Try using Siri to send text directly into Google Docs on your laptop by dictating into a Google Doc on your iPhone/iPad; Ask Siri to spell/define a word.
  • iPhone/iPad built-in dictation - tap mic in the lower left corner of the iPhone/iPad's onscreen keyboard.
  • iA Writer app ($8.99; ideal for iPad) - Basic, easy-to-use word processor with a distraction-free layout that helps you focus on writing; unique Focus Mode allows you to concentrate on only 3 lines of writing at a time. 

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Gadgets for Studying/Research

Windows options:

  • Read & Write - Study Skills Highlighters feature (highlight text in Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, or Word, then click the Collect Highlights toolbar button to have all highlighted text extracted and exported to a Word document with appropriate Bibliography). (Available on all library PC's) 
  • Kindle for PC (free) - search for and read e-textbooks or PDFs for a better reading/annotating experience than in Adobe Reader. To import PDFs: copy desired PDF, then paste it in My Documents > My Kindle Content folder. Your PDFs will appear in the Kindle Library the next time you open the software. To annotate text: select text, then click "Highlight" or "Add Note". To use the dictionary: simply select the word and the definition will appear. Click "Full Definition" to see other alternatives and to use the built-in Nuance Vocalizer voices to read the definitions aloud.
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader (free) - basic PDF viewer now includes numerous annotation tools, including voice notes, highlighting, underlining, text comments, and basic text-to-speech for reading aloud.
  • FoxIt Reader (free) - faster, lighter alternative to Adobe Reader for PDFs. Includes numerous annotation tools, a text-only mode, and basic text-to-speech for reading aloud.

Mac options:

  • Adobe Acrobat Reader (free) -  basic PDF reader now includes numerous annotation tools, including voice notes, highlighting, underlining, text comments, and basic text-to-speech for reading aloud.
  • Preview (built into Mac OS X) - Mac's alternative to Adobe Reader is faster when it comes to loading and scrolling through PDFs. Includes numerous annotation tools.

Web-based options:

  • Quizlet (free online flashcards) - find, create, or share flashcards. Search millions of flashcard sets already created. Works with apps such as Quizlet and Flashcardlet (listed below).
  • Study Blue (free online flashcards) -  search and create your own flashcards. Works with Study Blue app (listed below).
  • Flashcard Flash - search engine that searches over 25 flashcard services for flashcard sets that match what you're looking for.
  • BibMe - auto-generates bibliography citations

iPad/iPhone/iPod/Android options

  • Quizlet app (free "flashcard" app) - Works in conjunction with Quizlet website. Search or create your own flashcard sets. Audio in multiple languages helps reinforce pronunciation and retention.  Also available for Android. 
  • Study Blue app (free "flashcard" app) - Works in conjunction with Study Blue website. Also available for Android.
  • Adobe Reader app (free) - good, basic PDF reading app that includes annotation and commenting tools.
  • Notability app ($8.99; iOS) - import PDFs into Notability where you can highlight, add text notes, and make other annotations.
  • iAnnotate PDF app ($9.99; iOS) - powerful, feature-rich PDF app with lots of annotation tools for marking up PDFs.

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Gadgets for Time Management/Organization

Windows options:

  • Focus assist (free; located in Windows 10 Settings; also called quiet hours in earlier versions of Windows 10) allows you to avoid distracting notifications when you need to stay focused, and is set by default to activate automatically under certain conditions.
  • Microsoft Sticky Notes (free) - sticky-note software that helps you jot down, manage, and organize information, as well as create reminders with alarms and repeat options.
  • Cold Turkey (free, with a Pro option) - software blocks access to social media, websites, and programs (requires Pro license) for a specified period of time to keep you focused on your work so you'll be more productive.
  • Microsoft To Do (free; part of Office 365) - simple, well-designed, cloud-based To-Do list manager that allows you to create custom lists of tasks to do (e.g., school, work, personal) including subtasks; add due dates, reminders, and/or recurring tasks; syncs across all of your devices. 

Mac options:

  • Do Not Disturb (free; built into Mac OS Mojave/Catalina) When you need to focus on a specific task, or just need a break from notifications on your Mac, you can turn on Do Not Disturb. You don’t see or hear notifications as they arrive, but they’re collected in Notification Center, where you can view them later.
  • Stickies - built into Mac OS X; located in the Applications folder.
  • Self Control (free) - software blocks access to email and selected websites (e.g., Facebook) for a specified period of time to keep you focused on your work so you'll be more productive. 
  • Cold Turkey (free, with a Pro option) - software blocks access to social media, websites, and programs (requires Pro license) for a specified period of time to keep you focused on your work so you'll be more productive.
  • Microsoft To Do (free; part of Office 365) - simple, well-designed, cloud-based To-Do list manager that allows you to create custom lists of tasks to do (e.g., school, work, personal) including subtasks; add due dates, reminders, and/or recurring tasks; syncs across all of your devices. 
  • Be Focused (free) - simple, gesture-controlled app for organizing your immediate tasks into timed intervals (e.g., based on Pomodoro technique) to help keep you focused and on track.

Web-based options:

  • Google Calendar/Microsoft Outlook 365 Calendar (free web-based calendars; can be synced with your smartphone)
  • Stay Focusd (free Chrome extension blocks access to selected websites for a specified period of time to keep you focused on your work so you'll be more productive)
  • LeechBlock NG (free Firefox add-on designed to block those time-wasting sites that can suck the life out of studytime)
  • Microsoft To Do (free; part of Office 365 apps) - simple, well-designed, cloud-based To-Do list manager that allows you to create custom lists of tasks to do (e.g., school, work, personal) including subtasks; add due dates, reminders, and/or recurring tasks; syncs across all of your devices. 
  • MarinaraTimer.com (free online timer) - create custom timers using the Pomodoro technique of productivity (25-minute work periods with 5 minute breaks).

iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch/Android options

  • Do Not Disturb (free; built into iOS) - you can silence calls, alerts, and notifications that you get while your device is locked. You can also schedule Do Not Disturb and allow calls from certain people.
  • MyHomework app (free; $4.99/year premium option; iPhone/iPad/Android/Windows/Mac/Chromebook/Kindle Fire) - great daily planner; get reminders for tests, homework due dates, classes, etc.
  • iStudiez Pro app ($9.99/year premium option; iPhone/iPad/Apple Watch/Android/Windows/Mac) - comprehensive school planner app that syncs well with all of your smartphone calendars; easily keep track of your tests/assignments, courses, instructors, and grades. Free limited Lite version available for trial use.
  • iHomework 2 app ($8.99/year premium option; iPhone/iPad/Apple Watch/Mac/Web) - comprehensive planner lets you keep track of assignments, courses, instructors, grades. Set reminders/alarms for assignments.
  • Timetable app (free; Android) - popular, well-designed app for managing your school or university life, including class schedule and tasks from homework to exams. Syncs across all of your devices.
  • Microsoft To Do app (free; part of Office 365; iOS/Android) - simple, well-designed, cloud-based To-Do list manager that allows you to create custom lists of tasks to do (e.g., school, work, personal) including subtasks; add due dates, reminders, and/or recurring tasks; syncs across all of your devices. 
  • Reminders (built into iOS) - get notified of your to-do items by time/date and/or location. If you have an iPhone, you can use Siri to set reminders (e.g., say "Remind me to finish my report by 6"). On your iPhone, go into the Settings app > choose "Reminders" > make sure that the Default list is set at "Reminders" (not "Tasks"). Location-based reminders can be set to remind you to perform a task when you arrive at or leave a location (e.g., say "Remind me to get gas when I leave home"). To receive location-based reminders, make sure that Location Services is turned on. Open the Settings app, then tap Privacy > Location Services and turn on Location Services. To specify the location, you can type in an address, select an existing Contact, or select a Contact you create via the Maps app.
  • Be Focused app (free; iOS) and Focus To-Do app (free; Android) - simple, gesture-controlled app for organizing your immediate tasks into timed intervals (e.g., based on Pomodoro technique) to help keep you focused and on track.
  • Flipd app (free; premium version available; iOS/Android) - challenges you to stay off your phone so you can focus on tasks that you need to get done (e.g., studying).

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Gadgets for Math

  • Wolfram Alpha (web-based  & apps) - web-based answer engine that performs computations related to mathematics, sciences, etc. Apps are available for $2-$4 for iPhone/iPad/Android.
  • FastFig - (free) online math word processor for typing and solving math, physics, and engineering problems. Print your work or save it as a PDF. 
  • Geogebra (free; web/PC/Mac/Linux/iOS/Android/Chromebook) - interactive software and online tools for geometry, graphing, algebra, calculus, 3D calculator, scientific calculator, and more.
  • Math Assistant in OneNote (free; web/Windows 10) - Write or type any math problem and Math Assistant in OneNote can solve it for you — helping you reach the solution quickly, or displaying step-by-step instructions that help you learn how to reach the solution on your own. After solving your equation, there are many options to continue exploring math learning with Math Assistant. 
  • Mathshare (free; web-based) - free, open source, accessible online math tool that all students can use to solve math equations and show their work step-by-step.  Includes text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and word-level highlighting features.
  • EquatIO (free; premium version available; Windows/Mac/Google Docs/web) accessible math tool allows students to type or dictate mathematical expressions or formulas. Supports math-to-speech (reading math expressions aloud) when paired with Read&Write software or Chrome extension.
  • MyScript Calculator 2 app (free; iOS/Android) – write your mathematical expressions on the screen, and the app will convert your handwriting to digital text and solve it for you; faster than a regular calculator app.
  • Math Ref app ($1.99; iOS/Android) - browse over 1,400 formulas, figures, and examples to help you with math, physics, chemistry and more. Use an expanding list of helpful tools such as unit converter, quadratic solver, and triangle solver to perform common calculations.

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Miscellaneous Gadgets

  • OneDrive - 1 TB (equals 1,000 GB) of free cloud-based storage for all Cal Poly members (students/faculty/staff); allows sharing of documents between devices and users; free software (PC/Mac) and app (iPhone/iPad/Android); located in Cal Poly portal above Email/Calendar in the My Apps menu.
  • Microsoft Office/Office 365 - Cal Poly students/faculty/staff can install Microsoft Office software suite and apps (Word/Excel/PowerPoint/Outlook/OneDrive) for free on their personal devices (computer/smartphone/tablet).
  • LibreOffice (free; Windows/Mac/Linux) - free office suite software (alternative to MS Office) that allows you to import MS Office documents or save to MS Office file formats.
  • Sophos Home anti-virus software - free for all Cal Poly students, faculty and staff to download on their personal devices (Windows/Mac).
  • avast! Free Anti-virus (free; Windows/Mac) - keep your computer protected from viruses and spyware by installing this highly rated, free anti-virus software on your PC or Mac.
  • Office Lens app (free), Genius Scan app (free), and TurboScan app ($1.99) - turns your iPhone/Android into a pocket scanner that lets you quickly take scans of a whiteboard or document and email/export them as PDFs to OneNote, OneDrive, Google Drive, etc.
  • iLovePDF (free) website/app that lets you split, merge, or compress PDFs, along with several other PDF editing tasks.
  • Otter (free and premium versions; cloud-based) - Automated speech-to-text product powered by AI (Artificial Intelligence). Versatile tool can be used for notetaking, live captioning of lectures/meetings/events, DIY captioning of recorded videos, voice dictation, etc. Fast, very accurate, and easy to edit and correct errors. Basic version offers 600 minutes per month of free transcription. Premium version offers 6000 minutes per month of transcription at $4.99 (educational discount).
  • Qrafter app (free; iOS) - can be used to scan QR codes and take you to a webpage or automatically add an event to your calendar.
  • Mendeley (free software and app; Windows/Mac/Linux/iOS) - research-based software that lets you import, organize, and highlight/annotate PDFs as well as generate automatic citations for them.Search engine allows you to search and read millions of research papers.
  • Khan Academy videos (web-based & app) - free online instructional videos about a variety of subjects (e.g., math, science, computer science, economics, etc)

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Location: Bldg 124 (Student Services, across from Spanos Stadium)
Phone: 805-756-1395
Fax: 805-756-5451
Email: drc@calpoly.edu

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