Exam Strategies? SASS has your back.

 

Welcome to exam season!

 

Student Academic Success Services has got you covered! Make an exam study schedule, or make a professional appointment with a learning strategist to hone your skills!

“Study smarter, not harder” is the cliche — but it’s true! Our “Preparing for and taking tests and exams” resources are thorough and will help you create a customized study schedule and teach you strategies for effectively preparing, no matter what type of test you face.

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The marathon isn’t over yet: Avoiding semester burnout

By Rachael Allen, 3rd year Kinesiology student

Every time exam season rolls around, I flash back to December of first year and cringe. I started out in sciences in first year, with the dreaded back-to-back-to-back exams leading to the big finale: MATH 121. I remember being so disciplined. I would arrive at Douglas Library and take the three flights of stairs down to the lowest level at 8:00am. I would work non-stop with the only breaks spent walking to refill my water bottle. I would do this until it was time to climb those three flights back up at 10:00pm, and emerge with 14 hours of studying under my belt.

Every day I would dedicate myself to this intense study hibernation, regardless of the level of sleep I got, regardless of whether I had just written an exam, and regardless of my mental well being. Sounds pretty neat, being able to sit down and focus for that amount of time while retaining the information? Not so neat though, when that focus disappeared and the burn out set it.

Finally, when the MATH 121 exam rolled around, I sat down at 9:00am and found myself completely distracted and unable to concentrate. I couldn’t recall the material I had studied and the reality was that I really didn’t care. I didn’t understand why my 40+ hours of “studying” left me so unprepared to write this final but I was too obsessed with the train I was boarding at 1:30 to really try. I ended up handing in my exam, incomplete and uninterested completing it, after only 90 minutes. I cabbed immediately to the train station, absurdly early, and sat for hours thinking of getting away from Queen’s and leaving the semester behind me.

Since this dreadful experience 2 years ago, I have since learned that semesters are a marathon, and should be treated as such. The 1:30 train isn’t going to change, no matter if you rush or take your time getting through the exam season. Burning out can be the result of poor study habits and not enough self-care.

Queen’s Student Academic Success Services and Learning Strategies has since been my primary influence in learning to avoid burn out. With resources like the exam study schedule, I am able to have scheduled breaks in my day, which allows for refocus and material consolidation while encouraging self-care. With emphasis on sleep, proper eating, and exercise, I have also learned that 14 hours of straight studying can be condensed into an efficient 9 hours when you give yourself opportunities to recharge.

Above all, don’t forget that your wellness is more important than your grades. Living like a zombie and burdening yourself with stress are not they way you should be experiencing life at Queen’s. By using the learning strategies resources, you’ll find yourself able to succeed academically while also remaining motivated and happy! 🙂

Good luck to all!

 

Photo courtesy of Queen’s University under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

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The Final Leg of the Race – Stress Management and Motivation Pearls to Keep You Moving

By: Sohaib Haseeb, 3rd year Life Sciences student

It’s that time of the year again – week 12, and exams. The last eleven weeks have taken a toll on us, and studying is not what we want to be doing right now. But exams are right around the corner, and exam stress is at its all-time high.

You may feel there’s nothing that can be done about the stress during this time. Assignments and papers all due around the same time, extracurricular responsibilities all cram up in week 12, and there’s not enough hours in the day to fit everything in.

It’s time to take charge. No matter how stressful life seems at the moment, there are steps that we can take to manage stress and take control:

1. Steps to maintain motivation

Have you ever sat down with a textbook and stared at the page blankly for hours until you finally give up? I know I have. Exam studying is one of the most daunting tasks for us undergrads – the stress of approaching exams, and the sense that we have to cram an overwhelming amount of information in our brains can have a huge toll on our motivation to study.

Here are some things you can try to boost concentration and motivation, and get on with the studying that needs to be done:

 

Small actions add up

As an ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – this can go a long way. Begin with a small step – prepare your study space and remove distractions – stuff like that!

Take Action

Practice SMART goals. Well-thought-out goals can serve as powerful motivation for us students. Write them down, avoid vagueness, and work towards completing them in a timely manner. They not only serve as objectives to keep you focused, but also provide an opportunity for extrinsic rewards.

Try something new

Don’t feel confined to the strategies you’ve always used. If something isn’t working, like a habit or a way of taking notes, try something else. Take things one at a time, and evaluate at the end of a task to ensure that you’ve completed the task to the best of your abilities

 

2. In the weeks before – Put exams into perspective

All exams are important, but when time is limited, prioritization is key. Knowing which exam to prioritize can vary from person to person, but some useful techniques are to determine the % value of the exam, and to calculate the existing grade up to this point, and then determine what grade is needed to maintain or reach your goal.

Study schedules are your friend. Download our Exam Prep study schedule and try to see if it works for you. If I were to go back in first year and tell my mini-me something to do, it would be to make study schedules, and to stick to them.

Join a study group and self-test each other using past exams from Queen’s Exam Bank, or make your own from class material.

 

3. Practice relaxation daily and always look on the positive side!

 

It’s all too easy to overlook your health and overwork yourself, and added stress certainly worsens the situation. Try deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises every day, take breaks, or go out for a run if that’s your thing. Tell yourself you can do it, because you can! We’re all at Queen’s University, and that in itself is a big achievement! We are all trying our best to do the tasks at hand in the time given, and that’s all we can ask of ourselves.

 

4. Before and During the exam

Breathe! Drink water, or listen to music – go ahead and dance! You’ve done your best, prepared your hard, and this is the easy bit. Do the exam with confidence, and keep calm during the exam. If it works for you, set mini-breaks during the exam at specific points where you stop writing and take a break, and let your mind rest.

accomplished gif

Don’t forget to reward yourself after the exam, and affirm your strengths and successes!

In the end, remind yourself that this won’t go on forever. Exam period is one of the most stressful times in our lives. Grab a friend and share your thoughts with them, they can probably relate very well. All you need to do is take action; we can control them, so why not do so right now and get through these exams – it’s the final leg of the race, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

person throwing papers int he air and spinning

Photos courtesy of CollegeDegrees360 and Ray Morris, under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

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So, you realized it’s Week 11… We need a plan…

By: Julia Tighe, 3rd year Con-Ed/Health Studies student

Exams are about as scary as your dad doing a dab this holiday season. I understand, it has already been a long, long, LONG 11 weeks (plus 1 more for week 12) and now we have to stay for 2 weeks after that, which are the most dreaded weeks of the semester.

You may not be as caught up as you want to, maybe that quick cat nap turned into a semester long hibernation, OR you may be completely on top of it (yay! 🙂 ). Regardless which scenario you fit with it’s a difficult time for university students. Kraft Dinner sales rise, laundry piles grow exponentially, and Stauffer Library seems like a home away from home.

BUT, HOLD THE PHONE, none of that needs to happen! Those two weeks don’t have to be as scary as you think, IF you consider the 5 steps to a successful exam season:

STEP 1: KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW (and own it!)

I’ve done it before – lying to myself by saying that I totally know week 3 off by heart. When I glance over it for the exam I realize I totally knew it off by heart for the midterm. Step 1 to your best exam season yet is to acknowledge you need to review material, and do the review.

 

STEP 2: SPICE UP YOUR LIFE…WITH AN EXAM SCHEDULE!

             The Spice Girls recommend it: scheduling your life is an important part of a successful exam season. We definitely do not want any exam to sneak up on you like those multiple 4-pieces from Lazy. What some people forget is that scheduling time to go to the gym or to FaceTime your dog is an important aspect to your exam success as well. The BEST template to create a plan for yourself can be found here.

STEP 3: EAT. SLEEP. EXAM. (go to the gym, call your mom, breathe). REPEAT.

            One of my favorite exam study tricks is to wake up at the same time every day. Having exams at different times makes it difficult to establish a routine. Waking up at the same time allows you to have time to eat a healthy meal and then get to work around the same time each day! Your brain and body love routine. You’ll feel less lethargic and ready to study each day.

 STEP 4: A repeat after me (song).

             “I (insert your name here) am the best student at Queen’s University.” Now your turn, did you actually say it? Ok, do it for real. Good for you! This mindset is incredibly powerful to have. Allowing your ego to take over a little and telling yourself that you have done all that you can when going into an exam will make your mind clearer and produce the answer to that multiple choice question you can’t figure out. Just breathe, and remember: “I am the best student at QU”.

STEP 5: ~-~ oooooooommmmmmmm ~-~

             The final step to your exam season success is to be calm. You have done an amazing job preparing and will rock your exams! Remember your growth mindset as well while working – you may not be rocking every step of the exam process from the get go but you will get there! Watch a TED talk on the growth mindset here.

If you are looking for even more resources or tips and tricks from other Peer Learning Assistants check out sass.queensu.ca! There are so many incredible peers who want to help you succeed.

I know you are going to rock your exams this season, because you took the time to get prepared in week 11! You are one step ahead of the exam game. Remember you are not your grades, you are way more than that. A successful exam season doesn’t mean straight As, your well-being is important as well. You can do this!

 

P.S. I hope you liked all the pictures of baby animals… It may or may not have been a secret ~.~ step 6 ~.~ to your fool proof plan: look at pictures of baby animals to destress 🙂

 

Photos courtesy of Niels Kliim, Taylor Bennett, Tambako The Jaguar, Anna Hull, and Nathan Rupert under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0

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Tips for Living in Residence and Academic Success

By Chelsea Hall, 4th year Life Sciences student

For the past two years I have had the privilege to not only volunteer as a Peer Learning Assistant but also have had the pleasure to work as a Residence Don. Working as a residence don has afforded me a unique perspective and allowed me to witness time and time again the common struggles with academics that countless first year students face in the transition to university while living in residence. University residence is an environment like no other it can be loud, eventful, messy, frustrating, fun and overall incredibly distracting. Drawing from my knowledge of both residence and learning strategies I’ve included some tips and tricks below that can be useful in achieving academic success while living in residence.

1. Get out of Residence

Have you tried to be efficient and study in your room yet? Do you end up getting easily distracted by what’s going on around you or in the hallway? Do you end up lying on your bed only to drift off for a few hours or treat yourself to one too many episodes on NetFlix? If you have no issues in studying in residence then you have successfully mastered an art that few ever will. If you are like the rest of us and consistently struggle with establishing boundaries between social time and academics while in residence then that’s ok too! Getting out of residence and visiting a library (ie. Stauffer, Bracken, Douglas) or another study spot on campus helps make the most of your time and helps avoid distractions. Furthermore, if you need a break from campus then downtown Kingston has plenty of little coffee shops with WIFI where you can work and enjoy a change of scenery.

2. Make a Schedule and respect your boundaries

At University a weekly schedule and a term calendar are a must, but the wonderful thing is that schedules can take whatever format that optimizes your success (ie. online, agenda, fantastic peer learning assistant template etc.). However you choose to make your weekly schedule make sure that it is readily visible on a daily basis so that you are not just making a beautiful schedule but never consulting it. Furthermore, effectively establishing boundaries is one of the most overlooked yet difficult aspects of time management and something I have both witnessed and experienced struggling with myself. It sounds simple but establishing boundaries while following a weekly schedule is truly a fine balance; it’s the balance between committing yourself to your schedule and getting done what you plan to at a given time and being mindful that life happens and things do come up at the last minute. On great tip is to block in a reserve bank of time to finish academic assignments for the week this will ensure that you feel less guilty if something does come and you’re still accountable for your homework time.

3. Friends-they’ll be there for you

One of the most humbling lessons that I have had to learn at University is that no matter how independent or self-sustaining a person may be they will need a support network. The relationships you make are invaluable and residence is one of the best places to make friends from many different backgrounds and programs. Schedule social time into your calendar so that you can spend the time developing relationships without the overarching guilt that there is work that should be getting done instead.

Photo courtesy of Queen’s University under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0

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The Happiness Advantage

By Parker Nann, 3rd year Commerce student

Halfway through my very first semester at Queen’s, I was introduced to one of the simplest yet most challenging study strategies that I have come across: The Happiness Advantage. The idea appears basic: happy people are more successful in achieving their school, life, and personal goals. When I first encountered this strategy, it seemed so intuitive to me that I accepted it without objection. However, The Happiness Advantage challenges one of the most common perspectives that students hold about school: that working hard and persevering though school today, will bring success and happiness down the road. This perspective encourages us to surrender some of our happiness to our current duties, while convincing us that our future selves will thank us later for our early sacrifice. So we allow ourselves to be plunged into a mindset where our vision of future happiness dangles tantalizingly in front of us, so long as we can survive school long enough to grasp it.

But this formula is broken. When we become fixated with success, each time we succeed we simply change the bar of success to reflect our new aspirations. Achieving good grades only compels us to work towards better grades. So, while the pursuit of high goals is not in itself unhealthy, attaching our happiness to achieving progressively more improbable goals is, and prevents us from ever arriving at sustainable happiness.

The Happiness Advantage suggests an alternative progression: if we can generate happiness today, we have a better shot at success in the future. And this future success begets a cycle of happiness which, you guessed it, positions us for even more success. You are probably skeptical at this point, and should be, as success is not borne solely from a sunny outlook. Yet there is building scientific evidence about the influence that happiness has on personal effectiveness. The author of The Happiness Advantage researcher found that optimism and happiness in the workplace led to a 31% increase in productivity and a 37% increase in sales performance. The same researcher even found that physicians were 19% faster at reaching a correct diagnosis when happy compared to neutral, unhappy, or stressed.

We now know the importance of happiness, but is it possible to generate positivity amidst the stresses and challenges of school? Luckily, research demonstrates that positive thinking can be trained and improved. If we take the time to build positivity into our daily lives and actively think about how we are feeling, positivity can indeed become habitual. Let me share three techniques which can help boost your happiness over time.

  1. Pay attention to the good: dedicate five minutes of each day to reflect or write about a positive experience which made you feel grateful or happy that day. Forcing ourselves to remember and write about something positive forces us to identify and pay attention to the positive events in our daily lives. By selectively writing about positive experiences, we can re-train our minds to brew on positive experiences rather than the negative or stressful ones.
  2. Engage with your social networks: if you’re anything like me, you like to spend time with your friends. Spending time with your friends (but not too much time – everything in sensible moderation!), is healthy, important, and fun. However, facing stress, we too often (myself included) withdraw from our social supports and seclude ourselves to soldier through our academic challenges alone. We shouldn’t have to. Our social supports are critical to our health and are major predictors of our happiness and success. We are told to stop doing things we enjoy when our workload increases, but our social circles should not be neglected.
  3. Weekly 150: Okay, you have likely heard enough about this one from everyone at Queen’s, but the frequency which you receive this advice should give you a clue about its importance. In the simplest terms: exercise makes you happy. Doing even 15 minutes of light cardio a day is clinically proven to improve your mood and boost productivity.

There are an endless number of strategies to increase your happiness. I have given you only three strategies so that you can take small steps toward cultivating your current happiness and benefit from The Happiness Advantage. Don’t let their simplicity fool you- growing your happiness in an environment which encourages us to sacrifice it is more challenging that you may think! I still struggle with these strategies all the time, but I firmly believe that in the long run, cultivating, rather than sacrificing your happiness is worth it.

 

A note on mental health: despite our best efforts to practice these strategies, happiness can be elusive. If you feel that you are overwhelmed or are dissatisfied with the level of happiness that you feel do talk to someone who can help you. They know what they are doing. It’s worth it.

Some Resources:

Queen’s Student Wellness Services: Counselling

Queen’s Student Wellness Services: Mental Health

Good 2 Talk

The content of this blog post is largely based on Shawn Anchor’s The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Achor, S. (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. New York: Broadway Books.

Photo courtesy of Greg Wagoner under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0

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It’s ok to be indecisive!: A guide to figuring out what you want

By Sophia Klymchuk, 2nd year Con-Ed French/Psych student

I like to think of my years in high school as one long wave of indecisiveness. I became a regular at the guidance counselor’s office, constantly making tweaks and changes to my course selection. One day, I wanted to be a nurse. The next day, I wanted to be an architect.

Today, I am at Queen’s University, in my second year of Concurrent Education, with a major in French. To this day, it still surprises me how I managed to make that decision concerning my future, but my indecisiveness still isn’t at rest! Several academic appointments later, and with one in the upcoming future, I already changed my major despite it being only my second year.

Yes, life has its curveballs, I still have my ultimate goal in mind: to one day become a teacher. I’m happy to say that every decision I make revolves around this final goal.

The point is, it’s okay to be indecisive when it comes to choosing a major. It may be overwhelming at times, but as long as you keep your goals and dreams in mind over the course of your decision-making, indecisiveness can be viewed as having an open mind.

Are you in first year? Use this as the year to seize every opportunity, to excel in all of your courses. Go to your professor’s office hours, they don’t bite. Talk to them, maybe you’ll discover something new about them, about the course material, or about yourself. They may even offer you some insight on the degree you may or may not wish to pursue. Continue to do so in your upper-years as well.

Are you interested in pursuing a specific major, or two? Or, are you not sure? Every faculty’s Department Student Council holds events to acquaint students with what the major has to offer within Queen’s, and beyond. Attend these events and view them as opportunities for learning, and in some cases, free snacks.

Do you feel like indecisiveness is still getting the best of you? Get involved, join some clubs, and make the best out of your experience here at Queen’s. Who knows? That one club that crossed your mind once or maybe twice may actually help you discover that your true passion lies in environmental sustainability, or in working with young children. Take these opportunities to not only keep yourself busy and to meet like-minded people, but to acquaint yourself with what you want from life. I joined the student docent program at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre this year, and my experience there inspires me to incorporate a visual arts-based approach into my future classrooms.

For some extra guidance, it’s always a good idea to consult the Queen’s Faculty of Arts and Science, where academic guidance can help you steer in the right direction. Or, if you end up in a situation where, like me, you are unhappy with your major, they will be happy to help you choose what’s best for you.

Most importantly, set long-term goals for yourself, and orient your decision-making around those goals. Keep a vision board in your room, or write them down in your agenda, or a place where you can always see them. Always have your goals nearby to keep yourself focused in those moments of indecision. I like to keep various quotes on teaching in places that are visible to me, like my phone’s lock screen or my coffee mug.

University can be stressful by itself, so you shouldn’t let uncertainty dictate your thought patterns. Take indecisiveness as an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to find out where your true interests lie.

 

Photo courtesy of Queen’s University under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0

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The Art of Speaking

By Gaurav Talwar, 2nd year Life Sciences Student

Your adrenaline begins to pump. You feel your sweaty palms. Your legs begin to shake.

We all have been in one situation or another where the task of having to speak in front of a group of people seemed overly daunting and perhaps more difficult than writing a final exam. Whether that situation be responding to a professor’s question in an auditorium of 500 students, attending a job interview where your first impression really matters or simply giving a class presentation, we are repeatedly faced with the challenge of overcoming our fear of public speaking. However, as terrifying as we may make the situation seem, there IS A WAY to overcome our fear and to embrace public speaking in a more pleasant and enjoyable manner.

Personally, public speaking has been a passion for me since middle school. Despite feeling anxious before each time I spoke and oftentimes not doing as well as I hoped, I found myself becoming increasingly motivated to speak in front of large groups of people and to share my ideas. Simply put, I began to view public speaking as a form of art. Similar to how a painter may combine different colours, shapes and painting techniques to create a picture or how a musician may use different notes to create a complex rhythm, a public speaker tries to convey a particular message using a perfect balance of words and presentation techniques. Sometimes an artist finds a perfect balance while during other times they don’t. However, they do not give up after a rough patch of trials and instead practice their skills to perfection.

With that aim, I decided to join a public speaking club here at Queen’s called Agora Speakers. During each of our meetings, we have the opportunity of giving impromptu speeches regarding various themes (sometimes interview questions, business style, anecdotes, scary stories during Halloween…) and to present any prepared presentations we may have for a course or outside commitment. The best part is that the club is totally student run! The club meets every Monday, from 6:30pm to 8:00pm in the JDUC and is a great place to practice your public speaking skills without the fear of being judged or making a mistake!

Just as a starting point, here are a few techniques which I have found to be very effective in giving presentations:

  1. If you have very little time to prepare for a response, try to find a structure. Figure out the first AND the last sentence of your speech and the main points you want to address in between. By having your speech mapped out in a logical manner, you can work off of a general outline and can guide yourself towards little goals during your speech.
  2. Avoiding using filler words. Filler words include “umm”, “like”, “you know” and anything else you may have a natural tendency to say when you are thinking out loud. As an alternative, practice varying your pace and using pauses. Having a 2-3 second pause in your speech may seem awkward and long to you, but it gives the audience a time to process what you have said and to get ready for what you will say next.
  3. Look confident! You may be very nervous inside, but the audience does not know that unless you tell them. If you fidget with papers in your hand, then perhaps try using cue cards instead of large scripts. If you move around aimlessly, then begin by planting your feet in a comfortable position. With practice, begin to walk around the room with purpose and use hand gestures to add emphasis to your key points.
  4. Don’t say sorry! When we make mistakes (e.g. you forget saying a sentence, need to back track for a bit, or need to pause), we often apologize. However, unless what you said is truly a major blunder, continue to move on. Saying sorry only adds emphasis to the mistake and forces the audience to notice it, even if they did not notice at first.
  5. Before a prepared presentation, record your practice presentations and watch them constructively critique yourself. Also, grab a few friends and ask them to give constructive feedback. Even better, join a club like Agora Speakers!

Hopefully with the few tips mentioned above and with a more positive outlook on public speaking, you can overcome any of the remaining stress you face when presenting (although feeling a little nervous is completely fine!). After all, public speaking is a form of art you have been practicing since the time you spoke your first few words. All you have to do now is to master the skill.

Photo courtesy of Brisbane City Council under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0

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How to EXAM without losing your TAM

By Alexa Fenton, 3rd year ConEd History/English student

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Exams. People are walking around Stauffer in their socks, Grocery Checkout is out of chocolate covered almonds and M&M’s, and you don’t remember what real jeans feel like. You’ve seen more plastic exam baggies than friends in the past two days, and you have to hold onto the railing as you go down the stairs of Stauffer, lest your newborn deer legs buckle under the weight of your temporary freedom and atrophying muscles as you leave the library late at night.

Exams aren’t a whole lot of fun for anyone. That is, unless your proctor is doing a really good crossword that day. Despite being a 3rd year student (Concurrent Ed., History Major, English Minor), exams still tend to provoke a lot of anxiety within me. They are scary. You have only 3 hours to prove everything you know about a subject. Advanced preparation (i.e. more than 24 hours!) is the key to success.

Here are some crucial tips for getting through this crunch time and maintaining the semblance of a feeling that you’re still human:

1.  Do not become one of those zombies in “I am Legend.”

Channel your inner Will Smith and get enough sleep. It’s hard to save the world, let alone study when you can’t feel your fingers.

2.  Maintain structure.

Try your best to work the same length of time, at the same time each day. Some people like to think of working a ‘9-5 job’.

3.  Move.

You don’t need to go to the gym everyday, but you do need to take a break and let your blood flow a bit. It is recommended that you at least go for a short walk with a friend if you can’t fit in a run. It’s amazing what fresh air will do for your brain.

4.  Plan ahead.

Make an exam schedule in advance. Break down the 20 days leading up to your exams – how many days do you need to study for each exam? How many hours will you get in per day? Asking yourself these important questions now allows you to focus on the important stuff (learning the actual material) when the time counts.

5.  Mark your turf.

Find a good study spot(s) and stick to it/them.

6. Review.

Past exams are your friend. Use them.

7.  Reward yourself after the exam rain or shine.

Sure, it might not have gone as well as you had hoped, but you put a lot of effort into it, and that is to be commended! Treat ‘yo self.

Best of luck to all as we take on this tough time! Remember you’re worth more than just your marks.

Photo courtesy of Queen’s University under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

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Blog: Some further thoughts on the importance of outlining …

I know that a lot of people think that writing an essay outline is a waste of time. I’m here to convince you otherwise. I spent all of my high school years and at least one of my university years as an anti-outliner, but I finally realized that, for years, I’d been going about my papers in the wrong way.

Why should you write an outline?

Believe it or not, I find that the most difficult part of an essay is the outline, but I also think that it’s the most important (aside, of course, from the actual essay itself). I say it’s difficult because I use it as a tool to organize my ideas and to clarify my argument, and I find those aspects of essays to require the most brainpower. Once I’ve outlined my main points, I can see if any part of my thesis remains unsupported (rare) or if any of my points are digressions from my argument (basically every essay I’ve ever written). At that point, if I need to, I can cut out some points or do some more research. It’s also pretty great for making sure that your paper is balanced – nobody likes to read eight pages about your first point, and only two pages about your second.

Another bonus of having an outline is that you can take it to your TA for feedback. It’s one thing to have a TA approve your thesis (something I always recommend before beginning to write), but, if your TA can see your whole outline (and is so inclined), she or he can suggest where your argument needs more support or where you should rearrange your ideas.

How should you write an outline?

I have no one answer for this question. If you find a way that works for you, stick with it; if not, try something else. You want your outline to put your thoughts in order: you should try to have your ideas build on each other throughout your paper. In a strong essay, intentional paragraph order is important – you shouldn’t be able to randomly rearrange your paragraphs and have your argument still make as much sense, or “flow” as well from one point to another. Another thing to keep in mind is that you don’t need to prove your entire thesis in every paragraph. Work through it bit by bit, and support those bits with different paragraphs.

Personally, I like to outline by word count. I tend to write short essays, and I find that if I ascribe a certain number of words to each concept, it keeps me on track. I also like to colour code my outline (usually with highlighter dots), both because it looks pretty and because I can then go through my notes and mark the points that go in each section of my paper. From there, all I have to do is group all of my pink dots and all of my green dots, and then my essay practically writes itself.

Another method that I know is popular, especially if you’re technologically savvy and like to type up your notes, is to create your outline by cutting and pasting your notes into groups of main points. After that, you can just reword your clumps of notes into coherent sentences, and again, your essay is essentially writing itself.

If neither of those methods appeal to you, check out the Writing Centre’s handout on outlines: http://sass.queensu.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2013/06/Creating-Outlines.pdf.

Good luck with your essays, and until next time, happy writing!

PWA JN

Image of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar outline courtesy of http://michelleboydwaters.com/handwritten-outlines-of-famous-authors/ under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivations 2.0 license.

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