39 Search Results for schedule

Tools: Study schedules and resources

Return to Exam Prep

Key planning tipsHow to organize your study scheduleThe Study Plan: Why, what, and howThe Study Plan: Step 1. Create an exam study scheduleThe Study Plan: Step 2. How to use 3-hour study blocksThe study plan: Studying for multiple examsBut what if I have to cram?

Key planning tips

  • Aim for a sustainable study schedule. It’s like training for a marathon; every day makes a difference.
  • The two-hour breaks are essential. They allow your brain to consolidate the information you’ve been rehearsing, and allow you to relax, eat, and exercise.
  • Try to schedule study blocks at the same time of day that the course’s exam is scheduled.
  • Study for two or three courses in a day.
  • Maximize your memory by distributing, for example, 15 hours of study over five or six days, rather than over two or three days.
  • Study the hardest material during your peak learning times.
  • Sleep supports memory. Aim to sleep 7-9 hours/night.
  • Try not to study nine hours each day. It’s OK not to study every available minute!

See how to use three-hour study blocks to maximize your efficient use of each block of time.

Keep a positive attitude: “I’ll do my best, and that is good enough!”

How to organize your study schedule

Get organized: use organizing tools such as monthly and weekly calendars, “to-do” lists. Organizing tools can be found in our online module Managing Your Time At University.

Start studying EARLY. Decide how many days before the exam you need in order to gather and use information. Extend your study over as many days as you can manage. The longer you extend this period, the more time you have to review and self-test rather than cramming vast amounts of information into several long, exhausting days.

Let’s see how it works…

Imagine you have 12 hours to study for a particular exam.

With the cramming approach: you spend 2 days at 6 hours, for a total of 12 study hours. You have little time to review or self-test because you are busy just preparing the material. Even then, everything is in your short-term memory — easily dumped out of your brain!

With the non-cramming approach: you spread the 12 hours over 6 days at 2 hours per day. This allows for preparing, reviewing (gather and use), and sleeping on it! While you sleep, you are still thinking but at a different level of consciousness. You are now learning the materials versus temporarily housing them.


  • Set aside study blocks of approximately 2.5 hours per subject area per day.
  • Add regular, daily review and self-testing to the schedule. Ideally start with reviewing information covered the day before and end with a self-test.
  • Include other requisite tasks: sleeping, eating, exercising, relaxing, self-care. Now more than ever, it is important for you to take very good care of your health. Getting a full night’s sleep, eating balanced meals and doing daily cardio activity will stimulate your brain and help you think and focus better.
  • Make the schedule as routine as you can (e.g., go to bed at the same time every night, especially during exam study period).


Follow your schedule! Do not let time bandits (including your friends, in person and online!) sway you.

The study plan: Why, what, and how

Why should I start studying early?

Did you know that the human brain learns academic material faster and better if done in brief blocks of time spread over longer periods, rather than in a few lengthy sessions?

For example, you will perform better on an exam if you spend one hour studying each day for 20 days than if you spend 10 hours studying for two days before an exam. Which means that cramming is bad news!

What if I have to cram?

OK, so sometimes life gets crazy and we end up having to cram. Right? If you have to cram, try to focus on remembering the information you know already rather than trying to learn new information. And here’s the kicker: you will typically NOT remember what you tried to learn the night before the exam, so it’s best to make sure you really know some of the information well. If you do have a few days, try to spread the studying out so you are not doing it all in one day.

How should I plan my exam preparation?

The study plan

If you plan ahead, many students have found this study plan gets good results. However, five days is really the minimum; we recommend a much longer study plan, if possible. For example, if you have not read any of your BIOL 101 textbook and a multiple choice quiz of over 100 test questions is looming, five days will probably not suffice.

Components of the the study plan

  • Space out your learning over a minimum of five study blocks.
  • Divide your material into workable “chunks” (e.g., a chapter, a set of lecture notes).
  • During each block, prepare a new chunk. Preparing might be reading and note-taking, amalgamating lecture and textbook information, reorganizing lecture notes.
  • Review previous material.
  • Use active learning strategies such as summarizing, questioning, reciting, cue cards, and study groups.
  • Use self-testing techniques to monitor your learning.

How much time should I set aside to study?

You might need somewhere between 10 and 20 hours of studying to get a good mark on an exam. However, the time you need to spend really depends on many things such as:

  • the difficulty of the course,
  • to what extent you have kept up with the materials during the term, and
  • how important this exam is to you.

Next up: The study plan: Create an exam study schedule.

The study plan: Step 1

Studying efficiently over five days is a great goal for many undergraduate exams.

A study plan reduces your stress because it helps you stay on track and prioritize healthy habits. The SASS study plan allows you to consider how much time you may need for different courses and helps you distribute your review time among all of them. It includes:

  • how to create an exam study schedule using three-hour study blocks
  • how to use three-hour study blocks effectively.

Create an exam study schedule

This study schedule works best when you have a period of time with no classes, such as the study week before finals in December and April. Ideally, try to finish the term work of readings, assignments, quizzes, presentations, etc. by the last day of classes in Week 12, so you can then shift to “study mode.” For classes with unfinished term work, you will need to both finish the course requirements and study during the exam period.

  1. Find out your exam dates and how much each exam is worth.
  2. Create a calendar starting with the week or two before exams begin, and divide the day into three time slots (morning, afternoon, evening), or download our template.
  3. Fill in your exam schedule, using the appropriate time slot. For example: 9 a.m. exams would go in the morning slot, 2 p.m. in the afternoon slot and 7 p.m. in the evening slot. Include each exam’s percentage of the final course mark. Colour-code the different exams, or highlight all exam times, for easy identification.
  4. Add any other fixed commitments, and be realistic.
  5. Assign specific hours to three daily blocks of time during which you will totally commit to studying. The blocks should be about 3 hours each, and the study blocks must be separated by 2 hours, to allow for memory consolidation and down time. Enter those times on the right-hand side of the calendar (e.g., 9 a.m.-12 p.m.; 2-5 p.m.; 7-10 p.m.).
  6. Use the “hours needed” table on the Exam Study Schedule template: for every exam, estimate the number of hours you need to catch up on incomplete term work that won’t be finished by the last day of classes. Then estimate the number of hours you want to spend studying (making review sheets, drilling, and self-testing). Consider your goals, the difficulty of the course, and how much the exam is worth as you estimate these hours; many students study for 10-20 hours for each exam, once they have finished all their term work.
  7. Add up the total number of hours you estimated to catch up and study. Divide this number by three to calculate the number of three-hour blocks you’ll need to find in your schedule. See if you have this many blocks available. If there aren’t enough blocks, consider reducing fixed commitments or reducing catch-up or study time for some or all courses.
  8. Starting with your most difficult course, work backwards from the exam date and assign three-hour study blocks to available time slots in your schedule. Use a pencil as this part is very flexible and you’ll probably change it a couple of times. Count the number of study sessions or hours; does the number reach your target?
  9. Repeat the “working backwards” method for each course. There is no perfect plan: just try to distribute the study sessions for each course across several days, and reach your targeted number of study hours.
  10. Stick to your plan! Typical obstacles include:
    • losing motivation or energy. Try studying with a friend, doing something fun at the end of your day, exercising during your breaks, and remembering your goals.
    • feeling overwhelmed and tired. Try looking at your calendar and seeing when exams are over; take heart, and get some sleep.
    • miscalculating how much studying is needed for a course. Try redistributing your study sessions, filling in some of the blank periods on your calendar with added study sessions, or reducing your grade expectations.

The study plan: Step 2

How to use three-hour study blocks

After you’ve made an exam study schedule, your next challenge is to balance the time you have available with the volume of material you have to study, to make a great study plan.

For each course:

  • Count the number of blocks of study time that you estimated for the schedule (not including any catch-up blocks you needed).
  • Divide your course material into chunks, so that the number of chunks equals one less than the number of blocks (e.g., 5 blocks and 4 chunks, 7 blocks and 6 chunks). Chunks can be divided into topics or units, or number of pages, or importance of the material within the whole course, or chapters, or in any other meaningful way.

If each chunk cannot realistically be covered in 2 or 2.5 hours, you may need to rethink your exam study schedule to re-allocate the study time you have available, or alter your expectations of your preparedness for the exam.

  • In each three-hour block of time, spend about 10-20 minutes reviewing recently studied material, about 2.5 hours studying fresh material, and about 15 minutes testing yourself on the fresh material. Find practical study strategies and tips at https://sass.queensu.ca/exam-prep/.
  • Take breaks over the three-hour block of time, to allow information to be consolidated in your memory (e.g., 50 minutes on and 10 minute break, every hour for three hours).
  • Enjoy non-intellectual activities for two hours between study blocks to further support your memory. Stretch, go for a walk, eat, relax, and check your phone. Set a timer if you need to end your break on time.

See the example on the next page for a sample plan. Five study days, producing 15 efficient study hours, is just an example—your courses may need more or a bit less.

Your plan will reflect your own needs. Many students study between 10-20 hours for each exam.

Staying on top of academic demands is a skill that can be developed with coaching and practice. Learning Strategies resources and services can help you build skills in maintaining motivation, managing time, taking good notes over the term, and more.

What does it mean to study? Summarize using an organized structure (e.g., mind map, table, concept summary, Cornell notes) to see relationships and connections between ideas, and drill, drill, drill.

What does it mean to self-test? Answer practice questions from your text, assignments, or Exam Bank, or ones you have created based on the course learning objectives or tips from your prof about what is most important.

What does it mean to review? A more general refreshing of your memory, focusing on what you did not know during your self-test of that content.

What is a comprehensive mini-exam? A practice exam, written under “real exam” conditions (e.g., times, formula sheet, open book).

Studying for multiple exams

Frequently, several exams are scheduled in a short period of time, and it is very helpful to develop a study plan that allows you to consider how much time you may need for different courses, distribute your review time, and ensure that all courses get some attention. A study plan reduces your stress, as it helps you keep on track over the short but intense period of exams, and places a priority on health-balancing activities.

Steps in building the study schedule:

  1. Read about the 5-Day Study Plan. (In the Preparing for Tests and Taking Tests sections of the Exam Prep module.)
  1. Create a calendar starting with 1-2 weeks before class ends. Use 8.5 x 11 inch paper.
  1. Starting with the first free day after classes are over, draw yep horizontal lines within each day on the blank study calendar. These spaces will become three study times (e.g., morning, afternoon, and evening or whatever fits your best learning times).
  1. Write in your exam schedule, using the appropriate time slot. For example: 9 a.m. exams would go in the first third of the day, 2 p.m. in the middle slot, and 7 p.m. in the last slot. Include the value or percentage of the final mark for each exam. Consider colour-coding the different exams, or highlight all exam times, for easy identification.
  1. Assign times to the three blocks of time during which you will totally commit to studying. The blocks should be about 3 hours each, and not longer than four hours. The study blocks must be separated by two hours, to allow for memory consolidation and downtime. Enter those times on the right-hand side of the calendar (e.g., 10 a.m.-1 p.m.; 3-6 p.m.; 8-11 p.m.).
  1. Look realistically at the amount of work due during the last weeks of term. An ideal goal is to have all term work (readings, assignments) completed by the end of classes. Start exam studying as soon as you can.
    **If you are behind in term work (which is not unusual, so don’t get distressed!) try to stay in pace and current with the lectures, and catch up later. This suggestion is less useful for sequentially taught courses, however, like physics and math.
  1. Consider how many hours of study you may need for each exam. This will depend on many factors, such as:
    • Value of the exam and your goals for the course,
    • Difficulty of the material and how up-to-date you are, or
    • Significance of the course (e.g., a core course or required mark for Honours).
  1. Starting with your most difficult course, work backwards from the exam date and assign study sessions. Use a pencil as this part is very flexible and you‘ll probably change it a couple of times. Your memory for the material will be greatly improved if you distribute 15 hours of study over five sessions covering four or five days, rather than doing a blitz of two 8-hour days. Count the number of study sessions or hours… does this reach your target?
  1. Assign study periods that coincide with the time of each exam, so that your mind is able to function well under the exam conditions (e.g., study in the morning for 9 a.m. exams). Also, schedule your peak learning time for your most challenging studying.
  1. Repeat the “backwards planning” method for each course. There is no perfect plan: just try to distribute the study sessions for each course across several days, and reach your targeted number of study hours.
  1. Be efficient in your studying during each session: work 50 min. with a 10 minute break; be strategic in focusing on key content (refer to the course’s learning objectives); focus on what you do not know; make summary sheets of major concepts and their applications; repeat to move information into your long-term memory. Studying focuses on accuracy + speed of accessing your memory or performing calculations.
  1. Use the 2-hour breaks to allow your brain to relax, consolidate information, and get food or exercise. Exams are like a marathon – you need a balanced training schedule!
  1. A good schedule lets you study two or three courses in a day. It has the targeted amount of time for each course, or close to it. It contains unscheduled or empty study sessions. Exams are stressful, so take advantage of the more unstructured part of term and see a movie, hang out with friends, cook tasty and nutritious food, gets lots of exercise and SLEEP. It allows for a whole day off, unless your exams are too compressed. And it can be sustained over the entire course of your exams.
  1. Stick to your plan! Typical problems include:
    • losing motivation. Try studying with a friend, doing something FUN at the end of your day, exercising during breaks, and remembering your goals.
    • feeling overwhelmed/tired. Try: seeing when exams end…take heart! and get some SLEEP.
    • miscalculating how much studying is needed for a course. Try: redistributing study sessions, filling in some blank periods on your calendar with added study sessions, or reducing expectations. Keep a positive attitude: “I CAN DO THIS!”

But what if I have to cram?

Even with good planning, there are times when you have to cram. Here are some helpful hints.

Make choices

Pick out the most important points and learn them really well. Use 75% of your cramming time to drill key points and 25% on the rest.

Make a plan

Time is short. Choose what you want to study; determine how much time you have; and set strict timelines.

Use mind map review sheets and cue cards

Condense the material you have chosen to learn into mind maps. Practice by redrawing the mind maps. Put each separate key point from your mind map onto cue cards and drill yourself regularly.

Recite, recite, recite

No time to move information into long term storage so repetitive recitation is the order of the day! Recitation will burn the facts into your brain. One way to do this is to tape-record yourself and then play back the tape before you sleep and again when you awake.


When you cram, you are not learning the information well. Therefore, if you experience anxiety during the exam, you may forget what you have studied. Use relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety.

Don’t “should” yourself

If you start your cramming session beating yourself up with statements like, “I should have studied earlier,” by the time you get to studying you might feel too guilty and depressed to continue. Instead, accept the truth: you would be in a better position if you had started earlier. Then, tell yourself you will do so next time! Remind yourself that you are human and will learn from your mistakes.

Source: Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 185

Read More

December/April exam study schedule

pencil and sharpener

End-of-term exams can be really tough: they cover a lot of material, you may have several exams at once, and suddenly your time is entirely unstructured.

Follow our instructions to build your December or April exam study schedule. This will help ensure you prioritize your study time, cover what’s important, have regular breaks, and avoid burn out during a potentially stressful time.

Don’t forget to use strategies from Exam Prep and The Study Plan to ensure your study time is spent efficiently and effectively.

Photo courtesy of Capture Queen under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

Read More

Drop-in events and coaching

In addition to scheduled workshops led by professional staff, SASS peers host academic skills events and drop-in sessions. No registration is necessary for these events—come down and take advantage of these opportunities for free individualized support.

Drop-in academic skills support

Thursdays 5:00pm – 7:00 pm beginning September 12, 2009 | Stauffer Library, Room 143

No appointments necessary to come discuss your academic skills with our upper-year coaches. They can help with reading, time management, writing, critical thinking, test prep, procrastination, motivation and more!

Looking for graduate student support? SASS runs a Grad Writing Lab twice a week (Monday and Wednesday mornings from 9:00am to 12:00pm, beginning September 5, 2019).

Scheduled events

  • How to study for…
    Tuesday, September 10, 2019 (5:00pm – 7:00pm) | Victoria Hall Lobby
    Drop by our tables in Vic Hall Lobby to chat to trained upper-year students for advice on getting a head start in complex first-year courses including: BIOL102, CHEM112, ECON100, PSYC100, ENGL100, HIST124 and others.
  • Get it done!
    Sunday, November 24, 2019 (12:00pm – 7:00pm) | Ban Righ Dining Hall
    Join us all day for a festival of effective studying! Peer and pro staff will be on hand to help you complete assignments, write papers, start prepping for exams, or work on anything else you need help with. Snacks and drinks provided!
  • Your questions answered
    Saturday, November 30 (12:00pm – 4:00pm) | Stauffer Library Atrium
    Our peer volunteers will be on hand to answer your questions about how to prep for tough first-year exams. Chat for 5 minutes or stay for an in-depth conversation about BIOL102, CHEM112, ECON100, PSYC100, ENGL100, HIST124, and others.

Read More


Parents and students exploring campus during SOAR (Summer Orientation to Academics and Resources)

Welcome, parents and guardians, to the Queen’s University community. Your students are engaging in intellectual and personal growth that will shape the rest of their lives.

Your students have many resources at Queen’s to help them have a positive university experience, but they will look to you for support and encouragement. One way you can provide these is to encourage your students to use our resources at SASS.

At SASS, we support students’ academic growth by helping them develop skills in writing and learning via online resources, workshops, and appointments. Our service is free, confidential, and supportive of undergraduate and graduate students in all programs and years. We help struggling students as well as highly achieving students. Please explore our website to learn more about how we can help your students achieve their academic potential.

Please note that confidentiality of academic, personal, health and other information about your student is strictly enforced throughout the University. We can share information about your student with you only if your student has given us specific written permission.

Please also note that the SASS website deliberately uses the pronoun “they” in its singular form, to be gender-inclusive.

FAQsAcademicsIntellectual development

Frequently asked questions

My student is coming to Queen’s in September! What can they do to prepare themselves academically?

A good starting point is Academics 101. This online resource describes academic expectations, essential skills and habits, and resources for first-year students. Your student may also like to see our online resources for students who have English as an additional language, or who are international or exchange students.

Can I book a SASS appointment for my student, or register them for a SASS workshop?

When they arrive at Queen’s, students can register for appointments with our online booking system; it’s easy and quick for them to do. Students can visit our workshops page for information about our popular academic skills workshops. As a parent or guardian, you can help your student by reminding them of these resources and encouraging them to sign up for themselves.

Can you confirm if my student attends a SASS appointment or a workshop?

We do not confirm registration or attendance to parents / guardians. SASS follows the University’s confidentiality policy regarding academic, personal, health and other student information. We can share information about students only when they have given us specific written permission. We encourage students and their parents / guardians to communicate directly with each other.

Parents/guardians with serious concerns about their students may contact the Director of SASS.

Does SASS help only students who are getting low marks?

No. SASS helps all students—struggling, high-achieving, and everyone in between—from their first year of undergraduate studies through to PhD level. Students come to us for many reasons and from many different contexts. Our objective is to help students develop skills, strategies and confidence for their individual circumstances.

My student had an IEP / accessibility accommodation in high school. How can you help?

SASS works with all students to support them in their academic skill development, but we do not specialize in working with students with disabilities or accommodations; we refer students with questions about accessibility or accommodations to Queen’s Student Accessibility Services (QSAS).

In terms of how SASS can help your student, we recommend our online resources, our workshops and our writing and learning appointments.

My student seems overwhelmed and stressed by their studies. How can I help them?

Academic demands can certainly feel stressful at times. Learning to recognize the signs of stress and to manage their stress is an important skill your student can develop. We recommend that you review our very thorough online resource on academic stress, and encourage your student to do the same. You can use this resource as a starting point for talking about how your student is doing and how they might take steps to manage their stress. This resource includes links to a variety of helpful resources at Queen’s; students can use these links to seek help.

Parents/guardians with serious concerns about their students may contact the Director of SASS.

My student did not get the mark they were hoping for on an assignment, and now they are worried that their marks won’t be high enough to let them into a particular program. How can SASS help?

Students who would like to study in a particular program should meet with their academic advisor; most undergraduate students can find their academic advisor listed on the ArtSci, Engineering, Nursing, or Business pages.

Students who would like to understand “where they went wrong” on an assignment or exam can meet with their professor / TA.

Students who would like feedback on their writing can book a writing appointment at SASS; our writing consultants cannot comment on marks or comments from professors or TAs, but they can review a piece of writing with a student to identify areas of strength and weakness, and work with the student to help them develop their skills.

Similarly, many students benefit from learning skills appointments, in which they can learn new strategies and habits that can support their academic success.

Another possible starting point is our Subject-Specific Academic Resources listing.

My student has received a fine from SASS.

You can find information about fines and our appointment policies here.

Academics at university

Not surprisingly, university is different from high school in terms of academic expectations, classroom routines, assessment procedures, and more. You can help your student adjust to these changes by helping them understand that they may need to try different academic strategies to succeed in this new context, and also to seek help early if they have questions or are having difficulty.

Workload and time

  • A student’s weekly schedule may have lots of apparently open spaces that at first glance may seem like free time.
  • As a rough guide, we recommend that students spend 8-10 hours on each course every week (including time in class, labs, or tutorials, doing homework, etc.). Therefore, a student taking five courses should expect to spend about 45 hours total per week on their academics.
  • Readings may range from none to a few hundred pages weekly, and lab reports may take 6-10 hours to complete. Students may like to review our How to Use Homework Time resource to understand expectations for this aspect of academics.
  • Professors structure their courses independently of other instructors, so the workload might vary from week to week.
  • Research indicates that adequate sleep, exercise, and nutrition, as well as relaxation time, all support academic success; you may like to talk with your student about finding a healthy balance in these areas. SASS can also help.
  • All these points add up to more responsibility and independence for students; they need to develop great time management skills so they can succeed in their studies and stay healthy and happy.

Professors’ and Teaching Assistants’ expectations

  • Students should come to class / labs prepared, having reviewed lecture notes posted on the course website, skimmed lab procedures, or finished the assigned readings.
  • Students should read each course’s syllabus (course outline) thoroughly. The syllabus is usually posted on the course website.
  • Professors and TAs expect students to seek them out if they have questions or need help; students can email them or, better, talk to them in person during their posted office hours.
  • If a student does not understand clearly what is required in an assignment, they are expected to talk to the professor or TA well before the assignment is due.
  • Professors want their students to do well, and are typically approachable and helpful, but they will not usually approach students to check in; students must take the initiative themselves, preferably early in the term.
  • Students should learn how to communicate with their professors and TAs.

Lectures, labs and tutorials

  • Many lectures in first year have several hundred students. Students may have little interaction with professors during lectures, although questions are generally welcome.
  • The much smaller tutorials or labs scheduled in many courses are a great opportunity to connect with TAs and get help or ask questions about course content; a lot of learning happens in these groups.
  • Students should attend all lectures, labs and tutorials. Generally, they are expected to complete assigned readings, read lab instructions, do homework questions, or preview posted lecture slides or notes before attending classes, but students should ask their professor / TA about this expectation; it can vary by course.
  • Students should listen, take notes, and participate in lectures / tutorials / labs.
  • Students might take online courses or courses that offer a blend of online and in-person lecture delivery.
  • Half-credit courses are about 12 weeks long. At the end of the course, students usually have about a week of free study time before their final exam schedule begins.

Assessment or grading

  • In first year, marks are largely based on tests, exams, and essays, depending on the course.
  • Mid-term and final exams take a variety of forms (multiple-choice, essay, short answer, etc.) and may test students on a variety of types of content (concepts, details, theories, applications, etc.); students can adopt different strategies to meet these challenges. SASS offers workshops, appointments, and online resources about exams.
  • In upper years, assessment may change to more project-based, seminar and essay formats.
  • Many students experience a drop in their grade average in first year; often, what worked as a learning approach in high school doesn’t work as well in university. SASS can help students adjust their approaches.
  • Students with documented disabilities who require accommodations to acquire and demonstrate their knowledge are encouraged to contact Queen’s Student Accessibility Services (QSAS).


  • Your student’s classmates may be similar to your student in their academic achievements, as Queen’s students often were the “top of the class” in their high schools. It is often an adjustment to students when they suddenly see themselves as one of many, and they may doubt themselves. Parents can listen to their student’s concerns in this area and offer reassurance and encouragement. SASS can work with students to help them develop their own academic goals and understanding of success in the context of the university’s academic expectations.
  • Queen’s and SASS value and celebrate the diversity in our community, and we encourage students to recognize that diversity offers rich learning and collaborative opportunities, and potential lifelong friendships. One excellent resource for you and your student to refer to on this topic is the Inclusive Queen’s page.

Intellectual development in the university years

According to Harvard educational psychologist William G. Perry, Jr., students engage in the following types of thinking as they proceed through university, and beyond.

  • Students in first and second year often rely on dualistic thinking, characterized by the belief that knowledge is absolute and knowable. Students at this stage may hold fairly fixed attitudes and opinions, which reflect an “all or nothing” or “right or wrong” style of thinking. This development relates to shifting one’s level of thinking from memorizing and understanding to analyzing, applying and evaluating (Bloom, 2002).
  • Students in upper years tend to shift to multiplistic thinking, recognizing that knowledge is diverse and uncertain. Students may express greater interest in viewing an issue from many perspectives and engaging in complex, uncertain questions that may have no simple, correct answers.
  • Graduate students often develop relativistic thinking; context or circumstances take on greater importance. There is often more thoughtful evaluation of opposing views, including opinions that may differ from family or cultural values and ethics.
  • Some mature adults in the upper years of graduate school or in careers may achieve integrated thinking based on constructed knowledge. Their past experiences, personal awareness of priorities and values, and accumulated knowledge enable individuals to think in rich and creative ways and to accept the possibility of incomplete understanding. If the individual develops a world view or follows an approach to solving problems that is consistent with their beliefs, they demonstrate what educational researcher Arthur W. Chickering, in his theory of identity development, refers to as integrity.

You might like to apply Perry’s, Bloom’s, and Chickering’s ideas to understand changes in how your student thinks and understands their world. For example, first-year students are often dismayed by a growing sense that, compared to high school, they are less intellectually able to “learn it all.” You can reassure your student that their uncertainty is an important sign of growth and development. Similarly, your student may also change their views of their professors as “authorit[ies] as the source of ‘Truth’ to authorit[ies] as a resource with specific expertise to share” or of themselves as a student, “moving from a passive receptor of facts to an active agent in defining arguments and creating new knowledge” (see Perry Network, accessed June 10, 2019). This scholarly journey can feel risky to students but your encouragement will help them.

Over the years, as students continue to develop intellectually, they will shift from a sense of certainty in what they know, to recognizing what they don’t yet know, to understanding that they will never know for sure, and then grow into the perspective that they make their own meaning and choose their own contributions to the world based on their knowledge, sense of identity, and moral/ethical position.

Read More

Support for students with English as an additional language (EAL)

SASS offers a number of programs and resources to help multilingual students be successful at university. Both undergraduate and graduate students can improve communication and build confidence by working on academic English reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.

SASS staff pose prior to a presentation.

Not sure where to start? Visit our frequently asked questions tab.

We support...EAL appointmentsWeekly programsPractice English onlineReading and computer softwareFrequently asked questions

Language skills we can help with include…


  • General skill development: learn strategies for academic writing and self-editing
  • Grammar: learn, review, and practice grammar topics
  • Cultural conventions: learn about the expectations of a North American / English audience
  • Academic vocabulary: develop an academic word bank
  • English Proficiency Test (EPT) preparations: practice for Engineering and Applied Science Students


  • Presentation practice: get feedback on a presentation for a course or conference
  • Pronunciation: review and practice the sounds of English
  • Academic discussions: learn and practice strategies for contributing to class discussions
  • Vocabulary: build a spoken academic vocabulary with appropriate idioms and expressions


  • Lectures: learn and practice strategies for understanding lectures and conferences
  • Comprehension: develop skills to understand spoken English and pull out key ideas
  • Active listening: find ways to engage with what your peers and professors are saying


  • Comprehension: develop strategies to break down complex academic readings and identify key concepts
  • Vocabulary: learn about resources for understanding academic language
  • Integrating Research: explore how to effectively integrate ideas from readings into your writing for a North American / English audience

EAL appointments

What is EAL support?

Students who speak English as an additional language can meet with the Academic Skills Specialist (EAL) for ongoing skills development. The purpose of this service is to support students in developing their academic English skills over time. Students may be interested in additionally booking writing or learning strategies appointments. The EAL program helps students develop similar skills as these other two programs, but through the specific lens of English skills development.

These appointments are private and confidential. Appointments are free, and they are available to all current domestic and international students who do not speak English as their first language.

“[The EAL Coordinator] explains things really clearly and made me feel more confident about my English skills. SASS and EAL made my graduate studies easier and less stressful. I wish every university had that program.”

What are EAL appointments like?

The first meeting focuses on discussing your goals for improving your academic English and creating a plan to achieve those goals. You and the coordinator will decide together how many times you should meet and what you will do at each session.

Each appointment is different, to suit each student’s needs, but some typical sessions include:

  • Grammar lessons: Students bring in a piece of their writing. The coordinator helps to identify trends of grammatical errors and explains self-editing strategies to fix them. (Note—this is not an editing service.)
  • Academic writing development: Students bring in writing and the coordinator helps identify places where meaning is unclear. By discussing word choice, transitions, and sentence structure, students develop their ability to produce writing that effectively communicates critical ideas.
  • Pronunciation: Either by going through the sounds of English, one by one, or through speaking exercises, students receive feedback on their English pronunciation.
  • Academic reading in English: Students bring in an academic reading and learn, then practice, strategies to support their comprehension of both vocabulary and key ideas.

How do I book an EAL appointment?

If you are interested in booking a EAL appointment, please request an introductory appointment. Once you fill out this form, you will receive an email with further instructions on how to access our online booking tool.

You need to fill out this form only once.

Weekly programs

Both SASS and QUIC (Queen’s University International Centre) offer weekly opportunities to practice academic English skills and improve your writing with the support of professionals. Most programs are free and you do not need to register. You can come every week or just when needed.

English Academic Writing Support

English Academic Writing Support

  • What is it? A chance to learn about and practice English academic writing
  • When? Tuesday evenings, 5:30pm-7:30pm
  • Where? Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC) in Mitchell Hall

How does it work? Each week, SASS’s EAL Coordinator leads an interactive workshop on a different writing topic, such as articles, critical thinking, or sentence variety. Students can join for the topics which are of interest to them in order to build on writing foundations, evaluate examples, do practice exercises, learn strategies, and ask questions. Registration is not required.

“I have benefited a lot from the English Academic Writing Support workshops! It was like a course for me. The things I have learned from these workshops helped me to edit the writing myself. Although I still make mistakes, I believe I will be better and better! Everyone there are super dedicated in learning.”

“The English Academic Writing Support program was one of the first activities I did after my arrival to Kingston; it really helped me to get engaged in the Queen’s University and to adapt to the new academic environment. It is a perfect space to review the most complex topics in English writing for EAL students and even for practicing conversational English while you are meeting new people. They also provide useful tools and handouts in each class.”

Academic English Drop-In Support

Academic English Drop-In Support

  • What is it? A drop-in program for academic English homework support
  • When? Wednesday evenings, 6pm-8pm
  • Where? Stauffer Library, room 143

How does it work? An EAL assistant will sit down with a student for 15 minutes at a time to answer questions, give feedback, and offer strategies. After assisting other students, they will come back to the previous students to check in and answer further questions. Registration is not required.

English Conversation Group

English Conversation Group

  • What is it? An opportunity to practice English language conversation skills
  • When? Thursday evenings, 5:30pm-7pm
  • Where? Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC) in Mitchell Hall

How does it work? Volunteers help guide English conversation with group activities and discussions. There’s a new topic every week. Learn idioms, expressions, and pronunciations in a welcoming environment. Registration is not required.

QUIC Social and Cultural Activities

QUIC Social and Cultural Activities

  • What are they? Activities at QUIC that offer opportunities to meet other students and practice oral communication skills in a social environment.
  • When? Check the QUIC Events Calendar or QUIC social media for activities throughout the year
  • Where? Usually at the Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC) in Mitchell Hall

How do they work? QUIC plans social and cultural events throughout the year to engage all students. Examples include movie nights, community lunches, and bus trips. Some events have fees and require registration.

Grad Writing Lab

Grad Writing Lab

  • What is it? An opportunity for all graduate students to get writing support
  • When? Thursday mornings, 9am-12pm
  • Where? Graduate Student Reading Room on the 3rd floor of Stauffer Library

How does it work? Both domestic and international graduate students can drop in and work on their writing in a graduate community space. There is a dedicated academic writing specialist on site who can help students with writing questions. Registration is not required.

Practice English online

In addition to SASS’s writing and learning resources, you can use these external links to develop your academic English skills.


Oxford English Dictionary: comprehensive, traditional dictionary

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English: entries include collocations (i.e. words that go together, like prepositions or common phrases)

Oxford Learner’s Dictionary: entries include definitions, collocations, audio examples of pronunciation, sentence examples, and alternative forms of the word

Linguee: translation tool with concrete examples in both languages, plus examples of the word in external sources

Grammar lessons and exercises

Online Writing Lab, Purdue University: exercises on grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, sentence style, writing numbers, and paraphrasing and summarizing

Punctuation, Oxford Dictionary: explanation of the different punctuation marks and their uses

Grammatical Terms, Grammar Bytes!: printer-friendly explanations of grammatical topics with examples

Exercises, Grammar Bytes!: interactive or printable exercises on various grammatical topics

Verb Tense Chart, Alba English: colour-coded infographic explaining English verb tenses—link automatically downloads PDF of chart

Verb Tenses, Englisch Hilfen: text-based chart explaining English verb tenses—includes conditional tenses

Academic language

English Spelling, Oxford Dictionary: explanations of tricky spelling trends

Academic Phrasebank, Manchester University: categorized templates of academic phrases to express specific ideas (e.g., “introduce a new topic”)

Understanding Vocabulary in Context, Douglas College: explanation of strategies and corresponding practice exercises

Lexical Notebook, British Council: strategy for creating a new vocabulary notebook

YouGlish: tool that uses YouTube videos on academic / professional / technical topics to show the pronunciation of English words in context

Independent study: work on English by yourself over time

ELC Study Zone, University of Victoria: lessons and practice for English language learners that are categorized by language level—lessons include grammar, reading and listening, and vocabulary

BBC Learning English:

TED Ed: approximately 5-minute videos with corresponding comprehension questions, discussion questions, and extended reading

Grammar Girl: blog on various grammar and language-related topics

Reading List, Queen’s School of English: suggested fiction for English language learners

Reading and computer software

Students have the opportunity to work independently on language and academic writing skills. SASS offers students access to two new computer programs:

  • Inspiration can help students brainstorm ideas, clarify thinking, and organize information using mind-maps and outlines.
  • Kurzweil 3000 is text-to-speech software providing multilingual students with audio and visual aids for reading, writing, and fluency.

If you would like to learn more about how this software can help develop language fluency, vocabulary, and self-editing skills, please contact the Academic Skills Specialist (EAL) (eal.sass@queensu.ca).

Frequently asked questions

Does SASS offer ESL support?

Yes, it does! At SASS, we have switched to using the term, English as an Additional Language, or EAL, instead of ESL. The reason for this is to acknowledge that some students speak more than two languages. If you’re looking for ESL support, visit our EAL page.

What does English as an Additional Language or EAL mean?

When we refer to students with English as an additional language, we mean students who learned to speak English after their first language or who are multilingual.

What does Academic English mean?

Just as there is British English, Ghanaian English, and Indian English, you can think of Academic English as a particular variety of the English language that is intended for a specific audience. Academic English refers to the specific vocabulary, style, and conventions that we consider most appropriate and effective when communicating with an academic audience. We use Academic English in scholarly articles for publication in journals, writing assignments for university courses, presentations for academic conferences, etc.

What academic skills can the EAL program help me with?

The EAL program can help you with reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills as they relate to your academics. For more information about what each of these sessions can cover, refer to our language skills descriptions.

How are EAL appointments different from writing and learning strategies appointments?

SASS has three appointment programs, each offering a different but related service to students. In writing appointments, students can learn general writing skills and get feedback on a particular academic writing assignment, such as an essay or a lab report. Learning strategies appointments are for all of the academic skills students need to be successful outside of writing—time management, note-taking, presentations, etc. The EAL program is an intersection of both writing and learning, but specifically through the lens of academic English.

For example, a student may have a learning strategies appointment to work on reading strategies, and then have an EAL appointment to work on understanding English vocabulary in readings.

Another example could be a student who has a writing appointment to get feedback on an essay for History 122, and then has biweekly EAL appointments to work on sentence structure and verb tenses in academic writing in general.

Can I get someone to edit my paper?

No, there are no editing services offered by Queen’s University. At SASS, our mission is to help you develop the academic skills you need to edit and improve your own work. We can, however, help you identify types of grammatical errors and describe strategies for fixing them. If you would like feedback on a particular writing assignment or advice on general writing skills, book a writing appointment; if you would like to work on your academic English writing, book an EAL appointment.

Do EAL appointments count towards my limit of 6 writing appointments?

No, EAL appointments are separate from writing appointments. Students will decide with the EAL Coordinator how many EAL appointments they will have during the initial consultation. This number depends on each individual student’s needs and the plan that will best support the student in developing their goals.

Does SASS help students in all faculties and departments?

Yes, SASS can help students in all faculties and at all levels of degree. Every program at Queen’s requires strong academic communication skills; the EAL program can help students develop their skills, regardless of their research focus or concentration.

I am an international student. Where can I go for advice on how to be successful at university?

International and exchange students can start by reviewing our resource about the Canadian academic environment.

International and exchange students looking for advice about transition to Canadian culture, immigration, health insurance, housing, or other essential services while studying in Canada can access an International Student Advisor at the Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC).

Students looking for advice related to cultural adaptation, adjusting to a new cultural / academic environment, negotiating relationships with peers or professors, or other wellness-related topics can get confidential support from the cross-cultural counsellor.

Students looking for advice about choosing courses or degree requirements can contact their relevant academic advisor from their faculty. Find a range of academic counselling options here.

What can I do if…

I want to practice on my own?

Students can explore our online modules on a variety of writing and learning topics, or visit these external websites for additional English practice.

I am looking for someone to help me practice speaking?

For practice in conversational English, you can attend the Conversation Group every Thursday evening at the QUIC, or join the English Conversation Partner program, which partners domestic and international students for social English practice. Additionally, you might be interested in the mentoring programs offered by the Student Experience Office to learn about getting the most out of your student experience. Join the Peer Mentor Program or Q Success, if you are a first-year student.

If you are looking for more intensive support, you can book a pronunciation session with the EAL Specialist. For independent practice, SASS has adaptive reading software available for students to use. Book time with the software by contacting the EAL specialist.

I am fairly confident in my English speaking/ writing but want to keep improving?

SASS helps all students—struggling and high-achieving, 1st-year to PhD—improve their writing, learning, organization, and studying skills. The same is true for students at all levels of English proficiency. Our services are not remedial; rather, we are focused on supporting all students in continuing to develop their skills.

I will be away from campus but still want to work on my English?

Registered Queen’s students are able to book online appointments for EAL support. Online appointments happen using an integrated tool in our booking system, WC Online. If you already have access to the Academic English Skills Support schedule, simply choose the “meet online” option when booking an appointment. To get access to this schedule, please fill out this request form.

Students can also practice with our online resources and exercises on external websites.

I’m an Engineering student and have to pass the EPT. Can you help me prepare?

Yes! You can have an EAL appointment to work on strategies for effective writing or practice EPT-style exercises.

I am a graduate student?

SASS supports graduate students in their academic skills development. Graduate students can book appointments for writing, learning, and academic English. Although our professional staff may not necessarily be experts on your subject matter, they will be able to provide you with strategies that will improve your writing and develop your academic skills.

In addition to appointments, graduate students can attend weekly programming, like the Grad Writing Lab, and participate in Expanding Horizons workshops. They should also visit our graduate student page for additional resources.

I don’t know where to start?

If you are a student who speaks English as an additional language (EAL), start by booking an EAL consultation. You will have the opportunity to meet with the coordinator to create a plan that will best support you in achieving your academic goals.

Read More

Academic stress

Every student faces stress sometimes. You may not always be able to avoid it, but you can make choices that can help you stay resilient and positive. In fact, stress management is an important academic and life skill that you can learn.

How can SASS help?Stressors and reactionsAdopt a helpful mindsetPrioritize and planMake a changeResources at Queen's

How can SASS help?

When it comes to managing academic stress, it can be helpful to take a bit of time to look at the big picture and impose some structure on your life. Structure can help you ensure you complete your academic tasks and other commitments, and support your well-being.

At SASS, we can help you manage academic stress by offering information and support on such topics as:

  • time management and organization
  • reading efficiency
  • procrastination
  • understanding academic expectations

and more. If you would like one-on-one help, book an appointment with a learning strategist. There is no need for you to manage challenges without support.

Stressors and reactions

Common stressors affecting students:

  • lack of time or resources
  • financial worries
  • unclear academic expectations (e.g., how to study for tests)
  • homesickness, loneliness, loss
  • language barriers, cultural adjustment stress, and isolation

Common reactions to stress:

  • loss of focus and concentration
  • irritability
  • physical tension and/or illnesses
  • avoidance/procrastination
  • exhaustion, lethargy
  • loss of self-confidence, self-esteem
  • sadness, low mood
  • feeling of being overwhelmed
  • changes in eating, sleeping, and exercise habits
  • social withdrawal

Adopt a helpful mindset

Take stock

  • Identify your sources of distress.
  • Determine which sources of stress may be under own control, and which aren’t. Focus on the things you can change.
  • For stressors that you have some control over, ask:
    • What do I need to handle this problem? (information, help, time, a skill, etc.)
    • Where can I get what I need? (library, TA, professor, SASS, classmate, etc.)
    • When will I take care of this?
  • Reflect on what you have done previously to help you cope in similar situations. What resources listed in this section of our website might help you?

Change your mindset

  • It can help to remember that how we perceive situations is an important factor in our stress levels.
  • Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen? Is it likely?”
  • Keep things in perspective.
  • Determine the most important thing to do right now and start with that.
  • Believe in your ability to figure things out and do your best under the circumstances.

Resources for a helpful mindset

  • Student Wellness Services offers stress-related workbooks, support groups and appointments.
  • It’s common for students to doubt themselves; there’s even a term for it: “impostor syndrome.” Take a look at our  information on a growth mindset if you are feeling doubt in your academic abilities, or book an appointment with a learning strategist or a counsellor.

Prioritize and plan

Add structure

  • Make a task list; make it as complete as possible.
  • Break large tasks into small, specific ones (try our assignment calculator).
  • Prioritize each item on the task list. Consider factors like due dates, how many marks something is worth, its difficulty level, personal priorities, etc.
  • For each task list item, estimate how much time it might take.
  • Make a schedule for the week and block off time for items on your task list and for relaxation and sleep.
  • Reduce, postpone or eliminate your optional responsibilities.

Anticipate stressful events and plan ahead

Make a change

Change your behaviour

  • Acknowledge your accomplishments every day.
  • Promote your health: eat well, sleep enough, exercise appropriately.
  • Break big tasks into smaller, more manageable steps.
  • Make room for some fun!

Change your situation

  • Reduce distractions.
  • Study somewhere else.
  • Go to sleep earlier at night.
  • Review your course or program with your prof, an academic advisor, or a career counsellor.

Bust your stress

  • Try relaxation techniques, yoga, or T’ai Chi, or go for a walk or a run. Watch a comedy. Talk to a loved one.
  • Do what you know works for you: use your own healthy stress-relieving activities.

Get help

Resources at Queen’s

Queen’s offers a wide range of support for students who are managing stress. (You may like to look into getting support from more than one of these resources because stress can have a few different sources.)

There are plenty of resources on campus to help you; please ask for help if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

Read More

Managing your time at university

Managing time well is an important part of university life. Undergraduate and graduate students alike want to do well at school, stay healthy, and do many other things—all within a 168-hour week.

University has its own challenges for managing time: the workload is demanding, there are plenty of distractions, and days are often unstructured. It’s easy to let time slip by.

Stay in charge of your time and your success! Being clear about what’s important to you and using your time intentionally will help you have a satisfying, successful, less stressful university experience.

Setting goalsWhere does your time go?PrioritizingEstimating timeSchedulingHelpful toolsEfficiency tipsTroubleshooting guideGraduate students

Setting goals

It’s easier to spend your time intentionally when you know what matters most to you.

What are 2-3 areas of your life that you want to do really well at this year? You can’t do everything, so make some choices. Take some time to think about what’s important to you, then work on setting goals.

Goals are most effective when they are:

  • specific
  • realistic (can you achieve this goal with your resources, time, etc.?)
  • measurable (how will you know when you’ve achieved this goal?)
  • given a timeline
  • written down and reviewed as needed.

For example:

“I want to further my education” is too vague to assess whether it is realistic or measurable, and it lacks a timeline; but

 “I want to complete a master’s degree in biology at Queen’s within the next two years,” could meet all the above criteria.

Write down your long-term goals—things you hope to achieve in a year, or five years—using the criteria above. You might consider goals related to your:

  • family and friends
  • education
  • career
  • health
  • volunteering
  • finances
  • other interests.

Review these goals at the beginning or end of a school year to see how far you’ve moved toward achieving them, and if they are still important to you.

Next, write down shorter-term goals that support your long-term goals. For example, you might write, “I want to earn at least a B+ on my fourth-year biology research paper due on April 20.” Review these goals every month or two.

Post your goals somewhere visible; remind yourself of them when you’re having trouble prioritizing competing demands on your to-do list, or when you lack motivation.

Set goals that matter to you

Thinking about what you value in life, and how these values translate into long-term goals, can help you think more clearly about your short-term goals and make better decisions about how to use your time from day to day.

Values are core ideas you have about the worth of something, and the judgments you make about what is important in life. Our values influence how we use our time. For example, in a spare half-hour, someone who values orderliness may spend that time organizing their desk and work files, while someone who values fitness may go for a run.

You might like to write down your life values. (If you have trouble identifying them, there are lots of places you can find inspiration: online, in books or blogs, talking with family or friends or a spiritual advisor, etc.) Afterwards, you might find it helpful to translate some of your values into long-term goals.

It’s common for goals to change over time; goals are closely tied to our identities and values, which develop as we move through life. If you’d like to talk to someone as you clarify your values and goals, see an academic advisor, a career counsellor, a personal counsellor and/or Queen’s Faith and Spiritual Life.

Where does your time go?

Start by figuring out how you currently spend your time. Try filling in our weekly time use chart.

Take a look at your results; are you surprised by how little or how much time you have left over, or how you spend some of your time? Do you wish you had more time for some activities? Keep reading for strategies for setting goals, prioritizing activities, and managing your time, or check out our procrastination and concentration pages.

To-do lists

Many students rely on their to-do lists to stay organized and get tasks done on time. A to-do list can help you:

  • achieve your short- and long-term goals
  • reduce stress and feel more in control of your life
  • avoid forgetting things
  • prioritize
  • fill in your weekly schedule and term calendar.

One method for making a to-do list

  • Use whatever tools you prefer: pen and paper, sticky notes, an agenda, an app, a document saved on your laptop.
  • Have on hand a calendar with coursework deadlines and important personal dates.
  • List everything you can think of that you need to do in a month or a term: administrative tasks, projects, readings, laundry, errands, etc.
  • Try not to worry about how much there is on the list at this point.
  • Break down large tasks (e.g., “create COMMS 234 presentation”) into small, specific tasks (e.g., “email COMM 234 group members to set next meeting date,” “choose topic,” “assign tasks among group members,” etc.).
  • Make sure everything on the list starts with a verb, for example, “write methods section of lab report.”
  • If a task has a specific deadline, note it down.
  • You might find it helpful to think of this as a master list, not a daily list. As the week goes by, keep track of new additions to your to-do list on a separate list, and add them to the master list on a daily or weekly basis (use the process below).

What to do with a to-do list

Assess the list:

  • Maybe some of the items aren’t that important or urgent, and could be postponed or deleted. This is a good strategy to use when you’re busy.
  • If an item will take you just a minute or two, do it right away and cross it off your list.

For the remaining tasks:

  • prioritize which should be done first, second, etc.
  • estimate the time needed for each task; be a bit generous with this estimate
  • schedule the tasks into your weekly or monthly schedule according your priorities and time estimates. Be realistic.

Each week, set aside 30 minutes on Sunday night to review your list and the upcoming week. What tasks need to be accomplished? Do you need to add anything else to your list? Schedule tasks into your week. If you have trouble prioritizing, refer to your short-term goals.

Each evening, set aside 5-10 minutes to make a realistic to-do list for the next day. Refer to your weekly goals to help set priorities.

If you don't like to-do lists

Do you find to-do lists stressful? Is it impossible to cross off all the items on your list? Try:

  • making sure everything on your list is specific and starts with a verb
  • breaking larger tasks into smaller ones that you can do in an hour or less
  • keeping a master list and then transferring just 2-3 of your highest-priority tasks from that list onto a daily to-do list
  • checking out some of our strategies for prioritizing tasks and avoiding procrastination
  • instead of a daily to-do list, track your accomplishments for the day as you go, and compare it to your weekly goals.


Prioritizing is difficult to do well at first, but it’s essential for planning your time effectively; if you don’t prioritize you might miss important deadlines, or spend time on one task at the expense of a more important or urgent task. It’s also a skill you can improve with practice. Here are a few methods; try different ones until you find one that suits you.

Matrix method: Use the time management matrix to help you identify which tasks you should do first.

Try to accomplish some important, non-urgent goals every week. This habit will keep you out of last minute, crisis mode.

A-B-C method

Categorize your tasks into:

  • A: must do today or tomorrow
  • B: might do today if there’s time, but can delay for a few days or a week
  • C: can delay for more than a week


  • the hardest tasks
  • the tasks due first
  • the assignments worth the most marks
  • the tasks that support your goals
  • work before you relax. Reward yourself each day after solid, sustained effort.

Mark each task with an A, B, or C, then schedule the tasks accordingly.

Estimating time

Estimating time accurately will help you get tasks done on time with less stress, and protect the time you’ve set aside for sleeping, relaxing, eating and exercising—it’s an important skill! You’ll get better at it with experience.

It’s easier to estimate time more accurately for smaller tasks than bigger ones, which is another reason to break big projects down into smaller, specific tasks.

Be realistic. Don’t try to get everything done in a day. It’s better to have a short to-do list and complete it than to feel overwhelmed by a long list of tasks.

On average, students should spend about 8-10 hours per course each week, attending class and labs/tutorials and completing homework. If you’re an undergraduate student taking five courses, you should spend about 45-50 hours per week on school. Think of school as your full-time job.

For example, if you are taking five courses and spend 20 hours total in class / lab time each week, expect to also spend about 25-30 hours on homework each week (5 courses x 9 hours per course = 45 hours per week total for school; 45 hours total – 20 hours in class = 25 hours of homework).

Graduate school has its own rhythm, but try treating school as a full-time job and then modify your time commitment as you understand the demands better.


Watch a SASS peer fill in her weekly schedule!

You can use our weekly schedule and monthly calendar templates to plan how to spend your time. They come with instructions to help you achieve scheduling success!

Use a weekly schedule to:

  • protect time for sleeping, eating, and exercise
  • keep track of classes and other commitments
  • choose when to work on specific tasks
  • plan flexibility and relaxation time.

Use a term calendar to:

  • keep track of due dates and how much assignments/exams are worth
  • see the big picture of the whole term
  • plan ahead for busier weeks.

Here are sample schedules from our SASS peers! [Forthcoming.]

Scheduling tips:

  • Taking time to sleep, exercise and eat well is critical to your academic success.
  • It’s a lot more effective to do some work every day of the week / term than to cram it in last-minute. Easier said than done; if you struggle with this habit, try a learning strategies appointment.
  • Know yourself. When you schedule tasks, consider what time of day you work best.
  • Do the hard tasks first to set the tone for the day and motivate yourself.
  • University offers wonderful opportunities. Don’t just bury your head in your books for four years; make time to try new things.

Helpful tools

  • Term calendar: use the instructions to fill it in and see the whole term at a glance.
  • Weekly schedule: use the instructions to fill it in to plan your week. See a how-to video here.
  • Weekly time use chart: see how you spend your time. An eye-opener for many students.
  • Steven Covey’s Time Management Matrix
  • Course Planner
  • Assignment calculator: use this tool to break large assignments into small tasks with mini-deadlines; get tips and resources for each stage.
  • Thesis manager: for graduate students; helps you see the big picture and break down the thesis process into small, manageable stages with mini-deadlines.
  • End of term planning chart: fill this in to get a handle on what’s left to do, how long it will take, and how much it’s worth. A helpful tool to regroup and prioritize around Weeks 9-12 of a term.
  • Task Analysis Chart: break a big task into smaller parts and estimate how long each will take.

Efficiency tips

  • Consider school your full-time job.
  • Use the free time between classes to do homework.
  • Do difficult tasks first.
  • Work for a maximum of 3 hours at a time, and then take a break for an hour or so.
  • Work for 50 minutes, then take a break for 10 (or work for 25 and break for 5); repeat.
  • Reduce distractions.
  • Adopt routines. They take the decision-making out of your day.
  • Try mindfulness techniques to stay focused and calm.
  • Work before relaxing. Earn a reward.

Troubleshooting guide

“I make a to-do list every day but never get through it. Then I feel guilty.”

  • Make a weekly to-do list. Then try limiting your daily to-do list to only three items. If you have extra time, tackle the next thing on your weekly to-do list. Or try using a to-do list that covers two or three days. Or keep a list of completed tasks instead.

“I make schedules but I can’t seem to follow them.”

  • Try making your schedule realistic, not idealistic. When are you really going to start studying: 7:00 a.m.? 9:30 a.m.? How many hours a week will you really commit to? Remember to leave room for downtime.
  • Try booking an appointment with a learning strategist.

“I spend too much time on online activities. Then I don’t have time to work or sleep.”

  • Try scheduling specific times for these activities, with a limit of how long you’ll spend doing them. Then, turn off, close, and log out when you’re trying to work or sleep.
  • See our advice on managing distractions or book an appointment with a learning strategist.

“I have trouble deciding what to do first.”

  • Consider due dates, how much time is needed to do the task, and how many marks it’s worth, if others are depending on you, and how important it is for your goals. See our prioritizing strategies.

Graduate students

Graduate school presents its own time management complexities that may challenge your skills. Approaches or habits that worked well for you in other contexts might not work as well for you now. We offer some practical information here.

You may also like to book a learning strategies appointment, or visit our graduate student page or our faculty / TA resources page for more help and resources.

Time challenges for graduate students

  • long-term, complex projects
  • unclear academic expectations
  • multiple competing roles (academic and non-academic)
  • lack of structure in a week
  • distracting negative feelings such as self-doubt, worry, and guilt
  • lack of accountability or feedback on progress.

Time management strategies for graduate students

  • Don’t wait! Create structure as early in the term as possible; see our resources on setting goals, managing time, using to-do lists, prioritizing, and scheduling.
  • Try the thesis manager.
  • Schedule quiet time for thinking and writing.
  • Schedule time for relaxation, sleep, and exercise to stay motivated, happy and healthy.
  • Set daily routines; they save time and mental effort.
  • Organize your work space, digital files, emails and paperwork to save time.
  • Reduce/manage your distractions.
  • Meet with your supervisor regularly; send follow-up emails listing key discussion points.
  • Email your supervisor regularly with updates (accomplishments, challenges, questions).
  • Keep a record of weekly goals and achievements and next intended steps and share these with your supervisor at each meeting. Review the list daily to stay on track.
  • Track your progress on a calendar.
  • Explain your student life to your partner/family/friends, and enlist their cooperation.
  • Schedule time for the important people in your personal life.
  • Check out our procrastination and focus and concentration resources.

Planning large projects

Large projects, such as researching and writing a thesis, may span several years; most graduate students don’t have training or experience in this level of project management.

Even if you have clear goals and solid time management skills, large projects might be daunting. In addition, some aspects of the project might not be in your control (e.g., waiting for your supervisor to read and provide feedback on your work). Large projects may also compete with other tasks, both academic and personal. The thesis manager can help you break a thesis down into smaller steps with timelines.

It can also be helpful to think through some of the following questions, and/or discuss them with your supervisor, as you plan your thesis or another large project:

  • What are my academic and administrative responsibilities?
  • To whom am I accountable?
  • When do I want to finish my project? When are major deadlines?
  • How do my major deadlines translate into smaller tasks from week to week?
  • What happens if I don’t finish on time? Do I need a backup plan?
  • What aspects of the project do I control, totally or to some extent? Who else has control, in what ways?
  • What feedback/support can I expect from my supervisor/others?
  • What are my priorities? How will I manage competing priorities?
  • How will I maintain a healthy balance between my academic and personal life?
  • How will I sustain my energy and a positive attitude to the project?
  • How will I know when it’s time to let go and move onto something else?
  • How can I manage perfectionism and/or procrastination?

Read More

Focus and concentration

Being able to concentrate on schoolwork is critical for learning and studying. It’s also a skill that you can develop. Read on for some strategies that may help.

Set yourself up for successManage distractionsGet to workIn lecturesMore resources

Set yourself up for success

Your work area

  • Do you know what you need to work on right now, how, and why?
  • Do you have a place where you can work uninterrupted?
  • Are your supplies close at hand?
  • Do you have good lighting and a comfortable chair (don’t study on your bed!)?
  • Are your devices off, or on silent, and out of sight? (If you need to be online to complete your work, block distracting websites.)

Create homework habits

  • What time of day do you focus best? Do your most challenging work then.
  • Develop a routine place, time, and approach.
  • Try working for 50 minutes, then taking a 10-minute break, repeated 2-3 times.
  • Or try working for 25 minutes, then taking a 5-minute break, repeated 4-6 times.
  • Try varying the subjects / tasks in each long study session.
  • Break up large projects into manageable sections. Congratulate yourself for completing individual sections.

Support your health

  • Eat regularly to give your brain energy.
  • Sleep enough to feel rested and alert.
  • Exercise to reduce restlessness, manage stress and feel good. Getting fresh air before class or homework time may help you be more alert.

Manage distractions

Distracted by YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, and texts? You’re not alone. 23.4% of Queen’s students reported that internet use/computer games affected their academic performance within the last 12 months (see NCHA Student Health and Wellness Survey).

Technology is vital to everyday tasks, but our dependence on technology can turn into a habit that prevents us from getting our work done. Learn to intentionally give your attention.

Here are some strategies to try:

When you need to focus on a task...

Ask yourself, “Do I need my computer / phone / device for this task?”

No, I don’t need it.

  • leave laptop at home
  • log out and close laptop; put out of sight in a backpack or drawer; turn off wifi
  • put phone on airplane mode/on silent, out of sight in a backpack or drawer
  • check for notifications on long (1-2 hour) breaks, not short (5-10 minute) breaks

Yes, I do need it.

  • block unnecessary sites with apps
  • check for notifications on long (1-2 hour) breaks, not short (5-10 minute) breaks
  • when you’re tempted by a distraction, ask yourself, “why am I doing this? Will it support my goals?”
  • challenge yourself to go five more minutes without checking your phone/social media

Increasing the physical distance between you and your phone / laptop, or increasing the time / effort required to check notifications, may help you manage your impulses.

When you want to avoid your phone...

  • With a trusted roommate/friend, lock your phones and swap them for a couple of hours when you really want to focus.
  • Check your phone and social media only at specific times during the day, such as every two hours, or after breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  • Let your family and friends know you’re not available during work time unless it’s an emergency. Tell them you’re trying to change your online habits to support your academic/health goals and ask for their support.
  • Ask yourself, “Tonight, when I look back on my day, what would make me feel as though it was a good day, well-spent? What can I do right now to contribute to that satisfaction?”
  • Charge your phone in another room, or put it on airplane mode, while you sleep.
  • Try thinking of time away from your phone as liberating, a chance to be yourself and to do things that you love to do.

When you do check your phone...

  • Track how much time you spend on your phone / laptop for non-work activity. Lots of apps exist that help you track phone usage.
  • Set a timer to remind yourself to return to work after a break. Or have an accountability buddy who helps you get back to work after a break.
  • Combine your phone check with a look at your daily to-do list/weekly schedule, to help you remember that you had planned to get something specific done in this time.
  • Remember you can do non-phone things on a break, like stretching, running up and down stairs, taking a short walk, getting a coffee, listening to a song with your eyes closed, etc.
  • If you fear letting down family and friends by not responding to their messages, commit to responding on breaks, or later that day, instead of instantly.

When your thoughts distract you...

Get distracting thoughts out of your head by writing them down on a nearby pad of paper. Set aside a bit of time each evening to review your distractions:

  • some items may be trivial and can be forgotten
  • some items may be important–turn these into specific actions and add them to your to-do list
  • discuss ongoing, distressing thoughts with someone.

Track your attention: if you’re distracted while you’re trying to work, try making a check mark on a nearby pad of paper, then turn your attention back to work. Later, look for patterns. Do your thoughts wander when you are tired, hungry, restless or worried? Think about your improving your health habits and/or talking to someone about your worries.

Minimize or manage distractions that you have some control over; for example, ask your friends and family to help you protect your work time, and reassure them that you will be available to them other hours of the day.

If these strategies aren’t helpful, remember that giving into online distraction can be a very difficult habit to change. Don’t expect to go from constantly distracted to perfectly focused in a day. Try one or two of the strategies above for a week or two, then try a couple more for another week, and aim for slow but solid improvement over time. You might also consider booking an appointment with a counsellor to talk about how to break a habit.

Get started

  • Keep all necessary supplies close at hand to avoid set-up time and distractions.
  • If a large task seems daunting, break it down into several smaller, specific tasks. Still daunted? Make them smaller.
  • Try the “5 more rule.” Commit to working for five (minutes, pages, sentences, etc.) and then do it. Then decide to work another 5 more or not.
  • Start each work session with 10 minutes of review of the most recent material, to reinforce previous learning and boost your confidence.

Work within your attention span

Rather than becoming frustrated about lack of focus, learn to work within the limits of your attention span.

  • First, find the limits of your attention for a particular task or subject. Can you stay focused for 10 minutes? 20 minutes?
  • Try setting a regular 5-minute timer, and when it goes off, ask yourself if you are still engaged in the task. Mark down when your attention begins to wane.
  • Once you have established your attention span for a course, divide your work into chunks that will take that long to complete. For example:
    • You have about a 30-minute attention span for working on a case study in your Commerce class. Divide the project into reading the assignment for 30 minutes, then finding 3 research articles for 30 minutes, etc.
  • Take 5 minute breaks between work sessions. Use a timer to keep you on track, both for your working sessions and for your breaks. You can set up your phone to help you, or search for an online timer that will time your work sessions and breaks.
  • Do your hardest work (the most difficult stuff, the boring stuff) at the time of day when you are most alert.

Motivate yourself

  • Remind yourself of how the task you’re trying to focus on will her you meet a longer-term goal.
  • Set a specific target in terms of time spent on a task, or amount of work to complete.
  • Work before you play. Build in a reward for successfully reaching your goal: a coffee, chat, walk, or something you enjoy that you must earn before you have it.

It is much easier to focus if you’re interested in a task, but what if you aren’t interested? 

Try active studying strategies:

  • Ask yourself questions.
  • Relate the information to your personal experience or to your other courses.
  • Think about the topic’s real-world implications. Ask “what if” questions.
  • Make up your own examples.

Try reminding yourself how this task will help you achieve an exciting goal.

Keep in mind that sometimes you just have to do something you don’t want to do; consider it good for character development and get on with it.

Use self-talk to stay on task

Self-talk can help you get started and stay on track. Congratulate yourself for staying on track, or remind yourself where your attention should be. Keep practicing; over time, you can develop a habit that keeps you motivated and focused.

Examples of encouraging self-talk:

  • If I get started now, I’ll feel less stressed later.
  • I’m really making progress on this paper.
  • I’ve been working for 30 minutes without distraction, yay!
  • What is most important right now?
  • How long have I been on this website? 
  • Is what I’m doing now helping me reach my goals?

Study with a friend

Studying with someone else can help you stay on track and re-focus if you find yourself distracted. Just seeing a friend working can be a great way to stay motivated, and if one of you gets distracted, the other can offer a friendly reminder to get back to work.

You can also hold each other accountable for your progress on weekly goals. Tell each other what you’ve done over the week, and what you want to accomplish next week.

In lectures

  • From the readings or problem sets, come up with questions in advance. You don’t have to actually ask them, unless you want to; just listen for the answers during lecture.
  • Reduce distractions: get to class in time to pick your best seat—whatever works for you.
  • Stay awake: take notes during the lecture, and ask questions.
  • Use a code in your notes to mark things that you don’t understand, or that seem important.
  • If the lecture has a break, try to get outside for some fresh air.
  • Engage your mind by participating in class and thinking actively:
    • offer your opinion
    • think about how the material relates to recent lectures or readings
    • try to anticipate the professor’s next idea
    • ask questions, out loud or in your mind.

More resources

The following campus resources helped create content for this web page, and can offer more support.

  • Check out Health Promotion to learn more about sleep and other health issues affecting university students, or to book a Healthy Lifestyle Consultation.
  • Talk to someone at Counselling Services about distracting and distressing thoughts, or maintaining a healthy relationship with technology.
  • Visit the Faith and Spritual Life Office to talk about distracting and distressing thoughts, or technology from a spiritual and/or community perspective.
  • Student Academic Success Services can suggest strategies that support concentration.

[1] American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Queen’s University Executive Summary Spring 2013. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association; 2013.


Read More

Managing test anxiety

  • “Even when I study well, I’m so nervous I just forget everything.”
  • “I’m not a good test-taker. I feel tense and nauseous. I can’t handle it.”
  • “My test anxiety is affecting my GPA. No matter how well I do on assignments, the tests always bring my mark down.”

Sound familiar? More than 60% of students at Queen’s have felt overwhelming anxiety at some point in the academic year (NCHA, 2016). Anxiety is a normal human emotion. Many people feel anxious before a test or exam, or when they are making an important decision. An anxiety disorder is different—it causes so much anxiety that it interferes with our ability to lead a normal life (Cleveland Clinic).

In this resource, we focus on students’ feelings of anxiety about tests and exams. Our intention was to create a resource to support students who are experiencing feelings of anxiety—but it is not intended as a treatment for those with anxiety disorders. If you have an anxiety disorder, please follow the recommended treatment and management strategies given by your health care providers.

This resource was a collaboration between Student Wellness Services and Student Academic Success Services.

AwarenessAcceptanceActionGrounding exercisesResources


The first step towards managing anxiety is to understand how anxiety works and how you typically respond to it. Once you are aware of your own pattern, you can develop tools to help yourself interrupt the cycle. This will take practice, effort and patience, but it can be done. Our brains are amazingly malleable!

Understanding anxiety

Anxiety is common. It is usually described as a feeling of apprehension, uncertainty, or uneasiness that arises in anticipation of an impending event or situation, whether real or imagined. Anxiety can feel like stress, worry, butterflies, agitation, jumpiness, nervousness, fear, or panic.

Everyone experiences anxiety, but some of us feel it more often and/or more intensely. When we feel anxious, we may experience some or several of the following signs:

  • Physical (e.g., rapid heartbeat, headaches, muscle tension, shortness of breath, nausea, sweating)
  • Emotional (e.g., excessive feelings of fear, irritation, helplessness, shutting down)
  • Behavioural (e.g., fidgeting, pacing, avoiding, over- or under-sleeping)
  • Cognitive (e.g., going blank, racing thoughts, negative self-talk, difficulty concentrating)

False alarm?

At manageable levels, anxiety can be useful because it prepares us to take action in response to a situation. It signals that something important is at stake and motivates us to make necessary changes to manage that task. It helps us to be alert and get psyched up to deal with the situation at hand.

It’s normal to experience a certain amount of anxiety or nervousness before a test. But if these feelings are too intense, they may negatively affect our performance. As you become aware of your own test anxiety, try to think of it as a resource: it’s there to help you face the challenge at hand.

Increasing awareness

  • Recognize your test anxiety. How does it show up for you (e.g., as physical sensations, thoughts, emotions)? When (e.g., leading up to the test, or just on the day of)?
  • Notice how you typically respond to your feelings of anxiety. Do you avoid situations that make you feel anxious? Do you distract yourself from your thoughts or emotions? Do you procrastinate?
  • Notice your own story. What is your anxiety telling you? When you’re feeling anxious about a test or exam, what do you say to yourself? What thoughts occupy your mind?
  • Are there other habits and patterns that might be contributing to your anxiety? Are you getting enough good-quality sleep? Are you getting a reasonable amount of physical activity? Are you eating healthy foods? Do you have someone to talk to?
  • Have you thought about where the pressure is coming from? It might involve sources such as your own expectations, your parents’ expectations, scholarship status, judgement from peers, etc.

Next: accepting anxiety.


Rethinking butterflies

Shifting your perspective on test anxiety starts with accepting it as something that will happen. Of course you’re going to feel anxious; your test results are important to you. The key is to change your relationship with that anxiety. We cannot eliminate our feelings of nervousness and worry, but there are things we can do to keep their intensity at a more optimal level.

Begin by simply acknowledging that the uneasiness, uncertainty, and physical symptoms feel uncomfortable.

Allow the worry to be there. We are not going to get rid of worried thoughts—sometimes trying to do so will even strengthen our anxiety. Instead, begin to increase your tolerance for situations or thoughts that make you feel anxious (e.g., tests and exams). Try:

  • changing your self-talk (say, “I can do this. I studied well. I know my stuff.”)
  • practicing self-compassion (say, “I’ll do my best, and that will be enough”)
  • practicing meditation
  • learning to see emotions as information, not an order (say, “I’m getting excited to take on this challenge; I can feel it! But I won’t let this feeling take over.”)
  • establishing pre- and post-test routines and rituals in advance (e.g., going to the room where you’ll write the test to get more comfortable in the space)
  • doing grounding exercises when you feel anxious.

Keep moving forward in spite of your anxiety. By doing so, you will gradually retrain your brain to be less reactive. The aim is to work with anxiety instead of resisting it or wishing it would go away.

Working with your anxiety is the goal, but it’s not easy! Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that it’s hard (e.g., “This feels hard for me right now. We all go through hard times. It’s going to be okay—I can do this”).

Being kind to yourself also means making peace with your anxious brain. Let go of what happened in the past (e.g., “the last time I wrote an exam, I…”). You can’t change the past. Try to think instead of times when you were anxious but pushed through.

Acceptance strategies

Accepting your test anxiety allows you to create some space between your emotions/thoughts and your reactions. This space makes room for a response that will help you work toward your goal of overcoming anxiety.

  • Accepting that anxiety will happen gives you the opportunity to plan out possible responses in advance. Try WOOP (Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan) to help yourself anticipate obstacles and make plans.
    • Wish. Make a wish that feels challenging but doable. For example, I feel overcome by anxiety in exams. I wish I felt calmer.
    • Outcome. What will happen when you reach your goal? For example, if I felt calmer, I could think more clearly and I’d do better on the exam. That would feel great.
    • Obstacle. The main internal obstacle that keeps you from your goal. For example, I want to feel calmer, but… (negative self-talk, poor study habits, I stay up all night worrying, etc.) prevents me.
    • Plan. What can you do to overcome your obstacle? Try framing it as an if/then. For example, if I change my _____, then I will feel calmer and less anxious. I’ll be able to think better and do better on the exam. If I feel anxious, then I’ll remind myself to take deep breaths and persevere!
  • Externalize or personify your anxiety. Some students even find it helpful to give it a name to further separate it from themselves. When anxiety is externalized, it’s easier to address it and move forward (e.g., Ah yes, hello anxiety. I expected you to show up today. I hear you, but back off! I need to write this exam.).
  • Reframe your perspective. Change how you interpret your thoughts and feelings related to anxiety. You are having an intense or uncomfortable experience of a normal reaction to stress. The goal is to find a way to keep moving forward, even though you feel uncomfortable. For example, I want to _________, so I am willing to ____________.

Next: taking action.


Once you’ve become aware of how you experience anxiety, and have stopped resisting it and started accepting it, you’re ready to take action. Just take it one step at a time. Focus on micro-changes: you don’t have to change everything all at once. Pick something, even the smallest thing that you think you can achieve. What do you think you can start with?

What do you want? What are your goals? Use these to motivate yourself. Effort and perseverance are the keys.

Before the test

Effective study habits can help you reduce and manage your test anxiety. When you feel you have the tools to meet a challenge, it helps to keep stress at a more manageable, productive level. Try

  • keeping up with the workload during the semester so you don’t feel overwhelmed: do a little at a time. Use a term and your weekly schedule to manage your time and workload.
  • engaging actively with the course content (when reading, when learning, when studying).
  • using the course learning objectives (in the syllabus) as a guide to the big picture of the course.
  • focusing on re-organizing material meaningfully (rather than re-reading or re-writing it) into a different format (e.g., a mind map or concept summary), or focusing on how best to organize it, or on the connections and relationships between main ideas.
  • giving yourself time to study: make a study schedule and use effective study methods like summarizing, memorizing, understanding, elaborating, and self-testing.
  • over-learning the material. Understanding, application, and analysis are all important, but so is memorization. Drill, drill, drill on the material you just have to memorize.
  • visiting the room where you will write your test or exam. You might even study there, if possible.

In terms of your mindset, try

  • visualizing yourself successfully writing the test. Imagine what your positive energy feels like and how it drives your performance.
  • noticing your thinking. We can’t always control the thoughts that arise but we can control how we respond to them. Thoughts are like background noise in your head, and this noise can affect your focus, motivation, confidence, and ultimately your performance. Make sure your thinking makes you feel empowered and confident.
  • avoiding procrastination. Reduce the number of situations in which you’d have to practice self-control. Just as you might avoid buying cookies so you won’t have to resist eating them, set yourself up for success by establishing good practices.
  • use encouraging words with yourself (e.g., “I can do this,” “I’m prepared”) when you notice thoughts of self-doubt.

During the test

Before you go in to write the test…

  • Stop studying at least an hour before the test or exam. Give yourself a break instead: have lunch, go to the gym, get some fresh air. Run a flight of stairs to release some nervous energy! Tell yourself, “I’m excited.”
  • Keep yourself calm: put on headphones, find a quiet space, engage with a mindfulness app. Don’t engage with friends/classmates who are stressing or cramming!
  • Do a brain dump of your worries. Write them all out, then categorize them: which ones can you do something about and which ones are just background noise? Leave your worries at the door when you go to write the test.

Just before you write, or while you’re writing…

  • It can be helpful to have a routine to follow. Routines help to smooth the transition into the test-taking process. For example, do some grounding exercises before you begin, do a brain dump before you start answering questions, or start with the questions you know, to warm up and build confidence.
  • Make sure you have some water to drink and maybe some gum or a candy.
  • Check out some strategies for taking different types of exams.

After the test

Overcoming test anxiety involves building a skill set and forming new habits and routines—this effort takes time and practice! Remember, you’re focusing on micro-changes.

Taking time to reflect after the test will help you build your skills. Then make a plan for next time.

Reflect on…

  • what went well (improvements in your thinking, your breathing, your ability to engage with the test material, your memory, etc.)
  • what you learned about how you experience test anxiety
  • what you might like to focus on improving the next time you write a test. Do you need to do some problem solving? Get help from a professor? Change your approach?

Reward yourself! Give yourself a tangible reward after a test to celebrate.

Next: grounding exercises for when anxiety takes hold.

When anxiety takes hold

When you’re preparing for or writing a test and anxiety takes hold, you can try some grounding exercises. Grounding techniques can help you regain your mental focus when you are experiencing an intense emotional state. They won’t eliminate anxiety—they are strategies to help you tolerate the discomfort. By engaging your senses, you divert your mind away from anxious or stressful thoughts and into the moment.

You can do all of these exercises in an exam, without disturbing others or calling attention to yourself. Practice them in advance so you know how to do them.

You can try...

  • squeezing lemons. Place your hands by your side or in your lap. Imagine you are holding a lemon in each hand. Squeeze your fists tight for 30 seconds. Direct your excess energy/tension into your hands and notice your muscles tightening. Now drop the lemons and feel the tension release as your muscles relax.
  • the 5-4-3-2-1 game. Name 5 things you can see in the room, 4 things you can feel (chair on my back, cold hands, etc), 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell (or 2 things you like the smell of), and 1 taste in your mouth and then state 1 good thing about yourself.
  • finger breathing. Spread the fingers of one hand out like a star, palm facing up. Take the index finger of the other hand and place it at the base of your thumb on the open hand. Inhale as you move your finger from the base of your thumb to the tip. Pause. Exhale as you bring your finger down the other side of your thumb. Pause. Inhale again as your finger moves to the tip of your finger. Repeat until you have done traced all your fingers. Repeat.
  • chair body scan: Sit comfortably with your hands in your lap. Lower your gaze or close your eyes. Direct your attention to your feet on the floor. Now move your attention to your body resting in your chair. Let the chair take the weight of your body. Notice your back in contact with the back of the chair. Let your shoulder relax. Let the muscles around your mouth relax, around your eyes, your forehead. Relax your tongue.
  • rhythmic breathing. Here are some options:
    • inhaling for a count of 4, holding for 7, exhaling for 8; or
    • inhaling for 4, exhaling for 8; or
    • belly breathing (also called calm breathing).
  • supportive self-talk and affirmations. For example, “I’m getting excited to take on this challenge,” “A little stress is going to help me do well on this test,” “This test is not a measure of my worth as a person. It’s one tiny point on my academic path,” and “I can do this. I studied well. I know my stuff.”

Finally, because overcoming anxiety is a process, it’s important to take care of yourself on a day to day basis—not just when you have a test coming up. Build in strategies for regular stress management and self-care (e.g., quality sleep, healthy habits, reducing coffee intake, spending time with friends and family).


How tos and apps


More information

On-campus resources

Read More

Assignment calculator

The assignment calculator is a tool that helps students plan their assignments by breaking them into manageable parts and providing resources and support toward their completion.

  • To begin, select an assignment type and your start and end dates.
  • After clicking on the submit button, scroll down for the calculator’s output.

Add to Google Calendar

Make SASS appointment


Note that

  • the steps and timing provided by the calculator are only a starting place.
    Each step in the assignment calculator comes with a time commitment estimate, but some steps might take you longer, depending on how challenging the material is, how well you know the topic or process, and your other commitments (e.g., classes, work schedule). Don’t be afraid to tweak the calculator’s recommendations! (Note: when you add the steps to your calendar, they are not fixed–shift them around as needed.)
  • how long any assignment may take to complete will vary.
    If you’re wondering how long you’ll need to spend on an assignment, take a guess based on your past experience—then add a little more time, just in case. For example, if you think you could complete a research essay in two weeks, give yourself two and a half. Assignments usually take longer than you think they will, and you’ll be less likely to feel stressed if you give yourself more time.
  • although the calculator’s output is straightforward, your process will probably be less so.
    The step-by-step output of the calculator will make it seem like you can follow the steps one by one until you finish and submit your assignment. In reality, writing, research, experiments, and group work are all circular, messy, and iterative processes. That’s normal! The calculator is a guide, not a set of hard and fast rules.
  • more support is available.
    If you have any questions or challenges along the way, ask for help. Check with your prof or TA about their expectations, the assignment’s format, and the suitability of your topic and/or thesis statement. Go see a librarian for help with research. You can also make an appointment with a writing consultant or a learning strategist at any point in the process, from topic choice to draft revision to submission.

The Queen’s assignment calculator is based on a similar tool developed by the University of Minnesota. This version is © 2018 Student Academic Success Services, Queen’s University at Kingston, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Read More

Subject-specific academic resources

Student Academic Success Services provides support in learning and writing across disciplines, to all students. This list is intended to complement this broad-ranging support with academic resources more closely tied to specific subjects.

Have a resource you think we should include? Tell us about it!

This resource is also available as a PDF (last update: January 2019).

General Academic SupportFaculty of Arts and ScienceArts and Science: Departmental SupportFaculty of Engineering and Applied ScienceSmith School of Business (Commerce)School of NursingSchool of Kinesiology and Health Studies

General Academic Support

Student Academic Success Services

  • Student Academic Success Services (SASS) comprises Learning Strategies and the Writing Centre. This free and confidential service, located in Stauffer Library, offers workshops, one-on-one consultations, and practical online tips. SASS helps all students—struggling and high-achieving, 1st-year to PhD—improve their writing, learning, organization, and studying skills.
  • SASS also provides English as an Additional Language (EAL) students one-on-one support in academic language (reading, writing, speaking, and listening). To request an initial appointment, complete the online form.

GAELS Athletics Tutoring Program

  • Tutoring opportunities are available for all student-athletes enrolled at Queen’s University through Athletics & Recreation by contacting the Coordinator, Athlete Services. This service is FREE for all varsity-athletes who are included on the team eligibility certificate.
  • Tutors are available for most first-year courses. Upper-year course tutoring availability will depend on the course. Contact tutor@queensu.ca or the Athletics website for more information or to request a tutor.

QSuccess Mentors

  • This program offers first year students the opportunity to be matched with a knowledgeable upper year mentor who will provide one-on-one support throughout the academic year. First year students can register for Q Success
  • Upper year students who would like to request a mentor can apply for the Student Experience Office’s peer mentorship program.

Subject Liaison Librarians

Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC)

  • The QUIC provides support for International Students in many ways. In addition to International Student Advising and lots of social activities, they provide a number of academic support services. They run an Academic English Writing Skills clinic and a weekly English Conversation Group, and host SASS workshops in academic skills. The Intercultural Awareness Certificate is also a great experience for all students looking to develop their intercultural skills. Check the QUIC Events Calendar for dates and times.

Faculty of Arts and Science

  • Arts and Science Undergraduate Society (ASUS) peer tutoring is a student-organized service that partners student tutors with those looking for a tutor in a variety of Arts and Science courses. Tutoring fees are $15/hour and bursaries are available for students in financial need. Questions regarding tutoring can be directed to academics@asus.queensu.ca. Sign up here.
  • Bounce Back is an academic support program for first-year undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts and Science who acquire a GPA below 1.6 after the fall term. Eligible students will receive an email in January inviting them to participate.
    • Students who opt into the program will be matched with a trained upper-year peer mentor called a Bounce Back Coach. Coaches will work individually with each participant to help them identify the source(s) of their academic challenges, set new goals, and identify strategies to achieve those goals over the course of the winter term.
    • The program runs for up to 12 weeks (January to April). More information can be found on the Student Experience Office website.
  • Peer Academic Support Services (PASS) is a volunteer service that eases the transition into university and promotes academic success. Peer Advisors address issues such as scheduling, plan requirements, SOLUS, and course selection in confidential, non-judgmental advising sessions. PASS is located on the First Floor of Dunning Hall and is available Monday to Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. No appointment necessary.

Arts and Science: Departmental Support


  • Biochemistry Peer Assistance Program: A program where undergraduate students can get advice from upper year students who are currently in, and understand the demands of, the program here.
  • Peer tutoring services are subject to availability and can be requested through the department. Email lifesci@queensu.ca or biochem@queensu.ca, tell them for which course(s) you require a tutor, and they will send you a list of potential tutors. You and the tutor will discuss your needs and their payment.
  • Occasionally, the LifeSci/BCHM student council runs informal, drop-in academic support sessions.
  • Queen’s University Library research by subject (Life Sciences and Biochemistry)
  • Queen’s University subject librarians (Life Sciences and Biochemistry: Sandra and Sara)



  • Chemistry tutors (peer support)
  • Chemistry references
  • Queen’s University Library research by subject (Chemistry)
  • Queen’s University subject librarian (select “Chemistry” under Subject)



Drama and Music

  • Queen’s University Library research by subject (Drama | Music)
  • Queen’s University Library subject librarian (Drama and Music)


  • ECON 110/111/112 has a free help centre staffed by MA/PhD TAs, 4 days per week in DUN227. The schedule is posted on the Economics website and in the onQ pages for the courses. The room seats about 20 comfortably and often there are two TAs working. They are all trained to ‘teach’ the gaps or go over the potentially confusing aspects of the principles course.

English Language & Literature

Environmental Science/Studies

Film & Media Studies


Gender Studies



  • Geology Help Centre (first floor of Bruce Wing in Miller Hall); student-run peer support, based on availability of peer volunteers
  • Academic Advisor (Dr. Daniel Layton-Matthews)
  • Queen’s University Library research by subject (Geological Sciences)
  • Queen’s University subject librarian (Geological Sciences)

Global Development Studies


Jewish Studies

Languages, Literatures, & Cultures







  • Undergraduate Resources and Links
  • Queen’s University Library research by subject (Asian Studies)
  • Queen’s University subject librarian (Asian Studies)

Indigenous Studies




Math and Statistics


  • Philosophy resources (dictionaries, encyclopedias, summaries, indexes, reviews, philosophical texts)
  • Queen’s University Library research by subject (Philosophy)
  • Queen’s University subject librarian (Philosophy)


Political Studies



Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science

Smith School of Business (Commerce)

  • The Commerce Society (ComSoc) provides a peer-based service called BrainTrust. This service provides academic support, providing one-to-one tutoring and exam review sessions. For more information email tutor@gmail.com.
  • Bounce Back is an academic support program for first-year undergraduate students in the Smith School of Business (Commerce). Eligible students will be invited to participate via email. Students who opt into the program will be matched with a trained upper-year peer mentor called a Bounce Back Facilitator. Facilitators will work individually with each participant to help them identify the source(s) of their academic challenges and to set new goals and identify strategies to achieve those goals over the course of the winter term. The program runs from October to April of each year. More information can be found on the Student Experience Office website.
    • October eligibility: Students who have failed one or more midterm; students who are identified as academically at risk by their professor.
    • January eligibility: Students with an official GPA of 2.0 or below after the fall term and/or students who have failed one or more courses.
  • Queen’s University Library research by subject (Business)
  • Queen’s University subject librarian (Business)

School of Nursing

  • For information on tutoring services and TA support for Nursing courses, contact Barb Bolton, Undergraduate Academic Advisor (bolton@queensu.ca).
  • Bounce Back is an academic support program for first-year undergraduate students in the School of Nursing. Eligible students will be invited to participate via email. Students who opt into the program will be matched with a trained upper-year peer mentor called a Bounce Back Facilitator. Facilitators will work individually with each participant to help them identify the source(s) of their academic challenges and to set new goals and identify strategies to achieve those goals over the course of the winter term. The program runs from October to April of each year. More information can be found on the Student Experience Office website.
    • October eligibility: Students who have failed one or more midterm; students who are identified as academically at risk by their professor.
    • January eligibility: Students with an official GPA of 2.0 or below after the fall term and/or students who have failed one or more courses.
  • Queen’s University Library research by subject (Nursing)
  • Queen’s University subject librarian (Nursing)

School of Kinesiology and Health Studies

  • Queen’s University Library research by subject (Kinesiology & Health Studies)
  • Queen’s University subject librarian (select “Kinesiology” under Subject)
  • Bounce Back is an academic support program for first-year undergraduate students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies. Eligible students will be invited to participate via email. Students who opt into the program will be matched with a trained upper-year peer mentor called a Bounce Back Facilitator. Facilitators will work individually with each participant to help them identify the source(s) of their academic challenges and to set new goals and identify strategies to achieve those goals over the course of the winter term. The program runs from October to April of each year. More information can be found on the Student Experience Office website.
    • October eligibility: Students who have failed one or more midterm; students who are identified as academically at risk by their professor.
    • January eligibility: Students with an official GPA of 2.0 or below after the fall term and/or students who have failed one or more courses.

Read More

Graduate student writing groups

Download a PDF of this resource

Why a writing group?MembershipPurpose and formatManaging feedbackPractical logisticsGroup leadership and rolesAdding new members and ending the group

The ultimate goal of a thesis or dissertation writing group is to help members of the group complete the writing required for a graduate degree, and have as positive an experience as possible.

What do grad students say about the experience of writing a dissertation or thesis?

  • “A writing buddy was essential to staying motivated and productive.”
  • “I felt really isolated before working in a writing group. It was great to see what other students were doing, and how we shared similar struggles.”
  • “My writing group [of people outside my research area] really helped make my work more coherent and improve the logical progression of my thinking, so my supervisor could focus feedback on the content itself.”
  • “Writing the dissertation was such an unbelievably long process. Connecting with others helped me keep perspective, especially when a new member joined who was just starting out. I saw I had made progress, and it felt great to encourage a more junior student.”

Graduate students might create or join a writing group to:

to reduce isolation, to receive feedback, to increase accountability

Another type of thesis writing group is a thesis writing support group, which is often psycho educational in nature and led by a professional counsellor. This article will only focus on peer-driven groups.


There is no formula for creating a group, but here are some things to consider:

  • MA or PhD students?

Given the different expectations in an MA thesis vs. a PhD dissertation or manuscript, it may be preferable to seek members working at the same level.

  • Same research field, or different departments?

If members are in similar fields, they share a general knowledge base, which may be helpful if they offer feedback on each other’s writing. On the other hand, if members come from different fields, they may be more open to divergent interpretations or ideas, more likely to take creative risks in their thinking, and less competitive (e.g., for supervisor’s time, grants, jobs) or less concerned over intellectual property rights.

  • Similar or different stages in the writing process?

Some groups prefer members to be at various stages from proposal writing to final editing, so more experienced students can mentor and encourage less experienced students. Some groups want members to be at similar stages, to share a common experience.

  • Open or closed membership?

An open writing group, with members who just show up to write on a regular basis and then leave, can more readily have an open membership.  These groups often pop up (and disappear) independently in departments, or through the School of Graduate Studies or the Society for Professional and Graduate Students at Queen’s.

Closed groups have a fixed and committed membership that enables trust to develop. These groups may have expectations for adding new members, duration of membership, and departing members.

  • Members who are currently friends or currently unfamiliar to each other?

The person who initiates the group typically will have an influence on soliciting members. It is important that members believe they can be comfortable, trusting and respectful with each other, especially if the group will be interactive.

  • Large or small?

Depending on the purpose served, the group can be very large (60?) or rather small (6?). Other factors, like being able to find available space and a common meeting time, may influence the size of the group.

Determining purpose and format: Types of writing groups

small group of students workingClarifying the writing group’s purpose and structure is critical. For more detailed information on this topic, please see the Stanford University Hume Writing Centre’s Starting an Effective Dissertation Writing Group and the University of Minnesota’s Getting the most from a writing group.

It is also important to establish the group’s boundaries. Completing a thesis or dissertation is very demanding and often challenges a student’s sense of self-worth and professional direction or ambition. A peer writing group is not a therapy group, although there may be emotional and psychological benefits to participating in a writing group.

Students with concerns for their sense of self or well-being should speak to a trusted professor, mentor or counsellor. Counsellors are available to full- and part-time students through the Queen’s School of Graduate Studies or through Student Wellness Services.

Writing groups often fall into one or more of the following categories: community-based, accountability-based, and feedback-based.

Accountability-based group members usually

  • set “public” deadlines for completing specific tasks, in person, an online social media group, or a shared Google doc
  • check in with each other’s progress
  • acknowledge each other’s successes, and encourage each other through setbacks.

One online accountability site is Phinished.org, where writers can make pacts about how much they will finish. Students who want to “show off” their accomplishments might use 750words.com, where students earn points for daily writing and can display their badges on Facebook.

Community-based group members usually develop

  • community norms for noise, conversation, internet use, food, timing, attendance, etc.
  • a structure for breaks, start and end times, social chat time, and perhaps writing exercises

There are no “rules” to follow, but a format for a community-based group might include:

  • A check-in from each member about events of the week, progression on goals, new barriers or issues to be resolved (maybe 2-3 minutes per member).
  • An educational or problem-solving discussion of new or persistent issues (maybe up to 20 minutes). This discussion could include brainstorming solutions, an invited speaker, a group member presenting on a hot topic, or a discussion of a relevant writing technique.
  • Time to set SMART writing goals for that writing session and for the upcoming week (5 min)
  • Writing time (1-2 hours?). The group should agree how much time they would like to spend writing, and when they will take breaks. Breaks support focused, creative thinking. One way to use a longer writing period is to break up the time like this:

Write for 80 minutes, then break for 10 minutes
Write for 60 minutes, then break for 10 minutes
Write for 10-15 minutes to review the writing to identify issues or unclear thinking. Then, write down a question to ponder until the next writing session. Start the next session by writing a response to that question, or discuss unanswered questions with the group or thesis supervisor.

  • Time to socialize after writing (maybe 15 minutes).

Every group needs to work out a format that meets the needs of the members, and is manageable and sustainable.

If your group is designed for feedback, the group

  • shares their work. Some standard systems for writing, editing and collaborating online include Google Docs, OneNote (Outlook) and Dropbox
  • sets expectations and norms for the amount of time any one person will spend on feedback
  • determines the focus of the feedback (content vs writing style) and for when writers need to share with the group
  • members specify what kind of feedback they want, and direct readers to specific concerns.

The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill offers a thorough list of questions to help feedback-based groups set expectations and norms.

In addition to the possible elements of a community-based writing group, feedback-based groups include time for writers to share their work and receive feedback.  Some groups will choose to devote their time to feedback only, and save writing time for non-group time.

Managing feedback

students giving and receiving feedbackWriting groups usually include time for writers to share their work and receive feedback.

The following content is based on work by S. Lee and C. Golde.

Asking for feedback

Feedback groups need to consider:

  • how to schedule feedback: sign-up list, regular rotation, informal approach
  • whether to distribute materials in advance or present material during the group
  • clarifying what writing projects might be acceptable for requesting feedback: outlines? first drafts? polished drafts? conference papers? whole works vs chapters or sub-sections?

Writers seeking feedback should offer a brief overview of the piece’s purpose, audience and key ideas, their own current assessment of it, and a specific request for structural, stylistic or other feedback. The piece should be short enough to allow the group members to review it in a reasonable time frame. Writers seeking feedback should not treat their group members as proofreaders.

Giving Feedback

Giving feedback is a skill, but it starts with intention. Are you there to support the writer or show off your own skills? Be sensitive and helpful, and remember that soon it will be your turn to hear what others think of your writing.

It is a rare opportunity for a writer to hear from others in a “safe space.” Respond with specific references to their work, using language that is clear, non-judgmental and leaves room for the writer to further explain themselves. Avoid overwhelming the writer with too much feedback. Offer praise as part of your feedback; every piece of writing has something praiseworthy about it. Speak as a thoughtful reader, not as an all-knowing judge, and stick to the type of feedback that the writer asked for.

Receiving Feedback

It is an act of courage to request feedback and then listen with an open mind to what is offered regarding your writing. You may not agree immediately (or ever!) with all that you hear, but it is a privilege to have people spend time thinking about your work, so it behooves you to pay attention and sort through comments later.

To accept feedback gracefully,

  • listen to the entire feedback first, and try to understand the meaning of the feedback.  Write down notes and questions.
  • be engaged. If anything is unclear, restate your understanding of what you thought the speaker said.
  • be respectful. Try not to be too defensive. Even if a reader’s response is due to a misinterpretation of the writing, their perspective deserves attention. If several readers agree that a section is confusing, the problem probably lies in the writing.
  • keep a feedback log. Keep track of the kinds of feedback you get. Identify common themes. Address problems with your writing group, or visit the Writing Center or your supervisor.

Practical logistics

students around a tableThe group’s planning and organization could be determined in advance by one person who initiated the group, or they could be negotiated among members during an early meeting. Some logistics to consider:

  • Where will the group meet? On campus or off? What facilities will be needed, depending on the purpose of the group ( e.g., tables, white board, data projector, multiple power outlets)? Rooms on Queen’s campus are available:
  • When and how frequently will you meet?
  • What are the expectations around attendance and preparation (e.g., for a feedback-based group)? What is the consequence of failing to keep the commitment?
  • How can new members join, and what is the process when a member decides to leave?
  • What work can be brought for feedback? Initial ideas or outlines or rough drafts or polished drafts? Research proposals? Thesis or dissertation writing only? Conference presentations? Publication submissions? Grant proposals? Job applications or CVs?

Group leadership and roles

three students working at a cafeDepending on the focus of the dissertation writing group, there may or may not need to be a leader. For example, an online accountability group like Phinished.org has a web manager rather than a leader.

A group aimed at increasing community may not require a leader, but may need someone to book rooms and communicate with members.

A feedback-based group will benefit by agreeing on a leadership or organizational model. Members may decide to have a single leader or rotate the leadership, to manage or delegate tasks such as:

  • scheduling meeting times
  • booking rooms
  • communicating among members
  • setting the agenda and facilitating the meeting (e.g., who presents work for feedback, selecting writing activities, inviting quest speakers, etc.)
  • keeping the meeting on track and on time
  • note-making for feedback
  • bringing the cookies 🙂
  • setting up and/or cleaning up the room

Adding new members and ending the group

several students working on one computerAnother logistical decision is: will the group be open or closed in membership?

New members may be added to a closed feedback-based writing group once an established member completes writing their dissertation, or no longer wishes to be part of the group. Generally, the culture of a closed group will be better maintained if a group member talks to a prospective member before inviting them to join, in terms of

  • their writing goals (does this group meet their needs?)
  • their ability to make the same time/space/duration/ possibly “feedback homework” commitments of the existing members
  • whether they appear to be compatible with the existing members

Some groups might choose to vet prospective members for “fit” or have a trial period before the prospective new member has to officially join the group. As new members join, there usually is a period of re-adjustment and a shift in the developmental stage of the group.

Endings are inevitable, and often generate mixed feelings: “YEAH, I did it! But I’m going to miss you so much!”

Individual members of a feedback-driven group will leave as they complete their own projects or the group may disband as planned after some period of time, or just dwindle out. Ending a feedback-based or community-based thesis writing group hopefully signals great accomplishments for members.

Regardless of the reason, the end presents an opportunity for self-reflection, either individually or as a summative exercise by the whole group. Some reflective questions to consider:

  • How did this group help me meet my personal goals?
  • Are there ideas or work habits or activities that would be useful to include in my future large writing projects?
  • What can I take away and quickly put into practice in my academic life?
  • Is there unfinished work (personal or professional writing or activity) that I need to complete? For example- do I need to reduce my fear of speaking in public?
  • Can I get ideas or resources from the group to help solve a particular problem before we end?

Read More

Graduate writing

Download a PDF of this resource
AboutDeveloping a writing habitOrganizing and managing your graduate workManaging obstacles to writingGetting back on track

Writing, thinking and talking are related, iterative processes. Give yourself time and space for all three.

talking, writing, and thinking: cogs that work togetherWriting, and talking with others, can help you clarify and develop your ideas, think of creative insights and get feedback.

Expect the writing to go smoothly sometimes, and badly or not at all at other times. This inconsistency is normal; don’t let it discourage you, but if you are stuck, get help from your supervisor, supportive colleagues or a writing consultant at SASS.

Academic writing isn’t linear. It involves an uneven, iterative process of becoming curious about a research question, talking about it with friends or colleagues, researching to learn more, writing to develop more questions and insights, researching more, thinking more, talking more, and writing more. When it’s going well, the experience is motivating, but when it isn’t, it can be very discouraging.

Developing a writing habit

student working on a balconyMaking writing a regular, perhaps daily, habit has a number of benefits: you will likely be more productive, more motivated, and less stressed; you will also probably become a better writer and enjoy writing more. Keep reading for tips on developing a writing habit.

  • Take care of yourself: nutrition, sleep, exercise and relaxation aren’t luxuries; they make thinking and writing possible.
  • Set a realistic daily goal and write it down.
    • Many people rely on what Joan Bolker calls the “inspiration method,” which means sitting glued to a chair until an idea comes; most people do not do well with this method.
    • Allocate a reasonable number of hours per day (we suggest two hours per day) or per week to write. Some people prefer to set a certain number of words or pages per day as a writing goal.
    • Remind yourself about your writing goal: stick post-it notes on the coffee maker / bathroom mirror, tell friends, use electronic reminders, etc.
  • Create a writing habit:
    • Write at the same time and place every day, and precede it by the same habits (i.e., wake up, go for a walk, make a coffee and eat, then sit down to write for 2 hours).
    • Writing first thing in the morning can be very effective, but it’s not for everyone!
    • Do the hardest things first.
    • Start with 10 minutes of free writing or perhaps mind-mapping to warm up; it’s much easier to start by committing to these 10 minutes than to two hours. You are likely to keep writing after the 10 minutes are up.
    • During your writing hours, write. Don’t check something on the internet, stop to make some tea, or watch a YouTube video for three minutes. Just write.
    • If you are really stuck writing about one aspect of your work, write about a different aspect. Keep writing.
    • When you’re writing, avoid editing the words, paragraphs or connections between ideas, or proofreading, fact-checking, etc. The purpose is to produce words on a paper or a computer screen. Edit later. Just write, even if it’s not great-quality writing.
    • Keep a piece of paper or Distraction Pad next to you, to jot down anything that you want to give your attention to—then give it your attention when your writing time is up.
    • Consider rewarding yourself after you’ve met a goal, and acknowledge your progress in developing a writing habit.
    • Pay attention to what works for you, and how you benefit when you write regularly; it will help motivate you.
  • Record your insights or ideas when you’re not writing; keep a notebook with you or use an app on your cellphone.
  • Most importantly, find and do what is most effective for you.

For more support with meeting deadlines, organizing your work, or writing, consider booking an appointment with a learning strategist or a writing consultant at SASS.


Bolker, J. (1998). Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. New York: Henry Hold and Company.
Elbow, P. (2003). Writing Without Teachers. Oxford University Press.
Pressfield, S. (2003). The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. New York: Warner Books.
Silvia, P. (2007). How To Write a Lot. Washington: American Psychological Association.
Swales, J. and Feak, C. (2004). Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Sword, H. (2012). Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Organizing and managing your graduate work

notebook and penResearching and writing a dissertation is a large, complex project to manage. In the years you spend on it, you must manage time, resources, data, and yourself—often with little structure or accountability—and maintain working relationships with others on whom you depend.

This process usually involves:

  • setting short-term and long-term goals with deadlines
  • monitoring your progress, and adjusting goals, resources, etc. as needed
  • anticipating setbacks
  • delegating appropriate tasks, if it’s possible and a good use of time
  • communicating effectively and regularly with your supervisor and others.

Your research and thesis or dissertation might be the first time you have managed a project of this scale and of such a high level of personal and professional importance—and you might feel unprepared. Many graduate students book learning and writing appointments at SASS to help themselves manage their work effectively. In addition, you may like to review these resources:

Tools and resources for planning your research and writing

Managing obstacles to writing

writing mis en placeIn addition to the complex, demanding nature of writing itself, writers also face a variety of obstacles to giving it their full attention. Some common ones for graduate students include:

  • Time and effort required to support relationships with family and friends
  • Demands of paid work, other involvements
  • Need to build professional portfolio (papers, conferences, committees, etc.)
  • Distractions (noise, social media, etc.)
  • Technical issues (computer meltdown, etc.)
  • Physical state (hunger, fatigue, illness, etc.)
  • Distracting thoughts or feelings, etc.

Some of these “obstacles” are actually important, enjoyable aspects of a whole life, sustain students through challenging times, or contribute to professional or personal wellbeing and development; other obstacles distract from the writing process without offering anything positive in return. In either case, it’s helpful to manage these obstacles, finding a balance that will help you protect your writing time. Here are some strategies you might try:

  • Do what you can to manage family and social commitments. For example:
    • Recruit the support of your friends and family—ask them to help you by respecting your work time and by reminding you to take breaks sometimes.
    • Schedule time with family and friends, and keep your commitments. Tell your friends and family that you can be available to them during certain hours, but will be unavailable (except for emergencies) during other hours of the day.
    • Anticipate important upcoming events; be prepared to alter your routine. Include unscheduled time in your week for flexibility.
  • Determine how much time you have available for teaching or professional activities and develop a routine that adds those things to your day without sacrificing your writing or research time. Set boundaries; there are only 168 hours in a week.
  • Manage your technology.
  • Create or find a comfortable writing space that offers minimal distractions and includes all the things you need (reference materials, computer, paper, pens / pencils, etc.).
  • Pay attention to when you’re working well. Do you focus best with some background noise or in total quiet? In the early morning, or later in the day? Work with your preferences.
  • Identify your biggest time-wasters or distractions and have a realistic plan to deal with them. Prioritize the demands on your time, for example by using Covey’s time management matrix.
  • Recognize your personal signs of distress or disengagement. Writing, research and data analysis can be isolating and lonely. Many graduate students doubt their skills and the value of their work at this stage. Speak with someone—a counsellor, your supervisor, a friend—for encouragement or advice.
  • Make a plan for things you don’t have control over, including illness, family issues, unexpected requests from your supervisor, etc. For example, can you schedule some weekly time that has no tasks assigned to it, just in case? Is some of your work portable, in case you need to travel or work away from your home or office?

When writers get stuck: Getting back on track

student working in a busy cafeMost graduate students encounter times when they don’t seem to be progressing in their work, or have little concrete evidence of productivity. Although such times can be an indication of unproductivity, they can also be a sign that students are engaging in richly creative or integrative thought. Know yourself well enough to tell the difference, but consider that graduate students are often unnecessarily and undeservedly self-critical, resulting in a negative emotional state that can interfere with progress. Read on for practical tips for getting unstuck.

Challenges to staying on track

Many factors can contribute to a feeling of being stuck:

  • Competing demands and roles that take time away from writing and research. Graduate students are not just students in demanding programs; they are also family members, caregivers, employees, friends, members of research or professional groups, teachers, practicum supervisors or TAs or lab assistants, emerging professionals giving conference presentations and writing papers, community volunteers, and more.
  • Negative emotional states about oneself or the work, such as isolation, disinterest, frustration, lack of confidence, incapacitating self-doubt, feelings of unworthiness, etc.
  • Unclear direction or uncertainty about next steps.
  • Incomplete understanding of the material.
  • An unhelpful writing process.

Strategies for getting back on track

Set reasonable expectations of yourself

  • Understand the expectations of your program and supervisor, and the terms of teaching employment, so that you can make good choices regarding your time and activities.
  • Assess your personal standards of the quality and quantity of your work, and adjust your efforts accordingly. If you expect more from yourself than you do from others, consider the impact of this attitude on your work and your wellbeing.
  • If you are unsure whether you are meeting the academic standards for your research area and graduate degree, compare your work to published theses or dissertations in your field, and ask your supervisor for specific feedback on the quality of both your work and your writing. The writing consultants at SASS can help too.
  • Set short- and long-term goals based on what you wish to accomplish and what you wish to experience. These goals could include academic and personal goals.
  • Identify small concrete actions that will help you meet your goals or overcome barriers to your goals.
  • Assess the demands on your time to create realistic expectations of what you can accomplish. Mental fatigue interferes with productive thinking and writing, and quiet time enables creative problem-solving. Breaks from work are healthy and productive!
  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Consider this very practical set of suggestions from the University of Melbourne for graduate students who are trying to meet the requirement of “originality” in their work; these suggestions are also helpful for those struggling with academic impostor syndrome, those having difficulty seeing the value of their work or identifying the heart of a thesis, and those who don’t feel clear about academic expectations.

Give yourself some structure

  • Make a weekly schedule based on 1-hour blocks if you have multiple daily commitments, or 3-hour blocks if you have a lot of unstructured time.
  • Establish a regular writing habit.
  • Do the hardest work during your peak concentration time; leave other tasks for less alert times.

Practice self-care

  • Use campus resources to maintain your emotional, mental and physical health. Talk to someone about your situation, feelings and possible course of action. Distress will have a negative effect on your ability to write and think creatively.
  • Support your health by giving yourself 7-8 hours of sleep each night, regular nutritious meals, exercise, and time for relaxation and fun. You are a “human being,” not a “human doing”!

Get some perspective

Consider where you are in your writing, so you can respond appropriately to get back on track.

  • Review your past work to re-orient yourself to your original research question or revised focus. Ask a question to direct your thinking.
  • Re-establish your work routine OR take a day or two off to refresh yourself.
  • Talk to a colleague to get a different point of view on your work.
  • Accept discomfort as temporary, knowing it will pass.

Let stuckness motivate you to persist

Students often hit what seem like stumbling blocks in the research-learn-write cycle, where they feel as though they can’t progress because they don’t yet understand something, or aren’t sure what they want to say, or how to say it, or how it fits in with their broad structure. These threshold points are uncomfortable, but often a good sign of an imminent breakthrough. Don’t give up!

threshold points

Engaging in an effective writing process (talking, thinking, writing) will help you deepen your understanding and resolve methodological or conceptual issues. Booking a writing appointment or talking to your supervisor or other colleagues can be very helpful in this process.

Try keeping a journal or file of your thoughts. At the end of a work period of reading, data analysis or writing, articulate a question or a statement that reflects something you are unsure of or wish to think more about, and write this in a journal or file. Then stop work for the time being.

As you go about the rest of your day or night, your mind will unconsciously process this topic. When you return to work, come back to what the problem, and write down your current thoughts about it.

This file will be an ongoing description of the development of your thinking on a topic, which you can use to remind yourself of your path, direction and growth, and as a focus of discussion with your supervisor or a research or writing group.

Improve your current knowledge base

If you are stalled in your writing because you lack understanding of part of your subject matter:

  1. Use a mind-map to outline material on your topic, to create a hierarchy of information or concepts based on key topics, sub-topics, sub-sub-topics, etc. Think of the map as being like a table of contents, rather than a detailed summary.
  2. Based on the mind map, identify gaps in your knowledge or research, and decide which gaps ought to be filled and which gaps might not matter for this particular project.
  3. Make practical decisions about the scope of your project, and identify any additional learning that you need to do. It can be very helpful to discuss your choices with your supervisor or experienced colleagues at this point.
  4. Develop your understanding of key material, as you need to. Speak to your supervisor for direction if you need it.

Re-engage with your work or writing



Read More

Online learning

Online learning is increasingly common at Queen’s, where nearly 3000 students take courses online every year. Whether you’re taking a course entirely online or one that combines on-campus tutorials with internet-based discussion and lectures (a “blended” course), online learning requires special skills.

Online courses are just as intellectually challenging as on-campus courses. You’ll still be asked to read articles and books, complete assignments on time, write tests and exams, and display academic integrity. But in online courses, you may find that your professors and classmates seem distant or absent, that your written communication skills are called on more regularly, and that your ability to motivate yourself to work independently is challenged.

This guide is just an introduction to the keys to success in online courses. You may find our modules on time management and motivation and procrastination useful. If this is your first university course, or you’re returning to education after a long time away, try reading our Academics 101 guide. If you need one-on-one help, SASS offers learning strategies and writing appointments by telephone or on campus.

Keys to successGroup work & discussion boardsWhere do I go from here?

What are the keys to success in online courses?

Review the course syllabus.

As in any other course, your first job is to read the syllabus, which you should find on the course homepage (generally through your onQ portal, although some faculties use different online platforms). If there’s anything that isn’t clear or that you don’t understand, make sure you ask your professor or TA for help. Here are some guidelines for communicating with professors and TAs.

Understand the platform.

Spend time exploring the layout and organization of your online course. Refer to the syllabus, explore menus, and ask questions if you’re unsure. Avoid missing an important resource or losing marks on a quiz because you didn’t know where to find it on the course page or how it worked. You may be asked to write quizzes and exams entirely online, so if your prof plans to do a dry run of an online exam (i.e., run one for no marks), take it. It’s a great opportunity to understand how the real exam will be administered. Prepare for online exams in the same way as you would an on-campus exam.

Be an active participant.

Developing a learning community is vital for success in an online course. Think of discussion boards as virtual class discussions. They’re a chance to share ideas with peers and show professors your critical thinking. Even if the professor doesn’t comment, she is reading the thread to make sure the conversation is staying on track. Making connections with your peers can be more difficult in an online course, but it’s still important. Use online tools and helpful apps to connect with your peers and instructors. Ask questions, share ideas, engage!

Take responsibility.

You’re responsible for all of your own learning in all university classes. In an online course, where you may never meet your teachers or classmates, that’s even more true. It’s up to you to do readings, watch video lectures, complete assignments on time, and work towards mastering the course content. That might take, on average, 8-10 hours a week—more if you’re taking a condensed summer course. You might find our time management guide helpful.

Get organized.

Contrary to many students’ expectations, online courses are not easier because they appear to easily fit into any schedule. They require plenty of work and organization! Treat your online course just as you would an on-campus course by scheduling time to “attend” regularly—3-4 times a week—and to keep up with readings and homework.

  1. Manage your time

Good time management skills will help you get started, stay on task, and finish on time. That’s especially true when grades are increasingly based on a large number of small tasks, rather than a single assignment and exam. If you’re already using a weekly schedule, make sure to slot in times every week to check in with your online course to ensure you’re aware of approaching deadlines and have apportioned sufficient time to tackle them. Professors also post course updates online, so regularly logging in will ensure you’re aware of important news.

  1. Log in and accomplish specific tasks

Reviewing the syllabus and your course pages will help you know what you have to do and when you have to do it. Then, log in regularly (two or three times a week) with specific tasks in mind each time. Think of it like a regular on-campus class: sometimes you attend a lecture, sometimes you block off time for homework or reading, and sometimes you participate in a tutorial or group discussion.

For example this schedule illustrates a possible week’s schedule. In total, the plan below allows the student to spend 10.5 hours on coursework:

Morning Evening
Tuesday Start week’s readings (2 hours) Finish week’s readings (1.5 hours)
Thursday Write week’s notes
Complete weekly quiz (1.5 hours)
Friday Write group project (1 hour) Edit group project writing (1 hour)
Saturday Watch weekly video lecture (2 hours) Write three discussion board posts
Check in with group members for midterm project (2 hours)

Try planning and sticking to a schedule like this one. Your specific tasks might change over the course of the term, but if you make the commitment to log in regularly, you’ll equip yourself for success.

Expect the unexpected.

Be prepared for glitches and issues; that’s just the nature of technology. Have a back-up plan and keep copies of your work, even after you’ve submitted it. If your computer fails, you can use the computers at Stauffer Library. If you can’t get there, contact your professor to let them know about your problem.

Group work

Group work can be tricky in general, but even more so when you’re working online and can’t meet with your team in person. Since professors frequently set group assignments in online courses, try referring to the SASS guide to group work or using a helpful app (e.g., Slack, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc.) to help you manage group work online. When using apps, make sure your entire group agrees to use whichever app you choose and that you all check regularly for updates to chat threads, comments on shared work, etc.

Discussion boards

The following was developed based on the suggestions and strategies in the University of Leicester’s resource for seminar and tutorial participation.

In an online course, you’ll often be asked to explain thoughts and communicate with others solely in writing. Many online courses make participation in a discussion board or forum mandatory. You may be asked to post regularly, comment on others’ ideas, or pose questions about course topics. If this is a requirement, make sure to read your syllabus carefully for your professor’s expectations about what you’ll need to contribute. Participating in fruitful discussions is also a great way to connect with classmates and teachers whom you may never have met in person.

To ensure you are getting the most out of the discussion board format, think of your responsibility as a 3-step process: preparation, discussion, and follow-up.


Keep up with the required coursework (e.g., readings, weekly quizzes) so you’ll be able to understand, analyse, and meaningfully comment in the discussion. In advance of posting anything, try:

  • summarizing the main ideas from that week’s readings and video lectures in your own words. Use our guide to reading and notemaking for help.
  • brushing up on relevant topics from previous weeks when necessary.
  • keeping a list of topics that would make good discussion board posts or that relate to the week’s key themes: thoughts or questions you have; tricky or unsubstantiated issues; topics you found especially interesting or surprising.


What to say

You may be nervous about engaging in public discussion, in person or online. It can feel like there’s a lot of pressure to show the professor you’re a great student, but that’s not what academic discussion is for: the idea of the discussion is to reflect on, challenge, or constructively add to others’ ideas. If you have a thought or a question about the material, someone else may share your ideas—and they’ll be grateful when you post them. Try the following strategies:

  • Reading the whole discussion before you add a comment. It’s much easier to join a conversation if you’ve been listening long enough to know what people are talking about and what’s been said.
  • Adding simple and constructive ideas to a complex discussion is okay. Generally, the best discussions don’t arrive at an answer immediately. They take time to explore different avenues first, so it’s okay if you don’t have all of the answers straight away.
  • Sharing responsibility with your classmates. Don’t dominate or avoid the discussion boards—find a balance between leading and standing aside for others.
  • Being positive and respectful of others’ opinions and interpretations of the material.

Adhering to the following strategies will ensure your posts remain on topic, insightful and appropriate:


Link your comments and posts to what others have said, to show you’re following and building on the discussion, not just interjecting with unconnected thoughts. Use names and short, direct quotes to make it clear to whom/what you’re referring.


Agreeing with your classmates is a nice way to start. Try something like “I agree with Will that…” or “Will makes a good point about…” Having shown where you agree, develop the discussion by adding a new connection, a point of disagreement, or showing the idea in a new context. For example:

“Yes, I agree with Will that Said was taken out of context in that case. The same is true of another text we read…”


Adopting the observation strategy involves commenting on the state of the discussion as a whole, showing that you’re appreciative of all the efforts your fellow discussants are making and that you can take a broader view of the material. For example:

“We began by discussing Noonuccal, but now we’ve moved away from that…”
“It feels like our discussion of this week’s reading has highlighted some of the key course concepts. For example…”

Offer alternative views

It can be tricky to disagree with other students, but presenting a well-reasoned alternative viewpoint shows your engagement with the material. Don’t be afraid to disagree with someone, so long as you remain civil and explain your reasoning. Start by showing you understand the point that was being made, then explain why you disagree. The explanation is crucial: it will show you’re not just arguing, you’re engaging in critical thinking, which demonstrates real understanding of your course.

e.g., “You said that Vygotsky’s theories remain relevant for today’s teachers, but doesn’t that contradict with…”


Outstanding students try to make new points, direct the conversation, and bring other people into the discussion. Explaining the logic behind why you are trying to shape the discussion will ensure that you’re not just cutting other students off, but trying to lead the discussion towards a new and interesting place.

e.g., “I think we need to look more closely at the impact of…because…” or “What Carmen said earlier about lateral violence was really interesting, since… Do you think that..?”

How to say it

Online communication has a reputation for bringing out the worst in people. The lack of face-to-face interaction can make you feel anonymous, granting permission to behave differently from how you would otherwise. That means it’s important to participate in online discussions with a professional tone—that means both what you say and how you say it.

Remember that a discussion board is an academic environment. You are being graded in part on how you interact and communicate your ideas. Remember that once you’ve pressed send on your comment, you can’t take it back. Spend time carefully thinking about content and tone before making your comments public. The following rules usually help:

  • You should always be respectful of your classmates, your professor, and the material you are working with.
  • Find out if your professor has suggested a code of conduct or posted a guide to communication. Follow it.
  • Try to remain objective and don’t get personal. Comment on course content, not the person expressing an opinion.
  • If you feel yourself getting upset, take a break to calm down before responding. Read over your post before submitting to make sure you’re saying what you mean to say.
  • Use the strategies in the table above to keep the discussion on track and defuse potential conflict before it escalates.

If you’re struggling with how to express your thoughts in online forums, contact the Writing Centre at SASS.

Follow-up work

Depending on the purpose of the discussion board communications, your understanding of the course material may be enhanced and/or you may wish to re-examine or extend your readings on a particular topic. Be sure to keep track of any connections, relationships, reinterpretations, problem solving methods, or analyses that require follow-up.

Finally, remember that in an academic environment, you are subject to academic integrity—even if it’s on a discussion board. You cannot use your classmate’s thoughts or words without proper citations. (See OWL Purdue’s citation style chart for an example of how to cite discussion board posts in APA.)

Where do I go from here?

All of SASS’s services are available to students taking online courses. Telephone appointments with writing consultants and learning strategists can be booked online, so you never need to feel like you’re alone.

The following resources are useful guides to some of the content discussed on this page:

Queen’s provides extensive support to both online and on-campus students. The following services may be of use:

Online courses might seem like a challenge, especially if you’ve been out of school for a while, you’re juggling lots of other commitments, or you’re unused to using online tools for communication and study. Try adopting some of the habits outlined in this guide to ensure you’re in top shape for the course and, as ever, if you have questions, just ask—the staff at SASS are a great first port of call!

Read More


SASS has delivered engaging workshops to Queen’s graduate and undergraduate students, TAs, and faculty since 1986. More than 5000 participants attend our workshops every year.

Please choose one of the following:


Request a workshop

Any course instructor or group of students at Queen’s may request a SASS workshop.

Workshop request form

Here are our three types of requested workshops and the topics they cover:

Writing and Academic Skills

SASS professional staff deliver practical workshops for Queen’s students across all faculties, first-year to PhD level, on the academic skills critical to student success. Whether for a second-year Biochemistry class, a fourth-year History seminar, a group of PhD students in Political Studies, or the TAs you supervise, our workshops will enhance students’ writing skills, learning strategies, and understanding of academic integrity.

We design your workshop to address the particular academic issues facing your students. Our workshops make clear to students how to:

  • develop a thesis or argument
  • structure a paper
  • paragraph with skill
  • integrate sources well
  • edit for concision and clarity
  • produce various types of writing, such as a literature review
  • give seminar or conference presentations
  • manage time
  • prepare for exams
  • avoid procrastination
  • read critically
  • take effective notes in lectures or from textbooks
  • approach other writing and learning challenges, at your request.

To ensure SASS can meet your needs, please provide a first and second preference for the date of your requested session, ideally with two weeks’ notice.

Please complete a workshop request form. A workshop coordinator will contact you to discuss the request.

Academic Integrity Workshop

The academic integrity workshop, delivered by professional staff, provides students with detailed information about how to demonstrate academic integrity using sound scholarly practices. Students learn not only how, but why scholars avoid plagiarism. Students will learn the practices that indicate skilled academic integrity: paraphrasing, quoting, and knowing when and what to cite. This workshop gives students all they need to know to submit their work with confidence in their own academic integrity. Request an academic integrity workshop.

TA Training

Our training for Teaching Assistants and Markers will enhance their ability to provide effective feedback on student writing. Please fill in our online workshop request form to arrange a session for your TAs or Markers, or to find out about a scheduled session in which your TAs/Markers can participate.

We design workshops to address TAs’ particular needs. Our workshops make clear to TAs how to:

  • establish goals for marking
  • apply strategies to ensure consistency, fairness and efficiency
  • find and use appropriate resources
  • give constructive feedback
  • prioritize issues in assignments.


Here are a few testimonials from faculty who have invited us for in-class workshops:

Your presentation was just perfect for the class–and really brought out all the different aspects of doing a literature review that are sometimes so hard to make explicit.” – Dr. Mick Smith, Environmental Studies

Your presentation was really well considered, thoughtful, open minded. Your good humour and willingness to consider alternative viewpoints were very welcomed by… students who are [weary] of being lectured to.” – Dr. Jan Winton, Fine Art

The students all commented on how much they got out of it, and I am delighted that we have been furnished with a common vocabulary to identify and talk about some of their writing problems.” – Dr. Rebecca Manley, Department of History

Attend a workshop

Every fall and winter term, SASS offers scheduled workshops on a variety of topics for both graduate and undergraduate students. These workshops are delivered by professional staff and/or SASS peer volunteers, depending on the content and audience. See below for our current offerings, or view workshops in the SASS event calendar.

All workshops are in Stauffer 121 unless otherwise noted.

September 2019

Workshop Title and Description Date(s) Time(s)

Reading Faster, Reading Better

Are you worried about struggling with masses of textbooks, articles and other readings last semester? Wondering how to read fast enough to succeed? Learn how to approach your course readings strategically and efficiently with advice from Student Academic Success Services.

Thursday, September 5

Friday, September 6

12:30pm – 1:30pm
Notetaking in Class & While Reading

Lectures and readings can seem like a blur: everything’s too complicated, explained too fast, and you just forget everything afterward anyway. Our notetaking class will help you pay attention to the most important parts of the lecture and your readings, organize your information in an effective way, and show you how to work from lecture and reading material when you’re writing assignments or revising for exams.

Thursday, September 5

Friday, September 6

1:30pm – 2:30pm
Studying Efficiently: Time & Academic Success

How can changing your study habits – managing your time, planning your work, setting goals, reading efficiently – improve academic performance? Our peers will help you produce a study plan to hit your targets this semester.

Monday, September 9 12:30pm – 1:30pm

1:30pm – 2:30pm

Speaking with Confidence: Presentations & Tutorials

Giving presentations and participating confidently in class can be scary. What are professors looking for, why do they ask you to give presentations, and how can you speak with confidence and clarity? We’ll show you some simple but powerful strategies to overcome anxiety, speak with confidence, and boost your presentation and participation grades.

Thursday, September 12 1:30pm – 2:30pm

5:30pm – 6:30pm

Writing a Successful Lab Report

Lab reports can seem intimidating, so our writing experts are on hand to lead you through the process of writing. Especially suitable for students in Biology, Chemistry and related disciplines.

Friday, September 20 1:30pm – 2:30pm
Writing Your First University Essay

What makes a university essay different? How do you understand what profs are looking for and express your ideas with confidence and style? We’ll take you through the process from research, outlining and drafting to editing.

Thursday, September 26 1:30pm – 2:30pm

5:30pm – 6:30pm

October 2019

Workshop Title and Description Date(s) Time(s)
How to Ace that Midterm!

Too much to learn and too little time to learn it? Confused about what profs want you to know about midterms? Want to ace those upcoming tests? Our peer learning assistants will take you through a simple and effective series of steps toward midterm success!

Wednesday, October 2

Thursday, October 3

1:30pm – 2:30pm
Writing Persuasive Academic Arguments

How can improved writing skills improve your thinking – and your grades? We’ll work on the higher-level skills that academic writing requires, showing you practical strategies to incorporate at any stage of the writing process and in any discipline.

Wednesday, October 9

Thursday, October 10

1:30pm – 2:30pm
Just Do It?: Beating Procrastination

Everyone procrastinates, but what can you do about it? Join our team of learning assistants for a drop-in consultation in Speaker’s Corner, Stauffer Library, to produce a personalized anti-procrastination plan.

Wednesday, October 16

Thursday, October 17

1:30pm – 2:30pm
It’s Never Too Late: Catching Up in School

Most students find that they fall behind in one or more courses. It’s never too late to get back on track, so our Peer Learning Assistants have designed this class to answer your questions and produce a plan of action.

Monday, October 28

Tuesday, October 29

5:30pm – 6:30pm

November 2019

Workshop Title and Description Date(s) Time(s)
Speaking with Confidence: Presentations and Tutorials

Giving presentations and participating confidently in class can be scary. What are professors looking for, why do they ask you to give presentations, and how can you speak with confidence and clarity? We’ll show you some simple but powerful strategies to overcome anxiety, speak with confidence, and boost your presentation and participation grades.

Friday, November 1 1:30pm – 2:30pm
Editing & Proofreading Your Writing

There’s nothing worse than handing in work that contains errors or baffles the teacher with its poor structure or wordy argumentation. We’ll show you simple ways to trim your writing down and wow your marker!

Thursday, November 14 12:30pm – 1:30pm

1:30pm – 2:30pm

Essay Exam Success

Exams are coming up, so now is the time to start thinking about preparing. How do you memorize and understand texts, sources, classes and other readings in order to get ready to write a great essay in an exam? We’ll show you how.

Tuesday, November 26 1:30pm – 2:30pm

5:30pm – 6:30pm

Multiple Choice Exam Success

Are multiple choice exams really about memorizing the entire textbook? Or is there a better way? We’ll show you how to save time, prep more thoroughly, and finish your semester on a high!

Wednesday, November 27 2:30pm – 3:30pm

5:30pm – 6:30pm

Exam Prep: PSYC 100

PSYC100 can be a tricky course when there’s so much material to master. Our upper-year students will show you how they conquered PSYC100–and how you can do it too!

Thursday, November 28 5:30pm – 6:30pm
Exam Prep: BIOL 102 & CHEM 112

BIOL102 and CHEM112 are complex courses with a lot to work through. Our upper-year volunteers are on hand to lead you through an efficient path to prepping for and writing exams in these courses.

Friday, November 29 5:30pm – 6:30pm

Request a residence presentation

PLAs holding a poster during a presentation

Dons! Are you looking for a fun and effective way to improve your students’ performance in school? Are they drowning in distractions? Wrestling with reading and writing, frustrated by a lack of focus, or stressed by exam season? Request a Residence Presentation!

SASS’s academic skills presentations are simple, one-hour sessions tailored to Queen’s students’ needs. Peer volunteers will prepare the session, deliver it to your floor, and help you with follow-up programming afterwards.

There are six residence presentations to choose from:

So Much to Do, So Little Time

Time management may not sound glamorous, but it’s the bedrock of good study habits for students taking a full course load, participating in extracurriculars and trying to lead a full social life to boot. PLAs will show your students how to manage their expectations, use their time efficiently, and stay healthy while doing it.

This session is appropriate at any time of year. If your students are talking about being overly busy, struggling with finding enough time to sleep, eat and get their work done, this is the presentation you need.

Reading, Listening, and Remembering

Piling through hundreds of pages of dense reading is a tough ask before you factor in the hours of lectures that students attend each week. Processing that material – how to stay focused, prioritize, and remember everything on exam day – is easier with the techniques we’ll teach you in this workshop.

This session is best run between the beginning and middle of the semester. Signs that it might be appropriate include students spending hours on lengthy readings, or complaining about not understanding lectures or complex subject material.


With all the distractions around us, it’s hard to buckle down and get things done. Everyone procrastinates, so we’ll help your students discover the underlying causes of their own procrastination, then develop a personalized plan to stay motivated and focused.

You’ll probably hear students talking about procrastination all year, but this presentation is most effective when run in the middle of a semester. Students will be prepped for the busy end of semester when most deadlines fall.

Writing the Right Way

(NEW in Winter 2018!) Producing written assignments at university can be a mystery. What are professors looking for? How can students pore through readings, produce an appropriate argument, and express themselves according to the demands of academic style? Writing the Right Way will show your students how to answer these questions for any assignment. The talk can be tailored to either science or arts students.

Run this presentation in about week four or five of semester. We will adjust the content according to the semester: fall term workshops focus on basic skills; winter term workshops on identifying and addressing concerns from first semester feedback. Request the presentation if your students have many assignments (including lab reports) coming up, if they’re struggling to understand written feedback, or if they discuss struggling to get started on written tasks.

Study Smarter, Not Harder

What makes a successful student? Innate intelligence? Long hours of work? During this presentation, your students will rethink what goes into achieving a top GPA, reflect on their own study habits, and discover a mix of approaches to improving academic performance.

Try requesting this session in second semester when students are reflecting on what went well (or not so well) during the previous term.

Exam Prep

How do you prepare for five exams in a week? How do you remember everything in the course? What’s the best way to approach a multiple choice test or an essay in exam conditions? How do you deal with nerves? PLAs will take your students through a process of planning, reviewing and writing the perfect exam.

Try to organize this session one or two weeks before midterms or the exam period to give your students plenty of time to put what they’ve learned into practice. Put in your request early; we get very busy during exam season!

Email the program coordinator, Ian Garner, with your questions or for suggestions: ian.garner@queensu.ca

What if I’m interested in other academic programming?

Email Ian for more information on the following program ideas:

  • Try running a regular study group or session for your students. We can help make sure your sessions are tailored to your students’ needs.
  • Passive programming is a great way to develop your students’ understanding of good study strategies. We can provide content and material to produce a great passive program focused on academic skills.
  • SASS runs academic skills events across campus throughout the semester. Why not bring your students to a suitable event?
  • Accompany your students–or volunteer to help at–Get It Done, our all-day drop-in study marathon. The event takes place once per semester (in late November and March).

Read More

Managing large assignments

Return to Writing Resources

Download a PDF version

Managing Large Assignments

Producing a piece of academic writing can be a daunting project. We’ve put together some resources and tips on how to ease the process of writing.

Make a plan.

It takes a surprising amount of time to develop your ideas and write well. Make sure you give yourself enough time by using these resources.

  1. Break down your assignment using an assignment calculator.
  2. Create a term calendar or weekly schedule.
  3. Check out some time management strategies.

Get motivated and stay focused.

  1. Build your motivation.
  2. Stay focused and avoid procrastination.
  3. Try our quick tips to combat procrastination.
  4. Check out our motivation tips for graduate students.

Manage writing anxiety and perfectionism.

Having trouble producing sentences, or letting go of a revised draft? It’s very common for writers to feel as though their writing isn’t good enough. Here are some ideas for getting past this barrier.

  1. Check out our quick tips for managing academic stress.
  2. Improve your writing experience.
  3. Learn more about managing perfectionism in writing.

Get help with your writing.

Book a writing appointment at SASS and check out these online resources for help with specific types of writing, structure, grammar, style, etc.

Get help with your research.

Think about research in a new way (3 minute video).

Did you know you can get 1:1 research help from the Queen’s librarians?

Return to Writing Resources

Read More

Motivation and Procrastination for Graduate Students

Return to Motivation and Procrastination

Motivation theoriesMotivation: Factors and ChallengesStrategies to keep motivatedMy Motivation PlanReferences and Resources
Introduction: Self-determination theory

Theories of Motivation

There are many theories of motivation: incentive theory, goal-setting theory, cognitive-dissonance theory, and need hierarchy theory, to name a few. For an overview of some key theories, see Strategies for Managing Change or the Wikipedia entry.

In this module we are particularly interested in Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000), as it speaks to the graduate student experience.

Self-Determination Theory focuses on the importance of intrinsic motivation in driving human behaviour. It posits a natural tendency toward growth and development. Unlike other theories, it does not include any sort of “autopilot” for achievement; instead, it posits that individuals require active encouragement from the environment.

Self-Determination Theory describes motivation as a multi-dimensional continuum of increasing self-determination and self-motivation. Dimensions include:

  • the target behavior (not self-determined, self-determined);
  • motivation source (amotivated, extrinsic, intrinsic);
  • regulation style (not regulated, externally regulated, internally regulated); andcircular chart of values, attitudes, and actions
  • locus of control (impersonal, external, internal).

As a behaviour or thought becomes more integrated and internalized into an individual’s value system, there is a shift in all dimensions towards more internal regulation and control. This allows the behaviour to be maintained with minimal support from the external world — that is, it is sustained by one’s intrinsic motivation.

For example, if you are submitting a paper for publication, you might be doing it because:

  • Extrinsic motivators: It’s a degree requirement, or it will impress your supervisor.
  • Intrinsic motivators: Preparing the paper helps you improve research and writing skills necessary for your career. You feel a sense of accomplishment, and want to show colleagues what you value about this research.

For maximum self-motivation and self-determination to occur, certain innate psychological needs must be met:

  1. The urge to direct our own lives (Autonomy);
  2. The desire to get better and succeed at something we care about (Mastery or Competence); and
  3. The wish to connect with others or act in service of something larger than ourselves (Relatedness).
What does this mean?

What does this understanding of motivation mean for graduate students, supervisors, and departmental administrators?

Being a successful graduate student requires you to develop autonomy, independence and high levels of self-regulation. You are expected to manage your degree with little direct intervention from faculty. Supervisors often remark that students are surprised when they are given so much autonomy. However, this independence requires you to become more self-determined and self-motivated.

Conversely, active encouragement from the environment is also required for positive outcomes at grad school. This means the student, supervisor, department and school have to balance student/supervisor relationships: a collaboration of students working alone to try things out and make mistakes, and a supervisor readily available who can be called on when required.

Because graduate work requires high levels of creativity, problem-solving, and concentration, students are most likely to be motivated to sustain their work when they can:

  • Work autonomously;
  • Develop a collaborative relationship with their supervisor;
  • Feel a sense of worth in and belonging to their project, department, and school; and
  • Improve skills and knowledge in a safe (i.e., room for mistakes) learning environment.
What affects my motivation?

What affects my motivation?


  • When I was motivated, I: Felt…? Thought…? Did…?
  • When my motivation waned, I: Felt…? Thought…? Did…?
  • Why did my motivation wane? How did I restore my motivation?
According to graduate students...

Some challenges to motivation at graduate school

According to graduate students, motivation wanes over time. The following contribute to poor motivation:

  • Knowledge-based issues
    • not understanding the information and/or having skills deficiencies
    • not feeling or being competent
  • Structural issues
    • length of the project
    • lack of structure
    • increasing responsibility
  • Supervisor Relationship issues
    • mismatch in communication and working styles
    • inability to form a collaborative relationship
  • Self-Regulation issues
    • doing the thesis for external reasons: e.g. better career, grad school by default: no jobs right now, everyone’s doing it, family pressure, fell into this subject area
    • habitual procrastination
    • weak time management skills being distracted by ‘little projects’
  • Social/Personal issues
    • isolation (especially for PhDs in later stages of dissertation writing) and feeling like the “only one”
    • lack of trust in self; fears, anxieties, and worries
    • unbalanced work/personal life
    • feeling overwhelmed by the project or pacing or degree or supervisor

Motivational strategies in this module have been organized into the following themes:

  1. Am I maximizing my intrinsic sources of motivation?
  2. Do my values fit my goals and actions?
  3. Do I feel a sense of control?
  4. Do I have balance and connection to self and others?
  5. How can I maintain my drive and energy?
1. Am I maximizing my intrinsic motivation?

The more intrinsic interest you have, the better.

Find a reading or research question that you enjoy thinking and wondering about.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you allow yourself time in the day to “just think”?
  • Do you enjoy reading research papers on your topic?
  • Do you get excited by new research findings?
  • Do you find yourself thinking about your research outside of your work time?

If the answer is no, think about ways to incorporate your intrinsic interests into your work:

  • What topics or questions did you come to grad school to study?
  • What new findings do you find really exciting?
  • What courses do you find the most interesting?

Try a thought experiment: If you could design and work on any project, with no limits at all, what would it be?

Whether or not your dream project is realistic, it may give you a jumping off point.

2. Do my values fit my goals and actions?

Our attitudes or opinions stems from our values which, in turn, result in our actions. When our actions (e.g., chronically missing deadlines) and our values (e.g., being a responsible student) don’t match, we tend to feel conflict. Unity and cohesion of values and actions is the goal.


  • What are my values?
  • Do my current actions reflect my values?

Think clearly & specifically about your future plans

  • Where do you see yourself? Do you want a research position? A teaching position? A job with a government agency or NGO? A job in the private sector?
  • Consider whether how you spend your time day to day corresponds with your goals.
  • Imagine where you see yourself after graduation, and structure your time to pursue that goal:
    • If you want a teaching position:
      • Attend professional development courses and workshops focusing on teaching (e.g., at the Centre for Teaching and Learning)
      • Pursue opportunities to TA and teach
      • Offer to guest lecture classes in your research area or topic of interest
    • If you want a research position:
      • Focus on lab work
      • Devote time each day for analysis/writing
      • Present your research whenever you can (within the department, at conferences)
    • If you want to work in either the private or public sectors:
      • Make contacts in the field
        • Arrange for informational interviews with people in the field
        • Attend relevant conferences
      • Investigate opportunities for volunteer positions or internships
      • Gear your research toward a practical, real world problem

Operationalize a goal into action steps or sub-goals.

To assist you, use Values-Based Goal Setting Analysis (see below).

TOOL: Values-based goal-setting

My value:
Goal I want to achieve:

Steps to achieving my goal Barriers Strategies Date achieved


My value: Being a first-class scholar
Goal I want to achieve: Submit my latest research findings for publication in Journal X by October 31

Steps to achieving my goal Barriers Strategies Date achieved
1. Set aside 2 hours each day for writing Very tired after working in lab all day Rest after lab shift. After 2 hours of writing, treat myself with ice cream. 15/10
2. Sent a draft to my supervisor


Sometimes my supervisor doesn’t give me very concrete feedback Ask postdoc in my lab to read over my draft. In exchange, offer to do something for her. 19/10


Source: Forsyth, J.P. & Eifert, G.H. (2007). The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

3. Can I make choices? Do I feel a sense of control?

Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to enable those choices to be acted upon or imposed on the world.

The degree to which a graduate student has agency often depends on the individual’s experience and the supervisory relationship. It is common for students to swing between feeling uncomfortably independent and alternatively voicing concern that they do not have enough scope for making choices regarding their research project. An “autonomy supportive” supervisor will know how much latitude can be given to a student so that he or she can perform optimally.

young woman considering a variety of doors to enterPhD students are generally given a great deal of independence to design and manage their own projects while Master’s students might need to work more closely within the protocols or research focus of the supervisor.

Use “What do I control?” to assess how much control you have. Doing this exercise often helps you see that you have more agency than perhaps you thought.

It is important, too, for your well-being that during times of limited agency, you have mechanisms and approaches to help you cope, relax, and accept.

See “Learning to Accept What We Can’t Change” for ideas on how to practice acceptance.

TOOL: What do I control?

challenge and control flowchart


  1. Choose one of your challenges. Using the model above, enumerate which aspects of the challenge are under your control and which aspects are externally controlled.
  2. From there, prepare a plan of action to attain and maintain what you do control and a plan for managing those elements over which you have less control.
  3. For elements in your life over which you have no control but still must face, acceptance of your situation will help to relieve stress.
TOOL: Learning to accept what we can’t change

The following are some ways to help you learn to accept what you cannot change.


Mindfulness is awareness, without judgment, of life as it is, of you as you are, of others as they are. It is a condition of “being” present rather than “doing”. Mindfulness is a learned skill that develops with practice.

  • Sit with your eyes closed in a quiet, safe place.
  • Begin with some slow, deep breaths to calm the mind and body. Pay attention to the moment (rather than the past or future)
  • You may wish to focus on something like the breath, the soundscape, your body, an object, a mantra or simply watch, from a detached, non-judgmental point of view, any thoughts, feelings, moods, or sensations that arise.

Resource: Dr. John Kabat-Zinn’s wonderful book Full Catastrophe Living lays out his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program.


Trying to control a problem can result in the problem controlling you.

Reach for help when it is too big for you to handle yourself. Queen’s Counselling Services provides free, confidential counselling from both learning strategists and personal counsellors.

Surrender to a higher power, whatever that means to you.

Love Your Problems

Accept the problem by telling yourself the truth about it. Describe it in detail. Unconditionally accept the problem. This is not giving into the problem, or giving up, but is a way to be with the problem and get to know it. Rather than denying the problem exists or struggling against it, “loving the problem” frees you by draining its power over you.

Celebrate Your Mistakes

Deal with fear of making mistakes by celebrating them. Get them out in the open. Examine them. Hiding them takes a lot of energy.

Mistakes teach you more than successes do. Mistakes are how we learn. Mistakes involve risk-taking which means you’re stretching the limits of your ability and growing.

Celebrating allows you to focus on correcting the problem. You’re not alone. Everyone makes mistakes.

4. The ABCs of wellbeing

Do I have balance and connection to myself and others?

[A] Awareness

  • How am I feeling?
  • Am I suffering from ‘academic fatigue’ or burn-out?

Due to the enormous pressure during grad school, maintaining a state of well-being is critical to feeling motivated. Tiredness after many months of non-stop work, exams, meetings, etc. is normal and can usually be remedied with more rest and relaxation. Burnout, on the other hand, is more notorious. It steals your internal drive, happiness, energy, and sense of connection.

Consider speaking to a counselor or mentor if you wonder whether you’re experiencing burning out. See this online Help Guide for common symptoms of burn-out.


[B] Balance

Beware of the fate of Don Quixote

In short, he so busied himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight till daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading his brain dried up and he lost his wits. —Cervantes

A chronic lack of balance in your work and personal life is all too common among graduate students. Many grads (and their supervisors) have a hard-driving, “workaholic” approach to their schedules, which has some benefits in terms of deliverables. However, the downsides are many: loss of connection to friends and family, isolation, low mood, exhaustion, reduced recreation and exercise. Aside from the psychological need to relax and unwind, humans have a social need to connect with others! Taking time to hang out with friends or to go for a coffee is TIME WELL SPENT.

Creative thinking, based on the intense research you may be doing, is most likely to happen when you allow your mind time to wander. A real gift with many positive returns.

So, are you taking good care of yourself? Consider using the “Self-Care Check List” to assess this. If you sense an unhealthy imbalance, set a few goals to invite balance back into your life.

[C] Connection to self and others

a) Positive Self-Talk

“Self-talk” is the private conversation we have within ourselves – which we may or may not be aware of.

A shift in your language can create powerful shifts in your thinking. Negative self-talk contributes to procrastination and lack of motivation while positive self-talk can jumpstart your work, build self-confidence, and keep you moving forward. Neil Fiore, writer of “The NOW Habit”, contrasts the language of Procrastinators and Producers. Producer language moves you forward while Procrastinator language gets you stuck.

See “The Language of the Producer” for more details.

b) Positive Visualization

Even when you are not feeling especially motivated, visualizing yourself as a motivated person can help.

See “Visualizing My Best Self.”

c) The Mind-Body Connection

In order to relax the mind, it’s important to relax the body and vice versa. Some people accomplish this through intense physical activity and others prefer calming activities.

The mindfulness approach has been used for many years in the East to increase mind stability and clarity. Taking a few moments to gently watch your breath, without forcing, can often be enough to naturally slow the breath and heart rate, and release muscle tension. Another approach is to simply watch what is going on in the mind, without judgment or criticism.

See “Mindfulness Practices.”

For a number of relaxation tips and techniques, see our online resources on stress management. You might also consider joining a yoga or meditation group where you can relax with others!

d) Using Your Professional and Personal Networks

Faculty can play a key role in helping you stay motivated.

Set regular meetings with faculty involved in your learning. Have regular, ongoing email communication, even when your supervisor is not physically available.

Also see “Develop Mentor Relationships” for more suggestions on finding support in your networks.

TOOL: The language of the producer

Tool: The language of the producer

Procrastinators: get overwhelmed, feel pressured, fear failure or success, try harder, work longer, feel resentful, lose motivation, focus on what they “should” be doing, feel like they have little or no control of their circumstances

Producers: put aside fears (e.g. failure, feeling overwhelmed, low self-esteem); enjoy guilt-free play; feel in control of your life/create your own narrative; focus on what they can start now.

Self-Statements that Distinguish Procrastinators from Producers

Procrastinators say … Producers say …
I have to. I choose to.
I must finish. When can I start?
This project is so big and important. I can take one small step.
I must be perfect. I can be perfectly human.
I don’t have time to play. I must make time to play.



  1. Identify any negative or counterproductive self-talk which incites procrastination or low motivation. e.g. “At this rate, I’ll never finish”; “I should have started earlier”; “There’s only more work after this”; “It’s not working”.
  2. Prepare challenges to these negative statements e.g. “I’ll never finish”  “I’ll start the next step NOW.”

“Procrastinator” Statement: _______________________________________
“Producer” Statement: ___________________________________________

Source: Fiore, N. (2007). The NOW habit: A strategic program for overcoming procrastination and enjoying guilt-free play. 2nd edition. Toronto: Penguin Group.

TOOL: Visualizing my best self

Read the following statements aloud or quietly, and take time to really experience the thoughts, feelings and sensations as they arise. Allow about 10 minutes of uninterrupted time.

First: close your eyes. Take a moment to relax and focus on your even, easy breathing.

Now: think of a time when you felt confident, focused, energized and stimulated.

This can be in a school related experience or outside of school – it could be standing in front of people presenting on a topic, it can be writing a paper, it can be playing a sport, doing a paid or volunteer job, helping a friend or family member. Place yourself there.

Where are you? Notice your surroundings… Are you in a group? Alone? With a friend?

What are you doing? What did you do to prepare for this moment? Did you have someone’s help to get ready? Did you rehearse what you would do? Are you speaking? If so, what does your voice sound like? Do you sound strong? Animated? Calm?

How do you look? What is your facial expression like? Are you smiling?

What are the people around you doing? How do they look? Are they listening to you? Are you working together?

What’s happening in your body? Do you feel relaxed? Strong? Comfortable? Excited? Are you sitting, standing, doing something physical?

What’s happening in your mind? Are you thinking? Creating? Planning? Writing? Performing? Just being? What thoughts are going through your mind?

Finally: how did you feel when you had finished what you were doing? Did you feel satisfied? Relaxed? Proud? On top of the world?

Did you reward yourself in some way for your hard work?

How to use this Motivation Tool:

When you are faced with a challenging situation or a difficult task you are avoiding, take a few moments to remember how it feels to be motivated and energized. Remember how you felt in the above scenario, before, during and after the experience. Tap into this image of your “Best Self” whenever you need to motivate yourself to face a new challenge. Imagine yourself performing the task competently. Generate an image of yourself in the situation, fill in the details and draw on this to motivate yourself to work toward this goal.

TOOL: Mindfulness Practices

Mindful Breathing

Get comfortable in a place where you’ll be undisturbed for 5-10 minutes. You may sit on the floor or a chair. Sit upright with your palms up or down on your lap. Close your eyes and gently guide your attention to the natural rhythm of your breath—wherever in your chest or belly.

Simply notice the breath as you breathe in…and out…in…and out. There’s no need to make the breath faster or slower, deeper or shallower. Just allow your breathing to do its own thing. Sense the air passing from chest through the nose as you breath. In and out.

Notice your breathing with a sense of kindness and gentle allowing. There’s nothing to do except notice your breath. Sink into its natural rhythm: the rising and gentle falling of the chest and belly as you breathe in…and out. In and out.

If you find your mind wandering or you feel distracted, just kindly notice that, and return your attention to the rhythm of the breath and the rising and falling of the chest and belly. Continue this practice of kind observing for as long as you wish.

Mind Watching

Goal: to notice our judgmental and worry thoughts rather than getting caught up in them

Start by taking a few slow, deep breaths. Continue breathing throughout the exercise. Imagine you’re in a medium-sized white room with two doors: your thoughts come in through the front door and leave out the back door. Pay close attention to each thought as it enters. Now label the thought as either a judging or a non-judgmental thought. Watch the thought until it leaves. Try not to analyze or hold on to it. Just acknowledge having the thought. If you find that you’re judging yourself for having the thought, just notice that. Don’t argue with your mind. Just notice it for what it is and label it: “Judging—there’s judging”. You’ll know if you’re caught in a judgment by your emotional reactions and by how long you keep each thought in the room.

Keep breathing, watching, labeling. A thought is just a thought. Observe your thoughts as if they were visitors passing through the white room. Let them have a moment on the stage and then let them leave when they’re ready to go. Then greet and label the next thought…and the next.

Continue this exercise until you sense a real emotional distance from your thoughts.

N.B: Observing your thoughts without judging or reacting to them isn’t easy at first, but with time and regular practice, your mind will get less and less wild.

Adapted from: Forsyth, J.P., & Eifert, G. (2007). The mindfulness & acceptance workbook for anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

TOOL: Develop mentor relationships

Sometimes students benefit from additional mentoring and support:

  • A postdoc or a senior grad student
  • A faculty member other than your supervisor with whom you get along with or whose research you find interesting
    • Even within a mentor model, developing relationships with several faculty gives you the opportunity to work collaboratively, learn from a broader range of knowledge and expertise, develop skills, and increase your contacts in the field

Develop these relationships with people around the department:

  • Develop collaborative projects with other faculty or postdocs
  • Set up weekly meetings with another grad student to discuss and keep track of each other’s plans and progress and increase accountability
  • Ask another student to occasionally read and edit your work before sending it to your supervisor, and offer to do the same for him or her

If you want to re-shape your program of research, discuss this with your supervisor:

  • Your supervisor wants you to be happy and productive
  • If you find one of your projects uninteresting or overwhelming, talk your supervisor:
    • Discuss whether you can reduce your involvement or get someone else involved
    • Suggest a new project you would be interested in working on
    • Frame the situation in terms of your strengths and enthusiasm:


For example: “I am really interested in the area of green energy, and I have been doing a lot of background reading on it. Also, I tend to work really well in group setting. The project I am working on doesn’t really focus on my primary interests, and leaves me feeling a bit isolated within the lab. I wonder if we can bring someone else on board to work with me on that project, and I can use the extra time to develop my ideas for the green energy project”

Get professional support: learning strategists, writing consultants, other faculty members inside or outside your department.

Colleagues can help you keep motivated. Find a colleague who is a role model. Ask what his/her strategies are.

Don’t forget your family. Explain your student life to your partner and family, and enlist their cooperation in making realistic plans or commitments.

5. How can I maintain my drive and energy?
  • Is it normal for my motivation to wane and wax during my program?
  • How can I keep my motivation going over a long period of time?

Two to four years is a long time to keep motivation high while running the grad school marathon. However, there are things you can do to build endurance and keep moving ahead.

Manage your time

  1. Plan: create a macro-plan or overview of major benchmarks (doing comps, submitting proposal, publishing a paper, etc.). Make it very visual so you can see it regularly. You might like to use the Gantt project planning software. It’s easy to learn and free.
  2. Set and prioritize goals: set weekly, term, and program goals. Take time to prioritize, review and re-adjust your goals.
  3. Organize a daily list of tasks and schedule them into your day timer or calendar.
  4. Consider blocking major activities throughout the three parts in a day.

e.g., 3 hours in morning: read and write
3 hours in afternoon: office hours and lab time
2 hours in evening: think on the day’s readings, mark assignments

Use large breaks at lunch and dinner to exercise, eat, socialize, check Facebook, etc.

  1. Set aside a weekly time slot to review what you have done and update the plan
  2. Aim for 6 days of solid work and a full day off for re-creation (and groceries?)
  3. Look for ways to focus on your priorities; delegate booking research subjects, setting up the lab, confirming room reservations to lab assistants, volunteers, etc.

Be productive EVERY workday

Even when you have low motivation, doing a small task means that you can honestly say, “I worked today.” Most grad students want to feel productive and if a whole day is frittered away, it’s normal to feel bad.

Monitor your accomplishments (even those very small bits of work) by writing them down. You can make lists in iCal, Google Calendar, etc. or you may simply jot down the task and how much time you spent doing the task.

Try using time monitoring software. The following two are easy, free, and fun to use.

  • My Tomatoes. This also helps to get you started on tasks, although eventually longer periods of work will be desirable.
  • Time Tracker: Basic time-tracking is free, although you can upgrade for full services.

Pace yourself

Be a turtle, not a hare!

In Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare,” the turtle’s steady pace got him to the finish line before the sprinting rabbit. Sprinting is all right when you have a small, time-limited task or project, but racing through a 4-year PhD is madness.

We have plenty of online resources devoted to time management. Visit our list of topics and choose Time Management for tools to assist in planning, organizing, and monitoring your time.

TOOL: My Motivation Plan

road sign that reads "Motivation"

Congratulations for reading through the module. Now it’s time for you to make your own plan to GET AND STAY MOTIVATED. Get started with “My Motivation Plan” below.

You can also check out Zen Habits for another great resource on daily motivational support.

Tool: My Motivation Plan

Here are some examples of internal and external motivational strategies. Add your own!

Internal Motivation Strategies

External Motivation Strategies

  • Set dates for a short, medium and long-term goal. WHY is this goal important to me?
  • Make a “public commitment” to achieve my goals: tell a friend. Be aware of my ambivalence. Visualize myself as motivated.
  • Use positive self-talk, affirmations and mantras.
  • Be mindful and accept my situation without judging.
  • Befriend my discomfort! Remember that discomfort is an opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Use time management and organizational tools.
  • Interview highly motivated people. Ask them their techniques and strategies.
  • Develop a reward system, based on short and long term rewards.
  • Work with a Learning Strategist. Seek help/advice from supervisors, faculty, colleagues.
  • Seek personal counselling for emotional or personal issues.


  • My internal sources of motivation are…


  • My external sources of motivation are…


References and resources

Ariely, D., Uri Gneezy, U., Loewenstein, G. & Mazar, N. (2005). “Large stakes and big mistakes,” Working Papers 05-11, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Deci, E. L.; Ryan, R. M. (1985), Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior, New York: Plenum.

Fiore, N. (2007). The NOW habit: A strategic program for overcoming procrastination and enjoying guilt-free play. 2nd edition. Toronto: Penguin Group.

Forsyth, J.P., & Eifert, G. (2007). The mindfulness & acceptance workbook for anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Geraniou, E. (2010). The transitional stages in the PhD degree in mathematics in terms of students’ motivation. Educational Studies in Mathematics. 73(3), 281-296.

Kabat-Zinn, J (1990). Full Catastrophe Living. New York: Dell Publishing

Morton, M., & Thornley, G. (2001). “Experiences of doctoral students in mathematics in New Zealand.” Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 26(2), 113–126.

Pisarik, C.T. (2009). “Motivational orientation and burnout among undergraduate college students.” College Student Journal, 43(4). 1238-1252.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.” American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Read More

Motivation and Procrastination for Undergraduate Students

Return to Motivation and Procrastination

Manufacturing MotivationProcrastination
What is motivation?

Manufacturing motivation

Motivate: to stimulate interest in, causing a person to act in a particular way. Concerned with movement.

Many of us can feel a lack of persistence, self-discipline, or courage in facing a task. Sometimes we feel the pay-off will be worth the effort… and sometimes we aren’t sure! But we can help ourselves act, which is what motivation is all about!

What makes us want to do something?

We usually act because of a reward that we’ll receive. Rewards are either intrinsic or extrinsic.

Intrinsic rewards are thoughts or feelings within ourselves: we may feel proud, satisfied, delighted, relieved, exhilarated, confident, encouraged, amazed, secure, intelligent, ambitious, intrigued, pleasantly surprised. Intrinsic rewards are very powerful motivators as they are under our own control, and they lead to increased self-esteem. “I said I’d do it… and I did!”

Extrinsic rewards are responses from the world around us: we may be paid, win the prize, achieve an award, graduate, take a holiday, be voted Most Valuable Player, have our photo in the newspaper, etc. Extrinsic rewards are also powerful motivators, as they make us feel valued and recognized by others. However, they are much less under our control (e.g., Who else is competing? How will I be compared to others? How many prizes will be given out?).

Motivated people cultivate an intrinsic reward system. The external rewards (e.g., prizes, money) are a bonus!

Strategies to build motivation

What are some strategies to build motivation?

  1. Make a promise and keep your word.
  • Set a specific long-range goal (e.g., read Anatomy text by end of week 13) and break it into smaller steps or goals (read one chapter a week). Be clear in your intentions.
  • Tell someone, and ask them to follow your progress. Be accountable.
  • Keep a log or journal of your goals and achievements. Praise yourself.
  1. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (Lao Tzu). Begin with a small step, and make a plan for the next step.
  2. Develop a routine. Link a new activity with one that you do routinely, like do your sit-ups (new activity) before drinking your morning coffee (old habit).
  3. Include the words “goal, persistence, self-discipline, effort and intrinsic reward” in your vocabulary. Explicitly use these words in relation to your activities.
  4. Observe when you are becoming uncomfortable thinking or doing particular tasks. Discomfort is a signal: Am I unsure, bored, scared, out of my depth? Ask yourself: What is appealing about this activity? What is fearful? Then, experience the discomfort (just sit with it) and soon it will have less power over you.
  5. Think positive: “This will feel great when it’s done” or “I can do it!” instead of “I can’t stand doing this”!
  6. Act like the person you wish to become. Picture yourself as being successful. What do you look like? What are you doing? Where are you? Bring this image to mind as you start challenging activities.
  7. Believe in yourself! Reflect on times when you were motivated. Is there anything in common between then and now? Can you make a small change so this situation is more like those times?
  8. Adopt a hero. Ask yourself, “What would _____ be doing now?” JUST DO IT √
  9. Hang out with motivated people.
  10. Guard your health so you have strength, energy and enthusiasm.
  11. Get support before the downward spiral: behind in assignments→ feeling “stupid” in class→ not attending class→ not understanding the next readings→ losing touch with classmates→ feeling ashamed → falling further behind→ feeling discouraged→ not wanting to start…
  12. Use time management and organizational tools: term or monthly calendars, weekly schedules, To Do lists, prioritizing activities.
  13. Turn up the pressure. Move a deadline forward two weeks if you like pressure.
  14. Turn down the pressure. Eliminate extra responsibilities, and plan small steps if you don’t like a lot of pressure. Focus on the “must” not the “should” activities.
  15. Ask for help when you start to see a pattern of poor motivation, rather than waiting. A teacher, mentor, parent, friend, or counsellor will try to encourage and support you.
  16. Start small. Try one of the strategies that appeals to you and give yourself time to develop it before adding new strategies. Remember: new habits take 21-30 days to “stick!”
Anti-procrastination strategies

Anti-procrastination strategies:

 1. Procrastination is just a habit

  • Change your attitude:

“I used to be able to do everything to my best, all the time.”

NOW: No one can do it all to 100%, all the time. Make wise choices.

2.  Change your usual habits:

  • Set priorities and be strategic.
  • Balance “what’s important?” with “what’s hard?” Do some of both, each day.
  • Decide if in these circumstances, something must be done less well than your best.

3.  Get started with the “5 More Rule”

  • Set a modest target (e.g., 5 sentences to write, or 5 pages to read, or 5 problems to do, or 5 minutes of work, or 5 dishes to wash, or 5 more crunches).
  • √ Just Do It. It is so modest, of course you can do it!
  • Congratulate yourself for reaching your target.
  • Re-consider. Will you do 5 More? Pack up and go home?
  • As you get over the “hump” of starting, and begin to settle into your work period, you may decide to increase what you are asking of yourself (e.g., 45 minutes of work? 10 pages of reading?).

4.  Keep Going: Improve focus and concentration

  • Unplug (seriously!)
  • Do “hard” things first, early in the day and at the beginning of the week.
  • Use the “best” location & time of day for you.
  • Work 50 minutes, take a 10 break, for up to 3 hours. Take about an hour’s break, then repeat.
  • Use a “Distraction Pad” while working:
    • Briefly record distracting thoughts
    • Get back to work
    • Review Distraction Pad once daily, and sort into categories of topics (e.g. too late &/or not important; need to do; personal concern that could be addressed; great thought coming at the wrong moment—like an insight into some perplexing statistical matter for a lab—that should be noted for future reference.
  • Act as needed

5.  Know when to stopmindmap example

  • Does it have to be perfect? Is “good enough” acceptable or practical?
  • In writing papers, it is sufficient to write “the latest” word on the current understanding of a topic, rather than aiming to write the definitive or “last word” in an area.
  • Use a mind map to summarize material and see if you are lost in details (researching, studying or writing). What’s important? What can be used another time (maybe!)?

6. Commit to something

  • Set goals
  • Make a plan
  • Be accountable to yourself (keep track of accomplishments) or to someone else

Read More

TOOLS: Strategies and resources related to perfectionism in writing

Return to Perfectionism in Writing

Strategies about managing your timeStrategies to cope with the anxiety of writingLetting go or stopping strategies

Strategies about managing your time

Work habits

  • Plan to write on a regular basis. Work 90 minutes followed by a significant rest or other unrelated task, or work a 3 hour block divided into 3 periods of ~ 50 minutes “on task” (thinking or writing), 10 minute break, or any pattern that works for you.
  • Break a large project into smaller more manageable pieces. Will your finished document be a collection of shorter chapters or critical essays? (Haven’t you written smallerpieces previously, and this project just has more chunks?)
  • There is no perfect order in writing on the topics. Think of a section you’re comfortable with writing. e.g. the section you’re most ready to write, or the part that will be easiest/most interesting/most fun.
  • If you are stuck with something, put it in point form, highlight it, make a note to come back later – but move on!
  • Work backwards from large target dates, and create due dates for the smaller pieces. See for example project scheduling software such as the Assignment Calculator for research papers, or the Thesis Manager, or the Gantt chart.
  • Start a writing journal, to track your thought development and to add some fun.
    • Finish each writing session by posing a question to yourself based on this day’s work- something you didn’t quite understand, or something you want to think more about, or something you can’t see how to connect with another important idea.
    • Start each writing session by recording any thoughts you may have had about yesterday’s
    • If you lose track of the development of your line of reasoning or direction, review your journal for clues.

Decide how to use your perfectionistic habit

Consider what skill or attribute is required for the different tasks (creative thinking, picky data analysis, precise checking of citations…). Indulge the perfectionist in you for tasks requiring an uncompromising standard of excellence. Apply the “good enough” standard to other tasks.

Strategies to cope with the anxiety of writing

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a sh*tty first draft…Perfectionism means you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter is wonderfully fertile ground – you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of holding breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.” (Lamott, A., Bird by Bird, 1995)

Well- chosen strategies regarding your attitude, approach to the writing process and work habits may be necessary but not sufficient for some people to overcome their perfectionistic habits, actually engage in writing in a satisfying way, and produce the required product.

Do you experience uncompromisingly critical self-evaluation? a crippling desire to be thought of as extraordinarily exceptional? IGNORE BOTH!

Cognitive strategies to reduce anxiety

Engaging with writing

We all have an inner dialogue that has developed over our life-times, which reflect the experiences we have had. Those voices can inspire us and help us make good choices, but can also feed our insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. Are your inner voices helpful to you or holding you back?

Think of your inner dialogue or self-talk as coming from a “coach’ or “critic.” Your coach helps you grow and face new challenges.

Your critic keeps you fixed, scared and dissatisfied with your efforts and results.

  • Picture your coach and your critic sitting on each of your shoulders
  • Create a visual image that make sense for you, to capture the words or feelings they Feed the one you want- you have a choice.
  • Practice calling on your supportive coach when you sit down to write, or face another challenging
  • Refute your Ask yourself:
    • What’s the worst that can happen?
    • How likely is this to happen?
    • Is there any evidence that contradicts this negative view?
    • Am I looking at the whole picture?
    • I am being realistically objective?
  • As you become more aware of your monstrous critic attacking you, imagine putting the demon in a sealed box, or putting a clothes pin on its nasty mouth!!

Get back to work! You do not need to be held hostage by your own negative thoughts.

Letting go or stopping strategies

Trouble stopping the literature search phase?

When you start seeing the same material over and over… it’s time to stop researching. Keep perspective: one article is very seldom so earth-shattering that it changes your argument, and it’s more likely just to end up as a single reference or a footnote.

When you are spending all your time researching a minor detail or remotely related topic… it’s time to stop.

If you don’t have an overall picture of how the current topic you are investigating relates to the purpose or thesis statement, stop and think. Try making a mind map of the topics you wish to discuss. Where does your current area of reading fit in? Is it a major area directly related to the thesis statement or core theme, or is it a sub-sub-sub-sub-topic?? Decide the value of continuing to pursue the search vs setting boundaries on what you are able to discuss.

Trouble stopping the writing phase?

Consider “contracting” with yourself for your desired grade or end product before you begin writing. STOP when you achieve your goal.

Weigh your desired grade or quality of finished product against other factors such as the amount of available time, resources, other demands you must meet, or obligations, and the importance of this phase of the project. Trust your judgment. Monitor the project in relation to your practical goal, and stick to the plan.

Satisfactory product vs.  Resources and other obligations

Use a good time management plan, with tasks to be completed by certain dates. Stick to it.

Build down- time into your schedule, so you get some distance from your writing. When you re- read your work, you may have a better perspective and be more objective.

Be aware of when you are “obsessing” over the quality of your work. Do a Cost /Benefit Analysis, or try a 4-Square Review. This is when you compare what you desire and fear about working on the piece, and also what you desire and fear about stopping the work.

Cost/Benefit Analysis

What do I desire about continuing to work on the piece?

What do I fear about continuing to work on the piece?

What do I fear about stopping?

What do I desire about stopping?

4 Square Review:

  • Record your thoughts, as above
  • Look them over
  • Accept the contradictions within yourself…we are full of contradictions!
  • If you are trying to make a decision, the content may be useful in weighing alternatives

Arrange with your supervisor or a friend to have regular check-ins, to help you stay on track with your time management plan.

Seek a qualified opinion regarding your final draft document, or use a copy editor.

Quiet your inner critic, that pushes you to seek uncompromising excellence and is never satisfied with what you offer.

Trouble letting it go and handing it in?

Aim for the latest word, not the last word! You are joining a long line of individuals who have thought about this problem, or whose thoughts have led up to this problem.

Quiet your inner critic.

Keep your perspective. In truth, others will have different things to say at some point. Your writing captures your knowledge or perspective at this moment in time. That is enough.

Make a list of your strengths, past achievements, skills. Use this as a buffer for your ego if you are frightened to receive feedback.

Reframe the value of the feedback you may receive. It is not a reflection of your personhood, although your supervisor may make suggestions to improve your writing process or end product.

Forgive yourself for being human – living with flaws and faults.

Read More

Returned tests, motivation and sleep during exams

Return to Exam Prep

Analyzing your returned testsEight reasons to celebrate mistakesMotivationSleep and the functioning studentImproving Sleep Patterns

Analyzing your returned tests

For each exam question missed, analyze why you missed the question and record the number of the question beside the reason. Look for PATTERNS of errors so that you can prepare more efficiently for the next test.

Course: ____________________ Test: ______________________ Date of test: ____________

Errors related to test questions

  1. Failed to understand the questions: ___________________________________
  2. Read question incorrectly: ___________________________________
  3. Read question incompletely: ___________________________________
  4. Did not understand vocabulary: ___________________________________
  5. Others: ___________________________________

Errors related to answers

  1. Incompletely answered the question: ___________________________________
  2. Vaguely answered the question: ___________________________________
  3. Provided incorrect information: ___________________________________
  4. Others: ___________________________________

Errors related to subject

  1. Did not understand material: ___________________________________
  2. Did not study sufficiently: ___________________________________
  3. Lacked basic background knowledge: ___________________________________
  4. Others: ___________________________________

Errors related to test-taking procedures

  1. Did not manage time well in test: ___________________________________
  2. Blocked self due to anxiety: ___________________________________
  3. Did not follow directions: ___________________________________
  4. Others: ___________________________________


Brown, S. A.& Miller, D.E. (1996). The active learner: Successful study strategies. 2nd edition. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury Publishing Co.

Eight reasons to celebrate mistakes

In his book Becoming a Master Student, David Ellis outlines eight reasons for celebrating mistakes.

  1. Celebration allows us to notice the mistake.
  2. Mistakes are valuable feedback.
  3. Mistakes demonstrate that we’re taking risks.
  4. Celebrating mistakes reminds us that it’s OK to make them.
  5. Celebrating mistakes includes everyone.
  6. Mistakes occur only when we aim at a clear goal.
  7. Mistakes happen only when we’re committed to making things work.
  8. Celebrating mistakes cuts the problem down to size.

So – celebrate!

Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp 186-87.

Intrinsic and extrinsic rewards

Motivate: to cause a person to act in a particular way. Concerned with movement.

Many of us can feel a lack of persistence, self-discipline, or courage in facing a task. Sometimes we feel the pay-off will be worth the effort… and sometimes we aren’t sure! But we can help ourselves act, which is what motivation is all about!

What makes us want to do something?

We usually act because of a reward that we’ll receive. Rewards are either intrinsic or extrinsic.

Intrinsic rewards are thoughts or feelings within ourselves: we may feel proud, satisfied, delighted, relieved, exhilarated, confident, encouraged, amazed, stimulated, secure, intelligent, ambitious, intrigued, pleasantly surprised. Intrinsic rewards are very powerful motivators as they are under our own control, and they lead to increased self-esteem. ―I said I’d do it …and I did!

Extrinsic rewards are responses from the world around us: we may be paid, win the prize, achieve an award, graduate, take a holiday, be voted Most Valuable Player, have our photo in the newspaper, etc. Extrinsic rewards are also powerful motivators, as they make us feel valued and recognized by others. However, they are much less under our control (e.g. who is the competition? what factors will I be compared on? how many prizes will be given out?).

Highly motivated people cultivate an intrinsic reward system. The prizes, pay cheques, etc are the bonus!

Strategies to build motivation

What are some strategies to build motivation?

  1. Make a promise and keep your word.
  • Set a specific long-range goal (e.g., read Anatomy text by end of week 13) and break it into smaller steps or goals (read one chapter a week). Be clear in your intentions.
  • Tell someone, and ask them to follow your progress. Be accountable.
  • Keep a log or journal of your goals and achievements. Praise yourself.
  1. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (Lao Tzu). Begin with a small step, and make a plan for the next step.
  2. Develop a routine. Link a new activity with one that you do routinely, like do your sit-ups (new activity) before drinking your morning coffee (old habit).
  3. Include the words “goal, persistence, self-discipline, effort and intrinsic reward” in your vocabulary. Explicitly use these words in relation to your activities.
  4. Observe when you are becoming uncomfortable thinking or doing particular tasks. Discomfort is a signal: Am I unsure, bored, scared, out of my depth? Ask yourself: What is appealing about this activity? What is fearful? Then, experience the discomfort (just sit with it) and soon it will have less power over you.
  5. Think positive: “This will feel great when it’s done” or “I can do it!” instead of “I can’t stand doing this”!
  6. Act like the person you wish to become. Picture yourself as being successful. What do you look like? What are you doing? Where are you? Bring this image to mind as you start challenging activities.
  7. Believe in yourself! Reflect on times when you were motivated. Is there anything in common between then and now? Can you make a small change so this situation is more like those times?
  8. Adopt a hero. Ask yourself, “What would _____ be doing now?” JUST DO IT √
  9. Hang out with motivated people.
  10. Guard your health so you have strength, energy and enthusiasm.
  11. Get support before the downward spiral: behind in assignments→ feeling “stupid” in class→ not attending class→ not understanding the next readings→ losing touch with classmates→ feeling ashamed → falling further behind→ feeling discouraged→ not wanting to start…
  12. Use time management and organizational tools: term or monthly calendars, weekly schedules, To Do lists, prioritizing activities.
  13. Turn up the pressure. Move a deadline forward two weeks if you like pressure.
  14. Turn down the pressure. Eliminate extra responsibilities, and plan small steps if you don’t like a lot of pressure. Focus on the “must” not the “should” activities.
  15. Ask for help when you start to see a pattern of poor motivation, rather than waiting. A teacher, mentor, parent, friend, or counsellor will try to encourage and support you.
  16. Start small. Try one of the strategies that appeals to you and give yourself time to develop it before adding new strategies. Remember: new habits take 21-30 days to “stick!”

Sleep and the functioning student

How much sleep should I try to get?

According to Stanford sleep researcher Dr. William Dement, children and teens need about 10 hours sleep per night. Most adults need between 7 and 8 hours per night.

What do we mean by “circadian rhythm” or “biological clock”?

Our biological clock regulates our sleeping and waking. The human brain has processes that are active 24 hours a day. One function is to induce and maintain sleep. It is a homeostatic process which means when an individual obtains less sleep than the needed amount, the homeostatic process increases the tendency to fall asleep; conversely, when extra sleep is obtained, the homeostatic process decreases the tendency to fall asleep. This ensures that an individual has approximately the same amount of sleep each day. It keeps a record of accumulated sleep debt. Body temperature, caloric intake, and sleep are all regulated homeostatically.

Another brain process is clock-dependent alerting, which induces and maintains alert wakefulness. This process is active during the day, inactive at night, with lowered activity in the early afternoon. These opposing processes allow us to stay up all day and sleep at night. To sleep through the night we need to accumulate sufficient sleep debt during the day, so having those long naps during the day is a no-no!

What is “sleep debt”?

If you don’t get as much sleep as your body needs, the partial sleep loss is carried over and accumulated as sleep debt, which eventually must be paid back. As your debt grows, your energy, mood, and cognition will be undermined (Dement, 1999).


Effects of sleep loss (or sleep debt)

1. Mood and Energy

Do you sometimes feel like everything is an effort?  Is every task overwhelming?  Are you frequently stressed and exhausted?

Sleep research at the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects who were allowed to sleep only 4.5hrs/night for one week felt:

  • significantly less happy,
  • more stressed,
  • more physically frail, and
  • more mentally and physically exhausted.

But, when the volunteers were allowed to get more sleep again, their physical and mental states bounced back.

2. Motivation

Have you ever complained to your friends that you just don’t feel motivated to do your work? That you can’t think clearly or even get started on an assignment?

Motivation is one of the first things to go when sleep is short changed. The effort of staying awake often seems monumental, and there is little energy left for anything else. In Dement’s sleep studies, once subjects were allowed to get adequate sleep, their motivation levels rose and people felt more interested in the things around them and challenges didn’t seem so overwhelming.

3. Productivity

Do you fall asleep in class? Do you find yourself nodding over your books and taking excessively long periods of time to complete tasks? Do you have trouble concentrating?

Sleep is the first thing most students sacrifice when they are faced with numerous tasks and deadlines. How often have you pulled an all-nighter to finish an assignment? Maybe once in a while you can do this and still function. However, “during chronic sleep deprivation performance deteriorates dramatically. Sleepy people are likely to make little mistakes they would never make when well rested. The mind is prone to wander and concentration apt to flag” (Dement, 1999). Deep sleep enables us to move information from short term to long term memory. Without it, we lose what we learn.

4. Immune system and health

Do you find you tend to cut back on sleep when deadlines approach and end up getting sick? What happens to health over the long term when you don‘t get enough sleep?

Carol Everson, a physiologist at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, studied the effects of total sleep deprivation on rats who died after 40 days without sleep. She discovered that their lymph nodes were enlarged and they had a massive amount of bacteria living in the blood. From this, she concluded that their immune systems must have broken down as a result of extreme sleep deprivation.


Adapted from Dement, W. (1999). The Promise of Sleep. New York: Random House.

What can I do to improve my sleep habits?
  • Keep a Sleep Diary for one week. Monitor your daily cycles of sleep and wakefulness. Try to identify what time of day you are performing most efficiently.
  • Establish regular sleep patterns: same bedtime and waking time each day.
  • Develop a healthy bedtime routine that includes stopping work at least half an hour before bedtime; making a To Do or ‘Worry’ list for the next day; doing some relaxation and stretching exercises; and practicing abdominal breathing to release tension.

Twelve rules for better sleep

  1. Sleep as much as needed to feel refreshed and healthy the following day, but not more. Curtailing the time in bed seems to solidify sleep; excessively long times in bed seem related to fragmented and shallow sleep.
  2. Getting up at a regular time in the morning strengthens circadian cycling and finally, leads to regular times of sleep onset.
  3. A steady daily amount of exercise probably deepens sleep; occasional exercise does not necessarily improve sleep the following night.
  4. Occasional loud noises (e.g., aircraft flyovers) disturb sleep even in people who are not awakened by noises and cannot remember them in the morning. A fan to provide background (white noise) may help those who must sleep close to noise.
  5. Keep room temperature a little cool. Excessively warm rooms disturb sleep but so can very cold rooms.
  6. Hunger may disturb sleep; a light snack may help sleep. Try low fat, non-spicy snacks.
  7. An occasional sleeping pill may be of some benefit, but their chronic use is ineffective in most insomniacs.
  8. Progressive muscle relaxation and abdominal breathing exercises help divert the mind from list making and anxious thoughts which interfere with falling asleep.
  9. Caffeine in the evening disturbs sleep, even in those who feel it does not. So avoid coffee, tea, chocolate and pop in the evening.
  10. Alcohol helps tense people fall asleep more easily, but the ensuing sleep is then fragmented.
  11. People who feel angry and frustrated because they cannot sleep should not try harder and harder to fall asleep but should turn on the light and do something different.
  12. Reduce the number of cigarettes smoked; the chronic use of tobacco disturbs sleep.


Adapted from Hauri, P. (1982). The Sleep Disorders. 2nd edition. Kalamazoo, Mich: Upjohn.

Read More

Tools: Different Exam Formats

Return to Exam Prep

Multiple choice examsEssay examsTake-home essay examsProblem-type examsShort-answer examsScience examsPreparing for essay exams: Five studying stepsEssay Exams: Plan Before You AnswerInstruction words in essay and short answer questionsMultiple choice: Revered or feared?Multiple choice exam strategies (incl. the 3-Pass Method)Multiple Choice: Ready, set, go!Math and science tests

Exam Type: Multiple choice

What to study?

For explicit comprehension questions, focus on memorizing terms, definitions, facts, and concepts that can be stated in a succinct way.

For application questions, practice applying the concepts and/or procedures to new situations. Think deeper and focus on the Big Picture (this takes longer than basic comprehension questions).

How to study?

Study in short blocks (20-30 minutes with a 5-10 minute break) over many days. Review daily. Answer the study guide.

Further Resources

Three types of multiple choice exam questions

Strategies for multiple choice exams

Writing multiple choice exams: Ready, set go!

Exam Type: Essay

What to study?

Focus on the major themes of the course to get the Big Picture: think deeply to understand how the main ideas and details are related. Elaborate, compare, evaluate the materials. Generate possible exam questions and answer them in writing (or if you don‘t have time, make a detailed outline for each).

How to study?

Use mindmaps and graphic organizers which organize around the central theme. Study in longer blocks (e.g., 2.5 hours: 50 minutes, 10 minutes break, 50 more minutes). Start far enough ahead of the exam for the information to percolate in your mind.

Further Resources

Five Study Steps for Essay Exams

Essay Exams: Plan Before You Answer

Instruction Words for Essay Exams

Take-Home Essay Exams

Exam Type: Take-Home Essay Exams

Purpose: to test understanding and expression, not retention of information.

How to prepare

  • Know the prof’s expectations.
  • Anticipate possible questions.
  • Know where you can find resources (e.g., library materials, websites). Ensure all your notes are organized.
  • Organize a work schedule. Leave yourself lots of time for finishing the take-home.
  • Write a polished paper: well organized, argued, and clearly written.

Exam Type: Problem Solving

What to study?

Focus on solving problems and identifying the underlying concepts. Try to see a pattern (e.g., look for problems that cluster around the same theme to reduce the number of problems you will need to do). Practice by answering old exams, test, labs, and homework questions.

How to study?

Allow for long study sessions and breaks (2 hours with a 30 minute break).

Exam Type: Short Answer

Beware of two potential dangers!

  1. Writing too little: too general, not enough evidence. Outcome: don‘t get full marks.
  2. Writing too much: repetition, too much evidence. Outcome: run out of time.

How to prepare

  • Review lecture notes and readings.
  • Make a list of important terms and their definitions. Cue cards are useful here.
  • Relate each term to the general ideas of the course. Mind-maps help. Add supporting evidence.

How to write

Short-answer questions are organized like a main idea paragraph in the essay exam:

  1. Identify the direction word.
  2. Main idea—translate into a strong, focused topic sentence.
  3. Evidence—check how many points are assigned to guide you. 3-4 sentences with evidence should suffice.
  4. Summary Sentence—recap the gist of the paragraph.

Exam Type: Science Exams

  • Translate the problem into your own words. This will help you understand what the question requires.
  • Perform opposite operations
  • Analyze the problem before you begin to solve it.
  • Draw a picture or diagram to help you visualize the problem.

See also: Special techniques for math and science exams

Essay Exams: Five Study Steps

  1. Generate possible essay topics
  2. Write thesis statements
  3. Write 3-4 main points
  4. Organize evidence for each main point
  5. Write a few mock essay exams

1. Generate topics

Look at topics given for the course. Look at old exam questions. Look over your lecture notes and predict possible topics. Focus on areas that were given emphasis and/or repeated themes.

2. Write thesis statements

The thesis statement is your purpose, aim or argument in the paper. Identify the instruction word first (e.g., analyze, compare, etc.). This will help focus your thesis statement. For example,

Topic: Effects of globalization on the Canadian textile industry
Instruction Word: Discuss (Argument: pros/cons)
Thesis: Due to globalization, Canadians can now buy cheap clothing, mostly produced in developing countries. However, buying cheap clothing does not mitigate the dire consequences [Argument-Against] of globalization to our local textile industry.

3. Add main points to each thesis statement

Identify 3-4 main points which defend the thesis statement. Using the example above, three negative effects might be: 1) Canadian job losses, 2) local manufacturers must keep costs down, and 3) export market suffers.

Write these main points into topic sentences. A topic sentence has two parts: topic and purpose. Usually a topic sentence appears at the beginning of a paragraph.

Determine the order for each main point.

  1. Random order: any order will do.
  2. Chronological order: there is a time line. Used for describing a process, history, etc.
  3. Logical order: one idea needs to be explained before the next can be understood.
  4. Concession order: argument or strongest points go at the end where the reader is more likely to remember them.

An example of a topic sentence on Canadian job losses: “Our textile industries’ closure led to massive job loss [TOPIC], with workers now facing poor employment prospects [PURPOSE].”

4. Organize evidence for each main point

After stating your topic sentence, add evidence/facts to your main idea. Go over your lecture notes, readings, research on the topic as if you were doing research for a term paper.

Under each topic sentence list your evidence. Listing allows you to memorize your evidence in chunks. Use memory devices to assist in retaining this information.

Types of evidence include statistics, examples, case studies, anecdotal information (use sparingly), observational notes, expert quotes, illustrations, graphs.

Here‘s some evidence for our example on job loss:

  • In Ontario 82% factories closed since 1980s
  • 50,000+ jobs lost
  • only half have full-time jobs
  • Bob Owens, CTWA representative—many long-term unemployed, not retrained

5. Write a mock essay exam

See how long it takes you to put it all together. Time yourself.

Spend most of your time on the BODY. That‘s where the majority of the marks lie. Therefore, do NOT write the conclusion first (as some would argue). Leave 5-10 minutes to proofread your writing for careless mistakes.

When finished the mock exam, self-assess the essay. Do you think it would pass?

Example: Job Losses

Due to globalization, Canadians can now buy cheap clothing, mostly manufactured in developing countries. However, buying cheap clothing does not mitigate the dire consequences of globalization to our local textile industry. Globalization has produced three significant negative effects on our Canadian economy: massive job losses; struggling local manufacturers with poor bottom lines; and poor export sales due to high costs of Canadian made goods.

Firstly, the closing of our textile industries has created massive job loss with many workers now facing poor employment prospects: unemployment, casual, or part time work. In Ontario since the early 1980s, 72% of textile factories have closed representing over 50,000 job losses. Moreover, of these 50,000 workers, only half have found full-time, permanent jobs. Bob Owens, CTWA representative, reported that many of these workers face long-term unemployment with little hope of retraining due to age, language, and education issues. Without jobs, a cheap sweater from China is meaningless.

Secondly, in order to compete globally our remaining Canadian textile business…

Essay Exams: Plan Before You Answer

1.   Read the exam directions carefully.

Do you need to answer all the questions? Can you choose between questions?
Are there any time limits?

2.   Make summary notes on the back of the exam sheet.

Before reading any exam questions, unburden your mind by quickly jotting down on the back of your exam booklet ideas, details, formulae, sequences, etc. that you have memorized but think you might forget. This is almost like making a summary of your summary sheets! Aside from getting down your ideas, this is a positive action that gets you involved in the exam and, thereby, builds self-confidence.

3.   Plan your time.

How much time should you allot to each question?
Plan the number of minutes per question and stick to it.

4.   Read all the questions.

Before you start writing anything, read ALL the questions. If you can choose between questions, select those for which you are best prepared. As you read the instructions to the question, underline or circle key words or instruction words. For a list of instruction words, go to Instruction Words for Essays & Examination Questions.

5.   Jot cues alongside each question.

While reading each question, quickly note a few words or phrases that immediately come to your mind. Later, when you begin writing, use these jottings and those on the back of the exam sheet to organize your answer.

6.   Start with the easiest questions.

Starting with something you know at the beginning will inspire self-confidence, help you relax, and think clearly. Success begets success!

7.   Leave time at end.

Leave about 10-20 minutes at the end to read over your exam. Correct any glaring errors and misplaced ideas or words which would hamper comprehension of your answer and potentially lose you marks.

Adapted from: Wauk, P. (1989). How to Study in College. 4th edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 293.

Essay and Short Answer Questions: Instruction Words

Analyze: Examine the statement or subject in a critical manner. This involves breaking the subject into separate parts and discussing and interpreting each part (e.g., cases, key factors, results, and then demonstrating how each part fits together to form the whole).

Assess: Briefly describe the subject, analyze the positive and negative characteristics, state results or consequences. Using these points to support your answer, offer an opinion or judgment on the value or the character of the subject.

Cite: Make mention of, bring forward as proof (e.g., Cite the reasons the philosopher Hobbes gives for saying that humans are inherently selfish and competitive).

Compare: Present similarities or resemblances between two things. Emphasize these similarities but also present differences (e.g., compare the British and Canadian parliamentary systems).

Contrast: State the ways in which the subjects are not similar (e.g., Contrast the Canadian parliamentary system with the American system of government).

Criticize: Make your own judgment about a subject, defining its merits and shortcomings. Give evidence for what you say (e.g., Criticize the conservative argument that NATO countries must maintain troops in Afghanistan for global security). Say what you think, why, and support your judgment with evidence.

Define: Tell the meaning or significance of the term (e.g., Define and state the significance of ‘gerrymandering’ as it applies to the Canadian electorate system).

Describe: Mention the chief characteristics of a situation or retell the central features of a story (e.g., Describe Dante‘s The Inferno).

Discuss: Give a complete and detailed presentation of the topic. Describe the subject, provide reasons on both sides of the argument or for various views held about the subject (e.g., Discuss the implications of a separate Palestinian state).

Distinguish between: Define each term to show the main differences between them (e.g., Distinguish between the following film genres: mystery and horror).

Elaborate on: Provide more specific details regarding the subject. Note the connection with or the impact of this subject on other related areas of thought.

Evaluate: Appraise the issue giving both advantages and disadvantages. Quote other sources if possible and include your opinion. Always support your opinions with evidence.

Explain: Give an interpretation of the subject which clarifies it. This may mean analyzing the causes or reasons for an event or situation (e.g., Explain the Communist Chinese government’s shift from a closed economy to a market economy).

Illustrate: Give specific examples of something which demonstrates the meaning or situation (e.g., Illustrate what is meant by ―the middle way in Buddhism).

Interpret: State the meaning in simpler terms, using your own judgement (e.g., Interpret George Bernard Shaw‘s ideas of heaven and hell in Man and Superman).

Outline: Organize your answer into main points and subordinate points. Make a short summary using headings and subheadings (e.g., Outline the wave particle duality of light).

Relate: Show the connection between the ideas mentioned in the question; how one influences the other. This does not mean compare and contrast (e.g., Relate the American and the French Revolutions).

State: Explain precisely (e.g., State the three dimensions involved in Weber‘s model of power).

Trace: Show the main points from the beginning to the end of an event (e.g., Trace the rise of Islamic fundamentalism at the end of the 20th century).

Multiple choice: Revered or feared?

Do you like multiple choice tests or fear them?

Although some students like having the possible answer given to them, many students find multiple choice questions very difficult. Why?

Interestingly, it‘s not the content that is difficult but the structure.

Why is the structure so difficult?

  1. There are many questions to answer and the topics are often scrambled and shuffled.
  2. Ideas from lectures and/or readings may be reworded in different/unfamiliar ways.
  3. Very often the question is not asking for simple recognition of ideas but asking you to go beyond straight memorization and apply knowledge from the course, make an analogy, solve a novel problem. Professors assume you are capable of memorizing details.

What are the different question types?

Type 1: Explicit knowledge question

Tests knowledge taught in lectures and texts (about 1/3 of the questions!)

Study Strategy: can simply memorize

Level of Difficulty: easiest

Type 2: Finer detail question

Asks you go to beyond straight memorization of concepts and see how the details relate to the concept. For example,

Which of the following is not related to the process of elaborative rehearsal?

  1. adding details to ideas and concepts
  2. analyzing component parts of an idea
  3. restating knowledge in your own words
  4. practicing remembering the information
  5. none of the above

Study Strategies: elaborate and draw connections between the concept and its evidence.

Level of Difficulty: Medium (i.e., more difficult than Type 1).

Type 3: “Thinker” question

Tests your ability to understand the relationship between a theory and its evidence and then apply this understanding to ―cope with a hypothetical relationship. For example,

In the study by Bahrick and Hall (1991), we find that graduates of college mathematics courses recall high school math knowledge for many years after. According to Bahrick and Hall, which of the following would you expect to be true of a group of university graduates who did not take math courses at university:

  1. they would recall their math from high school to essentially the same extent as those who took math courses in university
  2. most would recall little or none of their high school math 50 years after
  3. they would recall best those things which they learned more about in their university course
  4. both b) and c)
  5. all of the above

Study Strategies: practice recalling the theory, elaborative review, and some creative thinking (i.e., what might change in a variety of slightly different circumstances from those presented in the theory)

In-test Strategy: read the question twice to ensure you understand it correctly. The question stem is made up of two parts: 1) the context reference for the question (tells you to think back to something you’ve studied) and 2) the question part. Pause after the first part and recall the theory or research study. Next, because the alternatives in this question are usually quite long, try reading the question part of the stem followed by each alternative, to keep clear on what you are being asked.

Level of Difficulty: Hardest. These questions are appearing more and more on multiple choice tests, so don’t avoid preparing for them!

(Answers: 2. e; 3. d)


Multiple choice tests are NOT simple. They require a rigorous study approach.

Multiple choice: Exam strategies

Key Concepts

Memorization/recall and recognition of details are not enough. Focus on complex levels of thinking: understanding, connecting, applying, analysis. Practice: Use old exams, study guides.

Strategic Approaches

Breathe, focus and perhaps, dump information you are worried about forgetting. Check timing: how many questions? Average time per question?

1. How to approach the exam overall: The 3 Pass Method

Pass #1: Begin by answering the questions you know, in the exam booklet, then transfer the answers on to the Scantron sheet, in groups of 10 questions.

Code the answers you don’t know (e.g., use a “?” for the ones you have some idea about but need more time to think about, and an “X” for the ones that you have no idea about at all. Move on to questions you feel more confident about. Feel good! You’ve just earned marks!).

Pass #2: Next, return to the questions marked with the “?” and answer these directly on the Scantron, so you don’t misrecord any questions.

Pass #3: Checking the time left, begin guessing the ones marked “X” on the Scantron.

2. How to approach individual questions

  1. Read the stem SLOWLY
  2. Process it by underlining key words
  3. Cover the answers
  4. Predict answer. Not there? Then process the options (e.g., Is this the most correct?)
  5. Eliminate wrong answers, and select the best option

3. Strategies for guessing (a LAST resort)

  • Avoid answers with extreme values – either numbers or statements
  • Choose inclusive answers (e.g., all or none of the above)
  • Choose the longest answer
  • Choose b or c

If there is no penalty for incorrect responses, and no time left, when all else fails, randomly fill in the Scantron.

Adapted from: Learning Skills Programme. (1997). Preparing for Tests and Exams. Counselling and Development Centre, York University, Toronto. pp.10-15.

Multiple choice exams: Ready, set, go!


  1. Breathe and calm yourself
  2. Survey the exam
    • give yourself a bit of time to go back to hard ones
    • mark where you should be done halfway
  1. Determine the ground rules
    • read the directions
    • is there a penalty for guessing? If not, GUESS!


  1. Read questions carefully, slowly, start from the beginning
  2. Cover up the options. Do you already know the answer?
  3. Underline key words to focus your attention


  1. Read all the options. Choose the BEST answer – there may be multiple correct ones!
  2. Eliminate options if you know it’s definitely wrong
  3. Watch for qualifiers (e.g., all, usually, almost, good, best, normally, etc.)
    • think about how they define or limit the stem or options. Be alert to unstated qualifiers which define an option (e.g., “Birds fly south in winter” means ALL birds).
  1. Watch for negatives
    • two negatives make a positive (e.g., “It is atypical for children NOT to go through the following stages” = “it IS is typical for children to go through…”)

If after all that, you still don’t know …

  • Use Educated Guessing
    • for compound options (e.g., “all of the above”), select the compound including simple options about which you are certain
    • avoid extreme values, either numbers or statements
    • change answers only if you have a good reason to do so
    • check for lookalike options. One of them is usually OK.
    • “all of the above” can be a good guess
    • options looking foolish, incongruous or unfamiliar or usually incorrect

What to do if you hit a WALL?

  1. Mark difficult questions and come back to them – don’t let yourself get stuck
  2. Keep your process active (re-read question, make marks, write notes…you can do this!

Math and science tests: Special techniques

1. Translate problems into English.

Putting problems into words aids your understanding. When you study equations and formulas, put those into words, too. The words help you see a variety of applications for each formula. For example, c2 = a2 + b2 can be translated as “the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.”

2. Perform opposite operations.

If the problem involves multiplication, check your work by dividing; add, then subtract; factor, multiply; square root, square; differentiate, integrate.

3. Use time drills.

Practice working problems quickly. Time yourself. Exchange problems with a friend and time each other. You can also do this in a study group.

4. Analyze before you compute.

Set up the problem before you begin to solve it. When a problem is worth a lot of points, read it twice, slowly. When you take time to analyze a problem, you may see computational shortcuts.

5. Make a picture.

Colour an elaborate picture or diagram if you are stuck. Sometimes a visual will clear the mind.

6. Estimate first.

Estimation is a good way to double-check your work. Doing this first can help you notice if your computations go awry, and then you can correct the error quickly.

7. Check your work systematically.

When you check your work, ask yourself: Did I read the problem correctly? Did I use the correct formula or equation? Is my arithmetic correct? Is my answer in the proper form?

Avoid the temptation to change an answer in the last few minutes–unless you’re sure the answer is wrong. In a last-minute rush to finish, it’s easier to choose the wrong answer. If you redo a solution, do not erase the original answer—just draw a line through it.

8. Review formulas.

Right before the test, review any formulas you’ll need to use. Then write them on the margin of the tests or on the back of the test paper.

Source: Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 183.

Read More

Tools: Strategies for effective studying

Return to Exam Prep

How to approach a course when you have to...Preparing summary sheets for studyingMemory strategiesHow students can best prepare for tests and examsUnderstanding key information: elaboration helpsPredicting test/exam questionsSelf-testing as a study strategy

How to approach a course when you have to…


A few courses require you to memorize specific facts or rules (e.g., language courses). Science courses such as Biology and Anatomy also require a large amount of information to be memorized, alongside understanding concepts.

How should I approach these courses?

Because memorizing is very intensive work for our brains and because brains can’t take in too much at one time, it’s better to spread the learning out.

  1. Swiss Cheese Method: nibble away to make holes in the material rather than gobbling it up all at once.
  2. Distributed Learning: Spend a short time (20-30 minutes) learning one thing and then take a break. Come back later and review what you’ve learned in the previous session. Add something new. Remember: short sessions with lots of repetition.
  3. Chunking & Making Connections: It‘s important to make connections among all the details so that they are easier to remember. For example, in Biology you might make a chart of all the hormones and proteins covered in the course with the main characteristics of each one. In French, you might make a chart of all the kinds of pronouns and their uses.


Understand Concepts

Many courses, especially in social sciences, require you to understand concepts and are not about memorizing information to regurgitate on tests. Rather, they are about reaching a deep level of understanding of the concepts. To reach this level, you have to see the BIG PICTURE.

How should I approach these courses?

Think of your course as a giant jigsaw puzzle and each lecture, each reading is a new piece of the puzzle. Your job is to fit all the pieces together.

  1. Integrate material from lectures with information from the text and additional readings.
  2. Organizing information around major themes and concepts (identified by the instructor and/or in the textbook). Make mind-maps, charts and visual outlines showing how the ideas fit together. The visual needs to show how important details form a concept and how a concept fits with the course.
  3. Test questions often ask you to evaluate, compare, and apply the concepts. So prepare study questions which reflect these ways of thinking. Use concrete examples to clarify.


Solve Problems

Many courses in Science, Engineering, and Commerce require problem-solving. Course material is best learned by doing problems. Spending time just reading your textbook is not the best use of your time. Working through the problem and then reading the theory often helps to clarify it.

How should I approach these courses?

  1. Read your textbook backwards! Skim the chapter quickly, then start on the problems at the back of the chapter. When you get stuck, go back to read the pertinent parts of the text. By doing so, you get the problem done AND understand the theory.
  2. Organize problems around concepts. Each problem is not unique but rather part of a family of problems where each procedure is a variation on the concept. To help you understand discreet differences among procedures, use maps or flow charts to show how the various procedures connect to the concept.

Also see Special Techniques for Math and Science Tests.

Source: Mary O‘Malley, Concordia University

Preparing summary sheets for studying

Why use summaries?

  • deepen your understanding of the material
  • determine the key ideas (refer to the course outline for learning objectives)
  • organize material into themes, or hierarchies
  • look for connections among ideas, concepts, or problem sets
  • reduce the volume of content for faster reviews

Summary Formats

Choose a summary method that reflects the content plus your preferred way of learning. These methods highlight studying the overall concepts. Drilling information on cue cards focuses on isolated details and complements these conceptual summary methods.

Here are some useful formats (see also: Academic Reading module):

  1. Cornell
  2. Mind-maps
  3. Charts/Tables
  4. Concept Summary
The Cornell method

When to use: To combine lecture notes or power points with text or course manuals

How to use:

  1. Start with the topic or title at the top of the page.
  2. Draw a 2-3 inch column down the left side. Have your lecture and text open together. Write points from the lecture in the larger space, and add structure from the text in the smaller column. For example, add subtitles, key terms, definitions or formula, pose questions.
  3. Finish with a 4-6 sentence summary of the unit, topic or lecture.
  4. Review by covering the larger column and asking questions based on the cues on the smaller column, or rehearsing final short summary.Cornell notes chart
Mind maps

When to use: To see associations among relational material. This method is particularly helpful to visual learners, so use colour as an additional aid.

How to use:

  1. Identify the main topic or concept in the web’s center. Structure sub-topics in the next layer.
  2. Add information such as Point, Interpretation, Explanation/evidence/example (PIE) for each detail.
  3. Look for recurring ideas, to see connections among various sub-topics.

Mind maps can be as compressed or as comprehensive as you wish by adding additional sub-sections.


When to use: If there was a repeated pattern to the material you are summarizing; to facilitate comparative thinking.

How to use:

  1. Identify the topics covered along the top of the chart, and the pattern of sub-topics along the side. This is the more conceptual thinking, and filling in the details of each cell is a more factual focus.
  2. Completing the matrix allows you to study all about a single theory (i.e., within a column) and compare details across theories (i.e., across rows).


Theories of Personality

Trait Psychoanalytic Behavioural Humanistic
Social context
Key ideas
Application of theory
Concept summary

When to use: If you are working with math or computational material (finance, physics, chemistry, etc.). It encourages conceptual thinking in addition to performing calculations.

How to use:

  1. Identify the key concepts taught and the various applications related to those concepts.
  2. Design a summary sheet what highlights key information such as: concept title, allowable key formula, definitions, other important information (sign conventions, exceptions, etc) simple example or explanation, list of relevant knowns and unknowns to help distinguish between problems or concepts.

For a completed example (“acid-base chemistry”), see our Quantitative Problem Solving section under Concept Summary.

Memory strategies for exam prep

So how do we remember? Attention → Encoding

1. Attention

Before you can encode the information, you must begin by attending to (i.e., thinking about) it. Then…

2. Encoding

Translate incoming information into a mental representation: Picture (visualize it), Sound (say it), and Meaning (put it into your own words).

Think “GULP”: GET it, USE it, LINK it, and PICTURE it.


  • Chunking/organization
  • Recite: preferably out loud
  • Distributed practice: study in small chunks over a period of time
  • Mind-maps
  • Mnemonics /Acronyms (e.g., S.A.S.S. = Student Academic Success Services!)
  • Rhymes and songs
  • Pegging: link new information to something known

See our online module on Memory Strategies for more information.

The generation effect and levels of performance

How students can best prepare for tests and exams

In a 2005 study, 109 American university students participated in an experiment that involved reading a passage and responding to a 20-item multiple choice test. The students were randomly assigned to one of four groups. The four conditions involved:

  • reading and copying (final test mark 64.50%)
  • reading and highlighting (final test mark 77%)
  • reading and taking notes (final test mark 79.50%)
  • reading and generating questions (final test mark 89.10% – targeted* information)
    * targeted refers to items determined by the student as important to study


Source: Van Blerkom, D., Van Blerkom, M.L., & Bertsch, S. (2005). “Study strategies and generative learning: What works?” CRLA. November. University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

The generation effect

Students retain information they have targeted and generated better than study materials that were generated and targeted by others. This has been dubbed the generation effect. Mental operations in which the student engages while generating materials, such as more distinctive encoding, may produce these results.

(Begg et al., 1991 as cited in Foos et al., 1994; Crutcher & Healy, 1989 as cited in Foos et al., 1994).

Application for students: four levels of performance

🙂 Lowest level — students are simply told what to study

🙂 🙂  Higher level — students are instructed to use the materials and are given some specific study materials or techniques (i.e., professor-generated materials)

🙂 🙂 🙂 Even higher level — students generated their own study outlines

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 Highest level — students generated their own question(s) or questions with answers

Conclusion: Generating potential test questions while preparing for exams is an effective technique for improving performance on materials targeted by those test questions!

Source: Foos, P.W., Mora, J.J. & Tkacz, S. (1994). Student study techniques and the generation effect.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 567-576.

What does elaboration mean?

What does it mean to elaborate? Many things!

  • Going beyond rote memorization of information,
  • Adding details to ideas or concepts,
  • Clarifying the meaning of ideas,
  • Explaining the relationship between two or more concepts,
  • Making inferences,
  • Analyzing the idea/concept for its component parts,
  • Applying the concept to a new situation or creating an analogy, and
  • Connecting/linking material being learned with information already known.
Question stems to help you elaborate

Why don’t students elaborate?

Elaboration is a valuable tool to help you go beyond rote memorization of information to higher levels of thinking and learning. But many students don’t elaborate while studying, because of time pressures and/or they aren’t sure how to do it.

How do I elaborate?

Generating questions will help you elaborate. Use some of the generic questions stems below to help you generate content-specific questions (from lectures, readings, notes, etc.). Then, study by answering your questions, individually or in study groups, and checking your answers.

  • What is a new example of…? How would you use it to…?
  • What would happen if…?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
  • What do we already know about…?
  • How does it tie in with what we learned before? Explain why…?
  • Explain how…? How does it affect?
  • What is the meaning of…? Why is it important?
  • What is the difference between …and…? How are…and…similar?
  • What is the best…, and why?
  • What are some possible solutions for the problem of…?
  • Compare…and…with regard to…?
  • How does…effect or lead to…? What do you think causes…?
  • Do you agree and disagree with this statement: …? Support your answer.

Source: King, A. (1992). “Facilitating elaborative learning through guided student generated questioning.” Educational Psychologist. 27(1). 111-126.

Predicting test/exam questions

Listen for clues in lectures

  • Verbal clues: Professors often give clues to what will be on the exam so observe and listen carefully. Sometimes professors give direct instructions for the test while other clues can be more subtle. For example, if your instructor repeats an idea several times, writes it on the board, or returns to it in a subsequent lecture, you can be sure that it’s important enough to appear on an exam.
  • Non-verbal clues: Don’t forget that non-verbal cues such as gestures showing a critical point, pauses, and looking at notes indicate something is important. If a professor reads a section out loud, take note.
  • Questions: Pay close attention to questions the prof asks in lecture.
  • Outside readings: When your required readings are covered extensively in a lecture, you can bet they are important.

Study smarter, not harder

  • Put yourself into the professor’s head. What kind of questions would you ask? Refer to the learning objectives in the course outline or syllabus.
  • Save and review all graded materials. Quizzes, lab sheets, essays. Quiz questions often reappear on final exam in an altered form.
  • Get organized! Have a separate folder, file, or section in your notes labelled “Test Questions.”
  • Add questions on a regular basis. While the material is fresh (i.e., after each lecture and assignment), add possible test questions to your list.


Part of studying smarter is asking the person who knows — the professor! The format to the test can help you predict questions, so ask the professor how long the test will be and what kinds of questions to expect (e.g., multiple choice). Do this early in the term so that you can listen carefully in lectures from the beginning and brainstorm test questions appropriately.

Practice solving problems

For math and science courses, extend practice as needed: using homework questions, practice working them out anew, using different variables.

See also: Special Techniques for Math and Science Tests.


Adapted from: Ellis, D. (1995). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 168.


Self-testing as a study strategy

The key to self-testing is not to wait until right before your test! To be effective, the attributes of self-testing procedure should be in place over the course of the term. The following set the foundation for self-testing:

Reviewing lecture notes as soon as possible after each class.

◯ Identifying what you know and what hasn’t been clearly understood.

◯ Combining lecture and reading assignment notes into understandable summaries.

◯ Reviewing course material regularly instead of cramming.


Self-testing should be a part of each study session!

As noted above, effective studying involves reviewing course material on a regular basis. That means:

After lectures/tutorials

Lecture or tutorial notes need to be reviewed as soon as possible after each class. What does “reviewing” look like?

  • Test your knowledge and understanding using the notes containing examples and applications of concepts presented.
  • Relate new knowledge to previous topics covered.
  • Link old to new information, which will help you
    • understand the old information better,
    • remember all material covered, and
    • make predictions about what may occur next.

BONUS: Any information that was not well understood can be addressed immediately (asking questions in class, in tutorial).

After reading/note-making

At the end of each reading (e.g., chapter, journal article), set aside a part of your study session just to review your notes. Students often postpone self-testing until just before a scheduled test — it will still help to self-test, but by this time it’s too late for full effectiveness.


Brogue, C. (1993). Studying in the Content Areas: Science. Clearwater, FL: H&H Publishing Co.

Read More

BEFORE: Preparing for the test / exam

Return to Exam Prep

Self-reflectionSteps in preparing for a test or examStep 1: Be informed about the examStep 2: Be strategicStep 3: Select and organize key informationStep 4: Reviewing and self-testingOrganizing a study scheduleCramming sucks but I still need to do it... sometimes!Memory strategies

Self-reflection questions

  • Am I usually prepared for my tests and exams?
  • How often do I end up cramming when I don‘t want to?
  • Do I have the necessary skills and strategies to help me prepare well? Do I know how to prepare a study plan? i.e.
    • select the central information?
    • organize my time?
  • How good are my memory strategies?
  • Do my memory strategies facilitate long term memory and recall?


If you are prepared for a test, you will do better than if you aren’t prepared*. Really knowing your stuff means that you have learned your material, i.e., you can apply and use it in a meaningful way.

* there are exceptions such as severe test anxiety brought on by non-academic factors.

It‘s also important to recognize that different courses require different kinds of learning. The three most common types of learning used in university are:

  1. Memorizing
  2. Understanding concepts
  3. Problem-solving

For information on the three types of learning, go to Different Kinds of Learning.


The strategies in this section include how to:

  • be informed about the exam
  • select and organize central information organize a study schedule and follow it
  • put regular review and self-testing into your study routine deal with cramming
  • improve your memory strategies

Preparing for different test types such as multiple choice, short answer, and essay exams will be covered in the next section.

Steps in preparing for a test or exam

Step 1: Be informed about the exam

Step 2: Be strategic

Step 3: Select and organize key information

Step 4: Review

Step 1: Be informed about the exam

What do I know already?

  • Do a “data dump.” Write down everything you know about the course. The goal is to jumpstart your brain and get you thinking about the subject matter.

What does the professor expect me to know?

  • Look at the course objectives on your course outline or syllabus. Are any topics or sections given more emphasis? For example, a topic that has been covered for a number of weeks needs to be prioritized.
  • Does my professor have special interests that might influence the topics, format, etc.?

What are the ‘logistics’ of this test?

  • Format: test types; breakdown of questions (e.g., 50 multiple choice, 5 short answer)
  • Weighting: What percentage of the final mark is the exam worth?
  • Topics to be covered
  • Emphasis on material not yet tested compared to previously tested materials

What can past assignments and tests tell me about this test?

  • Look at old exams, assignments, and tests for questions types, topics, and key concepts.

What do I still need to complete?

  • Compiling lecture notes
  • Completing assigned readings (textbooks, articles)
  • For math & science: having solutions to problems; finishing labs

What other study aids do I need?

  • Past exams, study guides
  • TA or prof., study group

Step 2: Be strategic

Set targets: What content is to be reviewed by what date?

Begin with most difficult content.

Order the content: this depends on your professor’s instructions and your learning goals. Evaluate the quality of your review. If you don’t have time to study everything, focus on a selection of material and learn it really well.

Step 3: Select and organize key information

Here are four steps to help you select the right information to study.

  1. Identify the key information (concepts, ideas, issues, sections)

Preparing Summary Sheets for Studying – aim for one summary sheet per major topic in the course.

  1. Understand the key information

Research shows that students who generate their own test questions perform better than students who answer prepared questions or just read. Generating and answering your own questions helps you to elaborate on the key ideas, going beyond surface reading and rote memorization.

For more information on elaborating, go to Understanding Key Information: Elaboration Helps.

  1. Organize the key ideas with their supporting information

How do the key concepts interrelate? What supporting information do I need to help me understand the main idea?

Use a Cornell note and/or a concept or mind-map to connect and distinguish key ideas from supporting points. For information on how to make and use a mind map or Cornell notes as a study tool, go to our online Reading and Note-making module.

  1. Remember key course information

To remember and recall the material on the exam, you will need to review, review, review and then self-test. Continue to Step 4 (“Reviewing and Self-Testing”) for more information.

Step 4: Reviewing and self-testing

To facilitate understanding and learning, regular and systematic review during the term is necessary. Although students know the value of reviewing, due to such things as poor time management and procrastination, many students leave reviewing till just days before a test. Self-testing should also be applied during your review of materials so that you can gauge the extent of your learning. Keeping up with readings, and regular review also greatly reduce stress!

What is Review?

Review is a two-way process of information gathering and information using.

Information Gathering ← Information Using

During the review process you switch back and forth between these two functions.

Information Gathering: Read through all the sources of information: lecture notes, books and articles, labs, old exams, handouts, workbooks, study guides, etc.

Information Using: Test your understanding of the information. Use a variety of strategies while you review. The strategies you choose will depend on the nature of the material, and your learning style.

Some popular review strategies:

  • summary notes (e.g., tables, mind maps, headings with bullet points cue cards),
  • analyze types of questions and answer questions on old exams, practice problems,
  • do a mock exam,
  • make up your own multiple choice questions,
  • use memory strategies (e.g., make up mnemonics or visual stories to link words/ideas together),
  • rewrite,
  • recite out loud,
  • generate new examples to illustrate concepts,
  • apply a concept to your own life experience, and
  • teach a friend.

Adapted from: Fleet, J. et al (1990). Learning for Success: Skills and Strategies for Canadian Students. Toronto, ON: Harcourt Brace Janovich.

Tools: Self-Testing as a Study Strategy

Organizing a study schedule

With a well-conceived and realistic study schedule, it is very possible for a student to prepare for many exams at the same time and have time to take care of their other important needs, such as sleeping, eating well, and exercising. The Tools below will assist you in this task. Good luck!

Cramming sucks, but I still need to do it… sometimes!

Dire consequences of cramming include:

  • not having enough time to associate and integrate new information to prior learning
  • not having time to recite and elaborate means you might not see important connections
  • if you fail the exam or course or wish to continue in this field of study, you will have to study the same information again. And, that takes more time…
  • if you’re very stressed, information can elude you during the test
  • you’re probably exhausted from not sleeping enough, right? Lack of sleep causes cognitive impairment. In other words, you’re not thinking clearly!

Ok, but let’s get real. Most students have to cram sometimes. With this in mind, go to But What if I Have to Cram? for helpful hints to maximize your learning when cramming.

Memory strategies

With the large volume of information that university students must learn, there is no avoiding memorization. Students with good memory strategies find retaining and recalling information much easier. Memorization is a SKILL, not a talent, so you need to have good strategies and practise them regularly.

Luckily, we have a tool for that! Read Memory Strategies for Exam Prep.

For more excellent memory strategies, go to the Tools section of our online Reading and Note-making module.

Read More

Writing tests and exams at university

Return to Exam Prep

Self-reflection and IntroductionBecoming self-aware

Self-reflection questions

  • How do I feel about taking tests and exams?
  • Do tests and exams help or hinder my overall performance in a course? What are my past experiences with tests and exams?
  • When have I done well?
  • When have I struggled?

The aim of this module is to help you succeed in the world of formal testing.  For most university students, taking a test or exam is not a sought-after event. Being assessed under strict time constraints while sitting with hundreds of your closest personal friends is awkward at best and frightening at worst. It is true that some anxiety can motivate and keep you focused; however, excessive and unmanageable test anxiety can cause poor performance. Some students ‘blank out’ or freeze during a test. Others try to avoid the test by not showing up at all or writing as quickly and minimally as possible in order to escape the testing environment.

Formal testing is by no means the best mode of assessment. However, tests and exams are deeply embedded in the university academic culture and will continue to be part of student life into the future. So, if you can‘t beat them, why not learn to live with them!

Disarm tests! Remove misconceptions and take their power away

Grades don’t measure your intelligence. They measure how you scored on a test. That’s all!

Grades don‘t measure creativity. Tests are the antithesis of the creative process as there is little time or encouragement for thinking ‘outside of the box.’ Being too creative may result in penalties.

Grades don’t measure your self-worth. Yet, we give tests the power to determine how we feel about ourselves (e.g., “If I fail a test, I’m a failure.” or “If I do badly on a test, I’m a bad person.”)

If you do badly on a test, you are just a person who did badly on a test. That’s all!

Don’t exaggerate the pressure on yourself

Tests are not a matter of life and death. Even a low score on an important test is not the end of the world. It usually means only a delay.

This module will help you to learn valuable test-taking strategies to support your own academic success. So read on!

Start with Becoming Self-Aware. Then, strategies and tools for before, during, and after the exam.

Source: Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 167.

Becoming self-aware

Before you start to crack the books, spend some time doing a self-assessment of

  • Your expectations and goals for the course (including this test)
  • Your study and learning skills
  • Your mind and body
  • Your external resources
Set-Up Skills Mind & Body Resources
What are my goals for this exam? How do they fit into my overall goals for the course? What kind of student am I (e.g., need a long time to review, like to cram, studying in a group/alone)? How is my attitude right now? In general? Specific to this course/exam? Do I have all the necessary information and resources to succeed?
What is my entrance mark going into this exam? How much more do I need to meet my goal? Do I know how to study? Do I have good study skills and strategies? How motivated do I feel right now? Will procrastination pose a problem? Do I have the help I need to succeed (e.g., study group, TA/prof, family/friends, learning strategist)?
When should I start studying?Do any courses take priority? What exam types are easier/harder for me (e.g., multiple choice, long answer)? Do I need to learn new skills to manage the test format? Can I handle any test anxiety that might occur? Do I have a quiet study space?
Do I have the necessary time management skills to plan and organize an exam study schedule? How is my concentration right now? Do I have strategies to help keep focused? Am I physically prepared to handle stress? Are my friends encouraging me to do my best?

Now that you are more aware of yourself as a test-taker, it’s time to consider strategies to help you do your best on tests and exams. The strategies are grouped around three time frames:

  1. Before – Preparing for the test
  2. During – Taking the test
  3. After – Debriefing and celebrating the test

We have also included extra information in a Tools section at the end.

Read More

Course planning resources

Return to Time Management

Steps for Getting OrganizedHow to use homework timeCourse PlannerCourse Tracking SheetEnd of Term Planning ChartGrade CalculatorThe Study Plan

Steps for Getting Organized

  1. Use term calendars, weekly calendars, and daily to do lists. (Here are some helpful templates to get you started.)
    • If you need some flexibility, try not to pack your weekly calendar with too many activities. If you find that using calendars and to-do lists make you feel even more stressed, try looking at your life as a whole. Ask yourself: What are my values? What are my goals for the future? List your goals and then prioritize them. This might help you focus on what to do today and in the future.
  1. Don’t overbook. Schedule downtime every day. During downtime, you are not accountable to anyone or anything!
  2. Use a mind map. To see the whole picture first, draw a mind map. Mind maps are powerful visual tools for seeing the connections between a big concept and its associated detail. In other words, it allows you to see both the forest AND its trees! A bonus of mind-maps is that details can be easily added, deleted and moved around.
  3. Break down big projects.
    • Start by brainstorming.
    • Break the project down into steps, focusing on one step of a project at a time. Imagine putting on blinders like a racehorse so you can help yourself focus. You can do this by reorganizing and redrawing your mind map; writing the steps on sticky notes and rearrange until you have the right order; or using the Task Analysis chart.
    • Break steps into activities. You could then make a new map for each step.
    • Schedule activities: Use an agenda. Put sticky notes in an agenda and only take off the ones that are to be completed that day.
    • Complete project.
  4. Just do it. Sometimes just getting started on a task can help you feel better and will jump-start your motivation.

How to use homework time: Work smarter, not longer

It can be helpful to make a distinction between learning and studying.

Learning is focused on increasing your understanding of facts, concepts, processes and relationships (i.e., your understanding of the material).

Studying is designed to increase your recall of subject matter, through repetition of previously learned material.

The following ideas explain how to use homework time for effective learning, which will also result in less pressured studying.

Homework activities

1. Preview the lecture:

  • Before class, preview the lecture outline, web notes, lab objectives, or assigned problem set to begin to form a picture of what the class will be about.
  • Skim or read the assigned text. Read to get the BIG PICTURE, by reading the chapter introduction, summary, glossary and review questions. Then, return to the chapter beginning and read for more detail, or skim by reading the subtitles, first and last sentence of each paragraph. Be aware of material that is totally new and complex, and listen for that in the lecture.

2. Review your notes after the lecture:

  • Before sleeping that night, read over your notes from each class that day; this facilitates establishing a strong memory trace – which is very helpful when it comes time for studying! This might take 10-15 minutes for a single lecture.
  • Fill in gaps in your notes, add titles, and identify what you do not understand.
  • Summarize each lecture (don’t just copy it over verbatim) to use as study notes.

3. Complete assignments:

  • Keep up to date with assignments, aiming to finish 1 day ahead of due date to allow for human or technical malfunction!
  • Read in detail if you need further clarification, if the course is based on the text, your prof.expects you to, or you have time and enjoy the topic.

4. Do a weekly review:

  • Schedule a block of time for regular review of your summarized lectures or readings notes, concepts in key problems or labs, made over the past week. This might take 20-30 minutes per course.
  • Pay attention to what you do not know, and set a goal of figuring it out over the next week.

How much is “enough” homework time?

(Psst! Did you know there are 168 hours in every week?)

Time estimates vary according to course content, academic goals, other responsibilities and commitments, but…

  • A minimum is typically 1 hour of homework for every hour of undergraduate Arts.
  • Often, 2-4 hours of homework for every hour of lecture is needed for preview, review, and either keeping up with labs and assignments, or reading in the humanities or social sciences.
  • Lab and applied science courses are harder to predict, so track your own patterns and estimate based on that. Remember to include preview and review.

Consider school your full-time job

  • 15 lecture hours + 15 homework hours = 30 hours/week
    15 hours of class + 30 hours homework = 45 hours/week
  • Most full-time jobs range from 30 to 45 hours per week! Celebrate the flexibility of your working hours!

Course Planner

Download Course Planner Template


(Labs, essays, exams, tests, seminars, projects, etc.)
Value Due Date Grade
Midterm exam
Final exam


  1. Make one copy for each course and place in the front of each binder.
  2. Review the course syllabus and record all assignments, exams, etc. on your planner.
  3. Record the value of each item and the due date.
  4. Transfer due dates to monthly wall calendar.
  5. As tasks are completed during the term, enter the grade received.
  6. Prior to the final exam, calculate grade achieved thus far.
  7. Assess what your grade will need to be to maintain or improve your grade.

Course Tracking Sheet

Download Course Tracking Sheet Template

Use this to set goals, record your progress, and make decisions about allocating or re-distributing time among your courses. Do you need to shift amount of time you spend on each course, to meet your goals? How many marks do you need on final exam or paper to achieve your goal?

Course Grade  Goal Accomplishments (record as weighted value or % if assignments & tests are of almost equal value)

End of Term Planning Chart to complete assignments

Download End of Term Planning Chart Template

Behind in the work? Aiming to finish your term work by the last day of class? Looking for a plan?


  1. Make a list of the things you need to accomplish and enter these things on your Term Calendar. Break large projects into smaller chunks, so they feel more See the Assignment Calculator for research papers.
  2. Create an End of Term Planning Chart and include 7 columns:
    • Course, task or assignment, % value if relevant, due date if
    • Then add: estimate of time needed to do the task, leave a column to record the actual time taken, and finally, a column for “DONE.”
  3. Look at your Weekly Schedule to see when you have homework time available, and slot in hours for your different tasks or Separate your “keep up with regular work” from your “catch-up” time. It is often helpful to make a schedule for each week, by copying the basic template of classes, other commitments, health habits (eating, sleeping, exercise), and filling in the rest based on your immediate priorities.

NOTE: If you estimate you need more time to do your tasks than is actually available, you will need to re-adjust your estimate.  Can you take time from one project and re-assign it to another to better reach your goals? Or can you accept using less time than you would like on something?

You can’t make more time, so you will need to fit your work into the time available.


Course Task % Value Due Date Estimated Time
to Complete
Actual time Done!
CRSS 335 Chapter 5 (30 pages) Nov. 15 10 hrs 2+1.5+ 2+

3+3 (11.5)

PHIL 202 20 page essay

  • confirm topic
  • make research plan
  • research, make notes
  • outline
  • messy draft
  • edit, rework
  • visit the Writing Centre
30% Nov. 22

  • Nov. 7
  • Nov. 8
  • Nov. 11 
  • Nov. 15
  • Nov. 18 Nov.19 Nov. 20
3 or 4 days

  • 1 hr
  • 1.5 hrs
  • 10 hrs
  • 3 hrs
  • 8 hrs
  • 2 hrs
  • 1 hr




End-of-Term Planning Chart

Course Task % Value Due Date Estimated Time
to Complete
Actual time Done

Grade Calculator

Not sure how your marks are adding up? Download the grade calculator, an Excel spreadsheet, to help you keep track of your grades.

Download the Grade Calculator

The Study Plan

Download The Study Plan Template

Why should I start studying early?

Did you know that the human brain learns academic material faster and better if done in brief blocks of time spread over longer periods, rather than in a few lengthy sessions?

For example, you will perform better on an exam if you spend one hour studying each day for 20 days than if you spend 10 hours studying for two days before an exam. Which means that cramming is BAD NEWS!

What if I have to cram?

Ok, so sometimes life gets crazy and we end up having to cram, right? If you have to cram, try to focus on remembering the information you know already rather than trying to learn new information. And here’s the kicker: you will typically NOT remember what you tried to learn the night before the exam, so it’s best to make sure you really know some of the information well. If you do have a few days, try to spread the studying out so you are not doing it all in one day.

How should I plan my exam preparation?

If you plan ahead, many students have found the “The Study Plan” gets good results. However, five days is really the minimal and we recommend a much longer study plan, if possible. For example, if you have not read any of your BIOL 101 textbook and a multiple choice quiz of over 100 test questions is looming, 5 days will probably not suffice.

Components of The Study Plan:

  • Space out your learning over a minimum of 5 days.
  • Divide your material into workable “chunks,” (e.g., a chapter, a set of lecture notes).
  • During each day, prepare a new chunk. Preparing might be reading and note-taking, amalgamating lecture and textbook information, reorganizing lecture notes.
  • Review previous material.
  • Use active learning strategies such as questioning, reciting, cue cards, study groups, etc.
  • Use self-testing techniques to monitor your learning.

How much time should I set aside to study?

You might need a minimum of 8-10 hours of studying to get a good mark on an exam. However, the time you need to spend really depends on many things such as:

  • the difficulty of the course
  • to what extent you have kept up with the materials during the term
  • how important this exam is to you

How to make a Study Plan

  1. Break your material into chunks. If it can be divided by chapter, article, theme or topic, then use that. If not, divide the material in a way that is manageable to you. For example, if one chapter is very long and/or complex, break that chapter into sections.
  2. Plan to spend 2.5-3 hours studying on each of the five (or more) days.
  3. Each day, begin by reviewing the previous day’s work, focusing on what you did not know on the self-test, and then preparing a new section. End with a self-test.

Example time frame:

Date What to do What to study Length of time
Day 1 Prepare
1st section/chunk
(e.g., a chapter)
2 hours
20 minutes
Day 2 Review
Prepare Self-test
1st section
2nd section
20 minutes
2 hours
20 minutes
Day 3 Review
Prepare Self-test
1st section
2nd section
3rd section
10 minutes
20 minutes
2 hours
20 minutes
Day 4 Review
1st section
2nd section
3rd section
4th section
5 minutes
10 minutes
20 minutes
2 hours
20 minutes
Day 5 Review
1st section
2nd section
3rd section
4th section
5 minutes
5 minutes
10 minutes
20 minutes
2 hours

You may need to extend the preparation time depending on the information and to match your own learning pace. However, studying for more than 3-4 hours at one session is not as helpful as several shorter ones.

Also, don’t forget to take short breaks throughout!

Read More