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Introducing SASS’s peer blogging team!

This year, SASS has a team of student bloggers who’ll be writing about their experiences of studying remotely every few weeks. In today’s post, our four bloggers introduce themselves, discuss what they’re excited to work on this year, and provide words of wisdom for everyone from first years to PhD students. Check back again in a few weeks to hear how Liyi, Santosh, Sarah and Kate are progressing!

Liyi (Engineering, Class of 2024)

Hi everyone! My name is Liyi and I am entering my first year of Engineering at Queen’s. I come from Guelph in southern Ontario. I love to bake cupcakes and cookies and to drink coffee (although I’m worried about getting hooked on caffeine!), and I am looking forward to playing recreational volleyball at Queen’s, as I have played competitively for several years.

I’ll be here with you over the next few months, ready to take the first step into the next chapter of our lives with you as we figure out online university. In this blog, I will share my thoughts and experiences with the intention of helping us all study better together.

This semester there are lots of things I am excited about. I bought my first Queen’s sweater online the other day. This piece of clothing somehow marked the first real thought that “I’m a Queen’s student now.” It felt wonderful, and I know I share that thought with so many others. I am looking forward (hopefully!) to seeing everyone on campus in the cold Kingston weather in January.

Academically, I want to improve my essay and lab writing. At high school, I struggled with learning how to study and work effectively in a way that was best for me. In high school I wrote 4,000 words of an essay before scrapping it and trying to start again after following some bad advice. At Queen’s, I plan to follow my gut, seek support from professors and other people on campus (like SASS!), and write using methods that suit me. My fingers are crossed that it works out, but there’s a lot to learn.

I am thrilled that I can share my thoughts using this medium as I am passionate about helping others. I want to share all the tricks I learn along the way to ensure that we are all successful. For all the first years coming in, I hope you are looking forward to university as much as I am!


Santosh (Life Sciences, Class of 2023)

Hi, my name is Santosh and I am a second-year Life Sciences student here at Queen’s! I live in Ajax, which is a town located about half an hour from Toronto. When I am not submerged in the books, you can usually find me on the soccer pitch trying to bring out my inner Messi (which I have yet to find) or jamming on my guitar to the latest songs. I am a huge Toronto Raptors fan, so whenever it is game time, you’ll see me supporting the team!

University is an important time to explore options. The first weeks at university can be a drastic change from the environment we grew accustomed to, both academically and non-academically, in high school. This was one of the things I struggled with during my first few months. Leaving my family and friends took a toll on me—and my academics. I joined clubs and played intramurals to integrate myself into the Queen’s community.

Getting over that initial homesickness also helped me refocus on my courses. It is so important to stay on top of all the work, because it can pile up in no time. Throughout first year, I also had a chance to find out which study methods worked, which has shaped the way I learn for the better. This year I look forward to working on my time management skills because that is something I have always struggled with. I know remote learning, which needs new time management skills, is going to be a perfect challenge for me. I hope you’ll follow me on this journey as I try to master my time management skills!

As we inch closer to the beginning of another academic year, I would like to welcome all first-year students and welcome back upper-year students to Queen’s. Even if you are a thousand miles away from campus, we are all connected by the university. I wish you all the best this year and, even with remote education, I hope you take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that Queen’s has to offer.


Sarah (Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022)

Hey everyone! My name is Sarah and I am in my third year of Health Studies & Environmental Studies. I am from Kingston, but I opted to stay in the city for my undergraduate. In my spare time, I can be found running, kickboxing, or watching documentaries about the ocean. My next big challenge is learning to sail—ever since I saw Mamma Mia, I told myself I would do so.

My experience at Queen’s has been an academic rollercoaster. The biggest struggle I had in first year was time management. I mastered the “art” of procrastination, defined as a cycle of extreme stress, anxiety, and mediocre grades. Come second year, I was determined to fix this. Going into my third year, I now have a better grip on my procrastination. I understand what triggers it and how to work around it. I am not perfect, but compared to who I was in first year, I’ve come miles. This makes me confident going into third year. I have nowhere to go but up!

Despite everything happening in the world, I am genuinely excited for some of the courses I have coming up this year. Extrapolating from my love for health and geography, I am taking GPHY 243: Geographic Information Systems and GPHY 227: Cities, Geography & Urban Life. So, this semester, I’m excited to keep challenging myself academically by taking electives of interest, actively work to unlearn my procrastination habits, and keep the motivation going.

If you had asked me what my third year would have looked like, I would have said I would be on exchange to Australia, doing a placement, or finally be learning to sail. Due to the pandemic, and like everyone else, I have had to revise my plans for 2020-21. At times, it is so hard to be positive, but I refuse to let a global pandemic take away any of my Queen’s experience!

To my fellow on-campus students, we were lucky to establish relationships with our peers, faculties, and programs on campus through our first, second, and third years. These do not vanish because a pandemic has robbed us of our physical proximity and (some of) our plans for our time at Queen’s. As my friend Logan once said, “It’s not the geography that matters. It’s our connections that make us close.” To the incoming Class of 2024, this same saying applies to you, although it may be a while until we are all on campus together again. This is still our time. We’ve got this.


Kate (PhD Psychology, Year 1)

Hi there! My name is Kate and I am beginning my PhD in psychology here at Queen’s University. I took my undergraduate and MSc degrees at Queen’s too, so I’ve been here a while! I grew up in Sudbury, ON and am a lifelong figure skating enthusiast. I skated competitively throughout elementary and high school and have been a part of the Queen’s recreational figure skating club for the last six years.

As I gear up for my seventh September at Queen’s, I am preparing for my upcoming Master’s defense. I spent most of the winter and spring writing my thesis and am now in the process of practicing my presentation and refreshing myself on the literature. The discussion section alone took most of May and June to develop and refine. The toughest lesson throughout the writing process was learning how to be concise. Quantity did not equal quality. As I wrote my discussion, I quickly realized that I could not possibly cover the entirety of my field in ~15 pages. Thus, with each revision, I became more skilled at filtering out the “fluff” to make sure my point remained crystal clear throughout my writing.

With defense preparations taking up most of my time and energy, it is a little difficult to focus on what’s to come for the fall semester. That said, I am most excited to 1) begin my research proposal and 2) find out what courses I will be TAing. At the moment, I am unsure about the direction I want to take my research in, but I am thrilled to be continuing with my MSc supervisor.  Additionally, I have only ever chosen to TA courses with tutorial or laboratory components because, in my opinion, the best part of the job is interacting with the students. I am curious to see how I will adapt my TAing style to fit with this transition to fully online coursework.

For all the graduate students who are eagerly waiting to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with their lab bench or office, I hear you and I am with you! Despite the changes to course delivery and campus life, I fully intend on getting the absolute most out of this academic year and I hope you do the same (in a safe and socially distanced manner, of course). I’m looking forward to writing more in the coming weeks about my experiences studying in this new environment and sharing my advice about how to write and learn more effectively!

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Memorize faster, better and easier with online tools

Rahul, Psychology, Class of 2022

In my second year during the Winter term, I decided that I wanted to learn a bit of a new language and so I enrolled in Introductory Spanish (SPAN 111). I’m a psychology major, so learning a language required a whole new approach to studying! On the second day of class, I remember the professor encouraging us to repeat the English alphabet in Spanish, one of the foundational components of learning Spanish. This would establish a base for learning how to spell, write, and read new terms.

When it came to Week 2, I had already been introduced to more than a hundred terms and phrases. I already felt overwhelmed, and couldn’t remember material from the morning by the evening. By the end of the term, I would need to pull several hundred terms and phrases from my head and either write down or vocalize them in a comprehensible, grammatically sound form. I needed to memorize a vast amount of material. How could I possibly know where to start when it came to studying?!

What better resource to call upon than the one I had discovered in my first year at Queen’s? This resource has saved me time and time again with most of my psychology courses and others that have required significant memorization of definitions, basic concepts, and facts. This is Quizlet, a free website that provides a valuable set of learning tools for students.

Quizlet’s main feature for students is creating flashcards. Flashcards are typically best for learning definitions, terms, basic concepts, and facts for multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, true/false, and definition/term question types. Quizlet’s flashcard feature is beloved by Queen’s students from every faculty, so try it for memorizing information!

Quizlet’s features

Flashcards – This feature presents you with one side of a flashcard. After you answer the prompt, the flashcard will flip over so that you see if you were correct. If it’s crunch time and I need to study something quickly, I can go through flashcards I add to Quizlet throughout the semester. If I don’t know the answer to the backside of a flashcard, I can star the card, indicating that I need to go back to it. Once I go through all of my flashcards, I go back through the starred cards. To ensure that I’m not simply “recognizing” these starred cards because of the order that they were initially presented in, Quizlet allows you to shuffle your flashcards. After doing this, I would go through the starred cards again.

Learn Mode – This feature allows you to progress from basic recognition to mastery and complete memorization. It’s a smart way of studying material because you can set study reminders with it, thereby prompting you to learn bit by bit until the day of your assessment. What’s unique about this feature is that you get encouraging messages as you study!

Write Mode – This feature allows you to write a term next to its definition and vice versa. Great for when you have to memorize and recall key definitions for an in-class assignment or a quiz.

Spell Mode – This feature provides you with a verbal iteration of the terms you need to study. Then, you spell the term that you hear. Very useful if you’re in language or science courses with long or unfamiliar words that require precise spelling to get full marks!

Test Mode – This feature is neat because you can select what question types you want to be tested on. If the course you are taking has an exam that consists mostly of multiple choice, you can select this option in test mode so that all your questions are in a multiple choice format. You can also select and combine other question types such as true/false, term/definition, matching, and written.

Games – Quizlet can make studying fun! Try the Matching game to quickly recognize terms and their definitions or the Gravity game to the same in a fast-paced setting. There’s nothing like a bit of studying that feels like fun. Just don’t overdo the gaming – you still have to use more effective, traditional study methods too.

In reading this, you might object that “making flashcards takes so long, and I don’t have that kind of time!” Don’t fret. Using Quizlet’s search option you’ll be able to find many pre-made flashcard sets to use for your courses. So, instead of writing a ton of terms and their definitions, you might just be able to save yourself by being able to access these from other users, and for free. Just be careful that the definitions in anything you find online are actually correct – who’s to say the student that made them was as diligent as you? – and that the terms and definitions you use for a course haven’t changed in the time since your downloaded quiz was made.

Is Quizlet for everyone?

No, it isn’t. Quizlet is especially advantageous for courses that genuinely do require a lot of memorization. Almost every course at Queen’s requires you to apply and use information – memorizing is only the start. In Spanish, for example, I still had to be able to conjugate verbs, put together whole sentences and paragraphs, and speak and listen. Being able to cite lengthy lists of vocabulary wouldn’t have got me far enough to do well in the course. That’s why I left plenty of time for other study techniques in my schedule. Nonetheless, memorization is a basic component of most courses, and Quizlet can help you get on the right track to memorizing what you need to know quickly and reliably, all on one platform that can be accessed online.


Quizlet: https://quizlet.com

How Students Study Using Quizlet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpN02iFQQk0

Advanced Tips for Using Quizlet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4TcCDiRdPY

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Transitioning from undergraduate to graduate writing: what’s different?

Francesca, MA Classics, Class of 2020

When I started my MA degree in Classics in September 2018 I fancied myself a decent academic writer. Not an outstanding one sure, but hey, I had gotten in to grad school and received research funding so surely I couldn’t be that bad. I assumed that I could continue on writing the same way I had during my undergrad with little issue.  I was incredibly, immensely wrong. But don’t worry: I got a lot better, so you can too!

When I started grad school I was unaware of how insufficient my poor habits from undergrad would be. I had largely done well on my undergraduate papers, but I often wrote them last minute –  a week at most before the deadline, more often the day before – with very little pre-planning and even less (read: zero) editing. My first draft was almost always my only draft. Worse, most of my essays were a bunch of facts and theories loosely connected by my own analysis. I might have made a vague sort of argument, but I wasn’t saying anything substantial in any of my essays.

Still, I thought I was doing swell in the early months of my MA. It wasn’t until I started having to write longer papers for some of my graduate seminars that I began to struggle. As you might guess, time management was a big issue for me – it still is – but my biggest issue in graduate writing was trying to find my own voice among thousands of others in academia. My papers were still relying far too heavily on the theories and opinions of other academics strung together by my own paltry attempts at a new argument. I even had a professor comment that, despite how well-researched it was, he’d “have liked to have heard more of my voice” in my paper.

This issue of a “lack of voice” began to worsen as I moved on from my coursework into researching and writing my MA thesis. I had to “re-learn” how to write for academia, which involved shifting my foundations. Ultimately this meant acknowledging that graduate writing – whether for coursework, a major research project, or a thesis – requires creating your own content. This in turn involved changing my approach toward several aspects of my writing process:

  1. Why am I writing? 

Before we even address what changes about your writing at a graduate level, we must consider the goals of academic writing at this level.  Look at the critical thinking pyramid below, which is drawn from Harold Bloom’s research on learning, and consider how you engaged with your sources during undergrad. It’s likely that the majority of your undergraduate papers hovered around the analyze, apply, or evaluate levels. However, for graduate writing, especially in research-focused programs, the majority of your writing is expected to be at the “create” level. In graduate school you’re not simply reading a lot of theorists and re-hashing old arguments. You’re (somehow) generating new ideas and creating new content.

You’re not simply putting a “new spin” on old arguments, but, depending on your discipline, you’ll be collecting and analyzing brand new data, or creating new arguments and theories based on pre-existing information.  Regardless, the emphasis at the graduate level is original creation.

If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome – you’re not sure you’ll be able to “create” at all, or where to start doing it – check out these tips from the University of Melbourne. They include a great checklist for evaluating the originality of your work.

  1. Who am I writing for?

At the undergraduate level we mainly write our papers for our profs and TAs. We’re explicitly writing for a grade – generally you know what the prof wants, and you try to do that to get an A. The intended audience for your grad work is different.  At this level your main focus should be writing to contribute to the wider academic discussion in your field. While your profs – your supervisor, your committee – will still be the primary readers of your work, you’re not writing for them as a budding academic. In some cases, particularly for the Master’s thesis or PhD dissertation, your writing may even be published with the explicit intent of reaching a much wider audience in your field. That means we need to take time to explore an analytical, creative process before we can write, and we need to consider the needs of different audiences.

Writing for a wider audience goes hand in hand with my next piece of advice:

  1. What’s expected in my discipline?

Discipline specific expectations become more important at the graduate level. This impacts your writing style.  Each field has specific conventions surrounding issues like methodology, defining terms, citation methods, and specific structures, linguistic features, and so on.

For example, in my own research I am broadly discussing Augustine’s criticisms of the theater and the role of art in his own philosophy – but how am I defining ‘art’? What works of his am I including? What works am I excluding? We must be aware of these considerations in graduate writing because answering these questions will help ‘justify’ the decisions you make in your own research and argumentation process. If you don’t show you’re considering these evaluative and guiding questions, you’ll be short changing your reader!  Graduate writing, regardless of discipline, is subject to more scrutiny than undergraduate and it is important to be able to defend your ideas and the methods by which you reached those ideas to your supervisor (and your future academic audience).

If you’re unsure, discussing it with your supervisor or graduate coordinator is the best way to learn about discipline specific requirements, but meeting with the Student Academic Success Services Writing Consultants is another great option! You can start on your own by looking at current articles in your field and using this worksheet to analyse the expectations of your discipline and find forms, phrases and structures that will impress your reader.

  1. How will I change my process?

By now I hope it’s clear that graduate level writing involves many more complexities than undergraduate writing. That will have a practical effect on your writing process.  For me this meant developing better time management skills; the graduate writing process involves a lot more planning and editing than I was used to. I couldn’t write my papers in a week, let alone the night before.  To tackle a project as large as my MA thesis I needed months, not days, to research, draft, edit, research some more, all before even submitting the initial draft to my supervisor.

There are several useful tips for improving your writing process as a graduate student:

  • Use a thesis manager to plan and organize your time before you start writing. It helps to break down an intimidating project like a thesis into manageable sections and also provides guidelines about how much time should be spent on each step.
  • Develop and implement a writing habit takes a few weeks but is a realistic way to manage your time when working on a large-scale writing project. Incorporating time to think and sleep into your daily writing goal is crucial.
  • Set realistic short and long term goals – it’ll give you a sense of achievement when finished and provide motivation to continue on!
  • Regardless of discipline, you’ll be dealing with large amounts of information at the graduate level so finding a data management tool that works for you is a must (my preferred organizational tool is Evernote!)
  • Make use of books like Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day or The Craft of Research (both available via the Queen’s Library). These resources were written by people who have been through graduate school with the explicit intent of providing practical advice to those currently in grad school.
  • General resources like the SASS website and the Thesis Whisperer are great for when you know you need help but aren’t necessarily sure with what.

No matter where you are in your graduate career, writing can be an intimidating process, but it doesn’t have to be. Keeping in mind your audience and reason for writing and making use of the resources provided can turn it into a manageable, if not enjoyable, process. See you in the library!

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A minimalist’s approach to effective learning

 Zier Zhou, 4th year Life Sciences student

Minimalism isn’t just limited to the world of modern art and interior design. It’s a lifestyle that can be exercised in many aspects of our busy lives. As university students, our days are spent hurrying from libraries to lecture halls, consuming as much knowledge we possibly can. Here are some techniques related to time management, note-taking, and concentration to keep us steady on our feet as we embark on our winter semester.

Making time

I used to think that how long I’d spend studying would positively correlate to the grades I’d receive, but I now realize that time is not necessarily the determining factor in academic success. I’ve found it helpful to change the way I think about time and let go of the idea that I don’t have enough or need more of it. This requires setting priorities straight by accepting the fact that energy is limited and creating realistic goals that are within reach.

For those who’ve taken chemistry, you’re probably familiar with the ideal gas law where gas expands to fit the volume allotted. Similarly, Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. This idea was especially relevant when I had long gaps of time between my exams in the spring. It didn’t exactly matter whether I had four or five days leading up to my pharmacology final, because I would still study on every day I was given and end up cramming the most information on the last one.

Understanding this law encourages you to be aware of the time we spend on various tasks and construct a reasonable schedule so that you don’t act against your efforts by adding excessive stress and complexity to your work. It’s worthwhile to use your newfound time to get involved outside of academics and engage in extra-curricular activities that spark your interest. Challenge yourself by staying occupied so that you can’t afford to procrastinate, which would only leave you with a longer list of things to do for tomorrow.

Taking notes

There’s a constant debate on whether it’s better to type notes on your laptop or write them down using pen and paper. After observing others around me and trying both methods myself, I’ve decided that there are many points for and against each, and the decision ultimately depends on the individual. Since I’d rather avoid carrying bulky binders and scattered papers everywhere, I like to type my lecture notes on OneNote, which organizes my notebooks and allows me to easily switch from one to another in two clicks of a button.

When it comes to reviewing notes, repetition is key. I usually go over the material in multiple ways, whether that’s reading out loud or highlighting important concepts, at least three times before a test. Sometimes I write them by hand because it takes longer, which means I’d spend more time thinking about the ideas I’m putting down. But instead of replicating the same words, condense your original notes so that they include only the most significant information. Use bullet points and abbreviations whenever possible to make your notes concise and simple to read. Make mnemonics or creative connections to your own life, which can also help immensely for memorization-heavy topics.

Keep in mind that taking a minimalistic approach is certainly not about learning as little as possible. It’s about spending less effort on trivial tasks and instead concentrating on taking notes from the most important resources, often provided or emphasized by your professor. Charts, diagrams, and mind maps are great way for summarizing course material. That being said, it’s not always enough to solely grasp the main ideas, particularly if you’re aiming for the highest marks. Be curious about the complete story as well as careful in covering its details.

Finding focus

The first step to finding focus is staying organized. It’s incredibly useful to keep a planner that contains your monthly calendars and daily to-do lists for sticking to some sort of routine. That way, you won’t have to repeatedly wonder about what to do next. Before you begin studying, clear your workspace from any clutter and disconnect from any distractions, including your phone and any social media networks. Also avoid multitasking, which has been consistently demonstrated to lower our productivity and quality of work as we switch back and forth between tasks.

It’s no secret that the learning process becomes much easier and more enjoyable when we’re interested in the subject, so try to approach every course with an optimistic attitude. For instance, anatomy was not my favourite course during third year. I found that a large part of the course consisted of rote memorization, and the lab exams were also quite challenging. However, I convinced myself that it would be cool to understand the human skeletal structure and trace its network of blood vessels. Reminding myself of the reasons I was studying in the first place helped motivate me to keep going.

At the same time, you don’t need (or want) to work non-stop. It’s best to break down your large goals into smaller ones, not only so that they appear to be less daunting but because it’s more effective. The Pomodoro technique enhances concentration by recognizing that our attention spans are short and cleverly using this limit to our advantage. Spend the breaks in between your study sessions however you like, whether it’s making a cup of coffee or taking a walk in the woods. If you’re feeling adventurous, experiment with meditation and yoga, as these activities are also known to widely improve one’s focus.

Final note

From my perspective, taking a minimalistic approach to learning means being mindful of how we control our time, apply our methods, and gather our focus while we work. This allows us to channel our energy into the work that will yield optimal results and realize greater freedom in pursuing other meaningful activities in life besides studying. Good luck!

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Writing lab reports: A TA’s perspective (Part 2)

Results, Methods, Discussion

Brigitte, PhD Candidate in Biology

Brigitte is a Queen’s graduate and now a senior student in the university’s PhD Biology program, and has TAd and taught several courses at Queen’s. This is the second of a two-part blog series looking back on her experiences writing lab reports as a first year and offering some advice, from a TA’s perspective, on how she should have been writing back when she started!

Results and Methods are your foundation.

In my first year, I neglected the Results and Methods: they were simple, in a given standardized format, and required little real effort. If you follow the formatting requirements in the lab manual and use specific language (e.g. “250 mL of water was boiled” instead of “some water was boiled”), you will likely get full marks as I did in my early reports. However, by the end of my undergraduate career, the Results section on lab reports went from 100 words to 1000 words (not including my 4th year thesis). Developing and practicing good skills early on is vital to later success.

My mistake was underestimating the importance of the Results in other sections of the report. The points you make in the Discussion and background you include in the Introduction heavily rely on the hypothesis, how you’ve tested the hypothesis, and what you’ve found. Most of this information should be outlined in your Methods and Results. It’s also important to emphasize the experimental results without interpreting them in the Results section – the Results section is the most impartial, objective component of your report. Save your interpretations for the Discussion, where you can fully place your Results in the context of previous literature.

There also tends to be a bias against negative (or statistically non-significant) results in the scientific publishing world. It’s important to remember that the reason a certain phenomenon didn’t behave as expected can be just as interesting as why something did occur and isn’t necessarily the fault of methodological errors. Non-significant results are not always scientifically insignificant. I was discouraged by insignificant results in my first and 2nd year. It was challenging to write a Discussion where you need to integrate literature that disagrees with your findings (which is where your experimental errors can easily be integrated with most discrepancies). Remember that research is an iterative process. When writing your lab report, it’s important to keep an open mind to consider both your hypothesis and the null hypothesis. You could say that your Results are “innocent until proven guilty” – the null is true until shown (never “proven”) otherwise. After collecting the data, it is your job to act as the jury, deciding whether there is sufficient evidence and precedence (from the literature) to make strong conclusions from your Results. If not, be sure to explain why there are concerns and where the Methods could be improved.

A Discussion should integrate, not regurgitate, your Results.

The Discussion section is often worth the most marks and is where most marks are lost. Two of the most common mistakes (which I also made!): too much background (move it to the Introduction), and word-for-word reiteration of the Results. The Discussion should incorporate the Results with both your explanation of the phenomenon and the information you’ve gathered from the literature. Do not simply copy your results into your Discussion: add context and try to answer the question(s) you posed in the Introduction.

A general format: state whether your results support your hypothesis/idea, discuss 2-3 pieces of relevant literature, then discuss if the literature agrees with your hypothesis (or whether there are new questions for future studies to address). Remember to have a thesis statement at the end of your first Discussion paragraph. The thesis statement needs to set up the rest of your Discussion, just like an essay – here, I’ve made three distinct points that I discussed in the body/analysis paragraphs: “Heterozygosity may be affected by the stocking program, natural and artificial selection, and interspecific competition.”

My proofreading and editing tips

You should strive to have a day to edit your report before handing it in. It can be difficult to manage your time at university: taking care of yourself, managing multiple assignments, and studying can be challenging to juggle. Part of first year is learning what strategies will or won’t work for you. SASS has a number of strategies you could use to improve your time management such as making a to-do list, preventing procrastination, prioritizing your tasks, and using short- and long-term calendars to plan your time efficiently.

Personally, I’m one of those annoyingly organized students which has only progressed since I started graduate school. I have colour-coded weekly, monthly, and term schedules and goals. I use Gantt charts to plan the projects, tasks, and deadlines associated with my thesis. I write all of my tasks on a whiteboard and faithfully prioritize them every morning. I started assignments the evening they were assigned (because I knew I wouldn’t start them until the night before if I set them aside right away).

Not that any of my planning helped my grades in first year. I struggled with starting assignments, despite scheduling and setting definite, realistic goals. Later, I learned that using a Pomodoro timer helped me start assignments – it’s also the strategy I used to write my MSc. I force myself to work, undistracted, for 10 or 20 minutes (or however much time I had between classes) towards one goal. Read one paper. Write one paragraph or one sentence. Write the figure caption. Breaking the assignment into smaller chunks made it less daunting and much easier (for me) than staring at a blank page for an hour (or three hours) trying to write an entire Introduction. Writing freely or brainstorming allowed me to get my ideas on paper instead of focusing on writing the “perfect” sentence or paragraph. In the first week of every course I’ve ever TAd, I start class with one of my favourite (slightly altered) quotes, currently attributed to Earnest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is trash.” Sometimes, finished is better than perfect – especially if you can leave some time to edit your work.

When you’re proofreading your report, try to ask yourself some of the questions that TAs ask when we read your reports. Check if you could add any extra detail to improve your writing.


Report section When writing, ask yourself if you’ve answered these questions:
Title Could this be more concise?
Abstract Are the purpose, brief methodology, main results, and major conclusion(s) included?

Could this be more concise?

Introduction Why am I doing this experiment?

What is the purpose of the experiment?

If I were to explain this to a friend that missed class, what background would they need to understand this experiment?

What theory or concept is this experiment exploring?

Methods Is there enough detail for someone else to replicate my experiment?

Do the methods adequately address my hypothesis?

Is the control treatment appropriate?


Results Have I followed the format?

Did I appropriately test my hypothesis?

Are there any significant differences between experimental treatment groups?

Discussion What happened and why?

Do I have adequate support from the literature to make this argument?

Did I link my findings to the main concept/purpose if this assignment? Are my results consistent with the literature?

How are my results similar or different to other studies?

Was my hypothesis supported? Were my findings statistically significant?

What could be done differently in the future?


A concluding thought

Long story short, first year can be difficult but doesn’t define the rest of your career if you work with the knowledge and feedback you receive. If you do your best, put in the work, and use the resources available to you, your next term or course can be better than you think it will be now. As a TA, I’m always incredibly proud of those students that struggle for the first few weeks but work hard to improve their grades by the end of the term – most of us do notice!

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Writing lab reports: A TA’s perspective (Part 1)

Introductions and titles

Brigitte, PhD Candidate in Biology

Have you ever wondered what your Teaching Assistant (TA) is thinking while marking your reports? Brigitte is a Queen’s graduate and now a senior student in the university’s PhD Biology program, and has TA’d several courses at Queen’s. In the first of a two-part blog series, Brigitte is here to look back on her experiences writing lab reports as a first year and offer some advice, from a TA’s perspective, on how she should have been writing back when she started! Today, Brigitte explores how to write a great introduction, come up with an appropriate title, and edit your work.

A bit about my first year at Queen’s

I started at Queen’s in Fall 2013. Since then, I’ve completed a BSc (Honours), MSc, and my first year as a PhD Candidate in Biology. I’ve published my research, been listed on the Dean’s Honour List and been awarded scholarships.

The last few years of my university career represent a massive change, since I was generally unremarkable in my first year. I always told my family that I received straight “A” marks in my first year—they didn’t know that meant my marks were somewhere between “Adequate” and “Average” (60-70%).

I came from high school as a top student (receiving a 98% cumulative average and the Governor General’s Bronze Medal, among 13 other awards), but I remember my first Biology labs vividly. I felt confused by the requirements for a few weeks. I was a FYNIR (First Year Not In Residence) living alone off-campus, so I had no peers to ask for help or support.

When I went to hand in my first Biology report, I felt anxious, but mostly defeated; I had spent hours upon hours desperately trying to sound knowledgeable in my assignment. I received a 60%, while the class average was ~70%. I was glad that I passed, but frustrated and upset for days because I felt that the effort I had put in should’ve been worth more than a 60%. At the time, it was an awful experience. Looking back, however, the reports and feedback I resented in my first year absolutely made me an independent researcher and capable scientist.

Introductions should explain what we already know and what you’re going to add

Formatting varies from course to course, but the Introduction should be written from general information (explaining the scientific context of your study) to the specifics of your study (e.g. hypotheses). The Introduction should provide background from primary sources (e.g. published research articles) that is sufficient for the reader to understand the study purpose, hypotheses, and why the study is important. Many students neglect to mention why they are performing their study or the implications of their findings; as a TA, it’s an easy place to take marks off. My main mistake was incorporating too much background information into the Discussion instead of the Introduction which was short and shallow (lacking detail and incorporated literature):

The finishing touch: An appropriate title

You’ve written a beautiful report, but it needs a title to capture your work. You could call it “Assignment 1”, but that would be like calling the Mona Lisa something akin to Portrait—not untrue, but also not very helpful. The Title is often worth a small fraction of your total grade, but crafting a representative title is an important skill for future academic, public or private sector careers.

One of my first year titles is below. It could’ve been improved drastically by making it more concise then adding extra detail to tell the reader about the main finding and purpose of the study. Note that the original and revised titles have the same word count, but very different amounts of detail.

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When you don’t know, just wing it? The truth about bird courses

Veronica, Class of 2021, Nursing

It’s January. You’re looking at your list of courses for this semester and wondering why on earth you selected those electives way back in July. You knew you had to choose something to fill up your schedule outside of your major, so you picked the first thing that came to mind. Or, like many Queen’s students, you looked for the easiest courses you could take to guarantee yourself a high grade. Many a canny first-year has logged on to the various websites and social media discussion groups that list “bird courses” that (supposedly) promise a high grade in return for little effort.

bird course (noun)

  1. a class that is supposed to be as easy as it would be for a bird to fly
  2. a class that you can “fly” through with ease

As someone who has taken one of these “easy” classes, I can tell you first hand that so-called “bird courses” are not your best option if you simply want an A+. The main reason for choosing these easier classes isn’t necessarily your desire for a good grade (after all, who doesn’t want to do well?). The real reason is that your desire for that good grade surpasses your desire to learn.

So many people take courses in university that do not interest them at all. When you ask them afterwards what they learned, they might answer something like “honestly not much”, or “I don’t know, I didn’t really pay attention.” It’s much more rewarding taking a class that might be a bit more challenging but has amazing course content. Taking a course outside of your major may be a great chance to learn and broaden our horizons. You might never get the opportunity to take that cool class ever again, and you might even learn valuable study skills and ways of thinking to bring back into your major courses.

Some things you may want to consider when choosing your electives are:

  • Is this a subject I am actually interested in?
  • Am I choosing this course because it is easy?
  • Will this course teach me something new?
  • Do I have the right academic and writing skills to do well already, or will I get to learn more during the course?

Challenge yourself, but don’t doom yourself to fail: think carefully about your study habits and the skills you’ll need to improve in the elective you’re about to take on. If you know your course load in a semester is going to be difficult, you might want to take it easy and find room for that super tough class another time. If you feel like you might have difficulty balancing your workload, the SASS website has some great time management strategies.

Most importantly, being in a class where you’re excited to learn is a great motivator. When you’re interested in what you’re learning, good grades might just come naturally! Even if your class is more difficult than you initially bargained for, content that you’re interested in will help you stay involved and be proactive. Instead of skipping classes you found boring and difficult—especially in those dark February days—you may find yourself motivated to guide your own learning and, therefore, decrease your chances of procrastinating.

Sometimes, though, you might still need some extra help to get you through. SASS offers one-on-one appointments with Peer Writing Assistants for help on assignments in any first or second-year course from any department. SASS also offers great tips on our website and drop-in sessions on Thursdays for help on time management, procrastination, and more. Whether you’re studying Chemistry, History, Psychology or beyond, excel in your courses, especially when things get challenging.

If you’ve taken one of these so-called “bird courses” before or are enrolled in one for the upcoming semester, you are not the only one. The promised ease of these courses is exactly how I ended up in my elective course this past summer. I went looking on social media groups to find an introductory, online summer course that I could enroll in. What I found is that halfway through the summer while I was writing one of my assignments, I was not really interested in the course material at all. My motivation to actually learn was completely shot and I ended up doing worse than the more challenging, but interesting elective I had taken the year prior. I remember walking out of my exam feeling pretty defeated. I did end up learning about how to study for a course that is not related to my program, however, I wish I had spent my money on a course that I was more interested in.

So, take the chance and enroll in a class that might be a bit more difficult; who knows what you may find! One thing is for sure, though—you’ll be truly flying in a course that you look forward to.

Image courtesy of Robyn Jay

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Visualize your notes: The mind map

Rahul, Class of 2022, Psychology

In my two years of undergrad, mind mapping wasn’t my initial note-taking method. I used to annotate printed slides, which most university students do.

However, annotating printed slides just didn’t work for me since I ended up summarizing what was written down and spending too much time translating it into something more visual—the way I liked to learn the material from my courses.

Towards the end of my first year, I ended up scurrying along to Mac-Corry to study by the glass boards for who knows how long, mostly for PSYC 100. It was an astonishing amount of material that I had to study! As the exam date neared, I realized that I needed to somehow see all the information at once. In those moments, I made several mind maps, one for each module. The time I spent creating them and understanding what I was seeing, it helped me successfully pass my PSYC 100 exam!

So, what is a mind map?

Think of a mind map like a map of Queen’s – consider Stauffer Library as the central location, where the main roads leading from it include University Avenue and Union Street. Here, Stauffer Library represents the central topic and the main roads represent the main ideas. The secondary roads include Bader Lane, 5th Field Company Lane, Arch Street, etc; these roads represent secondary ideas. The landmarks on campus can be represented as images on your mind map to better visualize what these streets look like.

Making a mind map involves selecting and organizing information in a visual, hierarchical format that radiates from a central topic. The monotonous information written down into my PSYC 100 notes was transformed into several diagrams that were colourful, highly organized, and memorable.

See what we have here? Something more visual, rather than text-heavy notes that have been scrawled down into your notebook that you will eventually have to better organize in the long run.

Why should you use a mind map?

A mind map’s biggest advantage lies in its visual power.

  • It shows relationships and connections.
  • It’s scalable—you can represent the content of a lecture or textbook chapter, or a whole course.
  • It’s flexible—you can write in charts, tables, timelines, or other visual diagrams; you can put your ideas down in any order, as soon as they pop into your head.
  • You can draw and insert pictures associated with ideas.
  • You can make flashcards out of them; this is a big one! From the map of ideas that I’ve seen, I have been able to curate multiple types of questions out of them: definitions, compare/contrast, true/false, and questions that get at the how/why of the information, where courses challenge your thinking the most.
  • It’s compact and all on one page–making it much easier to explain the topic to a friend.
  • The keywords/phrases that you put down trigger associations with details/other ideas.
  • When you learn additional information, you can immediately categorize it under a branch instead of blindly transcribing the information that is presented to you.

How can you make your mind map stand out?

  • Use images.
  • Use colour—don’t make it boring! The more you put into your mind maps, the more likely you will be able to concentrate on creating them.
  • Draw arrows to indicate relationships between topics. This enables you to create associations between ideas. Additionally, you visualize these relationships since you are already making a mind map!

What else can you use a mind map for?

  1. For outlining your assignments: a way to flesh out your ideas.
  2. For breaking down a big project into smaller steps.
  3. Brainstorming sessions.
  4. Scheduling; determining what your priorities are and how/when to tackle them.

A strategic approach

  1. Have a reading to do before class? Skim the reading and map out the main ideas and subtopics in it. Then, read for detail, while adding on to what you have previously written; this method will help you concentrate more on your readings now that you know what to read for.
  2. Before class, read, if possible, any slides that are posted and map out the main ideas and subtopics in them. If any of these overlap with a reading you needed to do beforehand, it’s very likely that these overlapping topics will be on a test or exam, so make sure you *star* them.
  3. During class, add what you have gained onto the main ideas and details you have previously written down—like doing a reading, you’ll be more focused during lecture since you’ll know what to pay attention to.
  4. After class, determine what the missing gaps are in the information–what don’t you understand? Email your prof or request to visit them during their office hours.
  5. Once you have all the information that you need, take the time to format your mind map; add colour, draw connections between the ideas, add images; do anything that makes it stick out in your mind!

Key Takeaways

  1. Mind maps are powerful visual tools for seeing the main ideas, their details, and the connections between them. In other words, it allows you to see both the map as a whole and its main and side streets!
  2. A bonus of mind maps is that details can be easily added, deleted and moved around, in any order.
  3. Mind maps combine elements from other note-taking methods (i.e. hierarchy, colour, visuals, summaries, charts, etc.) and are generally best for courses that focus on conceptual ideas.


  • More note-taking methods, including a description of mind mapping.
  • Hazel Wagner, a lifelong learner, shares her work on mind mapping and what it can do for understanding, memorization, and retention in this Ted Talk.
  • This website provides a detailed description of what mind mapping is and the theory behind its practicality.

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Walking the tightrope: How to find balance at university

Korinna, Class of 2022, Life Sciences 

You might have some fond memories of being at the circus when you were little; now, you get to re-experience all that wonder in university. The circus, in many ways, can be a metaphor for your experience at Queen’s: it is crazy and unpredictable, and can elicit a wide range of emotions. Like a tightrope walker’s performance, our success depends on finding and maintaining our balance. As a busy student you may find yourself as a tightrope walker trying to stay balanced on the wire while juggling your performance. Balance is not easy to maintain as a student who has to juggle school, relationships, jobs and more. Sometimes it can feel like there’s more than you can handle, and you wobble back and forth, juggling all aspects of your life. Being a combination of a tightrope walker and a juggler is common, but that doesn’t make it easy or fun.

It’s stressful when you’re trying to balance everything, especially while you are walking along the wire and trying to juggle at the same time. Here are some tips from the big top that can help you manage your juggling act while staying balanced on the wire. Let’s pull back the curtain and see what lessons we can learn among all these flips and tricks.

  1. Plan your act: set a schedule.

Whether you are performing in a circus or in university, you have lots to do. Instead of improvising your performance, you should plan your act. This will help you stay organized and manage your time more effectively. Use a weekly schedule to plan when you’ll go to classes, eat, sleep, exercise, fulfill commitments and do homework. Make sure you also plan some time to relax and enjoy the show. Use a term calendar to keep track of due dates for assignments and see the big picture for the whole term. This will also help you to plan your weekly schedule.

Here are some templates and some tools you can use to schedule your time:

  1. Make it to the end of the tightrope. Set specific goals.

It’s hard to walk on a tightrope when you don’t have anything to focus on. Just as it’s important for a tightrope walker to see the platform at the end of the wire, it is important for you to set clear goals, to know exactly what you are working towards. Setting goals will help you prioritize the important things in your life and help you stay on track to achieve them.

Imagine yourself on a tightrope. Now, think about three areas in your life that you want to succeed in this year and envision them at the end of the wire. These areas could be your health, academics, finances, friends and family or any of your other interests. Take some time to think about what is important to you and set some long term and/or short-term goals. Long term goals are things you hope to achieve in the next year or couple years. Short term goals are things you hope to achieve in the next couple of weeks or months. When you are writing your goals, keep in mind that they will be most effective if they are SMART, or:

  • Specific (What do you want to accomplish?)
  • Measurable (How will you know when it is accomplished?)
  • Achievable (Is this realistic?)
  • Relevant (Is this worthwhile?)
  • Time-sensitive (When will you accomplish this goal?)

Write your goals somewhere that you can see them, so you are reminded of what you are working towards. Reflect on these goals every couple of weeks to track your progress and to see if they are still relevant.

  1. Toss your hat in the circus ring. Be social and get involved.

Get involved on campus or in the community. Don’t spend your time at Queen’s as a spectator and sitting on the bleachers; toss your hat into the ring and become part of the act. There are endless clubs, committees, volunteer opportunities and teams to join. Get involved with things you are passionate about and things that will push you to learn something new. Make the most out of university. Set aside some time during the week to step away from academics and spend time doing things you love.

  1. Be the ringmaster. Take care of yourself.

You are the ringmaster. You are the leader of your own show. You are important, and this means that your health is a priority. Although university can be a stressful time and academics are also important, don’t let this tip you over to one direction and lose control of your act. Stay balanced by taking care of your mental health, getting enough sleep, making sure you’re eating well and exercising. When the show is over, take some time behind the scenes to decompress and relax. Take a moment to relax and set some time away from work and school. Find a way to treat yourself after you’ve had a busy day or accomplished a goal. Like an acrobat putting on sweatpants or a clown taking off their makeup and having a nap, make sure you’re taking some time to yourself to step away from all the stress. It’s easy to forget about these things but they will help you stay focused for the whole act. Self-care is also essential for the three tips above.

If you find yourself toppling over and falling off the tightrope, take some time to collect yourself. Ask yourself: “Am I leaning to one side more than the other?” If so, be sure to use these four lessons to help yourself to find balance. There are many resources on campus, such as Student Academic Success Services, that can help you recover and maintain your balance. Don’t forget that the resources are your safety net and they will always catch you and help you get back up!

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