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I Don’t Know How to Sail (A Half Truth)

Sarah, Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022

I’m not a fan of inspirational quotes. In all honesty, I find them tacky. Over the first quarantine in April, after my exams, I found myself staring at the ceiling, desperate for any inspiration in the unknown that was going to be my summer. No internship, exchange cancelled, summer courses looming, hoping for the chance to serve people coffee again (if I am one character from Friends, it’s Rachel. But only Rachel saying, “I’m getting coffee and it’s not even for me”). Exhausted, I combed through the depths of my laptop, going through archived notes, hoping to find some chink of light. I found this quote I wrote down from Little Women: “I am not afraid of storms for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” I broke my rule on inspirational quotes.

Cover of novel Little Women

I have wanted to learn to sail for years. That comes as no secret to those who know me, and to those who have been following these posts (the ocean analogies had to come from somewhere!). That being said, I have no idea how to sail, as circumstance has limited my learning opportunities. Even though the task itself isn’t something, I’m ready to get going when I can—and I know that the belief in your ability to carry out the task is, as with all things, going to be vital. This belief is known as task self-efficacy.

Task self-efficacy is a theory drawn from health promotion, which aims to promote and enable healthy behaviours. The idea fits under the broader range of self-efficacy, defined as the belief we have in our ability to complete something. Self-efficacy is foundational. Scholars argue that it’s the believing in ourselves that kickstarts the behaviour change itself. That belief doesn’t always come from an instantaneous “aha” moment; it can take a lot of work to mold. This molding is achieved through tools called “behaviour change techniques” (BCTs). In theory, you can use BCTs to influence task self-efficacy and, in turn, affect behaviour outcome.

So, why the crash course in health behaviour change?

I’d argue that a lot of core concepts in health behaviour change are applicable to adapting to the online learning environment. Everyone has been through a crash course in online learning this semester. For better or for worse, the fall semester is over. The fall semester gives us a benchmark on how we did with this transition, what we need to do to improve or maintain our current learning strategies. We can think of online learning as the task that we’ve undertaken. I know at the beginning we all felt like we had no sense of self-efficacy when it came to online learning. But the task is done, and again, for better or for worse, we have a benchmark idea of our abilities. The point being, we did it. In and of itself, that shows we got through it, and we can do it again. I’d say that because we have this benchmark, we will be able to do better. Like how way back in first year, none of us knew what we were doing, but by third year, we have (mostly) figured it out. The same applies now. Your belief in yourself, and attempts to evaluate your progress and set new goals, will help you improve this semester.

On that note, I’ve taken 3 main lessons away from last semester.

(1) You need to take of yourself.

At Student Academic Success Services, we often discuss how there are a lot of things that influence academic performance in students. It’s why we emphasize getting good sleep, eating right, and exercise. Essentially, following the 24-Hour Movement Guidelines, published this year by the School of Kinesiology & Health Studies is a great roadmap for how to stay healthy. But the key to using those guidelines is the promise to yourself to take care of yourself. I’m not talking face masks, takeout, and binging Netflix (while those might help!). Not committing to taking care of your health and well-being is a sure way to have a miserable time at university, and to struggle with your academic work. I am irony embodied in this case: I’m a health student and blogger who hasn’t done this as effectively as I could have been with online learning. I’ve actively identified areas of my daily routines, both academic and non-academic, that need improvement to promote my overall well-being. Make some small commitment right now to improve your wellbeing. It could be a five-minute walk, making one healthy choice at your next mealtime, or going to bed just a few minutes earlier today. Even small changes will help.

(2) Stay in touch with professors and TAs.

I never used to go to office hours or talk to TAs. When content was confusing, or assignments unclear, I blamed myself for not being smart enough to figure it out on my own. Online school has made me come out of that bubble. It’s made me go to office hours (sometimes just for the sake of virtual human interaction) and ask questions. It’s made me get to know my professors a little bit more, deconstructing the “larger than life” academic persona my various high school teachers have burned into my memory as what to expect from professors. Profs are people too, who often want to see students asking questions, being curious and inquisitive (with a laugh or two in between as conversations go). Online assignment instructions can be confusing, and there isn’t shame in asking a TA or professor for clarification. Utilize your e-mail, OnQ discussion boards, office hours – don’t be afraid to just say, “I don’t get this,” and explain why. Your ego might be bruised asking for help, but your grades will not be.

(3) Prioritize.

As brilliant a student as I am (or maybe not…), I have difficulty prioritizing. I take a lot on because I have such a strong drive to make the most of my university experience. Thus, I work really long hours. I have a friend whose father is a professor. He often checks in with me and asks if I’m doing okay because I seem “very stressed.” There are times where I wish I had my planner on me to show him just how packed my days are. My reality is there are a lot of things in my day I cannot change. I have to work to support myself, I have to do classwork, I have to do well in said classes to keep my financial aid – there is every reason to be stressed and have a packed day. To combat this evident stress, I’ve begun thinking within the specific framework of this BCT called “Framing/Reframing”. This BCT calls on us to deliberately take on a new perspective of our behaviour to change the way we feel about the behaviour. So, instead of cursing my inability to say no, I frame my days with this sentence: “There are only 24 hours in a day, and I come first.” With this reframing, I adopt a mantra of “look at the work I have the privilege of doing”, instead of “I have so much to do.” The reality and busy nature of my days won’t change, but my attitude and behaviour can.

It’s okay not to know how to sail your ship. It’s the experience of figuring out the task itself, using transferable skills, and building confidence, that gives you enough strength to weather whatever academic storm comes at you. And with winter term over, I know collectively, we have the strength to do this again. Hopefully, for the better.