The Exam Cram

By Ali Rawling, 3rd-year Kinesiology student

As exam season is fast approaching (I can’t believe it’s week 11!), lots of people will be putting tons of hours into their studies in this upcoming month. There are lots of effective and different ways to study, but there is one type of studying that doesn’t work well for most: cramming.

“Cramming” normally means

packing every single bit of material into a study session the night or day before an exam.

There are many reasons cramming doesn’t work, including not allowing enough time for your brain to consolidate what you’re studying into your long-term memory. That can make it more difficult to remember answers to exam questions without having your notes or textbook around as a cue. Another huge reason cramming is ineffective is that it increases stress and test anxiety — and stress can have a negative impact on sleep, which is essential if you want to remember any of the facts you just studied!

Want some tips to avoid those last-ditch cram sessions?

  • Create an exam study schedule ASAP to avoid cramming all together. Come by Learning Strategies to make one today, or use our famous online Five-Day Study Plan.
  • Keep your study session length according to the 50-10 rule. Study key material in short, focused bursts over several days leading up to the exam. This way you can learn the material better and retain more of the information.
  • Exercise before you study. Exercise has been shown to improve memory, increase focus, and reduce stress. Your brain is a physical organ — a healthy body often means a healthy brain!
  • Sleep after studying. Did you know the brain encodes what it has recently learned during sleep? It is more effective than staying up all night to study earlier and rest up — you’ll remember more in the morning!

If none of the above tips convince you that cramming is a bad idea, consider this: Going 18 hours without sleep results in similar cognitive functions as a person who’s legally drunk!

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“Despite your best intentions …”: Flexible time management

By Vicky Chan, 4th-year Commerce student

For some students, term calendars with multiple dates and commitments provide strategic planning for weeks that are packed with assignments, due dates, and tests. But one cannot rely solely on this term calendar for planning purposes, especially since weekly plans and daily plans can change. So how does one adjust accordingly and still come out intact (i.e. not succumb to immense stress)?

For me, three Learning Strategies tip stick out to me in particular:

1. Set goals and priorities. Not all assignments are “equal” and some courses will be more important or more difficult for you.

The notion of setting priorities extends to other aspects of academic life as well (for instance, deciding which questions to answer first on an exam), but when it comes to assignments, it is about managing your interests. You might notice after you’ve written down on your term calendar that certain assignments carry more weight, and they might be the “not so fun, yet have to put more effort in” assignments from your mandatory courses. If it happens that two assignments are due in close proximity, as they often will, choose the one that is worth more to do first, even if it could mean “eating a frog for breakfast” (doing your least favourite task first thing in the day or week). You’ll thank yourself later after you’ve crossed over the tough hurdle and can finish the race with a more “enjoyable” assignment.

2. Estimate your time realistically (i.e. pay attention to how quickly you actually read that Physics chapter).

This tip was and still is a toughie for me. As someone who likes to take notes by hand as I read through a chapter, the challenge arises near the end when there seems to be not enough time to fit in that last one or two chapters before an exam. To judge how much time to set aside for note-taking, time yourself! Realistically, it might not be possible to read a chapter twice (unless you’re referencing from it later on), so making good notes during the first reading is important. Writing/typing notes almost verbatim is not helpful if you don’t understand what it is you’re reading. For suggestions on how to tackle long and course specific readings, please refer to our module on Reading and Notemaking.

3. Create and revise a study schedule. Include classes, homework, eating, sleeping, exercise, sleeping, socializing, sleeping, clubs, down time. Each week has 168 hours.

Notice the importance of sleeping there! When awake, though, recognize that as new commitments emerge, one needs to adjust pre-established schedules to accommodate changes. For instance, making time to catch up with a friend could be a healthy change to your schedule if you are feeling socially isolated. In order to accommodate for changes, it is a good idea to build into your schedule flex time, time you could choose to do whatever you want: catch up, people watch, sleep, you name it. Building flex time into your schedule enables you to have freedom to deviate a little from an otherwise strict plan as the situation requires it.

Consider filling out our Weekly Time Use form to check how you spend your time every week. Will you meet your long-term goals with your current time use?

At the end of the day, we all have our own priorities to meet so sometimes time management is just a matter of getting to know ourselves a little better. At Learning Strategies, our role is to help you along in that journey by providing you with some resources to achieve those academic goals with a little more creativity.

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This learning strategy saved me in first year: Weekly review

By Kelli Cole, 2nd-year Life Sciences student

Something that I found astounding in first year was the amount of information into each class during a semester. In high school, teachers would give you days and even weeks to grasp a concept. Contrarily, in university, you are given 50 minutes. How in the world are you suppose to fully understand, apply, and remember all of this information throughout the entire semester?! Well, it took me until second semester to figure this out… and I haven’t looked back since.

The first step to managing what you learn in lectures is making sure to ask questions. If you are confused about what your professor said, ASK!  It is very important to get your questions answered right away, instead of allowing them to build up. By clarifying confusing concepts immediately, not will future lectures make a bit more sense, but it will also help you immensely when it comes to studying for exams. No question is a stupid question, so take advantage of your professor’s and T.A.’s office hours, you won’t regret it.

For the second step, here’s a scenario: It’s now Sunday night, and you’ve made sure to clarify all of the past week’s questions. You’re off to a great start! You understand and can apply what you have been taught this week… but it’s only week three, how are you possibly going to remember this until final exams?! This was precisely my problem in first year! Unfortunately, information seemed to be flowing out of my head just as quickly as it was flowing into my head.

To overcome this, I gave myself about an hour and a half every Sunday afternoon to review all concepts I had learned from the previous week. For example, by week five, I was reviewing week one, two, three, four, and five.  You are probably thinking, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!  That must take forever!” But, since I had previously reviewed week one four times already, it only took minimal time since I knew it so well! As you can imagine, by exams, what I had learned throughout the semester was relatively fresh in my mind. During the exam study period, I could focus on studying instead of learning material for what could potentially be the first time.

Creating a weekly review routine ensures that you are keeping up with what you’ve learned throughout the semester and helps to relieve exam stress. While studying, important information is gradually transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory. The more the information is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually end up in long-term memory, or to be retained!  So when exams roll around, you will be so much more prepared, as it will be possible for you to recall information, instead of having to encode it for the first time!

The bottom line is, not being afraid to ask questions when you are struggling with a concept and making sure you review what you’ve learned weekly will most definitely decrease exam stress levels and improve your overall academic success!  For more information and helpful tips check out memory strategies brought to you by the Learning Strategies!

It’s never too late to start a review routine — try it out for the next few weekends, and see how much time it saves you during finals!

Photo courtesy of John Morgan under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

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When your eyes are bigger than your stomach

The trial and error of a student who bites off more than they can chew

By Taylor Wilson-Sipkema, 3rd-year Engineer

A recurring topic between my housemates and I has been how many students feel the pressure to be ridiculously over-achieving at Queen’s. By “overachieving,” I mean the impossible drive to get good grades, be an executive member for 5 different clubs, participate in athletics at a varsity level and still squeeze in the odd Tumbleweed Tuesday or Alfie’s Throwback – all the while making it look effortless and completely attainable. So much pressure!

We’ve come to the general conclusion that Queen’s leads to this kind of pressure because of the personal statement of experience required by every high-school applicant, as well as the school’s extensive alumni network.  Now that’s not to say that everyone feels this kind of pressure to perform at an elite level in all of their pursuits – but it is definitely pretty common here. And it can lead to feelings of low self-worth and unfair comparisons to others.

Before you continue reading, I want you to stop for a minute and congratulate yourself on a job well-done just for being here. You’re at university and your future couldn’t be any brighter. If you’ve ever felt that, since you came to Queen’s, you’ve lost that golden-child flair you had in high school, then you are like many other students.

After researching this topic, I found the term was coined as “Big Fish in a Big Pond.” Students often experience enormous pressure to be the perfect student in order to compete with their peers. But even the biggest of fish can bite off more than they can chew.

Ironically enough, the inspiration for this blog came from a realization I had that maybe I myself had in fact took on more than I could handle. I’ll admit that I came to Queen’s as one of those students that had a long track list of achievements, wide-eyed and full of confidence in my abilities. Being the ambitious student that I was, I also chose engineering as my undergraduate degree…just to keep things interesting.

I’m sure you can tell by the tone of this blog that things maybe didn’t go according to plan. After my first year I had lost all confidence. I constantly compared myself to others and felt like I wasn’t as capable as the rest of my classmates.

Fortunately, instead of letting this pressure get the best of me, I learned from my experiences. In my second year, I sought out the help of Learning Strategies. This ultimately saved my academic career and also brought me to becoming a Peer Learning Assistant. I gained back the reassurance that I once had in high school and felt I was capable of getting involved in extra-curriculars.

Always remember that quality is better than quantity. It’s better to only bite off what you can chew and really excel in those areas of your life as opposed to just doing things for the sake of competition. Although it can be a hard decision to give things up, there are only 24 hours in a day. For your health, it’s good to prioritize — and Learning Strategies has information on prioritizing and making those decisions stick.

All of this talk about getting involved and doing well in school can be overwhelming, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed, know this…

There is a light at the end of this 4 (or more) year tunnel.

Research also uncovers the effect that pressure may have on students when they graduate. You’ll be ready to take on the real world, where we are not all perfect and we can’t do it all. I hope we learn to understand our capabilities and limits, and be happy with who we are.

Stress is normal and sometimes even helpful, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed, there are resources available. You might start by reading our tips on coping with exam and/or academic anxiety.

Feature image courtesy of hikingartist under the Creative Commons license.

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October 30, November 4, 5: Writing an English Essay

Writing a first-year (or any) English essay can be daunting. This workshop will cover the essentials of writing a successful English paper: titles, conclusions, and everything in between.

This workshop will be offered

Wednesday, October 30, 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m., Walter Light 205

Monday, November 4, 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m., BioSci 1102

Tuesday, November 5, 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m., Dupuis 217

All English 100 students are encouraged to attend; the workshop is also open to any English students who want to review strategies for writing successful English essays.

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The importance of rewards

By Brigid Conroy, 2nd-year Life Sciences student.

You emerge victorious from a power study session or writing a paper, feeling relieved to be done, only to find the yet-unfinished tasks on your to-do list staring you in the face. And to make matters worse, their deadlines have only been creeping closer while you’ve been hard at work. You’ve been here. It’s easy to feel like there isn’t time for anything but a sigh before starting in on the next job. Unfortunately, this negative cycle leaves you feeling like you’re winning every battle and still losing the war. The good news: there’s an easy route to help break this cycle, and it’s paved with brownies, cute animals, and good feelings.

I should clarify – brownies and cute animals are simply examples pulled from my own list of favourite rewards for hard work. A good reward is all about what works for you. For some, going to the gym is a reward while, for others, the gym warrants a reward. Anything from a short walk to wandering into a common room to talk with friends can be a great reward and, once in a while, a dessert or some time on Facebook doesn’t hurt either! The most important part of a reward, however, is taking the time during the activity to congratulate yourself. Positive self-talk and reflecting on the good work you have done is the difference between these activities being breaks and rewards.

Rewards not only keep you positive and motivated when you’re dealing with multiple deadlines, but can make it easier to break the cycle of procrastination. A highly effective strategy for dealing with procrastination is the STING method:

Set a goal
Time yourself
Ignore interruptions
No distractions
Give yourself a reward

(For more information on STING, visit our online tips about procrastination and motivation).

The final step in this strategy is Give yourself a reward and it’s one that shouldn’t be skipped. This is not because STING won’t work those first few times if you do; it’s the negative habit that forms when you continually skip your well-deserved reward. Overcoming procrastination is so difficult because it involves accepting delayed gratification. This difficulty is only compounded if that gratification is only a few seconds of feeling proud and relieved to have finished before beginning to stress about or work on the next task. By rewarding yourself and taking some time to appreciate the result of the work you put in, you will begin to connect positive feelings to the experience of overcoming procrastination.

One of my favourite strategies is creating a list of accomplishments after an intense week of tests or weekend of assignment writing. Taking the time to jot down or think through everything I accomplished puts me in a positive frame of mind and frees me from the feeling that I can’t win against the never-ending work. In reality, we win every time we hand in a lab or assignment, write a test or exam. So focus on those black lines through your to-do list instead or do a little happy-dance after a big exam. You deserve it!

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Make the Midterm Dream Your Reality

By Kelli Cole, 2nd-year Life Sciences major

The first month of university has come and gone, and academics mixed with the craziness of being a Queen’s student is starting to catch up with you!  Midterm season is here!  (A.K.A. Late night studying, frantic cramming, microwavable dinners, and a complete loss of control)!  But perhaps, just maybe, this midterm season won’t be this way!  Imagine a world where you could keep on top of your courses, take time to have fun, AND feel confident while walking into those “not-so-dreaded” midterm exams!  What if I told you that this October this dream could be your reality!

Midterms definitely don’t have to be frightening and stressful!  So take a deep breath and check out my top two tips for success this October!

1. Attitude is everything.  Going into midterm season with a positive attitude will not only make you less feel more confident and relaxed, but it will also help you to study more effectively!  It’s definitely not necessary to jump for joy because you’ve got a final coming up.  Nevertheless, try and be conscious of how you respond mentally and physically whenever you think of the upcoming exam! Let’s be honest, every time you mention the exam, you probably are either complaining or stressing about it! Perhaps, maybe just maybe, you tried to go from negative thoughts and reactions to slightly more neutral ones?   It might be a good idea to think to yourself, “I’ve worked hard in this class. This exam is a chance for me to show everything I’ve learned. In fact, it’s going to be a good feeling to prove that I’ve learned a lot.”

Whatever positive thoughts you may tell yourself, altering your attitude (even somewhat) towards midterms might help relieve some tension, which in turn may help you to stay calm and focused when studying!

2.   Take control!  Start by going through your notes and assignments and create a plan! Design a study schedule for yourself based on which subjects need the most work! In fact, Learning Strategies offers a fantastic online resource that contains all the steps to follow for a rockin’ study schedule — our 5-Day Study Plan. This 5-day study plan will walk you through the different stages of studying to make sure that you are as ready as you can be when you sit down for the test. Finally, although it may feel great to study and practice topics you are confident in, focus on topics that may be tricky if they were presented to you on the exam! If you do need to seek help from a prof, T.A., or friend, do so ASAP!  The sooner you get a grasp on what may be troubling you… the better.

Lastly, I just want to remind you not to give up! University is tough, not doubt about it!  Remember that you were accepted to Queen’s for a reason! It is totally normal to feel discouraged at some points during your academic careers, but also don’t be afraid to reach out for help!  There are MANY resources here at Queen’s, the Learning Strategies being one of them!  If you need help drafting a study schedule, advice on how to read for effectively, or even tips on motivation and procrastination… we are the place for you!  Even if we don’t have the specific resource you are looking for, we will match you up with the right one!  Start by following my top two tips for success and help the midterm dream become your reality.

For even more strategies and habits to develop regarding exams, visit our online resources on Exam Prep.

Photo courtesy of Tim Swinson from Flickr Creative Commons.

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Stop mixing up your I’s and E’s: Think EQ, not IQ

By Alex Valeri, 3rd year English major

This may come as a surprise to those of you who know me but I am not, in any way, a genius. I don’t have an eidetic memory or an uncanny ability to memorize obscure facts or statistics on the recent fiscal crisis in North America. I can’t read War and Peace in a two hour sitting and I don’t have an IQ of 187 (if you believe that intelligence can be accurately quantified). As much as I would like to believe that I could keep up with the likes of Dr. Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds or Spock from Star Trek, I am sorry to say that it’s just not possible, although I do, on occasion, manage to get some Jeopardy answers right.

With that said, this summer as I completed my Peer Learning Assistant homework, I learned about the importance of emotional intelligence, otherwise known as EQ — something that immediately caught my interest.

Emotional intelligence means being able to understand and manage your own emotions and thoughts as well as being aware of other people’s feelings around you. It is becoming more and more accepted as a key indicator of success and a way of maximizing your full potential.

People who are emotionally intelligent are self-aware, empathetic, motivated and willing to take responsibility and criticism. They don’t break down in times of a crisis and they are not constantly blaming others for mistakes. These skills allow them to succeed in school, the workplace and everyday life.

Never fear those of you who are reading this description and thinking: “That is definitely NOT me.” There are many ways to improve your EQ, including these three easy adjustments:

1) Eat healthy, sleep and exercise: These are just basic components of healthy living! Doing these three things makes you feel good about yourself and more confident in your abilities. It’s difficult to be an empathetic, self-aware and adaptive person when you are running on 4 hours of sleep every night. [Editor’s note: As a prime example of this, I have a tendency to cry over just about anything if I’m sleep-deprived!]

2) Build positive relationships: Having friends and family you can go to for help, support and advice is crucial during those difficult times in life. It’s also important that you are there for them in return in order to build a fulfilling and lasting relationship. Practice empathy by listening non-judgmentally and without interruption to your upset friend, or just putting yourself in their shoes.

3) Try a new perspective: A positive attitude can totally change your perspective on life. Positivity means being able to smile, laugh and keep things in perspective when times get tough. It also means believing in yourself. One strategy for this is to practice “cognitive re-framing.” When you experience a setback, try viewing it in the following way: “This is just one setback — it doesn’t mean that I won’t succeed at my next task. I’ve recovered from failure before and I’ll recover again. One setback or failure doesn’t mean that I will always experience setback or failure in the future, or that I won’t improve. Mistakes are normal during the learning process. What can I learn from this experience, instead of feel bad about myself?”

As university students, it’s easy to get bogged down with assignments, midterms and worst of all, stress! (Especially around this time of year!) Strong emotional intelligence can help you navigate these tough times and come out on top. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never be upset or feel stress, but developing your EQ may help you manage those stressors more effectively.

Last but not least, remember what Henry Ford said: “Whether you can or you can’t, you’re right.”

Would you like to learn more? You can always take the free EQ quiz, or learn more about EQ at the Institute for Health and Human Potential’s Emotional Intelligence.

[Editor’s note: Emotional Intelligence doesn’t mean you’ll always feel like laughing or smiling. Stress, grief, anger, and other troubling emotions are normal, too. But EQ can help you manage those feelings in a more effective way. For more help with EQ and academics, feel free to make an advising appointment with our professional staff by calling 613-533-6315. If you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, we also recommend the Peer Support Centre in the JDUC as well as Counselling Services at LaSalle Building on campus.]

[Final editor’s note: C’mon, that smiling banana must have made you smile, too, right? Photo courtesy of red5standingby.]

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“Off the Beaten Path” Study Spots: Focus Guaranteed

By Elana Moscoe, 3rd year Concurrent Education – History major

I don’t know about you, but it seems as though Week 4 has hit me like a ton of bricks. As always, the semester is whizzing by, and with each passing day, we sink deeper and deeper into our courses, our essay writing, our readings and deadlines that at first appear to be a distant idea, but now are fast approaching.

My brain is also still on summer mode. I find it so difficult to come back to school in September after being off for four months to settle back into a routine, especially when the sun is shining and when I’d much rather be playing frisbee on the pier than playing catch up with my old friend Joseph Stauffer.

My favourite way to settle into a productive, enjoyable and effective routine is to motivate myself to study by finding new study spots on campus. The environment in which you choose to do your studying has a great impact on how successful and productive you will be. I know for me, I need moderate quiet, lots of natural light, a firm chair which I won’t fall asleep in, access to tea and a space that is not too crowded. But everyone is different! I find changing up my studying locations really helps me stay motivated to do my work, rather than falling into a monotonous routine that makes studying unenjoyable.

Although I know many people who can successfully study in their bedrooms, I know that I am absolutely useless when working at my desk in my room. I can find a million and one things to distract myself with — my two favourites are procrasti-cleaning and procrasti-cooking! By changing up your study locations every once in a while, it can re-stimulate you and refresh you as the semester goes on. But that being said, everyone has a different style.

Here are my personal favourite “Off the Beaten Path” study spots on campus. Feel free to add to my list by commenting below!

On Campus Study Spots

Empty Classrooms:

  • Try Mac-Corey, Kingston Hall, Watson Hall. Empty classrooms are great on weekends and during exam periods for group studying. Take advantage of the chalkboards and white boards to make mindmaps and illustrate key concepts and ideas. Great spots to do some hands on studying and teaching.

Red Room in Kingston Hall

  • Big tables, lots of space, generally not too busy

The Fireplace Reading Room in Stauffer

  • For a super quiet and sophisticated study spot, this large circular room is made cozy by 3 fireplaces which are on during the colder months of the year. There are nice big tables, but also smaller side tables and comfy chairs for reading.  During the day this room gets a lot of natural light, but beware of studying here in the evening as the lights are very dim. It can be soothing but it can also be a contributing factor for feeling sleepy and unproductive.


  • During the warmer months, bring a blanket and lean up against a tree, a crack open your textbook to get some readings done while enjoying the fresh air and taking in our beautiful campus.

Third Floor of the ARC:

  •  Lots of tables, natural light, a great spot to study with a friend. It is a lot quieter than the hustle and bustle of CoGro (Common Ground) below, providing subtle background noise to help some people focus.

Bracken Medicine Library

  • Very quiet study space, usually easy to find a spot. The top floor has really comfy couches, and the basement is dead quiet with minimal distractions. This is a great spot if you really need to sit down and focus. Also, it is attached to Botteral Hall which has an incredible caf. Probably the best kept secret at Queen’s.

The JDUC Study Room on the Third Floor

  • The best kept secret of the JDUC! This room is always available for studying and is rarely used!

Biosciences Undergraduate Study Room

  • Great to stop by between classes. This room is very quiet and has lots of electrical outlets and is in close proximity to both Tim Hortons and potentially your TAs if you need help!

Douglas Library- Third Floor

  • While many people love to study in the Harry Potter Room to feel like they are in Hogwarts, I prefer to study in the massive room right across from HP’s lair. You can always find a seat, even during exam time, it has lots of natural light, big tables and is always very quiet. TIP: BYOP (Bring your own power bar! Plugs are in limited supply and if you do, you can even make a friend by sharing!)

The Tea Room

  • Located on the corner of Union and Division, the Tea Room is a much smaller, lesser known version of the Common Ground in the ARC. Minimal background noise can be perfect for someone who needs it for stimulation. Also, their Chai Tea lattes are delicious!

Off Campus:

Sipps Coffee

  • Sipps is a bit further from campus, down by Ontario Street. They have cozy seating and delicious gourmet drinks, treats and sandwiches. Yum!

The Sleepless Goat

  • Down on Princess Street, the Goat provides a laid back atmosphere for studying with some background noise and delicious homemade organic food.

Starbucks Coffee on Division and Johnson

  • Classic spot, lots of tables inside and outside, a louder environment, super close to campus!

Check out these study spots and be creative with your study habits! Change will help you stay on track, stay focused and help you enjoy the studying process!  Get creative and good luck!

Photo courtesy of Tony Hall.

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