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Peer blog: 5 strategies for finishing the semester strong

Santosh, Life Sciences, Class of 2023

Hi Gaels! I hope all your midterms went well and that you had a nice break SASS Peer: Santashto rejuvenate. It was a busy month, to say the least, but the semester is far from over. We are entering the last stretch of the term, and this is a period that could make or break our semester. The finish line is in sight and it is up to us how we finish the race. However, the transition from midterm season to summative assignment season can be a stressful time. In this installment of my SASS blog, I’ll provide you with some valuable tips that I’ve been experimenting with lately to manage my work and study load, especially when it comes to prepping for midterms.

  1. The daily task list. Apart from the actual challenges that my midterms posed, one of the biggest difficulties I had this month was getting everything done. There was just so much work this month that things felt overwhelming at times, so I decided to create a daily task list for myself. Sticking to the schedule wasn’t smooth sailing, as I’d hoped it would be…

When I first made the list, I put way too many tasks for myself to complete in a day. I ended up feeling just as overwhelmed because it looked as though I really did have a never-ending list of work and tasks to complete in a limited amount of time. It was only after a few days of experimentation that I began to make a list that I was able to stick to. It does take a few days to a week to create task lists that are realistic because you need those first few days to gauge the time needed to finish something. My advice is to start by putting fewer tasks than you think you can complete and slowly keep adding tasks until you reach your goal! So even though finishing 5 lab reports in a day would be amazing, you have to create a realistic task list that you can stick to you and still be on top of all your responsibilities. The trick is to think about balance, and to remember that not finishing a task or two in a day is not the end of the world!

Overall, the schedule was a huge help because it made something that seemed almost impossible—my never-ending task list—become possible! Another bonus was that checking off a task from the list motivated me to finish the next task and so on (and I needed all the motivation I could get this month!). But all jokes aside this is an amazing tool to use at any time of the year, but it is only as powerful as you make it to be! 

  1. Cue cards. Use cue cards for the material you need to memorize (e.g. definitions), then test yourself regularly. Even a couple of minutes working through your cards can help! This is an amazing technique because it involves active recall and it helps you understand what course material you need to improve on. Disclaimer: Don’t get carried away trying make your cue cards all fancy: get the information you need on the cards, rather than pretty pictures and formatting.

  2. Past papers. Test your knowledge using past midterms or quizzes. It will get you used to an assessment-like method that will likely be similar to the real deal. Looking over all the wrong answers can help you gauge where your weaknesses are, helping you to fine-tune your knowledge and use your time wisely. If you’re not sure where to find past papers for your courses, Queen’s Exam Bank is a good place to look.

  3. Active reading. Avoid passive reading, which means just re-reading or highlighting text without really using the information you’re seeing. I think we are all suckers for this: who wouldn’t want to just read over their notes on a Thursday evening for half an hour and call it a day because we feel we went over the required material? This is a trap! You feel as though you understand the topic because you are reading the exact information you are going to be tested on. So read actively and in short bursts: take some notes, try testing yourself on information, write questions and annotations for yourself, make cue cards, and try writing summaries after a reading. Even a few minutes of active reading is better than hours of passive reading!

  4. Summaries. Once you’ve been through a topic, write a short summary of major ideas and reflect on how you feel about the material. This will help you remember what you just learned and guide you: if you’re struggling to summarize, or have forgotten key ideas, the next time you review the same material you know exactly what you should focus on! 

As we head into the last stretch before exam season, make sure to give yourself a well-deserved break for finishing this grueling month of university! Mental exhaustion is very common at this time of the year so please do take care of yourselves and set some time each day to do something that you like. Hopefully, these tips will help you study a little more efficiently as final assignments and exams approach. See you next time!

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Peer blog: Academic dual citizenship: My experience as a student and TA

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1 

Happy November, everyone! Here we are, about 75% done with the fall term. Whether you are in the first year of your undergrad or fourth year of your PhD, I can guarantee we are all thinking the same thing: how the heck did I do that? By this point, you have likely handed in a few assignments, completed a few midterms, and, if you’re a TA, graded roughly 7000 assignments and/or midterms. So far, I have quite enjoyed being a dual citizen in academia. By this, I am referring to my status as both a Queen’s student and employee. As a student, I get the opportunity to learn about the things I am truly interested in and, as a TA, I get the opportunity to teach about the same. It’s a win-win situation.

This semester, I am taking the “Biological Bases of Behaviour” course. One of the required assignments was a press release in which we had to translate a recently published scientific article into layman’s terms for a non-scientific audience. The task seemed daunting, but I was intrigued by the challenge. These sorts of writing projects force us, as students, to flex different muscles than what we’re used to, especially because academic writing can be very formulaic. For example, lab reports begin with an introduction, followed by methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. After several years of writing lab reports, this style becomes ingrained in our brains. But then, every once in a while, a professor throws a curveball, like this assignment, which requires us to break the mould and get a little creative.

Press releases allow you to draw on a slew of literary practices otherwise frowned upon in scientific writing. Adjectives? What are those? Personal commentary? You wouldn’t dare! Definitive statements?! I wasn’t sure I even remembered how to write one. Nevertheless, I forged ahead on this journey reintroducing myself to the world of creative writing. As I began to write, I was nagged by the thought of: “well, don’t just summarize it,” which, ironically, is something I often tell my students when they review journal articles. So, naturally, the first thing I did was write a summary of the article. I then turned to SASS’s writing resource about avoiding plot summaries for guidance on what to do next. Although this blog specifically discusses how to avoid summarizing stories, not experimental studies, the key strategies were directly applicable to this assignment: you must provide just enough detail to situate the reader. and then focus on discussing the importance, rather than the story line, of the article. All said and done, I was proud of what I created and received very positive feedback from my professor!

My favourite aspect of TAing is interacting with the students. However, due to COVID-19, I knew this might not be possible because professors were forced to tweak their approaches to teaching. Unfortunately for us TAs, this meant that many professors eliminated the synchronous lab/tutorial components from their curriculum. Although I completely understand why this had to happen given the constraints of distance learning, I was crushed to find out my weekly 3-hour lab sessions had been whittled down to a mere 1 office hour per week. I have been a TA for 2.5 years now, yet this is the first TAship in which I have had almost no face-to-face discourse with the students. On the bright side, this teaching experience (or lack thereof) has only reinforced my fondness for in-person teaching! I look forward to, one day, being able to TA labs in which I can physically be in the same room as the students again!

Well, we made it another month. This is a reminder to celebrate your accomplishments, big and small! With our busy schedules, it is easy to overlook the small things (like receiving positive feedback from your professor), but I challenge you to truly acknowledge the amount of time and effort you put into each feat, and don’t be afraid to bask in the glory of your own triumphs!  A few weeks ago, I presented at my first conference which was a big milestone. I am going to share with you what my supervisor shared with me: take some time to enjoy the success, you deserve it!

See you next month!

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Peer blog: Staying resilient and keeping up

Liyi, Engineering, Class of 2024

In the month from September to October, my head has felt absolutely jammed with content from different courses. Learning online at an accelerated rate has been tough, but I am managing to the best of my ability. I’ve noticed that I now have probably 40% of the free time I used to have, with no time to check and reply to messages—ever! (I have also had less time to take care of my skin, and it shows.)

In terms of school, I have had my good days and bad days. There have been more instances of forgetting due dates and missing meetings since the beginning of university than I have ever had in my entire life. The only thing keeping me on track is the notifications for OnQ I receive daily that remind me of the tasks I need to do, which I input into my calendars. (See Figure 1). Taking a tiny bit of time to transfer this information into my calendar is keeping me on top of all those tasks.

OnQ Notifications

Figure 1: The hundreds of OnQ email notifications I receive every week.

In my first blog, I stated that I wanted to improve my essay writing. My Module 1 course for Engineering Practice requires a good chunk of writing. Currently, we are writing a report about modeling and designing a structure in a location with a risk of earthquakes. We had to learn how plan our project with our groupmates, and, especially with online learning, it seemed like we had been left to fend for ourselves. It felt tough trying to contact professors and our TAs for help.

When the first round of marks came back for the Mod 1 project, I was devastated. I cried. A lot. I was so sad that my new Queen’s friend took it upon himself to call me and comfort me. During the call I could barely talk, since I was sniffling so much, but he made me laugh and think of other things, and I felt better. If you’re struggling or disappointed with school, reach out to friends, family, faculty or staff. It can be hard to admit that things didn’t go as planned, but you’ll feel better for it.

Looking back, it is easy to say, “It was just one submission. You will improve in the next submission. You’ll work harder next time.” But when I got my grade, I felt that there were so many negatives: “We worked so hard on this. I failed my group. I wish we had done things differently. What are we supposed to do for next time?”

However, resilience—learning to respond to failure positively and constructively—is a useful skill to develop as a student and in life, although it is also one of the most difficult things to master. It is not easy to brush something off that made you upset or angry. It is not easy when you try your best and you don’t get the grade you want. But there’s always a reason to move on: right now, courses in first year are teaching me skills that will serve me well as a student and a professional engineer, so I know I have to find ways to respond to my professors’ feedback.

If you can, watch this TED Talk by Lucy Hone. She speaks about the secrets of resilient people and how they move past a tragedy. I know getting a bad grade isn’t a tragedy, but it can feel that way! To put it simply, resilient people:

  • accept and acknowledge the situation as a part of life
  • focus on the things they can change, focus on positive things, and focus for the things they were grateful for,
  • ask themselves, “Is what I’m doing harming or helping me?”

Revisiting that Ted Talk recently has brought me a sense of peace since I have some insight on what to do when the next inevitable low mark arrives. In regard to that Mod 1 mark, I tried to follow Hone’s advice. I accepted that a low mark isn’t abnormal: I am a first-year Engineering student learning remotely. Bad grades can happen.

However, I can focus on what I can change for the next submission. As a group, my team and I talked about what went wrong and how to fix it. Next time, we are going to write a more detailed outline to help with planning and organization (see SASS’s guide for advice), and we’ll write a thesis statement so that our next report’s major findings and conclusions will be clearer for the TA marking it.

Since today is Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn at Queen’s and to improve in the areas where I am lacking. I am grateful for my friends who comforted me when I got my mark back, and I am grateful that there are so many resources available that can help me.

Let’s work hard together and keep improving our marks and resilience!

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Peer blog: Due dates, structure, and rewards

Santosh, Life Sciences, Class of 2023

Hi everyone! I hope all of you have well and truly settled into the academic year. It has definitely been a different experience than what most of us are used to, so I hope you appreciate the hard work you have done thus far andSASS Peer: Santash use it as motivation through the rest of the semester. If you haven’t started out as strong as you would have liked, there is still plenty of time to achieve the goals you set for yourself!

One of the things that I felt overwhelmed by recently was the never-ending list of assignments, quizzes, midterms, and discussion board posts. I always had this feeling that I was forgetting to do something. To solve this issue I created a monthly calendar using the SASS Term Calendar template. It has been a lifesaver for me! When you use a template like this, you will have a proper overview of all your course due dates allowing you to plan your day and even week. A pro-tip is to put your non-academic tasks on this calendar too so you have a clear sense of what your day, week, and month will look like. Every evening update your schedule for the next day so you are mentally prepared to face the next day! Wouldn’t you want to wake up every day knowing exactly what you need to accomplish? 

I also recommend setting dedicated times each week for all of your courses. To help you stay on track, set a dedicated day for each course. Regular structure will gradually become a habit, making it easier to remain up to date. In my science courses, each week builds on the last week’s work, so it is crucial to stay on top of lessons. Getting behind by only a week or two can lead you into a deep pit that is going to be hard to recover from (but if you need help, book an appointment with SASS’s Academic Skills specialists. They’ll get you back on track!). An added bonus of this approach is to make finishing assignments and test prep easier because you’ll already have a good grasp of the content: endlessly flipping through unnecessary textbook pages for hours upon hours will be a thing of the past. Even giving yourself some structure in your working habits will help, so why not try it this week?

You might remember I set myself the goal of working on my time management skills. I’m pleased with my progress, but even with my new structured working week, a good portion of study time is sometimes spent on my phone looking at YouTube videos or messaging my friends. Something that has helped me improve on this is to give myself rewards for sticking to my schedule and finishing tasks. For example, when I finish an assignment, I enjoy some downtime. I watch an episode of a show or play video games with my friends. It is just as crucial to have those breaks during the day as at the end of the day, because they help you relax and prevent exhausting striking when you hit the books again. This reward-driven method has helped me be more focused and have quality study periods with minimal distractions. Remember: quality over quantity!

Finally, this week, I want you to think about who you can ask for help if you need it. As we have midterms and project/essay deadlines coming up, do not hesitate to ask for help if you’re falling behind or have questions. There are so many opportunities to clear up our doubts, whether you use tutorial sessions, office hours, discussion boards, or study groups. If you need help with specific skills like writing a lab report or essay, follow the SASS Instagram page and Facebook page for reminders of new seminars about university tips and tricks! It is a different experience for all of us, so remember that you are not alone in your problems and people are more than happy to help if you just ask.

I hope you enjoyed reading this blog. Good luck on your upcoming assignments and tests. See you soon!

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Peer blog: Doing the midterm grind: Strategies for productivity

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1

Happy October everyone! I hope you are all doing well as we enter what some students call the “midterm grind,” otherwise known as the part of the semester where assignments, TA duties, and expectations begin to pile up. After a breezy September easing back into things, October always hits me like a ton of bricks. It is during this time that I often find myself asking the question, “Hey, where did my Saturdays go?” With the growing number of tasks to be completed, Saturday commonly becomes my sixth workday of the week. That hasn’t changed as a graduate student. Between scholarship applications, midterm marking, and our own assignments, it is easy to get lost in the shuffle. That being said, I always manage to pull through relatively unscathed thanks to my calendar.

I mentioned in my previous blog a few simple methods I hoped to implement in order to increase my productivity. I thought that discussing ways to work faster and with more focus might be useful in such a busy month, so let’s revisit the strategies I planned to try, and rate them as we go!

  1. Turned off notifications on my laptop between 8:00AM and 8:30PM

5/5 stars. A favourite of mine. Without those annoying banners flying across my screen every five minutes, I am able to stay focused for longer periods of time. I don’t even miss the banners! I have actually been using this approach for a few years now and would highly recommend it as a first step to anyone who is having trouble staying on-task.

  1. Deleted the “Messages” icon from the taskbar on my laptop

1/5 stars. I had a lot of hope for this method. I really did. The first few hours were great. It was working beautifully. Without the physical presence of the “Messages” icon, I felt little to no temptation to check my text messages. If you have only one Queen’s account, this is a great method to help fight distractions. However, if you have more than one Queen’s account (i.e., I have a student account and a staff account for my TA duties), I would discourage the use of this tip. Due to Queen’s new security procedures to prevent hacking, I linked my phone to my Queen’s accounts and receive a text message with a code that I must input every time I want to log in. As a student and TA, I am constantly logging in and out of different email accounts and different Microsoft Teams accounts. Thus, several codes get sent to my phone every day. Unfortunately, this means that I was constantly opening my “Messages” icon on my laptop in order to access the code, and it became such a hassle that I ended up re-pinning my “Messages” icon to the taskbar. This method was great in theory but not in practice.

  1. Use a distraction pad to write down distracting thoughts

5/5 stars. I used a notebook to write down things like chores I had been meaning to do or emails I wanted to send so that instead of immediately acting on them, I could address them after finishing whatever task I was currently working on this method worked incredibly well for me! I stopped getting up from my desk to water my plants or reorganize my bookshelf. Taking note of my distracting thoughts allowed me to quickly assess their importance and whether or not they deserved my attention. If they did, I would write them down. This meant I was able to stay focused for longer periods of time and when I finally allowed myself to address the things I had written down, an unexpected bonus occurred. That is, when I took breaks, I didn’t just zone out on my phone for 30 minutes. Instead, I completed the tasks I had written down. It was a win-win situation. My productivity increased both on- and off-the-field.

Although October can be daunting and the to-do list only seems to grow, I hope you remember to take some time to engage in a little self-care. I personally love the spooky season and have already begun decorating my space! I encourage you to do whatever feels self-indulgent: take yourself out for coffee or set aside time for writing, drawing or video games—or whatever else!

I know how easy it is to get overwhelmed at this time of year, so remember to take extra good care of yourself now! Until next time!

Kate’s apartment decorated for Halloween (both in the day and night!)

Kate’s apartment decorated for Halloween (both in the day and night!)

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Peer blog: What do academics and the ocean have in common?

Sarah, Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022

Everyone who knows me knows I have an ocean obsession.

It started when I was 16 and out in British Columbia for the first time; the ferry to Victoria was a formative experience in my youth (“youth”, I say at the old age of 21). One of my favourite memories is being with friends, trying to time our jumps into the ocean with massive wave breaks. We’d rush the wave just as it started to recede, before the next wave broke. There would be times where we would get it right, slipping underneath a wave and swimming out into the ocean. Other times, we would get knocked down, kicking up to the surface and spitting out salt water.

 I can’t think of a better metaphor for university life. University can be a wild time. Balancing an education, extracurriculars, friendships, living independently, working part-time to support financing said education—all while getting a decent amount of sleep, staying active, eating well, and in the background, handling a pandemic. Definitely reminds me of getting my legs knocked out from under me by a wave I made the mistake of underestimating.

As many times as I’ve been knocked down by waves, however, I still love the ocean. And I still love being in school.

It’s midterm season. A combination of exams, assignments, caffeine, extra snacks (and sparkling water), and the anticipation of the first round of grades coming in. The stress is real. It feels like there is so much to do, and not enough hours in the day, exacerbated by an abyssopelagic zone of online content to work through.

So, what’s the best way to prepare for rushing the oncoming wave? I have a couple tricks that might work well for you:

  1. Figuring out organization as soon as possible is helpful. In my last entry, I mentioned my planner and a paper matrix. Paired with a visit to review course timelines on onQ at the beginning of every week to make sure I’m not missing anything, those things are working very well for me! Midterms might be fast approaching, but it’s not too late to start to find ways to keep on top of each week’s work, even if it’s with a simple weekly to-do list based on your course timeline (and if you really want to get ahead, look at SASS’s Assignment Planner!).
  2. Making time to talk to the people that remind me there is more than school. As much as I love my major and all things health, there are moments where I am apathetic and miserable due to the mounting pressures of deadlines and delivering high-quality material. So I make an effort to call my friends in my program to have a combined laugh/yell over all the work we have going on. Things are sometimes tough, but being able to laugh with friends over a Zoom call is a great help. This week, try reaching out to a friend, family member, mentor, or even a staff member from QUIC, SASS, Wellness, Four Directions, or another service on campus.
  3. Remembering the bigger picture. Third year is a lot. I seem to always have the grade thresholds for upper-year courses in my given graduate programs of interest in the back of my mind. Getting a high GPA in order to even be considered is daunting. But then, in the midst of panic, I remind myself that if I’m only doing schoolwork to achieve a certain GPA, that’s rough—and kind of sad. Learning at university is so much more than the GPA on your transcript. Think about what you really hope to achieve at Queen’s and whether it goes beyond those GPA numbers.
  4. When courses are a lot, remember the things that got you started in the first place. Super last minute, I got placed into a research internship course. If you were to ask me what my official role is, I think the best description is “sea sponge”: to absorb as much information as possible as to see how research actually works. Hopefully, this will set me up for a thesis in my fourth year. This is the thing I knew I had been working on when I was in second year, and it feels and looks very different than I anticipated. Here’s the funny thing about theses and projects at university: we all know what they are; a big and looming culminating fourth-year project. But, the consensus I have from peers in various programs is again, we know they exist, but none know how to approach doing one. So, my mission right now is to be a sea sponge—to take things as they come and learn what I can to prep for the future. That thought gets me going, and I am so excited to see what research is going to look like for me. It puts a smile on my face the way not most courses do. More to come on this development!

When things feel overwhelming and I feel like I can’t catch the wave break, I remember these tricks. Suddenly, ocean waves don’t seem so intimidating and I’m reminded why I love the ocean—and, even when it’s busy, university.

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Peer blog: 4 tips for getting organized and staying focused

Santosh, Life Sciences, Class of 2023SASS Peer: Santash

Hi everyone! I hope all of you had a nice transition into the academic year. If it were anything like mine, you would have had a very eventful one and a half weeks to say the least. From purchasing all my required materials to attending introductory Zoom sessions, I am slowly adapting to the new learning environment. Based on my experiences in my previous years at Queen’s, and the first week of courses this year, here are my top tips for getting started as assignment deadlines start to approach:

  1. First, if you have not done so, take a close look at your syllabus for each course: it is one of the most important documents that you will come across. It not only gives you a thorough outline of the course and its content, but it indicates the required reading/study material, and every assessment and how much it is worth. The syllabus will give you a very good understanding of what to expect over the next four months, so if you use it to prepare a timetable and calendar for yourself, you won’t be shocked when you realize that a course consists of weekly quizzes, or three midterms in the span of a single month. Next on the must-check list is your course timeline on onQ, which reminds you of what content you are expected to finish and which assessments are due each week. With remote learning, staying on top of all your course content is half the battle itself, so following the timeline is an amazing way to track your progress. A quick glance at the timeline before you start your work each day will only take a minute, but it can potentially save you a lot of time from cramming, or even worse, regretting a missed assessment.

  2. Creating a daily schedule based on your syllabus and course timelines can go a long way to staying on track. A schedule also helps maintain my focus because I know exactly what needs to be done and when I’ll do it—and that’s going to be challenging when we’re all studying remotely. A pro tip is to create times for breaks, snacks, meals, and downtime, which will help you maintain a clear mind. Try and stick to your schedule, but do not be hard on yourself if a task or two is incomplete by the end of the day. Especially at the beginning of the semester, it might be hard to gauge the time a task might take, so don’t rush to complete your list: the quality of your understanding is much more important than the quantity of the tasks you finish.

  3. In my last blog, I mentioned that a goal of mine this semester is to work on my time management skills, and remote education has put this to the test. Over the past one and a half weeks, there have been quite a few moments where I opened Netflix to watch an episode of Friends, searched for the “perfect” song to listen to on Spotify for a few minutes, or browsed through social media. However, these occurrences have been decreasing as each day passes thanks to a new technique I found to reduce my phone usage during my study periods: I simply place my phone behind my laptop so that it is blocked from my point of view. This has helped me immensely because I can now work on my courses without needing to fight the urge to check my latest notification. Even though there is still a long way to go, I can safely say that I am gradually working towards my goal for the semester. I hope that you are inching closer to achieving your goals as well!

  4. This semester might feel much more isolated than previous semesters. That might take a toll on your motivation as the semester progresses, but even simple online can help you stay on task. For example, I just used the SASS online Assignment Planner to help me finish a discussion post for my Global and Population Health course. The Assignment Planner gives you a simple, step-by-step schedule for completing any assignment. It was wonderful to follow the planner and finish my assignment without cramming. If you’re getting started on papers or reports right now, check it out!

Take advantage of all the help that is at your disposal and make this semester a positive first experience at Queen’s, or your most successful one yet. Best of luck and see you next time!

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Peer blog: Scheduling, focus, and fun!

Liyi, Engineering, Class of 2024

Welcome back, everyone! It has been a wild ride since the first day of university, but I’ve been enjoying myself. School is providing me with the drive, motivation, and strong sense of purpose that I lacked during the summer.

Some notable things have happened from my last blog until now. I gained two new Queen’s items for my clothing collection: a crewneck and the famed rugby jersey! Additionally, I am ecstatic to have joined the Queen’s Hyperloop Design Team. Finding ways to bond with the campus community has helped.

Nonetheless, being in engineering as a first year while attending Queen’s Zoomiversity has been a bit of a struggle. This semester I have calculus, chemistry, and engineering design and labs. Keeping up with the course load has fueled me into buying cold brew from the local grocery store (to drink as a reward for my hard work, not for the caffeine). So if you feel that the first two weeks have been tough too, don’t worry: I am right there with you.

Finding myself busy with my schoolwork, a new club, and work outside of school, I tried to find a planning strategy that worked for me:

  • Currently, I have a paper agenda to track big and regular events like synchronous classes and my work schedule.
  • I also linked my Google Calendar to onQ, so that it lists events, and test and submission dates. That means I can always quickly refer to what’s coming in the days and weeks ahead, and my phone can remind me a few days in advance of deadlines.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, every day I make my own checklist of what to do that day on a plain sheet of paper. I just use a plain piece of paper; it doesn’t have to be anything pretty or cost $30 from a fancy stationery store!

I’m trying out different approaches to managing my time. I don’t like a set schedule with every hour planned out by course/task, so I’m just trying to set times to start and stop working. In those blocks, I can choose to work on whichever task I feel would be most suited to my mood. Using my daily to-do list is helping me stay on track, even though I don’t have my day planned out in infinite detail. This works for me, but it may not work for everyone else. I think the most significant thing in the first few weeks of school is to learn about yourself and learn how you like to work the most effectively. You will carry these skills with you forever.

Staying on task can still be tough. During video lectures, I find myself sending messages to friends. I find this eerily similar to whispering to a friend in class—except this time, there is no teacher to tell us to stop talking and to listen!

As a result, I tried setting a timer to help me focus on work for a few minutes. I did not look at my phone until the timer finished. That was it. I am telling you, it worked. It worked like a charm, and it seemed too good to be true. I highly recommend it. If the standard timer app is too boring for you, I have got you covered! Try an app called Flora. Each time you start the timer, the app grows a tree. If you end the timer before it goes off, the tree is destroyed. That gives you the incentive to keep working so your tree grows to be happy and healthy. It is a brilliant app for people to stay on track to grow a virtual forest.

Remember that in the first few weeks of school it is beneficial to learn about yourself and learn how you like to work the most effectively. And there are plenty of apps like Flora to make focusing more fun!

I cannot wait to see what the next couple of weeks have in store for us. Let’s pull through together, Gaels!

Liyi's Tools for Organization

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Peer blog: “How am I already behind?”

Sarah, Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022

This is the question I’m asking myself after the first week of the fall term. In my last post I mentioned I was a somewhat reformed “master procrastinator.” Now I think my lack of organizational skills are now contributing to falling behind in school and don’t help an inner feeling that I’m always lacking something. My organization has always been minimal. Armed with a journal and planner, I got through on-campus classes perfectly well in second year. However, online classes are a whole new ball game.

Matrix for organizing work

Currently, I’m trying to work with a paper matrix. I divide a large poster paper into 5 slots, one for each class. Then, at the beginning of the week, I write every assignment, reading, lecture—literally everything for this week—onto its own Post-It. Then, I arrange them by what is most pressing for the week. That gives me a simple visual to-do list. At the end of the week, when I’m finished, the notes go into a pile of miscellaneous paper to be recycled. This approach is a work in progress, and I feel a little like the Post-Its are just band-aids covering my disorganization. I’ll let you know how this system’s working out and how I develop it in my next post!

That isn’t my only time management issue right now. I find taking breaks with online school more difficult than I imagined. My eyes hurt from staring at a screen for many hours in the day, and my back aches from sitting in a chair for so long. There are at least two mugs from my coffee and tea rotation on my desk, sitting alongside the empty Perrier can that has now called my study space home for a few days.

Sarah's study spaceWatching Netflix is no longer really something I look forward to; I feel such animosity towards my screen. The constant pouring in of information, both audio and visual, is so much I can no longer really engage with the shows that helped me turn my brain off, as I have begun associating my laptop with online school. But I’m learning from mistakes and trying to take regular, different breaks. I’ll keep you updated on which strategies are working best for me over the next few weeks.

Tackling these organization and focus problems can be hard; and I find my confidence affected. I knew this would be a problem for me going into September. Even before the pandemic, I was incredibly hard on myself. I am highly self-critical, and known to be up late at night working away on a problem and trying to battle my problems with self-deprecating humour rather than following a healthier approach.

To help me out and avoid a spiral, I mind-mapped how I want my third year to look. I wrote down my goals, hopes and ambitions for the year, and keep the finished map visible in my study space. Reminding myself that there is an unprecedented global pandemic helps me to not be so hard on myself.

I am finding that this year it’s the little things that count, in spite of the mounting frustrations, screen animosity, and general “up in the air-ness” emotions I have been feeling. Queen’s Student Wellness Services has a great strategy to find positive emotions in difficult times. It’s simple: you write 3-5 things that you’re proud you did or that you are grateful for on a particular day. I’m changing the strategy up to describe 3-5 things I am proud of from the first two weeks of online classes and a unique third year in Kingston:

  1. Showed up and met my professors, formally introducing myself.
  2. Tried a few new ways to practice procrastination management and organizational skills.
  3. Was able to do 30 consecutive push-ups for the first time (ever!).
  4. Cut my Netflix usage down to about an hour and a half per day.
  5. Cooked myself a real meal last night.

So, I’ll leave you with this technique: what are 3-5 things you are proud of since starting school this year?

Good luck—see you again soon!

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Peer blog: Embracing change in a new, virtual world and a new PhD program

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1

Happy September everyone! At the beginning of the month I successfully defended my Master’s thesis and am now officially beginning my PhD! Last time, I spoke of my enthusiasm to begin my research proposal, but my supervisor has put a hold on that for now. We have agreed that oxytocin, a hormone related to social bonding, will continue to be a main focus. I am genuinely excited about this because it was my favourite aspect of my research project. There’s some work to do before I can start my formal proposal.

My supervisor suggested I use the next few weeks and months to really flesh out my understanding of the oxytocin system in the brain. Thus for the fall semester I will be in the “gathering information” stage of the writing process. During my Master’s, I was much more focused on the neural circuitry of oxytocin rather than its neuropharmacology. As such, my supervisor and I believe the next logical step is to learn more about the latter. This may sound quite nuanced, but I promise you that behavioural neuroscientists are a distinct breed from neuropharmacologists! That being said, I am excited to round out my knowledge of oxytocin as it will hopefully give me some ideas about what I could do for my first set of experiments. Since I’m in this information-gathering phase, I’m embarking on a lot of reading and notetaking. There’s a lot to read through, but the APA has some great advice on tackling a huge reading list.

I don’t have too much coursework right now: “Biological Bases of Behaviour” is the only course I am enrolled in this term. Being registered in only one course definitely has its advantages:

  1. I only have to worry about one set of course deadlines,
  2. I have lots of time to dedicate to my research and scholarship applications, and
  3. I am engaging in more volunteering opportunities to offset the surge in free time.

But there are some disadvantages too. I am concerned that all of this free time will cause my focus and concentration to suffer and, I will thus get distracted and procrastinate like never before. Luckily, the SASS Academic Resources page has tips on how to prevent these things from happening—and SASS has teamed up with the School of Graduate Studies for a workshop on 23 September on time management just for grad students (register here).

I’m also trying three things to improve my focus by altering my working environment. One permanent change I made a few years ago was muting all of my notifications on my laptop in between the hours of 8:00 AM and 8:30 PM. This time range may seem a little extreme, but it drastically decreased the number of distractions I was being presented with every day. Another small change I plan on making is to remove the “Messages” icon from my taskbar on my laptop. Without seeing the icon, I believe this will curb my tendency to mindlessly check my text messages. The third change is something that I used to implement (and found very useful), but I have since let it fade from practice. I used to keep a small notebook on my desk and whenever I thought of something off-task, I took a few seconds to write it down. It could be anything: a chore I had been meaning to do, an email I wanted to send, something I wanted to look up, etc. and instead of breaking my concentration to do said task, I would write it down. Then, during a break, I would address all the things I had written down. I remember this practice being very effective when working from home because it is all too easy to stand up and start to do something else when in the comfort of one’s own living quarters. However, now that most, if not all, of us graduate students are working from home, I highly recommend making some changes to make your environment as work-friendly as possible.

All in all, I have had a very productive September thus far: I passed my Master’s defense, I got assigned fantastic courses to TA, I have some interesting assignments to work on (more on that next time!), and I am going to introduce some new techniques to help keep my productivity high as I work from home. As we begin a new school year, I hope this transition to a “new, virtual normal” goes smoothly for everyone. Although we have had to make some pretty large adjustments in order to continue our programs, just remember that change itself is not the beast. The beast is in how we choose to handle the change (hopefully with a smile and a “heck, yeah!”)

That’s all for now, folks!

SASS Peer: Kate

Kate with her Queen’s acceptance letter for the Psychology PhD program!

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