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How to have a positive experience and get good grades
Welcome to Queen’s! Congratulations on making the leap into university life. University requires new approaches to thinking, writing and studying—even for the most qualified entrants. You’ll learn complex material at a rapid pace even as you take responsibility for your own learning and life decisions. In order to make the most of your education, you’ll need to develop new skills and manage that independence.
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Thinking at universityNew academic expectationsManaging your time and yourselfClass timeHomeworkReading skillsWriting skillsGroup workTests and examsAcademic integrityHelpful resourcesThe first six weeks
In what ways are you expected to think at university?
Generally speaking, in high school you earned high grades primarily through participation, memorizing facts and some integration of more complicated material. At university, the assumption is that you can memorize, and the professor wants to know if you can use your knowledge by applying or analyzing data or ideas. From the very first weeks, you will have to make and justify judgments about complex information. A useful model of thinking is described in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning (2002):
Conceptual thinking is the goal. Although many first-year courses call for you to memorize facts, theories and definitions, most of your grades will come from your ability to show you can apply ideas in new contexts, demonstrate how ideas connect, analyze arguments and proofs, or compare and contrast different theoretical approaches. As you progress at university, you will be asked to challenge, apply and perhaps even create new theories. This type of thinking requires the ability to deal with ambiguities in fact and argumentation: there may be no single right answer in many questions you deal with.
How can you shift between different levels of thinking?
The chart below describes some ways to think more deeply. Each level of thinking builds directly from the previous one. The strategies you choose should reflect the type of material that you need to learn (e.g., memorize the procedures to analyze a blood sample; describe the social impact of various political movements; compare and contrast theories of personality) and will likely involve more than one thinking level.
Activities that support this thinking level
(see Learning Resources for details on these)
||Repeat, recite, do practice questions, self-test.
||Make cue cards; read content more than once (try our reading strategies to save time). Test yourself on facts or details using questions that start with “define,” “list,” or “identify.”
||Paraphrase, look for relationships or connections among ideas.
||Add your own definition to cue cards; write short lecture summaries. Self-test using questions that start with “explain” or “describe.”
|Analyze the nature of the relationships identified at the “understanding” level. Summarize concepts within an organizing structure. Apply a theory to a problem.
||Make mind maps, charts, or math problem concept summaries. Self-test using questions that start with “solve,” “apply,” “analyze,” “compare,” “contrast,” “prove,” or “justify.” Write thoughtful responses to questions that start with “how?”
||Look for implications or consequences of the relationships analyzed at the “conceptual” level. Assess the assumptions & logic of an argument, and data/research implications, to form judgments about conflicting data or theories.
||Participate in discussion groups; examine practice cases; write thoughtful responses to questions that start with “why?”
Ask yourself whether you are doing homework and studying that helps you learn deeply. Memorizing is necessary, but deeper conceptual thinking is the goal. Stop and think:
- What does this material mean?
- Does it connect to other things we’ve been learning?
- How can I use this information?
- What’s the SO WHAT or significance of this chapter or unit or concept?
- How might this be applied?
- How could I organize and condense it?
When you pay attention to the level of thinking you are practicing, and always try to go deeper, you will prepare yourself for the type of questions your professor may ask you on exams or in class discussions.
New academic expectations
Now that you know where you’re headed conceptually, we’ll show you how to get there through effective and evidence-based study habits. You are now responsible for directing your own learning: you will have to schedule your own time to complete assignments, readings and other tasks, like quizzes, so that you are prepared for class.
Roughly speaking, students in all faculties and programs should estimate about 8-10 hours per week for each 3-unit course. This estimate includes all activities: lectures, labs, readings, assignments, homework problems, groups work, and quizzes. Studying for tests or exams is on top of these hours, and many students spend 10-20 hours studying for mid-year and final exams. That means that a useful rule of thumb is to think of university as a full-time job: it’ll take you about 40 hours a week, sometimes a bit more. How ought you to divide and use that time?
Managing your time and yourself
University presents a wonderful opportunity to grow, explore, create and meet new people. Balancing new opportunities, school work and healthy living is often challenging, but missing out on one of these elements can lead to a dissatisfying year.
Maintaining your physical health and a positive outlook by eating well, sleeping enough (7-9 hours a night is the average requirement for a young adult), and exercising will help keep you motivated for school. See our time management tools for more help.
Balancing the workload across all your courses
Often students find the biggest challenge is getting the work done in all their courses, and having time for eating, sleeping, relaxing and socializing.
Each course may have multiple weekly quizzes and assignments, in addition to the regular readings, problem-sets and homework. Sometimes you may fall behind, but knowing what is due when and how many marks the assignment is worth are important so you can make good choices about how you use your time.
You will need to find a way to keep track of commitments and homework time, which works for you. A learning strategies advisor will be happy to help you with this, or you can use these three tools:
While students might imagine that university teaching is comprised exclusively of lectures in large groups, courses are delivered using various teaching methods, including lectures, a blend of lecture and online delivery, and fully online delivery. Frequently, tutorials—small-group discussions led by a graduate student Teaching Assistant—and labs—practical experiences for science students—complement lectures and give you a chance to practice or debate ideas introduced in lectures or out-of-class readings.
Regardless of the amount of contact time you have with professors, you’ll need to do plenty of work both in class and beyond the lecture hall or tutorial room:
- Prepare for class by skimming through lecture slides posted online and reading the required materials, familiarizing yourself with important concepts along the way.
- Go to the scheduled classes, or plan regular learning time each week for online courses.
- Learn to take notes or modify printed PowerPoint slides in lectures, labs and during group work.
- Write a brief synopsis of the lecture, lab or tutorial in your own words, to capture the big picture: “What was this class about?” Write a few sentences to summarize the main ideas or topics shortly after class, and review it before the following class and while working on assignments and reading.
Efficient learners also:
- do homework: the content is complex, and there is a lot of material to be learned.
- keep up: The pace is fast and constant.
- engage and think: your professors may seem distant, but they want to help. Ask for help if you don’t understand. Cultivate curiosity.
- pay attention: manage external distractions by putting your phone out of sight and on silent during work time. Try using site-blocking software.
Separate your learning from your studying.
When we learn, we acquire, understand and apply information. The key activity in learning is thinking. In contrast, studying improves memory retention and retrieval, and involves practice and self-testing.
Students sometimes overlap their learning and their studying, usually right before an exam (a.k.a. cramming). While they might pass the exam, they will probably have neither good understanding nor good recall of the course for later use (in a final exam, or in later courses that build on content from previous courses). Cramming isn’t effective and isn’t much fun.
Ideally, you should spread out your learning over the term so you can make associations and connections between ideas or theories or applications, and then focus on studying before a test or exam. Think of studying as first practicing the material and skills that you’ve already learned, and then testing yourself to see what you understand well, and what you need to review.
Why is it helpful to separate your learning from your studying?
- Clear purpose When you sit down to do work, you will be more focused and understand the purpose of your work. Ask yourself: “What am I trying to do? Am I trying to understand this new material or am I trying to practice/memorize it?”
- Improved understanding Learning as you go means you will understand fundamental material more fully, and then be ready for more complex content. Many professors teach by building on previous lessons, so it’s a good idea to learn in gradual steps.
- Avoid cramming When you spread your learning over days or weeks during the term, you can avoid cramming for exams during study period. You can focus your studying on improving your depth of connections, application and analysis thinking, and speed and accuracy in math-type courses.
How to use homework time
Here is a summary of how you should use your homework time. For more information, including how much time to spend on each activity, please see How to use homework time.
- Preview main concepts, lecture slides, lab instructions or readings before the next day’s lectures/labs/tutorials
- Review and summarize notes or slides from that day’s lectures
- Complete assignments (problem sets, readings, etc.)
Lectures are generally an introduction to a given topic, rather than everything you’ll need to know about it. The majority of your learning will be done outside of class. Most students will be asked to read academic articles, scholarly books, and textbooks for each lecture and/or tutorial.
Why are readings important? Reading at university is a fundamental way of obtaining information on the facts, theories and discussions involved in any subject. Academics in all disciplines from English to Engineering to Economics communicate and debate with each other in writing, so to understand what’s going on in a discipline, you’ll need to learn to read in a new way – and fast, since you’ll have to read a lot of material! Often, professors and teaching assistants will begin class with the assumption that you have already read that week’s reading, so if you don’t do it, you may struggle to understand what’s happening in class.
How can you improve your reading skills?
- What is the purpose of this reading assignment? How does this reading tie in with the course overall?
- Am I reading this journal article to get an overview of a research procedure?
- Am I reading the text to learn new terms and concepts?
- Am I reading the novel to be able to discuss themes and writing techniques?
- Am I reading the pre-lab material to understand the procedures I’ll follow in the lab?
The timing of when you read will depend in part on the purpose of the reading. For example, in traditional lecture courses, if the professor lectures on the key ideas in the text, you might try skimming the chapter before class, and then read more thoroughly after the lecture. It usually takes less time to read after a class, because you can focus on what you didn’t understand during class.
For strategies to increase your reading effectiveness, visit the online resources about Reading and Note-making.
University-level writing is an essential skill. You are expected to be capable of expressing yourself clearly and logically in English using correct grammar, and to become better at expressing an argument or systematic procedure over time. Think of your written assignments as your chance to demonstrate what you’ve learned in a course.
Writing in university is quite different from writing in high school, and it takes much more time. Students are often surprised that they can’t write good-quality papers in a day or two, but must take a week or two to write (in addition to the time needed for research), and revise more than one draft, to produce what their professors expect.
Undergraduates and graduate students use the Writing Centre at SASS is heavily used by undergraduates and graduate students for free consultations with professional writers or trained upper-year students. You can develop skills such as generating ideas for a paper, working with an outline or early draft, refining a thesis statement, strengthening an argument and writing more clearly and concisely. You can also check out our popular series of tips on academic writing.
When it’s time to research a paper, go to a librarian for help. Each academic department has a liaison librarian and there are research resources for most departments.
Many resources are also available online through the Writing Centre. Credit courses in writing are also available through Continuing and Distance Studies.
Common across all subjects, group work can be challenging if students have different understandings of the assignment, different work styles, or different personal goals.
You’re more likely to have positive group work experiences if you and your group members:
- are organized and communicate well
- discuss and agree on the goal, assignment, or purpose of the group. What are you supposed to do?
- look at the timeframes, and set a reasonable working schedule to meet the deadline.
- settle where and when will you meet. Make choices that are realistic and respectful of everyone’s needs.
- talk about expectations for attending group meetings, and what might happen if members are always late, don’t do their part of the work, or drop away entirely. At what point might the group talk to the professor for guidance?
- break the project down into small tasks, and decide when each should be done.
- assign tasks appropriately
- talk about what each person is good at, and also what new skills members might want to learn in the process
- talk about personal work styles, and how some people might be a better fit for some tasks than others.
- choose your battles. Avoid big blow-ups within the group by talking together about what is working well and what is not. Solve small disagreements as they come up. Some of the lessons in group work include how to cooperate, share responsibility, solve problems and maintain a sense of humour.
Tests and exams
Tests and exams can be challenging, but planning ahead and learning how to study effectively definitely helps. Start by reading the learning objectives in the course syllabus, in the lecture slides, or in handouts. They often indicate what is most important to know in the course.
The goal of most tests is to assess your ability to use your knowledge by applying or analyzing the key ideas. Re-reading or re-writing notes won’t be enough; you should also summarize themes in an organized structure so you can identify similarities and differences, understand relationships among concepts, do practice problems, drill, and self-test.
Exams can have different formats, including multiple choice, short answer, essay, quantitative problem-solving, or image recognition (e.g., slides in Anatomy or paintings in Art History). SASS exam prep tips suggest strategies helpful for each type of format.
Multiple choice exams are very common and they can tap application and analysis questions in addition to facts and details. Don’t be surprised by “solve” or “compare and contrast” questions on a multiple choice style exam!
Your midterm exams may be spread out over several weeks, and during midterm season it’s not unusual to get behind in regular course work. Make a plan to distribute your review over several study sessions, so you don’t get too far behind in other courses. For December and April exams, see the two-step study plan method.
Online tests and quizzes are very common, and might have a different format in each course. Ask the professor or read the course syllabus to learn about the quiz’s logistics and structure.
For strategies on preparing for and writing exams, visit our online resources on exam prep. For information about online exams or quizzes, see our online learning resource.
How does the grading system work?
Students are graded on a percentage scale (0-100%). Grades above 90% are exceedingly rare—even the best students may never receive them, so don’t be alarmed if your high school average appears to drop.
Your course scores will be averaged into a Grade Point Average (GPA) system, which has a range of 0.0 to 4.3 (4.3 corresponds to x% etc.). Depending on faculty regulations, students are expected to maintain a minimum cumulative GPA across all courses to progress in good standing.
You should become familiar with the regulations for your faculty. Within every faculty, there is an appeal process that students can use, depending on their circumstances, to challenge decisions based on the academic regulations. Speak with an academic advisor from your faculty for more information.
Understanding academic integrity and plagiarism
Academic integrity means the practice of honest and responsible scholarship. It’s a key part of everything we do at university. Plagiarism occurs most commonly when someone uses the words, thoughts, products or designs of another person without permission or giving credit. Queen’s, like all universities, takes academic integrity very seriously. You should know that you are responsible for understanding and practicing academic integrity.
Two of the most common reasons why students violate academic integrity are poor time management and lack of knowledge, both of which can be overcome with a little effort. SASS can help you with both topics; we offer a variety of resources, from workshops to online resources to one-on-one consultations. Plagiarism and other aspects of academic integrity are explained in detail here.
What if I need more help with my courses?
Queen’s wants you to enjoy your courses and have a successful year, and there are many resources to help you meet your goals.
Some resources include:
There will be times when you won’t be on top of your work, or aren’t able to do everything to 100% of your ability, or aren’t feeling healthy or balanced. This is common. Learning to make wise and strategic choices is part of being an efficient student, and nobody gets it right straight away or all of the time.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can try to:
- do something you enjoy, to relax and de-stress
- follow some of the familiar routines from home, such as bedtimes and eating times
- talk to a friend or family member for some encouragement
- make a to-do list and break big tasks into small manageable steps
- write down your concerns and think about your options for each
- talk to a professor or TA to clarify an assignment, to see if your assignment is on the right track, or to get an idea of the focus of a reading
- use campus resources such as Student Wellness Services, QUIC, Accessibility Services, your don or other Res Life staff, Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre, the Faith and Spiritual Life office, and Student Academic Success Services
- see your faculty academic advisor in the general administration area of the faculty office. Go to the 1st floor of Dunning Hall for Arts & Science Advising, or the 1st floor of Goodes Hall for Commerce, or Student Services in Beamish-Munroe Hall for Engineering Advising.
- Check my mindset: I’m in charge of my success at university.
- Figure out where my classes are, and go to all of them.
- Read the syllabus for each of my classes. Keep it for quick reference.
- Transfer important dates and deadlines from course syllabi to my term calendar.
- Get my textbooks and course packs.
- Check my courses on OnQ.
- Start right away on course readings, problem sets, and assignments; work builds up quickly.
- Use my time between classes to get schoolwork done, so I can relax later.
- Estimate how much time I’ll need to give to each course, and make a weekly schedule that includes time for work, sleep, extra-curricular activities, fun, and relaxation.
- Check my @queensu.ca e-mail account for important messages from Queen’s.
- Visit my professors’ office hours to introduce myself.
- Get to know other students in my classes. See if anyone wants to start a study group.
- Find a study space where I can get work done.
- Review my weekly schedule: is it working? Are there things I should change?
- Are there courses I need to add or drop? Look up the deadline.
- Go to a SASS workshop or sign up for a consultation with a learning strategies advisor.
- Look into ways to get involved on campus.
- Be open to new experiences, but stay connected with my family and old friends.
- Get enough sleep (7-9 hours / night) and get into a routine that works for me.
- Keep going to all my classes so I’m not caught off guard at midterms.
- Set up study groups with some motivated classmates.
- Keep up with course work. Do my weekly readings or problem sets before lectures, read my lab instructions before going to the lab, preview my lecture notes or slides before the lectures.
- Use my time between classes to do school work.
- Get help from my prof or TA when I get stuck, or make an appointment at SASS.
- Reflect on my experiences so far: What’s going well and not so well? Are things going the way I’d hoped they would? What do I want to change?
- Use my resources if I could use some help:
Welcome to Queen’s University! We are glad you are here. We want you to have a great first year. Just ask if you want help!
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The following style and reference guide is based on the American Sociological Association Style Guide (4th Edition). A copy of the ASA Style Guide is available on reserve in Stauffer Library.
While this style and reference guide follows the ASA Style Guide on most points, we have introduced some minor but important differences for the purposes of undergraduate essays in the Queen’s Department of Sociology. You should read through this guide before you begin to write your essay and refer to it when referencing ideas, paraphrasing, or making direct quotations.
Queen’s offers information and support for web-based bibliographic management tools (often called citation managers) through the Queen’s Library. If you use a citation management system, you must ensure that it will create an ASA style list of references at the end of your essay and always compare it to the guide and check for errors.
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Basic Layout and Cover PagesHeadingsIn-text ReferencesMiscellaneousWhat is a Social Theory? What isn't?AssignmentsAppendicesReferences/Works Cited (Bibliography)
Basic Page Layout and Cover Pages
Basic Page Layout
Basic Page Layout
- Type your essay in 12-point Times New Roman font
- Double space the text and use left-justified style
- Pages should be numbered consecutively (not including the title page) and placed in the top right-hand corner of each page as a number only (not as “page one,” for example).
To prevent Word from numbering your title page: Insert – page number – top of page (right corner) – format page number- start at 0
- One-inch margins top, bottom, and sides; write to the page limit specified in the assignment. Word counts were invented before word processors, they measure only large words and you should get about 250 per 8.5 x 11 page. Therefore always write to the specified page limit.
- Student papers do not need spaces between each paragraph, and paragraphs should be indented
Remove extra spaces between paragraphs in Word:
“Home” tab → “Paragraph” box → “Line and Paragraph Spacing” → “Remove Space Before/After Paragraph”
- Essays are to be stapled in the left-hand corner. NO COVERS, plastic or paper.
- Title (titles must be real titles, not things such as “Essay # one”)
In the bottom right hand corner should be:
- Your student number. (You are not required to place your name on assignments, but it helps.) Make sure your student number is correct!
- The professor’s name and TA’s name
- The course (tutorial day and time if applicable)
- The date
Do not repeat any of this information in the body of the essay. There is no need to repeat the title on the first page of your essay, even though the formal ASA publication guide says you should.
First year students are cautioned to avoid using headings because they take up space and make it seem as if you do not have enough to say in your paper. If you are going to use them this is proper formatting in ASA:
THIS IS A LEVEL ONE HEADING
- Left justified, all capitals and no bold or italics
This Is A Level Two Heading
- Left justified, first letter capitals, italics font, no bold
This is a level three heading.
- A level three heading should appear at the start of sentence and should be indented if at the beginning of a paragraph. The first letter of the first word of a level three heading should be capitalized. The heading should be in italics font with no bold.
IMPORTANT: Headers do not replace the need for transitional statements connecting paragraphs. Also consider introducing your header sections somewhere in your introduction to help your reader better understand how and why you have structured your paper with headers.
In-Text References (Embedded Citations)
Essays must reference all quoted and paraphrased material within the text as it appears and have a list of references at the end or they will not be marked. The author-date system (ASA style) is used for in-text references.
Miscellaneous Style and Grammar Matters
What is a Social Theory? What isn’t?
Ideology vs. Theory, Theoretical Depth, and Methodological Errors
Some theories you cannot categorize in this way as they attempt to integrate macro and micro level considerations.
ANSWER THE QUESTION! Maintain a balance in your essay sections. Each component of the question to be answered should hold equal weight. Incorporate recent publications into your references. Do not say, “Today we think …” if your source is not recent! Qualify your use of old sources. Explain sociological concepts – never assume the marker knows what you are talking about. Follow the instructions exactly.
Essays are typically submitted on line through the course web page. However, if you ever miss this opportunity or have to hand something in late, or you are asked to submit a hard copy, you can hand papers through the “essay slot” outside the Sociology main office M-C D431. They will be date stamped and put in the appropriate mailbox. DO NOT enter the main office and disturb the administrative staff. You are responsible for providing your own staples and ensuring that all the relevant information is on the front of your paper. Please get your TA’s name correct, as assignments cannot be distributed properly without the TA’s name. NEVER slide essays under any door. If you are not in this sociology class, please ask your instructor where you are to hand in your papers.
It is assumed that students have read and are familiar with the university’s policy on academic dishonesty in the regulations section of the Queen’s Faculty of Arts and Science Calendar. The section on plagiarism spells out what constitutes academic dishonesty with reference to essay writing. This includes:
- Submitting as one’s own an essay written in whole or in part by someone else.
- Preparing an essay for another student to submit.
- Using direct quotations or large sections of paraphrased material without acknowledgement.
There are serious penalties for plagiarism. If you have any doubt about what this means, you should talk to the professor or your TA.
Note: Please keep copies of all past assignments until you graduate because you may be asked to produce old assignments if we feel that work has been submitted more than once. Always keep a back-up copy of any essay you hand in.
Use appendices only when necessary and make them brief. Appendices allow you to include detailed information in your paper that would be distracting in the main body of the paper. Examples of items you might have in an appendix include mathematical proofs, the questionnaire used in the research, a detailed description of an apparatus used in the research, etc.
Format of appendices
Your paper may have more than one appendix. Usually, each distinct item has its own appendix. If your paper only has one appendix, label it “Appendix” (without quotes.) If there is more than one appendix, label them “Appendix A,” “Appendix B,” etc. (without quotes) in the order that each item appears in the paper. Start each appendix on a new page. Continue numbering your pages as in the main body of the research paper.
In the main text parenthetical citation refer to the Appendices by their labels.
(see Appendix. Age and Gender of Participants)
(see Appendix A. Age and Gender of Participants)
In the Reference section:
Author. year. Appendix A Title of work. Location: Publisher
References/Works Cited (Bibliography)
Your final list of sources, titled References, is an alphabetized list of EVERY source referred to or quoted in your paper. References are not numbered. These references allow your reader to identify and retrieve the sources you have cited in your research in order to engage further in the ideas you present in your research. NOTE: A bibliography is not the same thing as a reference page per se. Bibliographies include sources you have found helpful, even if you have not directly quoted from or referred to them in your paper. For our students only materials cited in the text of your essay may go in your reference page at the end of the paper, everything else will be considered padding.
Reference List Rules
- Your references list appears on a separate page at the end of your paper. Number this page sequentially with the rest of your paper, and centre the word “References” at the top of it. You do not need to bold, italicize, or underline this title. All references cited in the text must be listed and vice-versa.
- Officially, references should be double-spaced, but this is very hard to read so check with your TA or instructor for their preference. You will notice that the sample bibliography provided is not double spaced but a space between each entry is helpful.
- Use hanging indention. Type the first line of each reference entry flush to the left margin. Indent all subsequent lines at least three spaces.
- List references in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Invert the authors’ name. If there are two or more authors, invert only the first author’s name. When no author is given, list the work alphabetically by title, disregarding “A,” “An” or “The.” NOTE: The author is not necessarily an individual, but may be an institution or a committee.
- Arrange multiple items by the same author in order by year of publication, earliest year first. Use six hyphens and a period (——.) in place of the name(s) for repeated authorship.
- Distinguish works by the same author in the same year by adding letters (e.g., 1993a, 1993b, 1993c).
- Use italics for book and periodical titles (underline if italics are not available).
- If no date is available, use “N.d.” in place of the date.
- Name every author of each reference; “et al.” is not acceptable.
- Use authors’ first names, not first initials, unless only initials appear in the original source.
- List the publisher’s name as concisely as possible without losing clarity. For example: “Riley” for “William Riley and Sons.”
Sample Reference List Using American Sociological Association Style
(See The Sociology Student Writer’s Manual Fifth Edition by Johnson, Rettig, Scott and Garrison for more detailed information and entries)
You need Hanging indentation. Here’s how:
1. Select all the text you want indented. (CTRL/A will select the entire document.)
2. Right-click in the selection and select Paragraph from the pop-up menu.
3. Set the Special list box to Hanging.
4. Click OK.
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EXAMPLE: SOCY 122The Drafting ProcessWhat/How/Why
Developing a Thesis Statement (SOCY 122)
Once you have spent time exploring the material in question and organizing your observations, start developing the thesis—the central argument of your paper. Sometimes students confuse their topic with their thesis. The assignment topic outlines the general scope of your project; the thesis focuses your discussion of that topic. A thesis is a statement that takes a position or offers an interpretation of the subject at hand; it is not simply a description or a statement of fact.
The Drafting Process
Consider the following example from a fictitious “Sociology of Canadian Religion” class.
Researchers such as Reginald Bibby have noted that while attendance at mainstream Christian churches has declined in recent years, interest in Evangelical Christianity has increased. By considering social factors such as race, age, class or gender, suggest reasons for this shift.
Draft thesis #1
While attendance at mainstream Christian churches has declined in recent years, interest in Evangelical Christianity has increased
This sentence is not a thesis, but a statement of fact. There is no interpretive position to argue. Try again.
Draft thesis #2
By appealing to contemporary consumer appetites, Evangelical Christian churches have repackaged their faith and, as a result, increased their numbers.
This is better. The author has looked at the data and offered an interpretation of it. His/her discussion will likely focus on the “class” and “age” aspects of the assignment topic. Another essay might emphasize other factors such as ethnicity (arguing that these churches appeal primarily to new immigrants, or, perhaps, that they appeal primarily to Canadians from Anglo-European backgrounds) or gender (arguing, perhaps, that these churches represent a return to a patriarchal view or that they do the opposite and affirm gender collaboration.) As long as the points are lucid and convincingly argued, any of these approaches would be fair game as a thesis.
One way to develop a concise thesis is to organize your thoughts around a What/How/Why strategy. This method can help you move from a descriptive position to an interpretive one. Sometimes using a chart can help you map out your ideas. Consider the following example:
- the matter at hand
- the topic or incident to be examined
|Evangelical Christians have increased numbers by appealing to consumer appetites
- the means by which the topic will be examined
- examples, themes, key images, etc.
- (i.e., the major discussion points of your essay
- changes in style: bands, visuals, lifestyle programming, multi-purpose buildings
- portability and consumer culture: material goods, books, CDs, video for sale, big conferences
- who’s going to these churches? young families, affluent people, etc., non-nuclear families, lower classes, gays/lesbians, etc. seem excluded
- interpretation of the events/topic/etc.
- significance of examining the topic from the angle you have chosen
- conclusions to be drawn (i.e., the “SO WHAT?” of your argument)
|Churches reflect middle-class, suburban values; numbers are up, but those who aren’t middle class don’t fit
So, with these factors in mind, a more fully developed thesis statement might look like this:
By appealing to consumer appetites, Evangelical churches have repackaged their faith in a way that reflects and promotes middle-class, suburban values. While this shift has helped to increase numbers, it has also excluded those who fall outside these implicit social and economic parameters.
When using a what/how/why breakdown, the heart of the thesis usually rests in the why statement. A thesis that only addresses what and how usually ends up being merely descriptive. The why component foregrounds your interpretation of the data presented, which is the core of your paper. What your reader is most interested in is your take on the information—your interpretation or approach to the matter at hand—not just a summary of the details involved. A thesis statement that answers what/how/why in 1-2 sentences gives your paper a precise focus. It shows your reader that you know where you’re going and why it is worthwhile to get there.
Quick Fixes: Essays
I volunteer as a PWA (Peer Writing Assistant) at the Writing Centre, and, while I spend a lot of time helping students with their theses and paragraph structure, I also see a number of small mistakes that would be remarkably easy to fix. Of course, one small mistake shouldn’t really affect your final grade, but if it takes you only 5 minutes to fix a few things, why not?
1. Check your fonts. Most people don’t have Times New Roman set as their default font in Microsoft Word (or any other word processor), so they change from Cambria or Ariel when they open a new document. Should solve the problem, right? Not so much. When you go to set up your header with your last name and page number, you have to change the font up there. When you insert your footnotes, you have to change the font down there, too. Or just set Times New Roman to be your default. Up to you.
2. Never have a lonely this. When you use the word this, it needs to be followed by a subject; ask yourself, this what? For example, if I write, “Students often submit their papers late, with poor grammar, and different fonts. This is one of the biggest problems in society today,” what is this? Is it the lateness, the grammar, the fonts or the combination of all three? It should read something along the lines of “This tardiness is one of the biggest problems in society today.” Besides being a general grammatical rule, avoiding the lonely this also reduces ambiguity in your essay and confusion in your reader, which is always a plus.
3.Comma which or that: choose one. You know when Microsoft Word gives you the green squiggle and wants you to choose between comma which and that?
Well, for once, you should listen to it. Basically, you use comma which for nonessential information (if it doesn’t really matter that the zoo’s downtown) and that for essential information (if it’s really important that the zoo’s downtown). I realize that the mechanics of this choice probably sound a little grammatically heavy, but, for the most part, it’s easy: just choose one. Comma which or that.
4. Contractions don’t belong in formal writing. I’m sure that most of you know this rule, so it’s more of a gentle reminder. Contractions don’t belong in formal writing. If you’re writing a blog then, by all means, contract away (I certainly do). If you’re writing an essay or a lab report or a book review or a comment sheet, maybe steer clear of the contractions. (And avoiding contractions will also up your word count, a perk that shouldn’t be ignored.)
Now, these rules might not be applicable in absolutely every situation, but they’re generally true. Good luck with your papers and, until next time, happy writing!
The best thing I ever did for my school work (writing, classes in general, all of it) was get up the courage to go talk to my professors.
In my experience, undergrads have a tendency to be intimidated about going to see their course instructors about their papers, especially in the early years. But the truth is, profs and TAs are there to help you do well in the course – they want to see you succeed – and going to talk to them about any questions you have, bouncing ideas off of them for the outline of a paper, running a thesis by them, whatever, can really help keep you on track with your ideas, and help you organize your thoughts. I often find my papers are better structured, and I have avoided silly little mistakes made out of ignorance when I meet with my Prof before handing in an assignment. These meetings don’t have to be long, but they allow you to get feedback before you get your grade, which is great! You could email your course instructors for these kinds of questions, sure, but in my experience, something gets lost without that face-to-face interaction. You can get a lot more out of a 15-minute conversation with someone than you can in 15 emails (not to mention it takes a lot less time).
Another bonus that most people don’t think about is that arranging to have a quick chat with your course instructor about an assignment forces you to manage your time. If I am going to see a prof about my thesis for a paper 2 weeks before that paper is due, then I have to have a thesis (and probably an outline) for said paper 2 weeks before it’s due. BAM! Time management.
But wait, there’s more! Getting to know your profs and TAs by going to talk to them face-to-face helps build relationships. That may sound trivial at first, but think about it: these are the people who may, one day, give you references for jobs or post-graduate studies. Building those relationships now can open a lot of doors in the future. Furthermore, your course instructors are a wealth of information (and not just about their subject matter), so why not take advantage of that? Say you’re thinking about doing a graduate degree. Who better to ask about master’s programs than your TA, who is currently working on their master’s?
I’ve had profs who have changed the way I write, who have changed the way I look at the world, and who have thoroughly enriched my time at Queen’s so far. This is a rare opportunity for us as students, so take advantage of it! So go talk to them – they don’t bite!
Solving problems tests your ability to apply theoretical concepts. You’ll need to think theoretically as well as do the calculations to do well in math-based courses.
Helpful habitsHow to solve problemsProblem solving strategiesWhat to do when you're stuckCommon issues/problemsStudyingResources
Spend enough time on your math courses.
- See how you do by putting in 8-10 hours per week on each course (this time includes time you spend in class, labs, etc.).
- Spread out your work; do some math every day. It will add up.
- Keep up with the homework; concepts later in the term build on concepts from earlier in the term.
- Having trouble with time management? See us at SASS; we can help!
Don’t give up.
- Expect math to take time and to be a challenge, and just keep trying.
- Mistakes and uncertainty aren’t a sign that you’re bad at math. They’re part of the process.
- Get help or take a break when you are stuck or frustrated.
- Be optimistic; the problem does have a solution.
- Don’t assume you’re “not a math person.” Everyone can improve their math skills.
Recognize repeat concepts.
- Most math courses ask you to do hundreds of problems, but the problems usually fall under only a few key concepts that you’ll revisit in different forms over the term.
- Learn to identify and understand these few concepts and their relationships to each other, and recognize them when they take different forms.
- The learning objectives of a course syllabus often tell you what the key concepts are.
Be thorough. Don’t just rush through problem sets.
- Take a systematic approach. Many mathematicians use Polya’s.
- Read and define the problem first; this takes time.
- Look for and understand the underlying concept of each question.
- Produce a complete and well-reasoned solution, not a superficial one.
- Aim for accuracy before you aim for speed.
Use your resources.
- TAs and professors want you to succeed and will generally welcome questions, even if you don’t know where to start.
- Make math more social to boost your skills, motivation and confidence. Work with others: share resources, talk through solutions with each other, and explain concepts to each other.
- Check out resources at SASS: online resources, workshops and appointments.
How to solve problems
Practice problems are for figuring out, and then practicing, new and different ways to solve a type of problem. The process is what matters.
Before you start your homework questions, review your class notes / relevant textbook chapter, and identify the key concepts that they describe. Try working a sample problem from your notes or text, without looking at the solution, to see if you understand the idea. Then try the homework problems:
- Think of problems as a way to communicate, from the problem-setter to you. Ask: what do we know (givens)? What can we do? Are there clues or buzzwords in the problem that point to a concept?
- Try to identify a key course concept that applies to the problem. See our concept summary strategy.
- Diversify your thinking; there’s often more than one way to solve a problem.
- Accept mistakes as a valuable part of the learning process.
- Identify where you get stuck and, if you can, why.
- Prepare questions to bring to your TA / prof / help desk.
- Model the problem, draw it, talk it out, use analogies, change something (e.g., the scale), or ask “what if…” to see the problem in a new way.
- Predict / explain as you go, to understand more analytically.
- Work out loud; notice what strategies you’re using and why.
- Use a two-column approach to notes (one for the solution steps and one for your explanation of why you’re taking each step, including when you are uncertain).
What good problem-solvers do
- describe their thoughts aloud as they solve the problem.
- occasionally pause and reflect about the process and what they have done.
- don’t expect their methods for solving problems to work equally well for others.
- write things down to help overcome the storage limitations of short-term memory (where problem solving takes place).
- focus on accuracy and not on speed.
- work with others.
- spend a lot of time reading and defining the problem.
- when defining problems, they patiently build up a clear picture in their minds of the different parts of the problem and the significance of each part.
- use different tactics when solving exercises and problems. Some tactics that are ineffective in solving problems include:
- trying to find an equation that includes precisely all the variables given in the problem statement, instead of trying to understand the fundamentals needed to solve the problem
- trying to use solutions from past problems even when they don’t apply
- trial and error
- use an evidence-based, systematic strategy (such as read, define the stated problem, explore to identify the real problem, plan, do it, look back). They are flexible in my application of the strategy.
- monitor their thought processes while solving problems.
Source: Woods, D.R., Felder, R.M., Rugarcia, A., Stice, J.E. (2000). The Future of Engineering Education III: Developing Critical Skills. Chemical Engineering Education, 34 (2), 108-117.
Problem solving strategies
- Work with a good problem solver and compare your thought process to theirs.
- Working in groups can be helpful to share ideas, but do some of each problem type yourself…exams are solo events!
- Don’t try to use solutions from other problems that don’t apply. Focus on identifying underlying concepts first.
- In labs: relate experiment or process to problems in class. Do specific equations describe phenomenon being observed in the lab?
- Check your work using a different method, if possible.
General problem solving strategy
Based on D.R. Woods, “Problem–based Learning,” 1994.
A systematic approach to problem solving helps the learner gain confidence, and is used consistently as a blueprint by expert problem solvers as a way to be methodical, thorough and self-monitoring. This model is used in life generally, as well as in the sciences. The steps are not linear, and multiple processes are happening in your brain simultaneously, but the basic template hinges on effective questioning as you carry out various steps:
Engage and define the stated problem.
Invest in the problem through reading about it and listening to the explanation of what is to be resolved. Your goal is to learn as much as you can about the problem before you begin to actually solve it, and to develop your curiosity (which is very motivating). Successful problem solvers spend two to three times longer doing this than unsuccessful problem solvers. Say “I want to solve this, and I can”.
Define the stated problem
- Understand the problem as it is given you (ie., “What am I asked to do?”)
- Ask “What are the givens? the situation? the context? the inputs? the knowns? etc.
- Determine the constraints on the inputs, the solution and the process you can use. For example, “you have until the end of class to hand this solution in” is a time constraint.
- Represent your thinking conceptually first, by reading the problem, drawing a pictorial or graphic representation or mind map (see example attached), and then a relational representation.
- Then represent your thinking computationally, using a mathematical statement
Explore and search
Explore and search for important links between what you have just defined as a problem, and your past experience with similar problems. You will create a personal mental image, trying to discover the “real” problem. Ultimately, you solve your “best mental representation” of the problem.
- Guestimate an answer or solution, and share your ideas of the problem with others for added perspective.
- Self-monitoring questions include: What is the simplest view? Have I included the pertinent issues? What am I trying to accomplish? Is there more I need to know for an appropriate understanding?
Plan in an organized and systematic way
- Map the sub-problems
- List the data to be collected
- Note the hypotheses to be tested
- Self-monitoring questions include: What is the overall plan? Is it well structured? Why have I chosen those steps? Is there anything I don’t understand? How can I tell if I’m on the right track?
Do it, then look back and revise
- Self-monitoring questions include: Am I following my plan, or jumping to conclusions?
- Is this making sense?
Look back and revise the plan as needed.
Significant learning can occur in this stage, by identifying other problems that use the same concepts (remember the spiral of learning?) and by evaluating your own thinking processes. This builds confidence in your problem solving abilities.
- Self-monitoring questions include: Is the solution reasonable? Is it accurate? (you will need to check your work to know this!) Does the solution answer the problem? How might I do this differently next time? How would I explain this to someone else? What other kinds of problems can I solve now, because of my success? If I was unsuccessful, what did I learn? Where did I go off track?
Decision steps strategy
Taken from: J. Fleet, F. Goodchild, R. Zajchowski, “Learning for Success”, 2006.
This strategy is a specific application of the General Problem Solving Strategy described above, and is suitable for use in statistics, accounting, and other applied problem solving situations.
During the lecture or when reading course notes, focus on the process of solving the problem, instead of on the computation. When your professor is lecturing, listen to their comments on how steps are inked from one to another. This helps you identify the “decision steps” that lead to correct application of a concept. Ask yourself “Why did I move from this step to this step?”
PDF: Decisions Steps Strategy
Purpose and method
To help learners focus on the process of solving problems, rather than on the mechanics of formula and calculations.
The focus is on correct application of concepts to specific situations. This strategy helps you to increase your awareness of the mental steps you make in problem solving, by “forcing” you to articulate your inner dialogue regarding procedure.
Identify the key decisions that determine what calculations to perform. In lecture, try to record the decision steps the professor uses but may not write down or post.
- Analyze solved examples, using brief statements focusing on steps you find difficult:
- What was done in this step?
- How was it done; what formula or guideline was followed?
- Why was it done?
- Any spots or traps to watch out for?
- Test run the decision steps on a similar problem, and revise until the steps are complete and accurate.
Note that these decision steps try to capture what and especially how each step is carried out – including possible alternatives that can be tweaked so that the student is not left wondering how to make the decision needed. Most textbook steps tend to give the what only.
Quantitative concept summary
Taken from: Fleet, J., Goodchild, F. and Zajchowski, R., “Learning for Success”, 2006
Concepts are general organizing ideas, and there are often very few of them taught in a course, along with their many applications. Key concepts may be identified by:
- reading the learning objectives on the course outline or the course description,
- referring to the lecture outline to identify recurring themes,
- thinking about the common aspects of problems you are solving.
Learn and understand the small amount of information essential to each concept. If in doubt, ask the professor what is important for you to “get.”
PDF: Quantitative Concept Summary Strategy. Example of a concept summary for Equilibrium of a Rigid Body (Physics).
Purpose and method
To provide a structure for organizing fundamental, general ideas. The mental work involved in constructing the summary helps clarify the basic ideas and shift the information from working memory to long-term memory. This is an excellent study tool, for quick review.
The organizational elements are
- Concept Title
You can identify key ideas by referring to the course outline, chapter headings in the text, lecture outline. Sometimes concepts are thought of individually, other times they are meaningfully grouped for better recall (e.g., Depreciation, Capital Cost Allowance, and Half-Year Rule; acid, base and PH).
- Use general categories to organize material, and then add specific details as appropriate. Sample general categories may include:
- Allowable key formula- check summary page of text or ask professor
- Definitions- define every term, unit and symbol
- Additional important information- sign conventions, reference values, meaning of zero values, situations in which formula do not work, etc.
- Simple examples or explanations- use your own words, diagrams, or analogies to deepen your thinking and check your understanding
- List of relevant knowns and unknowns—to help you know which concepts are associated with which problems, use crucial knowns to help distinguish among problems.
Range of problems strategy
Exams will challenge you to apply your knowledge to new situations, so prepare by creating questions or problems that are slightly different in some variable from your homework problems.
Actively think about the range of problems that are associated with a concept. Think in terms of both
- level of difficulty of the problems
- common kinds of difficult problems.
Use this to anticipate different kinds of difficult problems for exam preparation, and solve some practice problems to test yourself. This is an excellent activity for a study group.
PDF: Range of Problems Strategy.
What to do when you’re stuck
Common types of difficult problems
Taken from: J. Fleet, F. Goodchild, R. Zajchowski, Learning for Success, 2006
See if the problem you’re stuck on falls into one of these categories. Recognizing the type of difficulty you’re facing can be helpful.
- Hidden knowns: needed information is hidden in a phrase or diagram (e.g., “at rest” means initial v = 0 in physics).
- Multipart-same concept: a problem may comprise 2 or more sub-problems, each involving the same concept. This type of problem can be solved only by identifying the given information in light of these sub-problems
- Multipart-different concepts: same idea as above, but the sub-problems involve the use of different concepts
- Multipart-simultaneous equations: same idea as above, but no single sub-problem can be solved by itself. You may have 2 unknowns and 2 equations or 3 unknowns and 3 equations, and you will need to solve them simultaneously, e.g. using substitution, comparison, addition and subtraction, matrices, etc.
- Work backwards: some problems look different because to solve them you have to work in reverse order from problems you have previously solved
- Letters only: when known quantities are expressed in letters, problems can look different. If you follow the decision steps, they are not usually as difficult.
- Dummy variables: sometimes a quantity that you think should be a known is not specified because it is not really needed – that is, it cancels out.
- Red herrings, unnecessary information: a problem may give you more information than is needed, which is confusing if you think you should use everything provided.
Use questions to support your learning
Effective problem solving requires thinking about how you think! It’s helpful to know the difference between metacognitive strategies (i.e., “thinking about how you best learn mathematical concepts/skills”) and cognitive strategies (“interacting with the specific information to understand it”). Next time you start to solve a problem, see if thinking through your responses to these questions can help you focus your efforts.
||What’s the purpose in solving this problem? What is the question? What is the information for?
||What words or ideas cue the operation or procedure? Where are the data needed to solve the problem?
||What plan will help solve the problem? Is it a multi-step plan?
||Does the plan seem to be working? Am I getting the answer?
||Did I solve the problem/answer the question? How did I solve it? Is it a good solution? If not, what else could I try?
|Elaborating prior knowledge
||What do I already know about this topic or type of problem? What experiences have I had that are related to this? How does this information relate to other information?
||What’s the best way to write down a plan to solve the problem? Table, chart, list, diagram…
||How can I classify this information? What is the same and what is different (from other problems I have encountered, from other concepts in the class…)
||Are there words I don’t know that I must understand to solve the problem?
||What can I draw to help me understand and solve the problem? Can I make a mental picture or visualize this problem?
Many students find these types of questions boring or irrelevant and simply want to blast through all the problems, but it’s important to remember the actual purpose of solving problems (at least in homework, if not on a test): figuring out and then practicing new and different ways to solve a type of problem. The process is what matters, not getting the result as quickly as possible. Focusing on the process helps you to become more accurate and efficient, and it will save you time in the long run.
Diagnose the problem and connect it to a misconception
Sooner or later, you will run into a practice problem that stumps you. This is actually a good thing! It allows you to refine your understanding of the material, so you’ll be better prepared for the exam. At this point, it’s helpful to diagnose why you don’t understand this problem—what about your thought process isn’t working?
Here are steps to follow for diagnosing a misconception:
- Return to your notes and review course material on the topic. Try sketching the overall concept or explaining it to someone else without looking at your notes. Is your sketch or explanation accurate?
- Review your steps to the question. Look at each step individually: Was this step correct? Why did I do this part? (Think back to your sketch or explanation of the overall concept when trying to answer “why?”).
- When you have found the step where you first made an error, identify exactly why you made the error. Did you not read the question carefully? Did you use incorrect data? Did you misunderstand the purpose of the question? Did you misunderstand the concept?
- Try to think of other approaches, or find a similar practice problem and see if you can mirror the steps. Ask, “Why is this step correct? How will I modify my Concept Summary, analogy, etc. of the concept in light of this new information?”
Inspired by Chapter 4: Misconceptions as Barriers to Understanding Science from Science Teaching Reconsidered, A Handbook (1997).
Put a star next to this type of problem and be sure to practice this type again before any tests. This is exactly why practice problems are so helpful!
Common issues and problems
- Self-doubt and isolation
- Learning outside a real-world context
- No clear method
- Giving up too early; not putting in the time
- Spending time on familiar problems, instead of challenging ones
- “Siloed” thinking; not using what you’ve learned in other courses
- Rushing through problems
- careless errors
- not thinking about underlying concept, theorem, proof
Here are some study strategies particularly suited to math-based courses. For more study strategies, see our test and exam preparation section.
- Interleaving: Mixing up problem types supports your learning. The aim is to arrange problems so that consecutive problems cannot be solved by using the same strategy. Retrieval Practice has a guide that can help you get started: Interleaved mathematics practice.
- Self-testing (including the range of problems strategy) helps you anticipate different kinds of difficult problems for exam preparation, and solve some practice problems to test yourself. Don’t wait until the night before the exam! The more frequently you self-test, the better your learning.
- Explaining to / teaching others are great ways to make sure you’re thinking aloud, describing the problem, and working with others. Use study groups to compare completed solutions to assigned problems. Teaching someone is a very effective learning and study technique.
McMaster University’s academic resources website. There are 3 videos on Problem Solving illustrating general ideas (Problem Solver I), differences in applying concepts vs. formula chasing (Problem Solver II), and applying the Decision Steps strategy (Problem Solver III).
Fleet, J, Goodchild, F, Zajchowski, R Learning for Success: Effective strategies for students, Thomson Nelson, 4th ed, 2006
Welcome, parents and guardians, to the Queen’s University community. Your students are engaging in intellectual and personal growth that will shape the rest of their lives.
Your students have many resources at Queen’s to help them have a positive university experience, but they will look to you for support and encouragement. One way you can provide these is to encourage your students to use our resources at SASS.
At SASS, we support students’ academic growth by helping them develop skills in writing and learning via online resources, workshops, and appointments. Our service is free, confidential, and supportive of undergraduate and graduate students in all programs and years. We help struggling students as well as highly achieving students. Please explore our website to learn more about how we can help your students achieve their academic potential.
Please note that confidentiality of academic, personal, health and other information about your student is strictly enforced throughout the University. We can share information about your student with you only if your student has given us specific written permission.
Please also note that the SASS website deliberately uses the pronoun “they” in its singular form, to be gender-inclusive.
Frequently asked questions
Academics at university
Not surprisingly, university is different from high school in terms of academic expectations, classroom routines, assessment procedures, and more. You can help your student adjust to these changes by helping them understand that they may need to try different academic strategies to succeed in this new context, and also to seek help early if they have questions or are having difficulty.
Workload and time
- A student’s weekly schedule may have lots of apparently open spaces that at first glance may seem like free time.
- As a rough guide, we recommend that students spend 8-10 hours on each course every week (including time in class, labs, or tutorials, doing homework, etc.). Therefore, a student taking five courses should expect to spend about 45 hours total per week on their academics.
- Readings may range from none to a few hundred pages weekly, and lab reports may take 6-10 hours to complete. Students may like to review our How to Use Homework Time resource to understand expectations for this aspect of academics.
- Professors structure their courses independently of other instructors, so the workload might vary from week to week.
- Research indicates that adequate sleep, exercise, and nutrition, as well as relaxation time, all support academic success; you may like to talk with your student about finding a healthy balance in these areas. SASS can also help.
- All these points add up to more responsibility and independence for students; they need to develop great time management skills so they can succeed in their studies and stay healthy and happy.
Professors’ and Teaching Assistants’ expectations
- Students should come to class / labs prepared, having reviewed lecture notes posted on the course website, skimmed lab procedures, or finished the assigned readings.
- Students should read each course’s syllabus (course outline) thoroughly. The syllabus is usually posted on the course website.
- Professors and TAs expect students to seek them out if they have questions or need help; students can email them or, better, talk to them in person during their posted office hours.
- If a student does not understand clearly what is required in an assignment, they are expected to talk to the professor or TA well before the assignment is due.
- Professors want their students to do well, and are typically approachable and helpful, but they will not usually approach students to check in; students must take the initiative themselves, preferably early in the term.
- Students should learn how to communicate with their professors and TAs.
Lectures, labs and tutorials
- Many lectures in first year have several hundred students. Students may have little interaction with professors during lectures, although questions are generally welcome.
- The much smaller tutorials or labs scheduled in many courses are a great opportunity to connect with TAs and get help or ask questions about course content; a lot of learning happens in these groups.
- Students should attend all lectures, labs and tutorials. Generally, they are expected to complete assigned readings, read lab instructions, do homework questions, or preview posted lecture slides or notes before attending classes, but students should ask their professor / TA about this expectation; it can vary by course.
- Students should listen, take notes, and participate in lectures / tutorials / labs.
- Students might take online courses or courses that offer a blend of online and in-person lecture delivery.
- Half-credit courses are about 12 weeks long. At the end of the course, students usually have about a week of free study time before their final exam schedule begins.
Assessment or grading
- In first year, marks are largely based on tests, exams, and essays, depending on the course.
- Mid-term and final exams take a variety of forms (multiple-choice, essay, short answer, etc.) and may test students on a variety of types of content (concepts, details, theories, applications, etc.); students can adopt different strategies to meet these challenges. SASS offers workshops, appointments, and online resources about exams.
- In upper years, assessment may change to more project-based, seminar and essay formats.
- Many students experience a drop in their grade average in first year; often, what worked as a learning approach in high school doesn’t work as well in university. SASS can help students adjust their approaches.
- Students with documented disabilities who require accommodations to acquire and demonstrate their knowledge are encouraged to contact Queen’s Student Accessibility Services (QSAS).
- Your student’s classmates may be similar to your student in their academic achievements, as Queen’s students often were the “top of the class” in their high schools. It is often an adjustment to students when they suddenly see themselves as one of many, and they may doubt themselves. Parents can listen to their student’s concerns in this area and offer reassurance and encouragement. SASS can work with students to help them develop their own academic goals and understanding of success in the context of the university’s academic expectations.
- Queen’s and SASS value and celebrate the diversity in our community, and we encourage students to recognize that diversity offers rich learning and collaborative opportunities, and potential lifelong friendships. One excellent resource for you and your student to refer to on this topic is the Inclusive Queen’s page.
Intellectual development in the university years
According to Harvard educational psychologist William G. Perry, Jr., students engage in the following types of thinking as they proceed through university, and beyond.
- Students in first and second year often rely on dualistic thinking, characterized by the belief that knowledge is absolute and knowable. Students at this stage may hold fairly fixed attitudes and opinions, which reflect an “all or nothing” or “right or wrong” style of thinking. This development relates to shifting one’s level of thinking from memorizing and understanding to analyzing, applying and evaluating (Bloom, 2002).
- Students in upper years tend to shift to multiplistic thinking, recognizing that knowledge is diverse and uncertain. Students may express greater interest in viewing an issue from many perspectives and engaging in complex, uncertain questions that may have no simple, correct answers.
- Graduate students often develop relativistic thinking; context or circumstances take on greater importance. There is often more thoughtful evaluation of opposing views, including opinions that may differ from family or cultural values and ethics.
- Some mature adults in the upper years of graduate school or in careers may achieve integrated thinking based on constructed knowledge. Their past experiences, personal awareness of priorities and values, and accumulated knowledge enable individuals to think in rich and creative ways and to accept the possibility of incomplete understanding. If the individual develops a world view or follows an approach to solving problems that is consistent with their beliefs, they demonstrate what educational researcher Arthur W. Chickering, in his theory of identity development, refers to as integrity.
You might like to apply Perry’s, Bloom’s, and Chickering’s ideas to understand changes in how your student thinks and understands their world. For example, first-year students are often dismayed by a growing sense that, compared to high school, they are less intellectually able to “learn it all.” You can reassure your student that their uncertainty is an important sign of growth and development. Similarly, your student may also change their views of their professors as “authorit[ies] as the source of ‘Truth’ to authorit[ies] as a resource with specific expertise to share” or of themselves as a student, “moving from a passive receptor of facts to an active agent in defining arguments and creating new knowledge” (see Perry Network, accessed June 10, 2019). This scholarly journey can feel risky to students but your encouragement will help them.
Over the years, as students continue to develop intellectually, they will shift from a sense of certainty in what they know, to recognizing what they don’t yet know, to understanding that they will never know for sure, and then grow into the perspective that they make their own meaning and choose their own contributions to the world based on their knowledge, sense of identity, and moral/ethical position.
Download a PDF of this resource
What are two-way or double nouns?How can I know if a noun is a two-way noun?Common two-way nouns with examples
What are two-way or double nouns?
Two-way nouns, also called double nouns, are nouns that can be either count or non-count depending on their meaning in context. Typically, the non-count version describes a general or abstract concept and the count version describes a specific item or example.
What is meant by count and non-count nouns?
- A count noun is a noun that can be counted. It takes an indefinite article (a / an).
I mailed a letter. Suzanne mailed five letters. (Letter is a count noun; letters are countable.)
- A non-count noun cannot be counted. It does not take an indefinite article (a / an).
Yesterday, I received mail. (Mail is a non-count noun; while we cannot count mail in general, we can count pieces of mail.)
For more information about article use with count and non-count nouns, refer to the SASS writing handout, Articles with count and non-count nouns.
How can I know if a noun is a two-way noun?
There is no definitive rule governing which nouns fall into the two-way category. Determining if a noun may be classified as ‘two-way’ often depends on whether its meaning changes in different contexts. There are some common categories that we can use as a general guide to determine if a noun is both count and non-count. Consider the following examples:
Animals that are also considered food
fish / a fish, duck / a duck, bison / a bison
- I had moose for dinner while visiting my Cree relatives. (Refers to the food.)
- There is a moose in the woods over there. (Refers to the animal.)
Materials that are also common items
fabric / a fabric, brick / a brick
- The house is made out of straw. (Refers to the material.)
- I don’t want a straw in my drink. (Refers to the drinking tool.)
Items for which vessels can be implied
ice cream / an ice cream, tea / a tea
- I love ice cream in the summer. (Refers to the general food category.)
- I bought an ice cream on my way home from work. (“Cone” is implied.)
Nouns for which a genitive phrase* can be implied
shampoo / a shampoo, cheese / a cheese, technology / a technology, speed / a speed, analysis / an analysis
* Genitive phrases commonly use “of” (e.g., process of)
- I bought a new shampoo from the salon. (“Kind of / type of” is implied.)
- I use shampoo to wash my hair. (Refers to the product in general.)
Abstract concepts that can be bound by specific conditions, like time, space, or physicality
experience / an experience, darkness / a darkness, injustice / an injustice, room / a room
- The history of Canada must include Indigenous Peoples. (Refers to the abstract concept of history as the study of past events.)
- He has a history of getting caught cheating at university. (Refers to a specific story within a limited time frame and at a specific location.)
Words that can be either adjectives or determiners*
few / a few, little / a little, lots / a lot
*Although these are not nouns, they are included here because of the way they use articles.
- There are a few children in the class who will not come on the trip. (Refers to a part of a larger group.)
- There are few children in the class. (Refers to the total number of the group.)
The categories provided here have been adapted from the University of Washington’s International and English Language Program’s online resource site (Nell Sorensen, 2011).
Common two-way nouns with examples
Count: When I broke my leg, I used crutches as an aid to help me walk.
Non-count: The Canadian government gives aid to nations in need.
Count: She performed an analysis of the factors that led to the revolution.
Non-count: Analysis is a critical component of a university essay.
Count: I have already had a coffee today.
Non-count: I drink coffee every morning.
Count: She received an education at Queen’s University.
Non-count: The government decided to increase funding for education.
Count: There is a light coming from that direction that we should follow.
Non-count: There was just enough light to see the figure standing across the room.
Count: The house has a quality about it that makes it feel cozy.
Non-count: The furniture in the house is excellent quality; it’s all handmade.
Count: There is a room in this house with beautiful stained glass windows.
Non-count: There is not enough room in this car for all of our boxes.
Count: I need to find a space to store my drum set.
Non-count: This room does not have enough space for my drum set.
Count: The car is travelling at an incredibly fast speed.
Non-count: The car needs more speed to win the race.
Count: There was a time when I could play piano very well, but I am out of practice now.
Non-count: I don’t think we’ll have enough time to finish this today.
Nell Sorensen, Mary. (2011). “Count and Non-Count Nouns.” University of Washington: Mary Nell’s Homepage. <https://staff.washington.edu/marynell/grammar/noncount.html>, (24 September 2018).
Reading is an integral part of learning at university, but with so much to read it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. Effective reading strategies and approaches can help all students to be more intentional and efficient readers.
Reading contextSet up for readingKnow your purposeWhen to readHow to readStrategies and approaches
Begin by taking stock. Readings aren’t just something to complete and check off your to-do list—they are part of the learning context of each course. There are, broadly speaking, two types of courses at university:
- traditional: content is delivered primarily through lectures, with readings and other components as a supplement
- flipped: content is delivered primarily through online modules, readings, and pre-recorded lectures; in-class time is devoted to applications, problem sets, case studies, etc.
We recommend that you finish readings for a flipped course before the lecture, with sufficient time to engage with and learn the information prior to in-class examples and applications. When and how you do readings for lecture-based courses might be more flexible, depending on things like your background knowledge and the difficulty of the material, or the professor’s expectations.
Set up for reading
Many students report difficulty keeping up with readings, overlooking the fact that they tend to save their readings until 11:00 p.m., are distracted by several open tabs and frequent notifications, or are trying to read while doing something else. Try the following approaches:
- Read in a quiet place, such as a library or your desk at home.
- When it’s time to read, turn off your technology. Put your phone on silent and take it off your desk or table.
- Try not to multitask. Don’t put a movie on, or listen to music, or work somewhere with a lot of distractions.
- Don’t get too comfortable. Reading while sitting in your soft, warm bed may not lead to the most productive reading session.
- Be sure you have good lighting and an uninterrupted block of time.
- Plan to read when you will be able to concentrate well—choose your most focused time of day and plan a realistic amount of time to read. How long you read will depend on the density, difficulty, and importance of what you are reading, as well as your purpose.
- Allocate regular time to read for each course, every week. In this way, you will develop the habit of reading and build your understanding of the course material incrementally.
Having difficulty focusing or maintaining your concentration while reading? Check out some of our resources on the subject, including setting yourself up for success.
Know your purpose
Start by determining your purpose for reading a particular text. Ask yourself:
- Why are we being asked to read this?
- How does it connect to the lecture or tutorial content?
- What do I already know about this topic?
- How important is this reading for my learning?
Your purpose may also depend on the type of text you’re reading. For example,
- in textbooks, your purpose may be to clarify the lecture material
- in scientific journals, it may be to understand procedural details and results
- in case studies, it may be to identify common themes and subsequent outcomes
- in literature, it may be to identify themes, context, style, or structure, or other literary devices.
The course learning objectives may also provide guidance as to the most important sources of information in the course.
Now, based on your purpose for reading, plan when and how to read.
When should I read?
Many students wonder whether it’s better to complete the readings before or after class. Neither is necessarily better: when you read depends on the structure of the class and on your purpose for reading.
Here’s an example of when and how to read for students who need to use the reading to learn and remember the information thoroughly.
Start by skimming the text as a preview. Your aim here is not to read every word, but to get the big picture of the reading. How long is it? How is it structured? Are there any tables or figures? Does the reading include an abstract, a summary, a list of key terms, or a set of practice questions?
Make a plan, starting with setting your purpose for reading. If your purpose is to learn the material, you might say,
“This chapter looks really long and dense. It’s too much to read in one sitting. I’ll read half now, in the next two hours, and then the other half this afternoon, when I have another two-hour block of time. That’ll get the reading done before class. I’m going to have to take good notes, too, because I know this is a major topic in this course.”
Because you took the time to preview the text, you have a sense of what you are about to read. You identified the reading as dense and plan to read it over two sessions. Now, as you read to learn this material, reduce cognitive load by using the 3-step approach, paragraph by paragraph:
- read the paragraph or slide, focusing on understanding the material–don’t write anything down yet.
- take notes on that paragraph (e.g., the main idea, key concepts, questions you have, connections to other material).
- highlight or colour-code the most important information (i.e., key terms or phrases). Aim to highlight no more than 20% of the text.
If you are using the SQ4R method, answer the header questions as you go, based on your purpose for reading.
When you’ve finished the reading, take a few minutes while the information is fresh in your mind to summarize what you’ve read. Keep it brief, about 4-6 sentences, and write it out in your own words. What was this reading about?
Then, when you’ve finished taking in information for that course for the week (i.e., from lectures and readings), summarize again: what did we learn this week? Consolidate readings and lecture content by making a 1-page summary or a mind map of that week’s information. This summary will strongly support your understanding and ability to remember the information.
How to read
Start by previewing the text to get an overview of the its structure and organization (e.g., headings, subheadings, summaries, key terms tables/figures, examples). Then, based on your purpose, choose to:
- skim to get the main ideas, or to check your understanding.
- read in-depth, spending more time on readings with unfamiliar, complex, or difficult content.
- read selectively if time is at a premium (e.g., focus on an article’s abstract and conclusion). Depending on your purpose, you may need to read it more closely when you have more time.
Expect to read texts twice. First to get the gist and second to get a deeper understanding, making notes to reinforce your memory for the information.
Active reading helps you to be more efficient and effective. Read with your purpose in mind, and try:
- thinking about your own prior knowledge of the subject before you begin reading
- making connections to what you already know or what you’ve already covered on the subject as you read
- reducing distractions while you read
- limiting your goals for reading (e.g., read for 30 minutes, or read five pages thoroughly)
- checking your comprehension as you read (e.g., summarizing periodically, self-questioning)
- interacting with the information while you read by asking questions, starting an internal dialogue or making notes in the margins
- reading for understanding before taking notes (whole text, or paragraph by paragraph).
Many of the reading strategies we suggest support active reading.
Strategies and approaches
The 3-step approach helps you focus and better understand what you’re reading. It includes note-taking but is also an effective guide for reading.
Paragraph by paragraph (or slide by slide, if completing a module or working through lecture slides), go one step at a time:
- read, focusing on understanding the material—don’t write anything down yet.
- take notes (e.g., the main idea of that paragraph, any questions you have or connections you make)
- highlight or colour code the most important information (i.e., key terms or phrases). Aim to highlight no more than 20% of the text.
Use the SQ4R method to improve your ability to understand, retain, and concentrate on what you read. It includes note-taking but is also an effective guide for reading.
Skim to get a preview of the text you are about to read. How is it organized? What does it cover? Use elements like headings, visuals, key terms, summaries, and introductory sections (e.g., title, objectives) to help you.
Try turning headings and subheadings into questions. Reading with a question in mind makes the process more active, supporting memory and concentration. It also helps you to identify the most important, relevant information. For example, “Properties of the Bernoulli distribution” becomes What are the properties of the Bernoulli distribution?
Read and record
Read section by section, seeking the answer to each question; focus on the main idea and the supporting information as it pertains to the question. Take notes as you go, in point form and in your own words.
Cover up the text and see if you can answer the heading/subheading questions to check your understanding before moving on.
Take a break, then check your understanding again (i.e., repeat the process under Recite). This will further improve your memory of what you’ve read.
Preview, Read, Recall
This approach focuses on the three phases of reading: previewing, reading, and recalling information.
Taking the time to establish a general understanding of the text and its structure will improve your comprehension and retention of the information when you read it. How is it structured? How long will it take to read? What are the main ideas covered?
Reading actively not only helps improve your comprehension and retention; it also helps you concentrate and fend off boredom. Make sure you set realistic goals (e.g., breaking up a long reading into manageable chunks), and do frequent comprehension checks (e.g., summarize each paragraph as you go, question your understanding, make links to what you already know).
Support your retention of what you’ve read by reviewing it immediately (e.g., ask and answer questions, outline or summarize, mentally recall or recite out loud).
For more on the PRR method, see the University of Texas at Austin and their handout.
Taking good notes will help you remember what you’ve read and heard. It benefits both learning and studying:
- your learning is more effective because taking notes helps you to actively engage with the information by making decisions about what to write down and why, as well as how to organize the information.
- your studying is more efficient and effective when it is based on a strong foundation of understanding, built over the course of the semester. Good notes are critical for this foundation.
Taking good notes is a skill; practice will help you learn to do it well.
Active note-takingWhat do good notes look like?How should I take notes?Strategies and formatsMaking your notes matter
Many students find it hard to keep up with lectures and readings because they try to write down everything the professor says, or every point in the textbook. Here are some ways to make sure your note-taking is effective.
Like reading, effective note-taking is an active process. The way you take notes will vary, depending on:
- your purpose (e.g., getting the gist of it vs. learning it well)
- how much you already know about the topic
- the difficulty/density of the subject matter.
Your notes don’t have to be perfect and include everything; they just have to help you understand and remember the course content. That’s why it’s important to make note-taking an active process. You learn more when it’s an intentional and purposeful activity, and when you do something with the notes you take.
What do good notes look like?
- They summarize course material clearly and concisely.
- They are written in your own words, with precise definitions or formulae also included.
- They organize information hierarchically, distinguishing between main points, secondary information, and finer details.
- They help you see the relationships and connections between ideas.
Having a hard time finding the main idea?
- Textbooks often identify key concepts and new terms by putting them in headings, subheadings, bold font, or chapter summaries or learning objectives. Preview the chapter by focusing on these clues.
- Try the 3-step approach to reading and note-taking.
How should I take notes?
What’s the right way to take notes? By hand? Highlighting? Should I rewrite my notes?
To highlight or not to highlight
Highlighting is one way to actively engage with a text when it involves deciding which points are important. However, most studies have shown no benefit of highlighting over simply reading the text, often because students highlight too much or highlight without thinking.
See the 3-step approach for tips on highlighting.
By computer or by hand?
You may have heard that taking notes by hand is better for learning. Studies suggest that students who take notes on laptops perform worse on tests than students who take notes by hand (even after laptop-related distractions were accounted for). Taking notes by computer encourages students to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than thinking about, processing, and putting the information in their own words–that is, engaging actively with the lecture.
Ultimately, taking notes online or on paper is up to you because what’s important is what you are doing when you’re taking notes, not how you’re writing them. You can ensure you are actively engaged by
- keeping a running conversation going in your head between you and the author as you read a text
- asking questions and making comments
- making connections to what you already know, to other classes, or to other content within the same class
- keeping the big picture in mind as you learn new details
- summarizing information (e.g., in a list, a short paragraph, a mind map).
Strategies and formats
The note-taking method you choose depends on context and purpose. Overall, taking good notes involves paraphrasing, consolidating, and/or summarizing information.
This method helps you focus and understand what you’re reading. Paragraph by paragraph (or slide by slide, if you are completing an online module), go one step at a time:
- read the paragraph or slide, focusing on understanding the material—don’t write anything down yet
- take notes (paraphrase the main idea, jot down any questions)
- highlight or colour-code the most important information (e.g., key terms or concepts). Highlight no more than 20% of the text.
If your professor provides the slides before class, download them in advance and annotate them during lecture. This approach frees up mental space for you to listen and understand the material. You can focus on what the lecturer adds to the information presented on the slides.
Consolidate as you go
When the content of the readings and lectures overlaps significantly, consolidate your notes as you go. Use what you learn from the second source (readings or lecture) to add to your notes from the first (lecture or readings). Use a different colour to distinguish the source of the information.
This is a note-taking system with a pre-organized layout: a large note-taking space, with a cue column (questions, formulae, keywords) to the left and a summary row (at-a-glance summary, 4-6 sentences) along the bottom of the page. Selecting and organizing information for this system ensures active processing, increasing your understanding and recall. It also helps you produce useful study notes. See here for a visual example.
A concept summary helps you organize fundamental, general ideas in math and science courses. Creating one helps to clarify your understanding and improve your memory for the information. First, identify a key idea. Then, use categories to organize the material (e.g., key formulae, definitions, units, symbols, conventions, simple examples, relevant knowns and unknowns, etc.). See here for an example.
Making a mind map involves selecting and organizing information in a visual, hierarchical format. To do so, you need to make choices about what to include, how to show relationships and connections, and how best to present information. You can use a mind map to represent the content of a lecture or textbook chapter, or a whole course.
Use the SQ4R method to improve your ability to understand, retain, and concentrate on what you read.
Skim to get a preview of the text you are about to read. How is it organized? What does it cover? Use elements like headings, visuals, key terms, summaries, and introductory sections (e.g., title, objectives) to help you.
Try turning headings and subheadings into questions before reading the paragraphs that follow. Reading with a question in mind makes the process more active, supporting memory and concentration. It also helps you to identify the most important, relevant information.
Read and record
Read section by section, seeking the answer to each question; focus on the main idea and the supporting information as it pertains to the question. Take notes as you go, in point form and in your own words.
Cover up the text and see if you can answer the heading/subheading questions to check your understanding before moving on.
Take a break, then check your understanding again (i.e., repeat the process under Recite). This will further improve your memory of what you’ve read.
Making your notes matter
Taking good notes in lectures and from weekly readings is just the beginning. Remember that your goal is to learn the course content. Make sure you understand and remember the information by engaging with your notes over the course of the semester.
As soon as possible after class, take five minutes to answer the question, “What did we do in class today?” Write it out in 4-6 sentences, using your own words. This will help consolidate the information while it’s fresh in your mind and act as a memory jog when you look back to study.
When you’ve taken in all the week’s information (i.e., attended all classes, tutorials, and labs; completed readings and notes), summarize the information from that week’s topic or unit.
- What did you cover this week?
- How is it connected to other information in the course?
- How can you best organize it?
Take note of areas of challenge or confusion and get help as needed.
Summarizing requires you to select, organize, and integrate information; doing so will improve both your understanding and memory. Possible summary formats include a 1-page study sheet, a mind map, or a concept summary.
SASS offers a number of programs and resources to help multilingual students be successful at university. Both undergraduate and graduate students can improve communication and build confidence by working on academic English reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.
Not sure where to start? Visit our frequently asked questions tab.
We support...EAL appointmentsWeekly programsPractice English onlineReading and computer softwareFrequently asked questions
Language skills we can help with include…
- General skill development: learn strategies for academic writing and self-editing
- Grammar: learn, review, and practice grammar topics
- Cultural conventions: learn about the expectations of a North American / English audience
- Academic vocabulary: develop an academic word bank
- English Proficiency Test (EPT) preparations: practice for Engineering and Applied Science Students
- Presentation practice: get feedback on a presentation for a course or conference
- Pronunciation: review and practice the sounds of English
- Academic discussions: learn and practice strategies for contributing to class discussions
- Vocabulary: build a spoken academic vocabulary with appropriate idioms and expressions
- Lectures: learn and practice strategies for understanding lectures and conferences
- Comprehension: develop skills to understand spoken English and pull out key ideas
- Active listening: find ways to engage with what your peers and professors are saying
- Comprehension: develop strategies to break down complex academic readings and identify key concepts
- Vocabulary: learn about resources for understanding academic language
- Integrating Research: explore how to effectively integrate ideas from readings into your writing for a North American / English audience
What is EAL support?
Students who speak English as an additional language can meet with the Academic Skills Specialist (EAL) for ongoing skills development. The purpose of this service is to support students in developing their academic English skills over time. Students may be interested in additionally booking writing or learning strategies appointments. The EAL program helps students develop similar skills as these other two programs, but through the specific lens of English skills development.
These appointments are private and confidential. Appointments are free, and they are available to all current domestic and international students who do not speak English as their first language.
“[The EAL Coordinator] explains things really clearly and made me feel more confident about my English skills. SASS and EAL made my graduate studies easier and less stressful. I wish every university had that program.”
What are EAL appointments like?
The first meeting focuses on discussing your goals for improving your academic English and creating a plan to achieve those goals. You and the coordinator will decide together how many times you should meet and what you will do at each session.
Each appointment is different, to suit each student’s needs, but some typical sessions include:
- Grammar lessons: Students bring in a piece of their writing. The coordinator helps to identify trends of grammatical errors and explains self-editing strategies to fix them. (Note—this is not an editing service.)
- Academic writing development: Students bring in writing and the coordinator helps identify places where meaning is unclear. By discussing word choice, transitions, and sentence structure, students develop their ability to produce writing that effectively communicates critical ideas.
- Pronunciation: Either by going through the sounds of English, one by one, or through speaking exercises, students receive feedback on their English pronunciation.
- Academic reading in English: Students bring in an academic reading and learn, then practice, strategies to support their comprehension of both vocabulary and key ideas.
How do I book an EAL appointment?
If you are interested in booking a EAL appointment, please request an introductory appointment. Once you fill out this form, you will receive an email with further instructions on how to access our online booking tool.
You need to fill out this form only once.
Both SASS and QUIC (Queen’s University International Centre) offer weekly opportunities to practice academic English skills and improve your writing with the support of professionals. Most programs are free and you do not need to register. You can come every week or just when needed.
English Academic Writing Support
English Academic Writing Support
- What is it? A chance to learn about and practice English academic writing
- When? Tuesday evenings, 6pm-8pm
- Where? Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC) in Mitchell Hall
How does it work? Each week, SASS’s EAL Coordinator leads an interactive workshop on a different writing topic, such as articles, critical thinking, or sentence variety. Students can join for the topics which are of interest to them in order to build on writing foundations, evaluate examples, do practice exercises, learn strategies, and ask questions. Registration is not required.
“I have benefited a lot from the English Academic Writing Support workshops! It was like a course for me. The things I have learned from these workshops helped me to edit the writing myself. Although I still make mistakes, I believe I will be better and better! Everyone there are super dedicated in learning.”
“The English Academic Writing Support program was one of the first activities I did after my arrival to Kingston; it really helped me to get engaged in the Queen’s University and to adapt to the new academic environment. It is a perfect space to review the most complex topics in English writing for EAL students and even for practicing conversational English while you are meeting new people. They also provide useful tools and handouts in each class.”
Academic English Drop-In Support
Academic English Drop-In Support
- What is it? A drop-in program for academic English homework support
- When? Wednesday evenings, 6pm-8pm
- Where? Stauffer Library, room 143
How does it work? An EAL assistant will sit down with a student for 15 minutes at a time to answer questions, give feedback, and offer strategies. After assisting other students, they will come back to the previous students to check in and answer further questions. Registration is not required.
English Conversation Group
English Conversation Group
- What is it? An opportunity to practice English language conversation skills
- When? Thursday evenings, 5:30pm-7pm
- Where? Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC) in Mitchell Hall
How does it work? Volunteers help guide English conversation with group activities and discussions. There’s a new topic every week. Learn idioms, expressions, and pronunciations in a welcoming environment. Registration is not required.
QUIC Social and Cultural Activities
QUIC Social and Cultural Activities
- What are they? Activities at QUIC that offer opportunities to meet other students and practice oral communication skills in a social environment.
- When? Check the QUIC Events Calendar or QUIC social media for activities throughout the year
- Where? Usually at the Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC) in Mitchell Hall
How do they work? QUIC plans social and cultural events throughout the year to engage all students. Examples include movie nights, community lunches, and bus trips. Some events have fees and require registration.
Grad Writing Lab
Grad Writing Lab
- What is it? An opportunity for all graduate students to get writing support
- When? Thursday mornings, 9am-12pm
- Where? Graduate Student Reading Room on the 3rd floor of Stauffer Library
How does it work? Both domestic and international graduate students can drop in and work on their writing in a graduate community space. There is a dedicated academic writing specialist on site who can help students with writing questions. Registration is not required.
Practice English online
In addition to SASS’s writing and learning resources, you can use these external links to develop your academic English skills.
Grammar lessons and exercises
Online Writing Lab, Purdue University: exercises on grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, sentence style, writing numbers, and paraphrasing and summarizing
Punctuation, Oxford Dictionary: explanation of the different punctuation marks and their uses
Grammatical Terms, Grammar Bytes!: printer-friendly explanations of grammatical topics with examples
Exercises, Grammar Bytes!: interactive or printable exercises on various grammatical topics
Verb Tense Chart, Alba English: colour-coded infographic explaining English verb tenses—link automatically downloads PDF of chart
Verb Tenses, Englisch Hilfen: text-based chart explaining English verb tenses—includes conditional tenses
Reading and computer software
Students have the opportunity to work independently on language and academic writing skills. SASS offers students access to two new computer programs:
- Inspiration can help students brainstorm ideas, clarify thinking, and organize information using mind-maps and outlines.
- Kurzweil 3000 is text-to-speech software providing multilingual students with audio and visual aids for reading, writing, and fluency.
If you would like to learn more about how this software can help develop language fluency, vocabulary, and self-editing skills, please contact the Academic Skills Specialist (EAL) (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Frequently asked questions
What can I do if…
Presentations are common in academia and the broader workplace, so developing your presentation skills and confidence will serve you well, long-term, in a variety of contexts.
Preparing your presentationDelivering the presentationHandling questionsEvaluate your performanceIncrease your confidencePresentation skills checklist
Preparing your presentation
Taking time to prepare thoroughly will help you deliver a better presentation and boost your confidence.
Know your audience and purpose
- Who’s in your audience? What do they likely know already about your topic? How is it relevant to them?
- Why are you giving this presentation? How does it relate to the course’s learning objectives?
- What information do you want to share with your audience, and why?
Structure your ideas
- Keep your ideas simple and place them in context (location, time, theory, etc.).
- Clearly identify a focused main argument or message, and its supporting points.
- Order these points in a unified way that will work well for your audience. Some options:
- Chronological; tell a story
- problem / solution
- question / answer
- scientific method (introduction, methods, results, discussion)
- Use transitions [insert link to WC handout on transitions] to help your audience follow your ideas.
- At the beginning of your presentation, help your audience see why your topic matters and how it’s relevant to their interests. Offer a brief outline of your talk.
- Start your presentation with content, not personal details.
- Near the end of your presentation, summarize your main points and offer a conclusion / points for discussion. What are the takeaway messages for this audience to remember?
- Consider booking a writing appointment to get feedback on your structure.
- Anticipate questions that audience members might ask; prepare responses, including relevant visual images or statistics if appropriate.
Create slides and/or handouts
- Not all presentations benefit from including slides, but many do. Decide if yours would.
- Take accessibility into account; should you provide hard copy handouts of an outline of your talk? Check their helpful guidelines on accessible documents and slides.
- Take an inclusive perspective; avoid tokenism, but try to use images and sources that display a diversity of perspectives and contexts for knowledge.
- Use visual images when “showing” is more efficient or evocative than “telling.”
- Don’t overload your slides with text or animations. Simple is usually best.
- Suggested text size: 32 pt for titles, 24 pt for text; use a sans serif font.
- Don’t plan to read from the slides. Use the slides to emphasize key points that you plan to talk about in more detail.
- Include one concept per slide, use point form, and be concise.
Plan to engage your audience
- If possible, be enthusiastic about your topic.
- Keep your points concise and focused.
- Spark your audience’s curiosity about your topic.
- Consider using stories, analogies, metaphors, interesting statistics or concrete examples to make your points.
- Practice in front of a mirror, a friend, or a small supportive group; take a video; book a presentation practice session at SASS with a learning strategist or English as an Additional Language Coordinator.
- Practice in the same room you will present in, if possible, using the same equipment.
- Check that you stay within your time limit.
- Be aware of your body language: stand tall; eye contact with someone or back of room; smile; use purposeful movement; good volume, pace, pitch, pauses.
- Become familiar with the technology.
- Use relaxation techniques while rehearsing.
- Believe in your abilities: practice a positive attitude.
- Anticipate glitches and be ready for them.
- Double-check the location and time of your presentation, and whether the AV equipment you need will be there.
- Print out any notes and handouts you might need well in advance. Bring a backup of your slides / email them to yourself.
- Try to get a good night’s sleep the night before.
- Bring a bottle of water and the notes, equipment, handouts, etc. that you will need.
- Dress appropriately for the context, but avoid wearing clothing that is too warm or shows sweat.
- Arrive early to check your space and equipment.
Delivering the presentation
- Be yourself—but the professional version of yourself.
- Have good posture:
- Stand tall, and move your shoulders down and back, but avoid tensing up.
- Breathe naturally.
- Avoid pacing, swaying, fidgeting, or shuffling.
- Make eye contact with individuals or imaginary people at the back and sides of the room
- Smile and show sincere enthusiasm for your topic.
- Aim your voice to the back of the audience
- Vary your volume, tone of voice, and speed of speaking.
- Observe your audience: do they look bored? Confused? Interested? Vary your expression, volume or pace, ask a question, or summarize recent content to re-engage your audience.
- Remember to thank the audience, and anyone who has contributed to the success of your presentation (event organizers, funding sources, etc.).
The question and answer period after your presentation might be challenging because you will be in less control of the situation. Think of yourself as the leader of the discussion, not just someone who is responding to questions.
- Let the audience know when to ask questions (during your talk? at the end?).
- Open the Q&A using an open question format (Who has the first question? or What topic should we begin discussing?) rather than a “yes/no” question (Are there any questions?) Offer a discussion point if the audience is slow to participate.
- Listen carefully to the entire question.
- Repeat the question aloud to clarify the question and enable the audience to hear it.
- Stop and think about your response.
- Answer briefly and coherently.
- It’s much better to say “I don’t know” than to make up an inaccurate or misleading answer.
- Respond to difficult people calmly and politely; help them feel heard by briefly acknowledging their concern / point / question, and then offer to follow up with them after the question period is over.
- Thank your audience for their participation.
- A seminar usually occurs in a small class setting, and is common in graduate school and some upper-year undergraduate courses. In a seminar, the group focuses deeply on a specific topic.
- The presenter should be well-versed in the topic, having researched and prepared materials, and the other members of the group should have read the assigned material and prepared questions.
- The presenter essentially takes on a teaching role for the group for this topic, and typically presents a summary and critical analysis of the assigned materials, then leads a discussion.
- It’s helpful, at the beginning of the presentation, to share with the group a handout that includes key points and critical questions for group members to consider during the talk.
Evaluate your performance
Help yourself learn from a presenting experience, and improve for the next one, by reflecting on how things went. One method is to take a few minutes after your presentation is over and identify:
- three things that went well, and that you’d do again
- two things about presenting that you want to learn more about
- one thing you will stop doing
Increase your confidence
You may already have some strategies for increasing your confidence or reducing anxiety while presenting, and if they work well for you, keep using them. Here are some more ideas:
Change your focus
When you give a presentation, do you wonder:
- Will the audience like me? Will I have anything useful to say?
- Will I sound competent and professional?
These are common thoughts. However, if you think more about yourself than you do about your audience during your presentation, it can increase your nervousness. Think about connecting to your audience and helping them to learn something, rather than monitoring yourself or trying to perform perfectly. Pay attention to your audience as you talk. Seek rapport with them: make eye contact, smile, and respond or adapt to feedback.
One anxiety-reducing strategy that seems to help many people is using breathing exercises. (link to SWS? Do they have one to recommend?). These exercises seem most effective for people who have practiced them in advance, so try learning and practicing them well before your presentation.
Change negative thinking
As you prepare for your presentation, observe your own thinking about yourself as a presenter. Are your thoughts helpful or unhelpful?
We all have well-worn messages in our minds. Some of those messages encourage us to grow (e.g., ask deeper questions, do better, try again); some are comforting and complimentary (e.g., good job, well done, nice effort). Some messages in our heads make it hard to persist or try new things (e.g., you’ll never get it, no one will hire you, you’re just not good enough).
With practice, you can replace negative, undermining thoughts with encouraging, realistic thoughts, and you can then use these empowering thoughts anywhere, anytime.
How? Write or repeat positive statements about yourself that start with “I.” Make your statements positive, realistic, and simple. Leave no room for self-doubt.
- “I can do this.”
- “I have practiced; I’ll be fine.”
- “I did ok last time; I’ll just do my best again.”
- “I know what I am talking about.”
Practice these statements often, first in situations where you already feel comfortable, and then at times when you typically feel nervous.
Presentation skills checklist
This checklist is also available as a PDF.
- The speaker greeted the audience warmly.
- I could hear the speaker.
- I could understand the speaker.
- The talk was delivered with warmth and conviction.
- The presentation seemed practiced.
- The speaker involved the audience.
- The talk included effective examples and illustrations.
- The speaker responded to questions and comments effectively and with calm courtesy.
- The speaker defined technical terms as needed.
- The opening got my attention.
- The introduction told us what to expect from the presentation.
- The purpose of the talk was clear.
- The talk’s structure was logical.
- The presentation was well-suited to the audience.
- The content was interesting.
- The speaker summarized the main points before finishing.
- The presenter ended on time.
- The talk ended on a strong final line or idea.
- The speaker showed enthusiasm.
- The speaker had good eye contact with the audience.
- The speaker showed no distracting movements or gestures.
- The speaker smiled.
- The speaker used gestures to help communicate ideas visually.
- The speaker used accessible and inclusive visual aids.
- I could read the material from where I was sitting.
- The visual aids got the point across in a clear and simple way.
- The speaker did not block the screen or flipchart.
- The speaker talked to the audience rather than to the screen or flipchart.
Every student faces stress sometimes. You may not always be able to avoid it, but you can make choices that can help you stay resilient and positive. In fact, stress management is an important academic and life skill that you can learn.
How can SASS help?Stressors and reactionsAdopt a helpful mindsetPrioritize and planMake a changeResources at Queen's
How can SASS help?
When it comes to managing academic stress, it can be helpful to take a bit of time to look at the big picture and impose some structure on your life. Structure can help you ensure you complete your academic tasks and other commitments, and support your well-being.
At SASS, we can help you manage academic stress by offering information and support on such topics as:
- time management and organization
- reading efficiency
- understanding academic expectations
and more. If you would like one-on-one help, book an appointment with a learning strategist. There is no need for you to manage challenges without support.
Stressors and reactions
Common stressors affecting students:
- lack of time or resources
- financial worries
- unclear academic expectations (e.g., how to study for tests)
- homesickness, loneliness, loss
- language barriers, cultural adjustment stress, and isolation
Common reactions to stress:
- loss of focus and concentration
- physical tension and/or illnesses
- exhaustion, lethargy
- loss of self-confidence, self-esteem
- sadness, low mood
- feeling of being overwhelmed
- changes in eating, sleeping, and exercise habits
- social withdrawal
Adopt a helpful mindset
- Identify your sources of distress.
- Determine which sources of stress may be under own control, and which aren’t. Focus on the things you can change.
- For stressors that you have some control over, ask:
- What do I need to handle this problem? (information, help, time, a skill, etc.)
- Where can I get what I need? (library, TA, professor, SASS, classmate, etc.)
- When will I take care of this?
- Reflect on what you have done previously to help you cope in similar situations. What resources listed in this section of our website might help you?
Change your mindset
- It can help to remember that how we perceive situations is an important factor in our stress levels.
- Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen? Is it likely?”
- Keep things in perspective.
- Determine the most important thing to do right now and start with that.
- Believe in your ability to figure things out and do your best under the circumstances.
Resources for a helpful mindset
- Student Wellness Services offers stress-related workbooks, support groups and appointments.
- It’s common for students to doubt themselves; there’s even a term for it: “imposter syndrome.” Take a look at our information on a growth mindset if you are feeling doubt in your academic abilities, or book an appointment with a learning strategist or a counsellor.
Prioritize and plan
- Make a task list; make it as complete as possible.
- Break large tasks into small, specific ones (try our assignment calculator).
- Prioritize each item on the task list. Consider factors like due dates, how many marks something is worth, its difficulty level, personal priorities, etc.
- For each task list item, estimate how much time it might take.
- Make a schedule for the week and block off time for items on your task list and for relaxation and sleep.
- Reduce, postpone or eliminate your optional responsibilities.
Anticipate stressful events and plan ahead
Make a change
Change your behaviour
- Acknowledge your accomplishments every day.
- Promote your health: eat well, sleep enough, exercise appropriately.
- Break big tasks into smaller, more manageable steps.
- Make room for some fun!
Change your situation
- Reduce distractions.
- Study somewhere else.
- Go to sleep earlier at night.
- Review your course or program with your prof, an academic advisor, or a career counsellor.
Bust your stress
- Try relaxation techniques, yoga, or T’ai Chi, or go for a walk or a run. Watch a comedy. Talk to a loved one.
- Do what you know works for you: use your own healthy stress-relieving activities.
Resources at Queen’s
Queen’s offers a wide range of support for students who are managing stress. (You may like to look into getting support from more than one of these resources because stress can have a few different sources.)
- Student Wellness Services: SWS can help with sleep, nutrition, counselling, physician appointments, etc.
- School of Graduate Studies: Check out SGS resources for newly admitted graduate students as well as the Habitat resources for living well and staying well in graduate school.
- Faith and Spiritual Life: The Faith and Spiritual Life office provides confidential counselling, ceremonial services, interfaith community development and spiritual support to students, faculty, and staff on campus.
- Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre: 4D strives to be a home away from home for Indigenous students and a site of information and support for the broader Queen’s community.
- Queen’s University International Centre: QUIC is a support service for everyone at Queen’s. Through its activities, it promotes and internationally informed and cross-culturally sensitive learning environment.
- Career Services: Career Services offers a comprehensive range of accessible services to support and empower students in making informed decisions about their career, further education, and employment goals.
- Society of Graduate and Professional Students: The SGPS offers a free and confidential peer advisor program that provides advice, strategies for self advocacy and referrals.
- Academic Advisors (Scroll down to Academic Counselling and Tutoring for a discipline-specific list of advisors.) Academic advisors can help you choose courses and programs and navigate academic administrative processes.
- Ban Righ Centre for Mature Women Students If you are a woman returning to education after a time away, or you are continuing your education while juggling family responsibilities, the Ban Righ Centre can help.
- Student Experience Office (SEO) The SEO provides a number of supports for students, including the peer mentor program.
- Financial Aid Queen’s offers a wide variety of financial assistance options for students in need.
- Campus Security & Emergency Services Campus Security’s mandate is to promote a safe and welcoming environment that recognizes and is respectful of the diverse nature of the Queen’s University Community.
There are plenty of resources on campus to help you; please ask for help if you can’t find what you’re looking for.
Managing time well is an important part of university life. Undergraduate and graduate students alike want to do well at school, stay healthy, and do many other things—all within a 168-hour week.
University has its own challenges for managing time: the workload is demanding, there are plenty of distractions, and days are often unstructured. It’s easy to let time slip by.
Stay in charge of your time and your success! Being clear about what’s important to you and using your time intentionally will help you have a satisfying, successful, less stressful university experience.
Setting goalsWhere does your time go?PrioritizingEstimating timeSchedulingHelpful toolsEfficiency tipsTroubleshooting guideGraduate students
It’s easier to spend your time intentionally when you know what matters most to you.
What are 2-3 areas of your life that you want to do really well at this year? You can’t do everything, so make some choices. Take some time to think about what’s important to you, then work on setting goals.
Goals are most effective when they are:
- realistic (can you achieve this goal with your resources, time, etc.?)
- measurable (how will you know when you’ve achieved this goal?)
- given a timeline
- written down and reviewed as needed.
“I want to further my education” is too vague to assess whether it is realistic or measurable, and it lacks a timeline; but
“I want to complete a master’s degree in biology at Queen’s within the next two years,” could meet all the above criteria.
Write down your long-term goals—things you hope to achieve in a year, or five years—using the criteria above. You might consider goals related to your:
- family and friends
- other interests.
Review these goals at the beginning or end of a school year to see how far you’ve moved toward achieving them, and if they are still important to you.
Next, write down shorter-term goals that support your long-term goals. For example, you might write, “I want to earn at least a B+ on my fourth-year biology research paper due on April 20.” Review these goals every month or two.
Post your goals somewhere visible; remind yourself of them when you’re having trouble prioritizing competing demands on your to-do list, or when you lack motivation.
Set goals that matter to you
Thinking about what you value in life, and how these values translate into long-term goals, can help you think more clearly about your short-term goals and make better decisions about how to use your time from day to day.
Values are core ideas you have about the worth of something, and the judgments you make about what is important in life. Our values influence how we use our time. For example, in a spare half-hour, someone who values orderliness may spend that time organizing their desk and work files, while someone who values fitness may go for a run.
You might like to write down your life values. (If you have trouble identifying them, there are lots of places you can find inspiration: online, in books or blogs, talking with family or friends or a spiritual advisor, etc.) Afterwards, you might find it helpful to translate some of your values into long-term goals.
It’s common for goals to change over time; goals are closely tied to our identities and values, which develop as we move through life. If you’d like to talk to someone as you clarify your values and goals, see an academic advisor, a career counsellor, a personal counsellor and/or Queen’s Faith and Spiritual Life.
Where does your time go?
Start by figuring out how you currently spend your time. Try filling in our weekly time use chart.
Take a look at your results; are you surprised by how little or how much time you have left over, or how you spend some of your time? Do you wish you had more time for some activities? Keep reading for strategies for setting goals, prioritizing activities, and managing your time, or check out our procrastination and concentration pages.
Many students rely on their to-do lists to stay organized and get tasks done on time. A to-do list can help you:
- achieve your short- and long-term goals
- reduce stress and feel more in control of your life
- avoid forgetting things
- fill in your weekly schedule and term calendar.
One method for making a to-do list
- Use whatever tools you prefer: pen and paper, sticky notes, an agenda, an app, a document saved on your laptop.
- Have on hand a calendar with coursework deadlines and important personal dates.
- List everything you can think of that you need to do in a month or a term: administrative tasks, projects, readings, laundry, errands, etc.
- Try not to worry about how much there is on the list at this point.
- Break down large tasks (e.g., “create COMMS 234 presentation”) into small, specific tasks (e.g., “email COMM 234 group members to set next meeting date,” “choose topic,” “assign tasks among group members,” etc.).
- Make sure everything on the list starts with a verb, for example, “write methods section of lab report.”
- If a task has a specific deadline, note it down.
- You might find it helpful to think of this as a master list, not a daily list. As the week goes by, keep track of new additions to your to-do list on a separate list, and add them to the master list on a daily or weekly basis (use the process below).
What to do with a to-do list
Assess the list:
- Maybe some of the items aren’t that important or urgent, and could be postponed or deleted. This is a good strategy to use when you’re busy.
- If an item will take you just a minute or two, do it right away and cross it off your list.
For the remaining tasks:
- prioritize which should be done first, second, etc.
- estimate the time needed for each task; be a bit generous with this estimate
- schedule the tasks into your weekly or monthly schedule according your priorities and time estimates. Be realistic.
Each week, set aside 30 minutes on Sunday night to review your list and the upcoming week. What tasks need to be accomplished? Do you need to add anything else to your list? Schedule tasks into your week. If you have trouble prioritizing, refer to your short-term goals.
Each evening, set aside 5-10 minutes to make a realistic to-do list for the next day. Refer to your weekly goals to help set priorities.
If you don't like to-do lists
Do you find to-do lists stressful? Is it impossible to cross off all the items on your list? Try:
- making sure everything on your list is specific and starts with a verb
- breaking larger tasks into smaller ones that you can do in an hour or less
- keeping a master list and then transferring just 2-3 of your highest-priority tasks from that list onto a daily to-do list
- checking out some of our strategies for prioritizing tasks and avoiding procrastination
- instead of a daily to-do list, track your accomplishments for the day as you go, and compare it to your weekly goals.
Prioritizing is difficult to do well at first, but it’s essential for planning your time effectively; if you don’t prioritize you might miss important deadlines, or spend time on one task at the expense of a more important or urgent task. It’s also a skill you can improve with practice. Here are a few methods; try different ones until you find one that suits you.
Matrix method: Use the time management matrix to help you identify which tasks you should do first.
Try to accomplish some important, non-urgent goals every week. This habit will keep you out of last minute, crisis mode.
Categorize your tasks into:
- A: must do today or tomorrow
- B: might do today if there’s time, but can delay for a few days or a week
- C: can delay for more than a week
- the hardest tasks
- the tasks due first
- the assignments worth the most marks
- the tasks that support your goals
- work before you relax. Reward yourself each day after solid, sustained effort.
Mark each task with an A, B, or C, then schedule the tasks accordingly.
Estimating time accurately will help you get tasks done on time with less stress, and protect the time you’ve set aside for sleeping, relaxing, eating and exercising—it’s an important skill! You’ll get better at it with experience.
It’s easier to estimate time more accurately for smaller tasks than bigger ones, which is another reason to break big projects down into smaller, specific tasks.
Be realistic. Don’t try to get everything done in a day. It’s better to have a short to-do list and complete it than to feel overwhelmed by a long list of tasks.
On average, students should spend about 8-10 hours per course each week, attending class and labs/tutorials and completing homework. If you’re an undergraduate student taking five courses, you should spend about 45-50 hours per week on school. Think of school as your full-time job.
For example, if you are taking five courses and spend 20 hours total in class / lab time each week, expect to also spend about 25-30 hours on homework each week (5 courses x 9 hours per course = 45 hours per week total for school; 45 hours total – 20 hours in class = 25 hours of homework).
Graduate school has its own rhythm, but try treating school as a full-time job and then modify your time commitment as you understand the demands better.
Watch a SASS peer fill in her weekly schedule!
You can use our weekly schedule and monthly calendar templates to plan how to spend your time. They come with instructions to help you achieve scheduling success!
Use a weekly schedule to:
- protect time for sleeping, eating, and exercise
- keep track of classes and other commitments
- choose when to work on specific tasks
- plan flexibility and relaxation time.
Use a term calendar to:
- keep track of due dates and how much assignments/exams are worth
- see the big picture of the whole term
- plan ahead for busier weeks.
Here are sample schedules from our SASS peers! [Forthcoming.]
- Taking time to sleep, exercise and eat well is critical to your academic success.
- It’s a lot more effective to do some work every day of the week / term than to cram it in last-minute. Easier said than done; if you struggle with this habit, try a learning strategies appointment.
- Know yourself. When you schedule tasks, consider what time of day you work best.
- Do the hard tasks first to set the tone for the day and motivate yourself.
- University offers wonderful opportunities. Don’t just bury your head in your books for four years; make time to try new things.
- Term calendar: use the instructions to fill it in and see the whole term at a glance.
- Weekly schedule: use the instructions to fill it in to plan your week. See a how-to video here.
- Weekly time use chart: see how you spend your time. An eye-opener for many students.
- Steven Covey’s Time Management Matrix
- Course Planner
- Assignment calculator: use this tool to break large assignments into small tasks with mini-deadlines; get tips and resources for each stage.
- Thesis manager: for graduate students; helps you see the big picture and break down the thesis process into small, manageable stages with mini-deadlines.
- End of term planning chart: fill this in to get a handle on what’s left to do, how long it will take, and how much it’s worth. A helpful tool to regroup and prioritize around Weeks 9-12 of a term.
- Task Analysis Chart: break a big task into smaller parts and estimate how long each will take.
- Consider school your full-time job.
- Use the free time between classes to do homework.
- Do difficult tasks first.
- Work for a maximum of 3 hours at a time, and then take a break for an hour or so.
- Work for 50 minutes, then take a break for 10 (or work for 25 and break for 5); repeat.
- Reduce distractions.
- Adopt routines. They take the decision-making out of your day.
- Try mindfulness techniques to stay focused and calm.
- Work before relaxing. Earn a reward.
“I make a to-do list every day but never get through it. Then I feel guilty.”
- Make a weekly to-do list. Then try limiting your daily to-do list to only three items. If you have extra time, tackle the next thing on your weekly to-do list. Or try using a to-do list that covers two or three days. Or keep a list of completed tasks instead.
“I make schedules but I can’t seem to follow them.”
- Try making your schedule realistic, not idealistic. When are you really going to start studying: 7:00 a.m.? 9:30 a.m.? How many hours a week will you really commit to? Remember to leave room for downtime.
- Try booking an appointment with a learning strategist.
“I spend too much time on online activities. Then I don’t have time to work or sleep.”
- Try scheduling specific times for these activities, with a limit of how long you’ll spend doing them. Then, turn off, close, and log out when you’re trying to work or sleep.
- See our advice on managing distractions or book an appointment with a learning strategist.
“I have trouble deciding what to do first.”
- Consider due dates, how much time is needed to do the task, and how many marks it’s worth, if others are depending on you, and how important it is for your goals. See our prioritizing strategies.
Graduate school presents its own time management complexities that may challenge your skills. Approaches or habits that worked well for you in other contexts might not work as well for you now. We offer some practical information here.
You may also like to book a learning strategies appointment, or visit our graduate student page or our faculty / TA resources page for more help and resources.
Time challenges for graduate students
- long-term, complex projects
- unclear academic expectations
- multiple competing roles (academic and non-academic)
- lack of structure in a week
- distracting negative feelings such as self-doubt, worry, and guilt
- lack of accountability or feedback on progress.
Time management strategies for graduate students
- Don’t wait! Create structure as early in the term as possible; see our resources on setting goals, managing time, using to-do lists, prioritizing, and scheduling.
- Try the thesis manager.
- Schedule quiet time for thinking and writing.
- Schedule time for relaxation, sleep, and exercise to stay motivated, happy and healthy.
- Set daily routines; they save time and mental effort.
- Organize your work space, digital files, emails and paperwork to save time.
- Reduce/manage your distractions.
- Meet with your supervisor regularly; send follow-up emails listing key discussion points.
- Email your supervisor regularly with updates (accomplishments, challenges, questions).
- Keep a record of weekly goals and achievements and next intended steps and share these with your supervisor at each meeting. Review the list daily to stay on track.
- Track your progress on a calendar.
- Explain your student life to your partner/family/friends, and enlist their cooperation.
- Schedule time for the important people in your personal life.
- Check out our procrastination and focus and concentration resources.
Planning large projects
Large projects, such as researching and writing a thesis, may span several years; most graduate students don’t have training or experience in this level of project management.
Even if you have clear goals and solid time management skills, large projects might be daunting. In addition, some aspects of the project might not be in your control (e.g., waiting for your supervisor to read and provide feedback on your work). Large projects may also compete with other tasks, both academic and personal. The thesis manager can help you break a thesis down into smaller steps with timelines.
It can also be helpful to think through some of the following questions, and/or discuss them with your supervisor, as you plan your thesis or another large project:
- What are my academic and administrative responsibilities?
- To whom am I accountable?
- When do I want to finish my project? When are major deadlines?
- How do my major deadlines translate into smaller tasks from week to week?
- What happens if I don’t finish on time? Do I need a backup plan?
- What aspects of the project do I control, totally or to some extent? Who else has control, in what ways?
- What feedback/support can I expect from my supervisor/others?
- What are my priorities? How will I manage competing priorities?
- How will I maintain a healthy balance between my academic and personal life?
- How will I sustain my energy and a positive attitude to the project?
- How will I know when it’s time to let go and move onto something else?
- How can I manage perfectionism and/or procrastination?
Being able to concentrate on schoolwork is critical for learning and studying. It’s also a skill that you can develop. Read on for some strategies that may help.
Set yourself up for successManage distractionsGet to workIn lecturesMore resources
Set yourself up for success
Your work area
- Do you know what you need to work on right now, how, and why?
- Do you have a place where you can work uninterrupted?
- Are your supplies close at hand?
- Do you have good lighting and a comfortable chair (don’t study on your bed!)?
- Are your devices off, or on silent, and out of sight? (If you need to be online to complete your work, block distracting websites.)
Create homework habits
- What time of day do you focus best? Do your most challenging work then.
- Develop a routine place, time, and approach.
- Try working for 50 minutes, then taking a 10-minute break, repeated 2-3 times.
- Or try working for 25 minutes, then taking a 5-minute break, repeated 4-6 times.
- Try varying the subjects / tasks in each long study session.
- Break up large projects into manageable sections. Congratulate yourself for completing individual sections.
Support your health
- Eat regularly to give your brain energy.
- Sleep enough to feel rested and alert.
- Exercise to reduce restlessness, manage stress and feel good. Getting fresh air before class or homework time may help you be more alert.
Distracted by YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, and texts? You’re not alone. 23.4% of Queen’s students reported that internet use/computer games affected their academic performance within the last 12 months (see NCHA Student Health and Wellness Survey).
Technology is vital to everyday tasks, but our dependence on technology can turn into a habit that prevents us from getting our work done. Learn to intentionally give your attention.
Here are some strategies to try:
When you need to focus on a task...
Ask yourself, “Do I need my computer / phone / device for this task?”
No, I don’t need it.
- leave laptop at home
- log out and close laptop; put out of sight in a backpack or drawer; turn off wifi
- put phone on airplane mode/on silent, out of sight in a backpack or drawer
- check for notifications on long (1-2 hour) breaks, not short (5-10 minute) breaks
Yes, I do need it.
- block unnecessary sites with apps
- check for notifications on long (1-2 hour) breaks, not short (5-10 minute) breaks
- when you’re tempted by a distraction, ask yourself, “why am I doing this? Will it support my goals?”
- challenge yourself to go five more minutes without checking your phone/social media
Increasing the physical distance between you and your phone / laptop, or increasing the time / effort required to check notifications, may help you manage your impulses.
When you want to avoid your phone...
- With a trusted roommate/friend, lock your phones and swap them for a couple of hours when you really want to focus.
- Check your phone and social media only at specific times during the day, such as every two hours, or after breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- Let your family and friends know you’re not available during work time unless it’s an emergency. Tell them you’re trying to change your online habits to support your academic/health goals and ask for their support.
- Ask yourself, “Tonight, when I look back on my day, what would make me feel as though it was a good day, well-spent? What can I do right now to contribute to that satisfaction?”
- Charge your phone in another room, or put it on airplane mode, while you sleep.
- Try thinking of time away from your phone as liberating, a chance to be yourself and to do things that you love to do.
When you do check your phone...
- Track how much time you spend on your phone / laptop for non-work activity. Lots of apps exist that help you track phone usage.
- Set a timer to remind yourself to return to work after a break. Or have an accountability buddy who helps you get back to work after a break.
- Combine your phone check with a look at your daily to-do list/weekly schedule, to help you remember that you had planned to get something specific done in this time.
- Remember you can do non-phone things on a break, like stretching, running up and down stairs, taking a short walk, getting a coffee, listening to a song with your eyes closed, etc.
- If you fear letting down family and friends by not responding to their messages, commit to responding on breaks, or later that day, instead of instantly.
When your thoughts distract you...
Get distracting thoughts out of your head by writing them down on a nearby pad of paper. Set aside a bit of time each evening to review your distractions:
- some items may be trivial and can be forgotten
- some items may be important–turn these into specific actions and add them to your to-do list
- discuss ongoing, distressing thoughts with someone.
Track your attention: if you’re distracted while you’re trying to work, try making a check mark on a nearby pad of paper, then turn your attention back to work. Later, look for patterns. Do your thoughts wander when you are tired, hungry, restless or worried? Think about your improving your health habits and/or talking to someone about your worries.
Minimize or manage distractions that you have some control over; for example, ask your friends and family to help you protect your work time, and reassure them that you will be available to them other hours of the day.
If these strategies aren’t helpful, remember that giving into online distraction can be a very difficult habit to change. Don’t expect to go from constantly distracted to perfectly focused in a day. Try one or two of the strategies above for a week or two, then try a couple more for another week, and aim for slow but solid improvement over time. You might also consider booking an appointment with a counsellor to talk about how to break a habit.
- Keep all necessary supplies close at hand to avoid set-up time and distractions.
- If a large task seems daunting, break it down into several smaller, specific tasks. Still daunted? Make them smaller.
- Try the “5 more rule.” Commit to working for five (minutes, pages, sentences, etc.) and then do it. Then decide to work another 5 more or not.
- Start each work session with 10 minutes of review of the most recent material, to reinforce previous learning and boost your confidence.
Work within your attention span
Rather than becoming frustrated about lack of focus, learn to work within the limits of your attention span.
- First, find the limits of your attention for a particular task or subject. Can you stay focused for 10 minutes? 20 minutes?
- Try setting a regular 5-minute timer, and when it goes off, ask yourself if you are still engaged in the task. Mark down when your attention begins to wane.
- Once you have established your attention span for a course, divide your work into chunks that will take that long to complete. For example:
- You have about a 30-minute attention span for working on a case study in your Commerce class. Divide the project into reading the assignment for 30 minutes, then finding 3 research articles for 30 minutes, etc.
- Take 5 minute breaks between work sessions. Use a timer to keep you on track, both for your working sessions and for your breaks. You can set up your phone to help you, or search for an online timer that will time your work sessions and breaks.
- Do your hardest work (the most difficult stuff, the boring stuff) at the time of day when you are most alert.
- Remind yourself of how the task you’re trying to focus on will her you meet a longer-term goal.
- Set a specific target in terms of time spent on a task, or amount of work to complete.
- Work before you play. Build in a reward for successfully reaching your goal: a coffee, chat, walk, or something you enjoy that you must earn before you have it.
It is much easier to focus if you’re interested in a task, but what if you aren’t interested?
Try active studying strategies:
- Ask yourself questions.
- Relate the information to your personal experience or to your other courses.
- Think about the topic’s real-world implications. Ask “what if” questions.
- Make up your own examples.
Try reminding yourself how this task will help you achieve an exciting goal.
Keep in mind that sometimes you just have to do something you don’t want to do; consider it good for character development and get on with it.
Use self-talk to stay on task
Self-talk can help you get started and stay on track. Congratulate yourself for staying on track, or remind yourself where your attention should be. Keep practicing; over time, you can develop a habit that keeps you motivated and focused.
Examples of encouraging self-talk:
- If I get started now, I’ll feel less stressed later.
- I’m really making progress on this paper.
- I’ve been working for 30 minutes without distraction, yay!
- What is most important right now?
- How long have I been on this website?
- Is what I’m doing now helping me reach my goals?
Study with a friend
Studying with someone else can help you stay on track and re-focus if you find yourself distracted. Just seeing a friend working can be a great way to stay motivated, and if one of you gets distracted, the other can offer a friendly reminder to get back to work.
You can also hold each other accountable for your progress on weekly goals. Tell each other what you’ve done over the week, and what you want to accomplish next week.
- From the readings or problem sets, come up with questions in advance. You don’t have to actually ask them, unless you want to; just listen for the answers during lecture.
- Reduce distractions: get to class in time to pick your best seat—whatever works for you.
- Stay awake: take notes during the lecture, and ask questions.
- Use a code in your notes to mark things that you don’t understand, or that seem important.
- If the lecture has a break, try to get outside for some fresh air.
- Engage your mind by participating in class and thinking actively:
- offer your opinion
- think about how the material relates to recent lectures or readings
- try to anticipate the professor’s next idea
- ask questions, out loud or in your mind.
The following campus resources helped create content for this web page, and can offer more support.
- Check out Health Promotion to learn more about sleep and other health issues affecting university students, or to book a Healthy Lifestyle Consultation.
- Talk to someone at Counselling Services about distracting and distressing thoughts, or maintaining a healthy relationship with technology.
- Visit the Faith and Spritual Life Office to talk about distracting and distressing thoughts, or technology from a spiritual and/or community perspective.
- Student Academic Success Services can suggest strategies that support concentration.
 American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Queen’s University Executive Summary Spring 2013. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association; 2013.
Acknowledging and accepting anxiety so you can take action
“Even when I study well, I’m so nervous I just forget everything.”
“I’m not a good test-taker. I feel tense and nauseous. I can’t handle it.”
“My test anxiety is affecting my GPA. No matter how well I do on assignments, the tests always bring my mark down.”
Sound familiar? More than 60% of students at Queen’s have felt overwhelming anxiety at some point in the academic year (NCHA, 2016). Anxiety is a normal human emotion. Many people feel anxious before a test or exam, or when they are making an important decision. An anxiety disorder is different—it causes so much anxiety that it interferes with our ability to lead a normal life (Cleveland Clinic).
In this resource, we focus on students’ feelings of anxiety about tests and exams. Our intention was to create a resource to support students who are experiencing feelings of anxiety—but it is not intended as a treatment for those with anxiety disorders. If you have an anxiety disorder, please follow the recommended treatment and management strategies given by your health care providers.
This resource was a collaboration between Student Wellness Services and Student Academic Success Services.
The first step towards managing anxiety is to understand how anxiety works and how you typically respond to it. Once you are aware of your own pattern, you can develop tools to help yourself interrupt the cycle. This will take practice, effort and patience, but it can be done. Our brains are amazingly malleable!
Anxiety is common. It is usually described as a feeling of apprehension, uncertainty, or uneasiness that arises in anticipation of an impending event or situation, whether real or imagined. Anxiety can feel like stress, worry, butterflies, agitation, jumpiness, nervousness, fear, or panic.
Everyone experiences anxiety, but some of us feel it more often and/or more intensely. When we feel anxious, we may experience some or several of the following signs:
- Physical (e.g., rapid heartbeat, headaches, muscle tension, shortness of breath, nausea, sweating)
- Emotional (e.g., excessive feelings of fear, irritation, helplessness, shutting down)
- Behavioural (e.g., fidgeting, pacing, avoiding, over- or under-sleeping)
- Cognitive (e.g., going blank, racing thoughts, negative self-talk, difficulty concentrating)
At manageable levels, anxiety can be useful because it prepares us to take action in response to a situation. It signals that something important is at stake and motivates us to make necessary changes to manage that task. It helps us to be alert and get psyched up to deal with the situation at hand.
It’s normal to experience a certain amount of anxiety or nervousness before a test. But if these feelings are too intense, they may negatively affect our performance. As you become aware of your own test anxiety, try to think of it as a resource: it’s there to help you face the challenge at hand.
- Recognize your test anxiety. How does it show up for you (e.g., as physical sensations, thoughts, emotions)? When (e.g., leading up to the test, or just on the day of)?
- Notice how you typically respond to your feelings of anxiety. Do you avoid situations that make you feel anxious? Do you distract yourself from your thoughts or emotions? Do you procrastinate?
- Notice your own story. What is your anxiety telling you? When you’re feeling anxious about a test or exam, what do you say to yourself? What thoughts occupy your mind?
- Are there other habits and patterns that might be contributing to your anxiety? Are you getting enough good-quality sleep? Are you getting a reasonable amount of physical activity? Are you eating healthy foods? Do you have someone to talk to?
- Have you thought about where the pressure is coming from? It might involve sources such as your own expectations, your parents’ expectations, scholarship status, judgement from peers, etc.
Next: accepting anxiety.
Shifting your perspective on test anxiety starts with accepting it as something that will happen. Of course you’re going to feel anxious; your test results are important to you. The key is to change your relationship with that anxiety. We cannot eliminate our feelings of nervousness and worry, but there are things we can do to keep their intensity at a more optimal level.
Begin by simply acknowledging that the uneasiness, uncertainty, and physical symptoms feel uncomfortable.
Allow the worry to be there. We are not going to get rid of worried thoughts—sometimes trying to do so will even strengthen our anxiety. Instead, begin to increase your tolerance for situations or thoughts that make you feel anxious (e.g., tests and exams). Try:
- changing your self-talk (say, “I can do this. I studied well. I know my stuff.”)
- practicing self-compassion (say, “I’ll do my best, and that will be enough”)
- practicing meditation
- learning to see emotions as information, not an order (say, “I’m getting excited to take on this challenge; I can feel it! But I won’t let this feeling take over.”)
- establishing pre- and post-test routines and rituals in advance (e.g., going to the room where you’ll write the test to get more comfortable in the space)
- doing grounding exercises when you feel anxious.
Keep moving forward in spite of your anxiety. By doing so, you will gradually retrain your brain to be less reactive. The aim is to work with anxiety instead of resisting it or wishing it would go away.
Working with your anxiety is the goal, but it’s not easy! Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that it’s hard (e.g., “This feels hard for me right now. We all go through hard times. It’s going to be okay—I can do this”).
Being kind to yourself also means making peace with your anxious brain. Let go of what happened in the past (e.g., “the last time I wrote an exam, I…”). You can’t change the past. Try to think instead of times when you were anxious but pushed through.
Accepting your test anxiety allows you to create some space between your emotions/thoughts and your reactions. This space makes room for a response that will help you work toward your goal of overcoming anxiety.
- Accepting that anxiety will happen gives you the opportunity to plan out possible responses in advance. Try WOOP (Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan) to help yourself anticipate obstacles and make plans.
- Wish. Make a wish that feels challenging but doable. For example, I feel overcome by anxiety in exams. I wish I felt calmer.
- Outcome. What will happen when you reach your goal? For example, if I felt calmer, I could think more clearly and I’d do better on the exam. That would feel great.
- Obstacle. The main internal obstacle that keeps you from your goal. For example, I want to feel calmer, but… (negative self-talk, poor study habits, I stay up all night worrying, etc.) prevents me.
- Plan. What can you do to overcome your obstacle? Try framing it as an if/then. For example, if I change my _____, then I will feel calmer and less anxious. I’ll be able to think better and do better on the exam. If I feel anxious, then I’ll remind myself to take deep breaths and persevere!
- Externalize or personify your anxiety. Some students even find it helpful to give it a name to further separate it from themselves. When anxiety is externalized, it’s easier to address it and move forward (e.g., Ah yes, hello anxiety. I expected you to show up today. I hear you, but back off! I need to write this exam.).
- Reframe your perspective. Change how you interpret your thoughts and feelings related to anxiety. You are having an intense or uncomfortable experience of a normal reaction to stress. The goal is to find a way to keep moving forward, even though you feel uncomfortable. For example, I want to _________, so I am willing to ____________.
Next: taking action.
Once you’ve become aware of how you experience anxiety, and have stopped resisting it and started accepting it, you’re ready to take action. Just take it one step at a time. Focus on micro-changes: you don’t have to change everything all at once. Pick something, even the smallest thing that you think you can achieve. What do you think you can start with?
What do you want? What are your goals? Use these to motivate yourself. Effort and perseverance are the keys.
Before the test
Effective study habits can help you reduce and manage your test anxiety. When you feel you have the tools to meet a challenge, it helps to keep stress at a more manageable, productive level. Try
- keeping up with the workload during the semester so you don’t feel overwhelmed: do a little at a time. Use a term and your weekly schedule to manage your time and workload.
- engaging actively with the course content (when reading, when learning, when studying).
- using the course learning objectives (in the syllabus) as a guide to the big picture of the course.
- focusing on re-organizing material meaningfully (rather than re-reading or re-writing it) into a different format (e.g., a mind map or concept summary), or focusing on how best to organize it, or on the connections and relationships between main ideas.
- giving yourself time to study: make a study schedule and use effective study methods like summarizing, memorizing, understanding, elaborating, and self-testing.
- over-learning the material. Understanding, application, and analysis are all important, but so is memorization. Drill, drill, drill on the material you just have to memorize.
- visiting the room where you will write your test or exam. You might even study there, if possible.
In terms of your mindset, try
- visualizing yourself successfully writing the test. Imagine what your positive energy feels like and how it drives your performance.
- noticing your thinking. We can’t always control the thoughts that arise but we can control how we respond to them. Thoughts are like background noise in your head, and this noise can affect your focus, motivation, confidence, and ultimately your performance. Make sure your thinking makes you feel empowered and confident.
- avoiding procrastination. Reduce the number of situations in which you’d have to practice self-control. Just as you might avoid buying cookies so you won’t have to resist eating them, set yourself up for success by establishing good practices.
- use encouraging words with yourself (e.g., “I can do this,” “I’m prepared”) when you notice thoughts of self-doubt.
During the test
Before you go in to write the test…
- Stop studying at least an hour before the test or exam. Give yourself a break instead: have lunch, go to the gym, get some fresh air. Run a flight of stairs to release some nervous energy! Tell yourself, “I’m excited.”
- Keep yourself calm: put on headphones, find a quiet space, engage with a mindfulness app. Don’t engage with friends/classmates who are stressing or cramming!
- Do a brain dump of your worries. Write them all out, then categorize them: which ones can you do something about and which ones are just background noise? Leave your worries at the door when you go to write the test.
Just before you write, or while you’re writing…
- It can be helpful to have a routine to follow. Routines help to smooth the transition into the test-taking process. For example, do some grounding exercises before you begin, do a brain dump before you start answering questions, or start with the questions you know, to warm up and build confidence.
- Make sure you have some water to drink and maybe some gum or a candy.
- Check out some strategies for taking different types of exams.
After the test
Overcoming test anxiety involves building a skill set and forming new habits and routines—this effort takes time and practice! Remember, you’re focusing on micro-changes.
Taking time to reflect after the test will help you build your skills. Then make a plan for next time.
- what went well (improvements in your thinking, your breathing, your ability to engage with the test material, your memory, etc.)
- what you learned about how you experience test anxiety
- what you might like to focus on improving the next time you write a test. Do you need to do some problem solving? Get help from a professor? Change your approach?
Reward yourself! Give yourself a tangible reward after a test to celebrate.
Next: grounding exercises for when anxiety takes hold.
When anxiety takes hold
When you’re preparing for or writing a test and anxiety takes hold, you can try some grounding exercises. Grounding techniques can help you regain your mental focus when you are experiencing an intense emotional state. They won’t eliminate anxiety—they are strategies to help you tolerate the discomfort. By engaging your senses, you divert your mind away from anxious or stressful thoughts and into the moment.
You can do all of these exercises in an exam, without disturbing others or calling attention to yourself. Practice them in advance so you know how to do them.
You can try...
- squeezing lemons. Place your hands by your side or in your lap. Imagine you are holding a lemon in each hand. Squeeze your fists tight for 30 seconds. Direct your excess energy/tension into your hands and notice your muscles tightening. Now drop the lemons and feel the tension release as your muscles relax.
- the 5-4-3-2-1 game. Name 5 things you can see in the room, 4 things you can feel (chair on my back, cold hands, etc), 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell (or 2 things you like the smell of), and 1 taste in your mouth and then state 1 good thing about yourself.
- finger breathing. Spread the fingers of one hand out like a star, palm facing up. Take the index finger of the other hand and place it at the base of your thumb on the open hand. Inhale as you move your finger from the base of your thumb to the tip. Pause. Exhale as you bring your finger down the other side of your thumb. Pause. Inhale again as your finger moves to the tip of your finger. Repeat until you have done traced all your fingers. Repeat.
- chair body scan: Sit comfortably with your hands in your lap. Lower your gaze or close your eyes. Direct your attention to your feet on the floor. Now move your attention to your body resting in your chair. Let the chair take the weight of your body. Notice your back in contact with the back of the chair. Let your shoulder relax. Let the muscles around your mouth relax, around your eyes, your forehead. Relax your tongue.
- rhythmic breathing. Here are some options:
- inhaling for a count of 4, holding for 7, exhaling for 8; or
- inhaling for 4, exhaling for 8; or
- belly breathing (also called calm breathing).
- supportive self-talk and affirmations. For example, “I’m getting excited to take on this challenge,” “A little stress is going to help me do well on this test,” “This test is not a measure of my worth as a person. It’s one tiny point on my academic path,” and “I can do this. I studied well. I know my stuff.”
Finally, because overcoming anxiety is a process, it’s important to take care of yourself on a day to day basis—not just when you have a test coming up. Build in strategies for regular stress management and self-care (e.g., quality sleep, healthy habits, reducing coffee intake, spending time with friends and family).
Memory is critical to academic success. Your memory helps you learn, and do well on exams, but it also helps you develop your own ideas, join in academic discussions, interview for jobs, and much more.
Learning and remembering are two different activities.
- Learning is about understanding a new concept, theory, method or piece of information.
- Remembering is about being able to recall your learning accurately when you need it.
Taking time to do both activities (not at the same time) is more efficient because you won’t have to relearn material that you didn’t understand the first time around.
Did you know you can improve your memory? Read on to learn how!
How do we form memories?Paying attentionHow to reviewWhen to reviewSupport your memory
How do we form memories?
We encode what we pay attention to, otherwise it fades in seconds. Then, our short-term memory lets us work with information long enough to store it in long-term memory. Retrieval involves getting information from long-term memory and using it.
Pay attention to information that you want to remember, to encode it in your short-term memory. You can’t remember something that you haven’t paid attention to.
- In lectures, put your phone away, listen, take notes, and ask questions (even just in the margins of your notes).
- Avoid distractions.
- When you read, engage actively with the new information.
- Take breaks, spread out the work over time, and plan to get enough sleep, nutrition, exercise and relaxation time over the week to support your attention levels.
How to review
Remember that you can’t review something until you’ve learned it! Don’t try to do both at the same time. Use our time management resources to protect your learning and reviewing time over the term.
Re-reading your textbook or notes is not the most efficient or effective way to remember course content. Try these active strategies instead; they ask you to make decisions about what information to understand and recall, and how to explain it.
Organize and summarize information:
- Select key concepts, major topics as described in the course learning objectives, material heavily weighted in lectures or labs, etc.
- Organize information so that related pieces are grouped together thematically, chronologically or hierarchically.
- Make a mind map of the course, and add to it as the term progresses. Include key ideas and their connections. This strategy is efficient and produces a study sheet for exam time.
- Use our concept summary template for math, chemistry, physics and economics courses.
It’s particularly important in science or math courses to do practice questions and look for patterns and cue words to identify concepts being applied.
Write summaries in your own words. Avoid learning by rote; if you memorize a concept or formula in only one format or phrase, you might not recognize it on an exam if it takes a different form or the question uses different wording. Your understanding should be flexible.
Explain why a fact or concept is true. Connect it to what you already know.
Explain why you should go through specific steps as you solve a problem.
Test yourself. Use the Queen’s Exam Bank, textbook chapter questions, and course tests or assignments. The greatest benefit comes from generating your own questions for self-testing; base these on the concepts identified in the course learning objectives.
Teach someone else; this process makes you select information, organize it, and explain it. Try using creative analogies to help make an abstract idea clearer and more memorable.
See our exam and test prep resources for more review strategies and how to prepare for different types of exams.
When to review
Preview lecture notes, slides, lab instructions or readings before classes/labs/tutorials to get a sense of the main ideas that class will cover.
Take notes during class.
Review information shortly after you learned it the first time (right after class, or within a few days):
- take 10-30 minutes in the evening to review what you covered in classes that day, or
- take an hour or so on the weekend to review the week’s notes.
Review (skim) older information from previous weeks briefly but regularly (for example, every couple of weeks).
Use spaced practice: short review sessions with breaks, spread over days or weeks, are much more effective and efficient than a marathon study session.
This reviewing habit will strengthen your memory of that content and pay off at exam time!
Take breaks to consolidate memories into long-term storage. Try studying or reading for 50 minutes, then take a 10-minute break during which you don’t take in more information. Repeat once or twice, then take a longer (1-2 hour) break.
Support your memory
Get enough sleep. It’s essential for your brain to transfer information to long-term memory.
Your need for sleep increases during times of intense learning and memorization. Get 8-9+ hours of sleep a night during exams or other periods of high demand.
See our Academic Stress page for resources.
Visit Student Wellness Services for help with sleep, healthy eating, and exercise, all of which will support your ability to remember.
See our Time Management resources for help with making time, getting organized and creating a balanced life.
The assignment calculator is a tool that helps students plan their assignments by breaking them into manageable parts and providing resources and support toward their completion.
- To begin, select an assignment type and your start and end dates.
- After clicking on the submit button, scroll down for the calculator’s output.
- the steps and timing provided by the calculator are only a starting place.
Each step in the assignment calculator comes with a time commitment estimate, but some steps might take you longer, depending on how challenging the material is, how well you know the topic or process, and your other commitments (e.g., classes, work schedule). Don’t be afraid to tweak the calculator’s recommendations! (Note: when you add the steps to your calendar, they are not fixed–shift them around as needed.)
- how long any assignment may take to complete will vary.
If you’re wondering how long you’ll need to spend on an assignment, take a guess based on your past experience—then add a little more time, just in case. For example, if you think you could complete a research essay in two weeks, give yourself two and a half. Assignments usually take longer than you think they will, and you’ll be less likely to feel stressed if you give yourself more time.
- although the calculator’s output is straightforward, your process will probably be less so.
The step-by-step output of the calculator will make it seem like you can follow the steps one by one until you finish and submit your assignment. In reality, writing, research, experiments, and group work are all circular, messy, and iterative processes. That’s normal! The calculator is a guide, not a set of hard and fast rules.
- more support is available.
If you have any questions or challenges along the way, ask for help. Check with your prof or TA about their expectations, the assignment’s format, and the suitability of your topic and/or thesis statement. Go see a librarian for help with research. You can also make an appointment with a writing consultant or a learning strategist at any point in the process, from topic choice to draft revision to submission.
The Queen’s assignment calculator is based on a similar tool developed by the University of Minnesota. This version is © 2018 Student Academic Success Services, Queen’s University at Kingston, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.
Student Academic Success Services provides support in learning and writing across disciplines, to all students. This list is intended to complement this broad-ranging support with academic resources more closely tied to specific subjects.
Have a resource you think we should include? Tell us about it!
This resource is also available as a PDF (last update: January 2019).
General Academic SupportFaculty of Arts and ScienceArts and Science: Departmental SupportFaculty of Engineering and Applied ScienceSmith School of Business (Commerce)School of NursingSchool of Kinesiology and Health Studies
General Academic Support
Student Academic Success Services
- Student Academic Success Services (SASS) comprises Learning Strategies and the Writing Centre. This free and confidential service, located in Stauffer Library, offers workshops, one-on-one consultations, and practical online tips. SASS helps all students—struggling and high-achieving, 1st-year to PhD—improve their writing, learning, organization, and studying skills.
- SASS also provides English as an Additional Language (EAL) students one-on-one support in academic language (reading, writing, speaking, and listening). To request an initial appointment, complete the online form.
GAELS Athletics Tutoring Program
- Tutoring opportunities are available for all student-athletes enrolled at Queen’s University through Athletics & Recreation by contacting the Coordinator, Athlete Services. This service is FREE for all varsity-athletes who are included on the team eligibility certificate.
- Tutors are available for most first-year courses. Upper-year course tutoring availability will depend on the course. Contact email@example.com or the Athletics website for more information or to request a tutor.
- This program offers first year students the opportunity to be matched with a knowledgeable upper year mentor who will provide one-on-one support throughout the academic year. First year students can register for Q Success
- Upper year students who would like to request a mentor can apply for the Student Experience Office’s peer mentorship program.
Subject Liaison Librarians
Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC)
- The QUIC provides support for International Students in many ways. In addition to International Student Advising and lots of social activities, they provide a number of academic support services. They run an Academic English Writing Skills clinic and a weekly English Conversation Group, and host SASS workshops in academic skills. The Intercultural Awareness Certificate is also a great experience for all students looking to develop their intercultural skills. Check the QUIC Events Calendar for dates and times.
Faculty of Arts and Science
- Arts and Science Undergraduate Society (ASUS) peer tutoring is a student-organized service that partners student tutors with those looking for a tutor in a variety of Arts and Science courses. Tutoring fees are $15/hour and bursaries are available for students in financial need. Questions regarding tutoring can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign up here.
- Bounce Back is an academic support program for first-year undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts and Science who acquire a GPA below 1.6 after the fall term. Eligible students will receive an email in January inviting them to participate.
- Students who opt into the program will be matched with a trained upper-year peer mentor called a Bounce Back Coach. Coaches will work individually with each participant to help them identify the source(s) of their academic challenges, set new goals, and identify strategies to achieve those goals over the course of the winter term.
- The program runs for up to 12 weeks (January to April). More information can be found on the Student Experience Office website.
- Peer Academic Support Services (PASS) is a volunteer service that eases the transition into university and promotes academic success. Peer Advisors address issues such as scheduling, plan requirements, SOLUS, and course selection in confidential, non-judgmental advising sessions. PASS is located on the First Floor of Dunning Hall and is available Monday to Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. No appointment necessary.
Arts and Science: Departmental Support
- Biochemistry Peer Assistance Program: A program where undergraduate students can get advice from upper year students who are currently in, and understand the demands of, the program here.
- Peer tutoring services are subject to availability and can be requested through the department. Email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, tell them for which course(s) you require a tutor, and they will send you a list of potential tutors. You and the tutor will discuss your needs and their payment.
- Occasionally, the LifeSci/BCHM student council runs informal, drop-in academic support sessions.
- Queen’s University Library research by subject (Life Sciences and Biochemistry)
- Queen’s University subject librarians (Life Sciences and Biochemistry: Sandra and Sara)
- Chemistry tutors (peer support)
- Chemistry references
- Queen’s University Library research by subject (Chemistry)
- Queen’s University subject librarian (select “Chemistry” under Subject)
Drama and Music
- Queen’s University Library research by subject (Drama | Music)
- Queen’s University Library subject librarian (Drama and Music)
- ECON 110/111/112 has a free help centre staffed by MA/PhD TAs, 4 days per week in DUN227. The schedule is posted on the Economics website and in the onQ pages for the courses. The room seats about 20 comfortably and often there are two TAs working. They are all trained to ‘teach’ the gaps or go over the potentially confusing aspects of the principles course.
English Language & Literature
- Geology Help Centre (first floor of Bruce Wing in Miller Hall); student-run peer support, based on availability of peer volunteers
- Academic Advisor (Dr. Daniel Layton-Matthews)
- Queen’s University Library research by subject (Geological Sciences)
- Queen’s University subject librarian (Geological Sciences)
Global Development Studies
Languages, Literatures, & Cultures
- Philosophy resources (dictionaries, encyclopedias, summaries, indexes, reviews, philosophical texts)
- Queen’s University Library research by subject (Philosophy)
- Queen’s University subject librarian (Philosophy)
Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science
Smith School of Business (Commerce)
- The Commerce Society (ComSoc) provides a peer-based service called BrainTrust. This service provides academic support, providing one-to-one tutoring and exam review sessions. For more information email email@example.com.
- Bounce Back is an academic support program for first-year undergraduate students in the Smith School of Business (Commerce). Eligible students will be invited to participate via email. Students who opt into the program will be matched with a trained upper-year peer mentor called a Bounce Back Facilitator. Facilitators will work individually with each participant to help them identify the source(s) of their academic challenges and to set new goals and identify strategies to achieve those goals over the course of the winter term. The program runs from October to April of each year. More information can be found on the Student Experience Office website.
- October eligibility: Students who have failed one or more midterm; students who are identified as academically at risk by their professor.
- January eligibility: Students with an official GPA of 2.0 or below after the fall term and/or students who have failed one or more courses.
- Queen’s University Library research by subject (Business)
- Queen’s University subject librarian (Business)
School of Nursing
- For information on tutoring services and TA support for Nursing courses, contact Barb Bolton, Undergraduate Academic Advisor (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Bounce Back is an academic support program for first-year undergraduate students in the School of Nursing. Eligible students will be invited to participate via email. Students who opt into the program will be matched with a trained upper-year peer mentor called a Bounce Back Facilitator. Facilitators will work individually with each participant to help them identify the source(s) of their academic challenges and to set new goals and identify strategies to achieve those goals over the course of the winter term. The program runs from October to April of each year. More information can be found on the Student Experience Office website.
- October eligibility: Students who have failed one or more midterm; students who are identified as academically at risk by their professor.
- January eligibility: Students with an official GPA of 2.0 or below after the fall term and/or students who have failed one or more courses.
- Queen’s University Library research by subject (Nursing)
- Queen’s University subject librarian (Nursing)
School of Kinesiology and Health Studies
- Queen’s University Library research by subject (Kinesiology & Health Studies)
- Queen’s University subject librarian (select “Kinesiology” under Subject)
- Bounce Back is an academic support program for first-year undergraduate students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies. Eligible students will be invited to participate via email. Students who opt into the program will be matched with a trained upper-year peer mentor called a Bounce Back Facilitator. Facilitators will work individually with each participant to help them identify the source(s) of their academic challenges and to set new goals and identify strategies to achieve those goals over the course of the winter term. The program runs from October to April of each year. More information can be found on the Student Experience Office website.
- October eligibility: Students who have failed one or more midterm; students who are identified as academically at risk by their professor.
- January eligibility: Students with an official GPA of 2.0 or below after the fall term and/or students who have failed one or more courses.
Tips for international and exchange students
Welcome, international and exchange students! We are happy to have you here. International and exchange students contribute valuable perspectives and skills to Queen’s University. As you settle in here, you may need to adjust to an unfamiliar academic environment. Here are some tips to help you succeed.
TimeClass structureAssessmentSkillsHabitsRelationshipsLooking for more support?
Time: What should I know about the workload?
- The 12-week semester goes by quickly, so it is important to keep up, especially when later class materials build on what you learn earlier in the semester.
- Expect frequent assignments and readings, starting in the first week of classes, in addition to essays and midterm and final exams.
- Some assignments are worth more grades than others; distribute your work time appropriately among multiple priorities. For example, you might spend only three or four hours on something worth 5% of your final mark, but perhaps 20 hours on something worth 20%.
- Many professors have specific expectations about meeting deadlines; be aware of these.
- Look through the sessional dates to get a sense of the important dates in the semester.
- Use the course syllabus to create a course plan.
On average, expect to spend about 8-10 hours on each course every week, including time spent in class or labs and on homework. Here are some time management tools and ways to stay motivated.
Class Structure: What will my classes look like?
- There are four main kinds of courses that you might take: lectures, tutorials, seminars, and labs. Each has a different structure and purpose, but they all require regular attendance.
- Class sizes may be bigger or smaller than you are used to. Some lectures may have as many as 500 students while an upper-year seminar may have as few as six.
- You may have tutorials or labs, usually led by a teaching assistant (TA), which complement your understanding of the lecture material through marked activities, discussions, and readings.
- Understand how online systems will be used in each class and get familiar with them as soon as possible. For example, learn how OnQ works.
- Read each course’s syllabus for important information about communicating with your prof or TA, due dates and grading structure, expectations and learning objectives, etc.
SASS offers tips for success in online courses.
Assessment: How will my prof grade my work?
- Assignments may take many different forms: essays, presentations, science labs, group work, case studies, reports, problem sets, and creative products.
- You may also be marked for the quality of your participation in class: i.e., regular attendance, asking relevant questions, offering ideas, etc.
- If you are unsure how to approach assignments, talk to your prof, visit SASS, or use our Assignment Calculator.
- In addition to assignments, you are likely to have tests and midterm and final exams.
- The course syllabus or course website should tell you how much each assignment or exam is worth, and describe the professor’s expectations of your work.
Try our Grade Calculator to determine your mark in a class.
Skills: What are the academic skills I might be expected to use?
- You may be expected to do a large amount of reading in some courses. Click here for some reading and note-taking tips.
- Writing and research often take more time than you might expect—start early and get help at the Writing Centre or from a research librarian to save time.
- Math, engineering and science courses will ask you to solve math problems.
- It’s very important that you adhere to academic integrity.
You will be asked to think critically, which means analyzing, evaluating and synthesizing information, not just describing it. Speak to your professor or TA if you are unsure of their expectations.
Habits: What should I do regularly?
- Go to all your classes, labs, and tutorials, and participate: take notes, ask questions, offer your ideas, listen to others.
- Reduce distractions in class: sit near the front and turn off your phone.
- Do your homework.
- After class, write a short summary, in your own words, of key ideas from the lecture and homework.
- Learn a little every day instead of trying to learn and memorize it all just before a test or exam.
- Don’t work all the time! Take breaks. Make time for sleep, eating, exercise and fun.
Stress is a common reaction to a new environment, but you don’t have to manage it alone. If stress interferes with your daily life and school, speak to someone. Many people at Queen’s will be glad to help you.
Relationships: How can I connect with my professor, TA, classmates and other community members?
- Your professors and TA want you to succeed. Go see them during their office hours to get to know them and to ask for help. Here are some tips for communicating with them.
- In some classes you might work in groups. Here are some tips for navigating group work.
- Try to develop friendly relationships with your classmates early in the course, to make it easier to share notes, study together, and enjoy attending class.
- The Alma Mater Society and Society of Professional and Graduate Students can help you find opportunities to get involved on campus and meet people.
Download a PDF of this resource
Why a writing group?MembershipPurpose and formatManaging feedbackPractical logisticsGroup leadership and rolesAdding new members and ending the group
The ultimate goal of a thesis or dissertation writing group is to help members of the group complete the writing required for a graduate degree, and have as positive an experience as possible.
What do grad students say about the experience of writing a dissertation or thesis?
- “A writing buddy was essential to staying motivated and productive.”
- “I felt really isolated before working in a writing group. It was great to see what other students were doing, and how we shared similar struggles.”
- “My writing group [of people outside my research area] really helped make my work more coherent and improve the logical progression of my thinking, so my supervisor could focus feedback on the content itself.”
- “Writing the dissertation was such an unbelievably long process. Connecting with others helped me keep perspective, especially when a new member joined who was just starting out. I saw I had made progress, and it felt great to encourage a more junior student.”
Graduate students might create or join a writing group to:
Another type of thesis writing group is a thesis writing support group, which is often psycho educational in nature and led by a professional counsellor. This article will only focus on peer-driven groups.
There is no formula for creating a group, but here are some things to consider:
Given the different expectations in an MA thesis vs. a PhD dissertation or manuscript, it may be preferable to seek members working at the same level.
- Same research field, or different departments?
If members are in similar fields, they share a general knowledge base, which may be helpful if they offer feedback on each other’s writing. On the other hand, if members come from different fields, they may be more open to divergent interpretations or ideas, more likely to take creative risks in their thinking, and less competitive (e.g., for supervisor’s time, grants, jobs) or less concerned over intellectual property rights.
- Similar or different stages in the writing process?
Some groups prefer members to be at various stages from proposal writing to final editing, so more experienced students can mentor and encourage less experienced students. Some groups want members to be at similar stages, to share a common experience.
- Open or closed membership?
An open writing group, with members who just show up to write on a regular basis and then leave, can more readily have an open membership. These groups often pop up (and disappear) independently in departments, or through the School of Graduate Studies or the Society for Professional and Graduate Students at Queen’s.
Closed groups have a fixed and committed membership that enables trust to develop. These groups may have expectations for adding new members, duration of membership, and departing members.
- Members who are currently friends or currently unfamiliar to each other?
The person who initiates the group typically will have an influence on soliciting members. It is important that members believe they can be comfortable, trusting and respectful with each other, especially if the group will be interactive.
Depending on the purpose served, the group can be very large (60?) or rather small (6?). Other factors, like being able to find available space and a common meeting time, may influence the size of the group.
Determining purpose and format: Types of writing groups
Clarifying the writing group’s purpose and structure is critical. For more detailed information on this topic, please see the Stanford University Hume Writing Centre’s Starting an Effective Dissertation Writing Group and the University of Minnesota’s Getting the most from a writing group.
It is also important to establish the group’s boundaries. Completing a thesis or dissertation is very demanding and often challenges a student’s sense of self-worth and professional direction or ambition. A peer writing group is not a therapy group, although there may be emotional and psychological benefits to participating in a writing group.
Students with concerns for their sense of self or well-being should speak to a trusted professor, mentor or counsellor. Counsellors are available to full- and part-time students through the Queen’s School of Graduate Studies or through Student Wellness Services.
Writing groups often fall into one or more of the following categories: community-based, accountability-based, and feedback-based.
Accountability-based group members usually
- set “public” deadlines for completing specific tasks, in person, an online social media group, or a shared Google doc
- check in with each other’s progress
- acknowledge each other’s successes, and encourage each other through setbacks.
One online accountability site is Phinished.org, where writers can make pacts about how much they will finish. Students who want to “show off” their accomplishments might use 750words.com, where students earn points for daily writing and can display their badges on Facebook.
Community-based group members usually develop
- community norms for noise, conversation, internet use, food, timing, attendance, etc.
- a structure for breaks, start and end times, social chat time, and perhaps writing exercises
There are no “rules” to follow, but a format for a community-based group might include:
- A check-in from each member about events of the week, progression on goals, new barriers or issues to be resolved (maybe 2-3 minutes per member).
- An educational or problem-solving discussion of new or persistent issues (maybe up to 20 minutes). This discussion could include brainstorming solutions, an invited speaker, a group member presenting on a hot topic, or a discussion of a relevant writing technique.
- Time to set SMART writing goals for that writing session and for the upcoming week (5 min)
- Writing time (1-2 hours?). The group should agree how much time they would like to spend writing, and when they will take breaks. Breaks support focused, creative thinking. One way to use a longer writing period is to break up the time like this:
Write for 80 minutes, then break for 10 minutes
Write for 60 minutes, then break for 10 minutes
Write for 10-15 minutes to review the writing to identify issues or unclear thinking. Then, write down a question to ponder until the next writing session. Start the next session by writing a response to that question, or discuss unanswered questions with the group or thesis supervisor.
- Time to socialize after writing (maybe 15 minutes).
Every group needs to work out a format that meets the needs of the members, and is manageable and sustainable.
If your group is designed for feedback, the group
- shares their work. Some standard systems for writing, editing and collaborating online include Google Docs, OneNote (Outlook) and Dropbox
- sets expectations and norms for the amount of time any one person will spend on feedback
- determines the focus of the feedback (content vs writing style) and for when writers need to share with the group
- members specify what kind of feedback they want, and direct readers to specific concerns.
The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill offers a thorough list of questions to help feedback-based groups set expectations and norms.
In addition to the possible elements of a community-based writing group, feedback-based groups include time for writers to share their work and receive feedback. Some groups will choose to devote their time to feedback only, and save writing time for non-group time.
Writing groups usually include time for writers to share their work and receive feedback.
The following content is based on work by S. Lee and C. Golde.
Asking for feedback
Feedback groups need to consider:
- how to schedule feedback: sign-up list, regular rotation, informal approach
- whether to distribute materials in advance or present material during the group
- clarifying what writing projects might be acceptable for requesting feedback: outlines? first drafts? polished drafts? conference papers? whole works vs chapters or sub-sections?
Writers seeking feedback should offer a brief overview of the piece’s purpose, audience and key ideas, their own current assessment of it, and a specific request for structural, stylistic or other feedback. The piece should be short enough to allow the group members to review it in a reasonable time frame. Writers seeking feedback should not treat their group members as proofreaders.
Giving feedback is a skill, but it starts with intention. Are you there to support the writer or show off your own skills? Be sensitive and helpful, and remember that soon it will be your turn to hear what others think of your writing.
It is a rare opportunity for a writer to hear from others in a “safe space.” Respond with specific references to their work, using language that is clear, non-judgmental and leaves room for the writer to further explain themselves. Avoid overwhelming the writer with too much feedback. Offer praise as part of your feedback; every piece of writing has something praiseworthy about it. Speak as a thoughtful reader, not as an all-knowing judge, and stick to the type of feedback that the writer asked for.
It is an act of courage to request feedback and then listen with an open mind to what is offered regarding your writing. You may not agree immediately (or ever!) with all that you hear, but it is a privilege to have people spend time thinking about your work, so it behooves you to pay attention and sort through comments later.
To accept feedback gracefully,
- listen to the entire feedback first, and try to understand the meaning of the feedback. Write down notes and questions.
- be engaged. If anything is unclear, restate your understanding of what you thought the speaker said.
- be respectful. Try not to be too defensive. Even if a reader’s response is due to a misinterpretation of the writing, their perspective deserves attention. If several readers agree that a section is confusing, the problem probably lies in the writing.
- keep a feedback log. Keep track of the kinds of feedback you get. Identify common themes. Address problems with your writing group, or visit the Writing Center or your supervisor.
The group’s planning and organization could be determined in advance by one person who initiated the group, or they could be negotiated among members during an early meeting. Some logistics to consider:
- Where will the group meet? On campus or off? What facilities will be needed, depending on the purpose of the group ( e.g., tables, white board, data projector, multiple power outlets)? Rooms on Queen’s campus are available:
- When and how frequently will you meet?
- What are the expectations around attendance and preparation (e.g., for a feedback-based group)? What is the consequence of failing to keep the commitment?
- How can new members join, and what is the process when a member decides to leave?
- What work can be brought for feedback? Initial ideas or outlines or rough drafts or polished drafts? Research proposals? Thesis or dissertation writing only? Conference presentations? Publication submissions? Grant proposals? Job applications or CVs?
Group leadership and roles
Depending on the focus of the dissertation writing group, there may or may not need to be a leader. For example, an online accountability group like Phinished.org has a web manager rather than a leader.
A group aimed at increasing community may not require a leader, but may need someone to book rooms and communicate with members.
A feedback-based group will benefit by agreeing on a leadership or organizational model. Members may decide to have a single leader or rotate the leadership, to manage or delegate tasks such as:
- scheduling meeting times
- booking rooms
- communicating among members
- setting the agenda and facilitating the meeting (e.g., who presents work for feedback, selecting writing activities, inviting quest speakers, etc.)
- keeping the meeting on track and on time
- note-making for feedback
- bringing the cookies 🙂
- setting up and/or cleaning up the room
Adding new members and ending the group
Another logistical decision is: will the group be open or closed in membership?
New members may be added to a closed feedback-based writing group once an established member completes writing their dissertation, or no longer wishes to be part of the group. Generally, the culture of a closed group will be better maintained if a group member talks to a prospective member before inviting them to join, in terms of
- their writing goals (does this group meet their needs?)
- their ability to make the same time/space/duration/ possibly “feedback homework” commitments of the existing members
- whether they appear to be compatible with the existing members
Some groups might choose to vet prospective members for “fit” or have a trial period before the prospective new member has to officially join the group. As new members join, there usually is a period of re-adjustment and a shift in the developmental stage of the group.
Endings are inevitable, and often generate mixed feelings: “YEAH, I did it! But I’m going to miss you so much!”
Individual members of a feedback-driven group will leave as they complete their own projects or the group may disband as planned after some period of time, or just dwindle out. Ending a feedback-based or community-based thesis writing group hopefully signals great accomplishments for members.
Regardless of the reason, the end presents an opportunity for self-reflection, either individually or as a summative exercise by the whole group. Some reflective questions to consider:
- How did this group help me meet my personal goals?
- Are there ideas or work habits or activities that would be useful to include in my future large writing projects?
- What can I take away and quickly put into practice in my academic life?
- Is there unfinished work (personal or professional writing or activity) that I need to complete? For example- do I need to reduce my fear of speaking in public?
- Can I get ideas or resources from the group to help solve a particular problem before we end?
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AboutDeveloping a writing habitOrganizing and managing your graduate workManaging obstacles to writingGetting back on track
Writing, thinking and talking are related, iterative processes. Give yourself time and space for all three.
Writing, and talking with others, can help you clarify and develop your ideas, think of creative insights and get feedback.
Expect the writing to go smoothly sometimes, and badly or not at all at other times. This inconsistency is normal; don’t let it discourage you, but if you are stuck, get help from your supervisor, supportive colleagues or a writing consultant at SASS.
Academic writing isn’t linear. It involves an uneven, iterative process of becoming curious about a research question, talking about it with friends or colleagues, researching to learn more, writing to develop more questions and insights, researching more, thinking more, talking more, and writing more. When it’s going well, the experience is motivating, but when it isn’t, it can be very discouraging.
Developing a writing habit
Making writing a regular, perhaps daily, habit has a number of benefits: you will likely be more productive, more motivated, and less stressed; you will also probably become a better writer and enjoy writing more. Keep reading for tips on developing a writing habit.
- Take care of yourself: nutrition, sleep, exercise and relaxation aren’t luxuries; they make thinking and writing possible.
- Set a realistic daily goal and write it down.
- Many people rely on what Joan Bolker calls the “inspiration method,” which means sitting glued to a chair until an idea comes; most people do not do well with this method.
- Allocate a reasonable number of hours per day (we suggest two hours per day) or per week to write. Some people prefer to set a certain number of words or pages per day as a writing goal.
- Remind yourself about your writing goal: stick post-it notes on the coffee maker / bathroom mirror, tell friends, use electronic reminders, etc.
- Create a writing habit:
- Write at the same time and place every day, and precede it by the same habits (i.e., wake up, go for a walk, make a coffee and eat, then sit down to write for 2 hours).
- Writing first thing in the morning can be very effective, but it’s not for everyone!
- Do the hardest things first.
- Start with 10 minutes of free writing or perhaps mind-mapping to warm up; it’s much easier to start by committing to these 10 minutes than to two hours. You are likely to keep writing after the 10 minutes are up.
- During your writing hours, write. Don’t check something on the internet, stop to make some tea, or watch a YouTube video for three minutes. Just write.
- If you are really stuck writing about one aspect of your work, write about a different aspect. Keep writing.
- When you’re writing, avoid editing the words, paragraphs or connections between ideas, or proofreading, fact-checking, etc. The purpose is to produce words on a paper or a computer screen. Edit later. Just write, even if it’s not great-quality writing.
- Keep a piece of paper or Distraction Pad next to you, to jot down anything that you want to give your attention to—then give it your attention when your writing time is up.
- Consider rewarding yourself after you’ve met a goal, and acknowledge your progress in developing a writing habit.
- Pay attention to what works for you, and how you benefit when you write regularly; it will help motivate you.
- Record your insights or ideas when you’re not writing; keep a notebook with you or use an app on your cellphone.
- Most importantly, find and do what is most effective for you.
For more support with meeting deadlines, organizing your work, or writing, consider booking an appointment with a learning strategist or a writing consultant at SASS.
Bolker, J. (1998). Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. New York: Henry Hold and Company.
Elbow, P. (2003). Writing Without Teachers. Oxford University Press.
Pressfield, S. (2003). The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. New York: Warner Books.
Silvia, P. (2007). How To Write a Lot. Washington: American Psychological Association.
Swales, J. and Feak, C. (2004). Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Sword, H. (2012). Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Organizing and managing your graduate work
Researching and writing a dissertation is a large, complex project to manage. In the years you spend on it, you must manage time, resources, data, and yourself—often with little structure or accountability—and maintain working relationships with others on whom you depend.
This process usually involves:
- setting short-term and long-term goals with deadlines
- monitoring your progress, and adjusting goals, resources, etc. as needed
- anticipating setbacks
- delegating appropriate tasks, if it’s possible and a good use of time
- communicating effectively and regularly with your supervisor and others.
Your research and thesis or dissertation might be the first time you have managed a project of this scale and of such a high level of personal and professional importance—and you might feel unprepared. Many graduate students book learning and writing appointments at SASS to help themselves manage their work effectively. In addition, you may like to review these resources:
Tools and resources for planning your research and writing
- Use our Thesis Manager to plan your dissertation or thesis.
- Consider requesting or attending a SASS workshop on writing a research proposal, literature review, or other aspects of graduate-level academic writing.
- Some recommendations of thesis-related books and other resources from the Thesis Whisperer.
- Joan Bolker’s book, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (New York: Henry Holt, 1998) offers excellent practical advice about writing goals, protecting your writing time, breaking down large tasks into small ones, and more.
- The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth and Joseph M. Williams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) is aimed at new and experienced researchers, and addresses the process of research and writing.
- Here is an outline of the process of writing a conference, thesis or dissertation proposal from Pennsylvania State Graduate Writing Center (accessed April 2018).
- Queen’s data management resources.
- Queen’s thesis formatting suggestions.
- Queen’s citing and citation managers.
- Here is a detailed comparison chart of reference management software (University of Toronto).
- See here (accessed April 2018) for ideas and systems for tracking ideas, connections and resources.
- Consider using software such as the free generic Gantt chart to help outline tasks and required resources, set deadlines, and monitor progress.
- See these slides (accessed April 2018) for suggestions on keeping all phases of research organized, especially in computing science. Note: not all software suggestions may be available or optimal.
Managing obstacles to writing
In addition to the complex, demanding nature of writing itself, writers also face a variety of obstacles to giving it their full attention. Some common ones for graduate students include:
- Time and effort required to support relationships with family and friends
- Demands of paid work, other involvements
- Need to build professional portfolio (papers, conferences, committees, etc.)
- Distractions (noise, social media, etc.)
- Technical issues (computer meltdown, etc.)
- Physical state (hunger, fatigue, illness, etc.)
- Distracting thoughts or feelings, etc.
Some of these “obstacles” are actually important, enjoyable aspects of a whole life, sustain students through challenging times, or contribute to professional or personal wellbeing and development; other obstacles distract from the writing process without offering anything positive in return. In either case, it’s helpful to manage these obstacles, finding a balance that will help you protect your writing time. Here are some strategies you might try:
- Do what you can to manage family and social commitments. For example:
- Recruit the support of your friends and family—ask them to help you by respecting your work time and by reminding you to take breaks sometimes.
- Schedule time with family and friends, and keep your commitments. Tell your friends and family that you can be available to them during certain hours, but will be unavailable (except for emergencies) during other hours of the day.
- Anticipate important upcoming events; be prepared to alter your routine. Include unscheduled time in your week for flexibility.
- Determine how much time you have available for teaching or professional activities and develop a routine that adds those things to your day without sacrificing your writing or research time. Set boundaries; there are only 168 hours in a week.
- Manage your technology.
- Create or find a comfortable writing space that offers minimal distractions and includes all the things you need (reference materials, computer, paper, pens / pencils, etc.).
- Pay attention to when you’re working well. Do you focus best with some background noise or in total quiet? In the early morning, or later in the day? Work with your preferences.
- Identify your biggest time-wasters or distractions and have a realistic plan to deal with them. Prioritize the demands on your time, for example by using Covey’s time management matrix.
- Recognize your personal signs of distress or disengagement. Writing, research and data analysis can be isolating and lonely. Many graduate students doubt their skills and the value of their work at this stage. Speak with someone—a counsellor, your supervisor, a friend—for encouragement or advice.
- Make a plan for things you don’t have control over, including illness, family issues, unexpected requests from your supervisor, etc. For example, can you schedule some weekly time that has no tasks assigned to it, just in case? Is some of your work portable, in case you need to travel or work away from your home or office?
When writers get stuck: Getting back on track
Most graduate students encounter times when they don’t seem to be progressing in their work, or have little concrete evidence of productivity. Although such times can be an indication of unproductivity, they can also be a sign that students are engaging in richly creative or integrative thought. Know yourself well enough to tell the difference, but consider that graduate students are often unnecessarily and undeservedly self-critical, resulting in a negative emotional state that can interfere with progress. Read on for practical tips for getting unstuck.
Challenges to staying on track
Many factors can contribute to a feeling of being stuck:
- Competing demands and roles that take time away from writing and research. Graduate students are not just students in demanding programs; they are also family members, caregivers, employees, friends, members of research or professional groups, teachers, practicum supervisors or TAs or lab assistants, emerging professionals giving conference presentations and writing papers, community volunteers, and more.
- Negative emotional states about oneself or the work, such as isolation, disinterest, frustration, lack of confidence, incapacitating self-doubt, feelings of unworthiness, etc.
- Unclear direction or uncertainty about next steps.
- Incomplete understanding of the material.
- An unhelpful writing process.
Strategies for getting back on track
Set reasonable expectations of yourself
- Understand the expectations of your program and supervisor, and the terms of teaching employment, so that you can make good choices regarding your time and activities.
- Assess your personal standards of the quality and quantity of your work, and adjust your efforts accordingly. If you expect more from yourself than you do from others, consider the impact of this attitude on your work and your wellbeing.
- If you are unsure whether you are meeting the academic standards for your research area and graduate degree, compare your work to published theses or dissertations in your field, and ask your supervisor for specific feedback on the quality of both your work and your writing. The writing consultants at SASS can help too.
- Set short- and long-term goals based on what you wish to accomplish and what you wish to experience. These goals could include academic and personal goals.
- Identify small concrete actions that will help you meet your goals or overcome barriers to your goals.
- Assess the demands on your time to create realistic expectations of what you can accomplish. Mental fatigue interferes with productive thinking and writing, and quiet time enables creative problem-solving. Breaks from work are healthy and productive!
- Be kind to yourself.
- Consider this very practical set of suggestions from the University of Melbourne for graduate students who are trying to meet the requirement of “originality” in their work; these suggestions are also helpful for those struggling with academic imposter syndrome, those having difficulty seeing the value of their work or identifying the heart of a thesis, and those who don’t feel clear about academic expectations.
Give yourself some structure
- Make a weekly schedule based on 1-hour blocks if you have multiple daily commitments, or 3-hour blocks if you have a lot of unstructured time.
- Establish a regular writing habit.
- Do the hardest work during your peak concentration time; leave other tasks for less alert times.
- Use campus resources to maintain your emotional, mental and physical health. Talk to someone about your situation, feelings and possible course of action. Distress will have a negative effect on your ability to write and think creatively.
- Support your health by giving yourself 7-8 hours of sleep each night, regular nutritious meals, exercise, and time for relaxation and fun. You are a “human being,” not a “human doing”!
Get some perspective
Consider where you are in your writing, so you can respond appropriately to get back on track.
- Review your past work to re-orient yourself to your original research question or revised focus. Ask a question to direct your thinking.
- Re-establish your work routine OR take a day or two off to refresh yourself.
- Talk to a colleague to get a different point of view on your work.
- Accept discomfort as temporary, knowing it will pass.
Let stuckness motivate you to persist
Students often hit what seem like stumbling blocks in the research-learn-write cycle, where they feel as though they can’t progress because they don’t yet understand something, or aren’t sure what they want to say, or how to say it, or how it fits in with their broad structure. These threshold points are uncomfortable, but often a good sign of an imminent breakthrough. Don’t give up!
Engaging in an effective writing process (talking, thinking, writing) will help you deepen your understanding and resolve methodological or conceptual issues. Booking a writing appointment or talking to your supervisor or other colleagues can be very helpful in this process.
Try keeping a journal or file of your thoughts. At the end of a work period of reading, data analysis or writing, articulate a question or a statement that reflects something you are unsure of or wish to think more about, and write this in a journal or file. Then stop work for the time being.
As you go about the rest of your day or night, your mind will unconsciously process this topic. When you return to work, come back to what the problem, and write down your current thoughts about it.
This file will be an ongoing description of the development of your thinking on a topic, which you can use to remind yourself of your path, direction and growth, and as a focus of discussion with your supervisor or a research or writing group.
Improve your current knowledge base
If you are stalled in your writing because you lack understanding of part of your subject matter:
- Use a mind-map to outline material on your topic, to create a hierarchy of information or concepts based on key topics, sub-topics, sub-sub-topics, etc. Think of the map as being like a table of contents, rather than a detailed summary.
- Based on the mind map, identify gaps in your knowledge or research, and decide which gaps ought to be filled and which gaps might not matter for this particular project.
- Make practical decisions about the scope of your project, and identify any additional learning that you need to do. It can be very helpful to discuss your choices with your supervisor or experienced colleagues at this point.
- Develop your understanding of key material, as you need to. Speak to your supervisor for direction if you need it.
Re-engage with your work or writing
Online learning is increasingly common at Queen’s, where nearly 3000 students take courses online every year. Whether you’re taking a course entirely online or one that combines on-campus tutorials with internet-based discussion and lectures (a “blended” course), online learning requires special skills.
Online courses are just as intellectually challenging as on-campus courses. You’ll still be asked to read articles and books, complete assignments on time, write tests and exams, and display academic integrity. But in online courses, you may find that your professors and classmates seem distant or absent, that your written communication skills are called on more regularly, and that your ability to motivate yourself to work independently is challenged.
This guide is just an introduction to the keys to success in online courses. You may find our modules on time management and motivation and procrastination useful. If this is your first university course, or you’re returning to education after a long time away, try reading our Academics 101 guide. If you need one-on-one help, SASS offers learning strategies and writing appointments by telephone or on campus.
Keys to successGroup work & discussion boardsWhere do I go from here?
What are the keys to success in online courses?
Review the course syllabus.
As in any other course, your first job is to read the syllabus, which you should find on the course homepage (generally through your onQ portal, although some faculties use different online platforms). If there’s anything that isn’t clear or that you don’t understand, make sure you ask your professor or TA for help. Here are some guidelines for communicating with professors and TAs.
Understand the platform.
Spend time exploring the layout and organization of your online course. Refer to the syllabus, explore menus, and ask questions if you’re unsure. Avoid missing an important resource or losing marks on a quiz because you didn’t know where to find it on the course page or how it worked. You may be asked to write quizzes and exams entirely online, so if your prof plans to do a dry run of an online exam (i.e., run one for no marks), take it. It’s a great opportunity to understand how the real exam will be administered. Prepare for online exams in the same way as you would an on-campus exam.
Be an active participant.
Developing a learning community is vital for success in an online course. Think of discussion boards as virtual class discussions. They’re a chance to share ideas with peers and show professors your critical thinking. Even if the professor doesn’t comment, she is reading the thread to make sure the conversation is staying on track. Making connections with your peers can be more difficult in an online course, but it’s still important. Use online tools and helpful apps to connect with your peers and instructors. Ask questions, share ideas, engage!
You’re responsible for all of your own learning in all university classes. In an online course, where you may never meet your teachers or classmates, that’s even more true. It’s up to you to do readings, watch video lectures, complete assignments on time, and work towards mastering the course content. That might take, on average, 8-10 hours a week—more if you’re taking a condensed summer course. You might find our time management guide helpful.
Contrary to many students’ expectations, online courses are not easier because they appear to easily fit into any schedule. They require plenty of work and organization! Treat your online course just as you would an on-campus course by scheduling time to “attend” regularly—3-4 times a week—and to keep up with readings and homework.
- Manage your time
Good time management skills will help you get started, stay on task, and finish on time. That’s especially true when grades are increasingly based on a large number of small tasks, rather than a single assignment and exam. If you’re already using a weekly schedule, make sure to slot in times every week to check in with your online course to ensure you’re aware of approaching deadlines and have apportioned sufficient time to tackle them. Professors also post course updates online, so regularly logging in will ensure you’re aware of important news.
- Log in and accomplish specific tasks
Reviewing the syllabus and your course pages will help you know what you have to do and when you have to do it. Then, log in regularly (two or three times a week) with specific tasks in mind each time. Think of it like a regular on-campus class: sometimes you attend a lecture, sometimes you block off time for homework or reading, and sometimes you participate in a tutorial or group discussion.
For example this schedule illustrates a possible week’s schedule. In total, the plan below allows the student to spend 10.5 hours on coursework:
||Start week’s readings (2 hours)
||Finish week’s readings (1.5 hours)
||Write week’s notes
Complete weekly quiz (1.5 hours)
||Write group project (1 hour)
||Edit group project writing (1 hour)
||Watch weekly video lecture (2 hours)
||Write three discussion board posts
Check in with group members for midterm project (2 hours)
Try planning and sticking to a schedule like this one. Your specific tasks might change over the course of the term, but if you make the commitment to log in regularly, you’ll equip yourself for success.
Expect the unexpected.
Be prepared for glitches and issues; that’s just the nature of technology. Have a back-up plan and keep copies of your work, even after you’ve submitted it. If your computer fails, you can use the computers at Stauffer Library. If you can’t get there, contact your professor to let them know about your problem.
Group work can be tricky in general, but even more so when you’re working online and can’t meet with your team in person. Since professors frequently set group assignments in online courses, try referring to the SASS guide to group work or using a helpful app (e.g., Slack, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc.) to help you manage group work online. When using apps, make sure your entire group agrees to use whichever app you choose and that you all check regularly for updates to chat threads, comments on shared work, etc.
The following was developed based on the suggestions and strategies in the University of Leicester’s resource for seminar and tutorial participation.
In an online course, you’ll often be asked to explain thoughts and communicate with others solely in writing. Many online courses make participation in a discussion board or forum mandatory. You may be asked to post regularly, comment on others’ ideas, or pose questions about course topics. If this is a requirement, make sure to read your syllabus carefully for your professor’s expectations about what you’ll need to contribute. Participating in fruitful discussions is also a great way to connect with classmates and teachers whom you may never have met in person.
To ensure you are getting the most out of the discussion board format, think of your responsibility as a 3-step process: preparation, discussion, and follow-up.
Keep up with the required coursework (e.g., readings, weekly quizzes) so you’ll be able to understand, analyse, and meaningfully comment in the discussion. In advance of posting anything, try:
- summarizing the main ideas from that week’s readings and video lectures in your own words. Use our guide to reading and notemaking for help.
- brushing up on relevant topics from previous weeks when necessary.
- keeping a list of topics that would make good discussion board posts or that relate to the week’s key themes: thoughts or questions you have; tricky or unsubstantiated issues; topics you found especially interesting or surprising.
What to say
You may be nervous about engaging in public discussion, in person or online. It can feel like there’s a lot of pressure to show the professor you’re a great student, but that’s not what academic discussion is for: the idea of the discussion is to reflect on, challenge, or constructively add to others’ ideas. If you have a thought or a question about the material, someone else may share your ideas—and they’ll be grateful when you post them. Try the following strategies:
- Reading the whole discussion before you add a comment. It’s much easier to join a conversation if you’ve been listening long enough to know what people are talking about and what’s been said.
- Adding simple and constructive ideas to a complex discussion is okay. Generally, the best discussions don’t arrive at an answer immediately. They take time to explore different avenues first, so it’s okay if you don’t have all of the answers straight away.
- Sharing responsibility with your classmates. Don’t dominate or avoid the discussion boards—find a balance between leading and standing aside for others.
- Being positive and respectful of others’ opinions and interpretations of the material.
Adhering to the following strategies will ensure your posts remain on topic, insightful and appropriate:
Link your comments and posts to what others have said, to show you’re following and building on the discussion, not just interjecting with unconnected thoughts. Use names and short, direct quotes to make it clear to whom/what you’re referring.
Agreeing with your classmates is a nice way to start. Try something like “I agree with Will that…” or “Will makes a good point about…” Having shown where you agree, develop the discussion by adding a new connection, a point of disagreement, or showing the idea in a new context. For example:
“Yes, I agree with Will that Said was taken out of context in that case. The same is true of another text we read…”
Adopting the observation strategy involves commenting on the state of the discussion as a whole, showing that you’re appreciative of all the efforts your fellow discussants are making and that you can take a broader view of the material. For example:
“We began by discussing Noonuccal, but now we’ve moved away from that…”
“It feels like our discussion of this week’s reading has highlighted some of the key course concepts. For example…”
Offer alternative views
It can be tricky to disagree with other students, but presenting a well-reasoned alternative viewpoint shows your engagement with the material. Don’t be afraid to disagree with someone, so long as you remain civil and explain your reasoning. Start by showing you understand the point that was being made, then explain why you disagree. The explanation is crucial: it will show you’re not just arguing, you’re engaging in critical thinking, which demonstrates real understanding of your course.
e.g., “You said that Vygotsky’s theories remain relevant for today’s teachers, but doesn’t that contradict with…”
Outstanding students try to make new points, direct the conversation, and bring other people into the discussion. Explaining the logic behind why you are trying to shape the discussion will ensure that you’re not just cutting other students off, but trying to lead the discussion towards a new and interesting place.
e.g., “I think we need to look more closely at the impact of…because…” or “What Carmen said earlier about lateral violence was really interesting, since… Do you think that..?”
How to say it
Online communication has a reputation for bringing out the worst in people. The lack of face-to-face interaction can make you feel anonymous, granting permission to behave differently from how you would otherwise. That means it’s important to participate in online discussions with a professional tone—that means both what you say and how you say it.
Remember that a discussion board is an academic environment. You are being graded in part on how you interact and communicate your ideas. Remember that once you’ve pressed send on your comment, you can’t take it back. Spend time carefully thinking about content and tone before making your comments public. The following rules usually help:
- You should always be respectful of your classmates, your professor, and the material you are working with.
- Find out if your professor has suggested a code of conduct or posted a guide to communication. Follow it.
- Try to remain objective and don’t get personal. Comment on course content, not the person expressing an opinion.
- If you feel yourself getting upset, take a break to calm down before responding. Read over your post before submitting to make sure you’re saying what you mean to say.
- Use the strategies in the table above to keep the discussion on track and defuse potential conflict before it escalates.
If you’re struggling with how to express your thoughts in online forums, contact the Writing Centre at SASS.
Depending on the purpose of the discussion board communications, your understanding of the course material may be enhanced and/or you may wish to re-examine or extend your readings on a particular topic. Be sure to keep track of any connections, relationships, reinterpretations, problem solving methods, or analyses that require follow-up.
Finally, remember that in an academic environment, you are subject to academic integrity—even if it’s on a discussion board. You cannot use your classmate’s thoughts or words without proper citations. (See OWL Purdue’s citation style chart for an example of how to cite discussion board posts in APA.)
Where do I go from here?
All of SASS’s services are available to students taking online courses. Telephone appointments with writing consultants and learning strategists can be booked online, so you never need to feel like you’re alone.
The following resources are useful guides to some of the content discussed on this page:
Queen’s provides extensive support to both online and on-campus students. The following services may be of use:
Online courses might seem like a challenge, especially if you’ve been out of school for a while, you’re juggling lots of other commitments, or you’re unused to using online tools for communication and study. Try adopting some of the habits outlined in this guide to ensure you’re in top shape for the course and, as ever, if you have questions, just ask—the staff at SASS are a great first port of call!
SASS has delivered engaging workshops to Queen’s graduate and undergraduate students, TAs, and faculty since 1986. More than 5000 participants attend our workshops every year.
Please choose one of the following:
Request a workshop
Any course instructor or group of students at Queen’s may request a SASS workshop.
Workshop request form
Here are our three types of requested workshops and the topics they cover:
Writing and Academic Skills
SASS professional staff deliver practical workshops for Queen’s students across all faculties, first-year to PhD level, on the academic skills critical to student success. Whether for a second-year Biochemistry class, a fourth-year History seminar, a group of PhD students in Political Studies, or the TAs you supervise, our workshops will enhance students’ writing skills, learning strategies, and understanding of academic integrity.
We design your workshop to address the particular academic issues facing your students. Our workshops make clear to students how to:
- develop a thesis or argument
- structure a paper
- paragraph with skill
- integrate sources well
- edit for concision and clarity
- produce various types of writing, such as a literature review
- give seminar or conference presentations
- manage time
- prepare for exams
- avoid procrastination
- read critically
- take effective notes in lectures or from textbooks
- approach other writing and learning challenges, at your request.
To ensure SASS can meet your needs, please provide a first and second preference for the date of your requested session, ideally with two weeks’ notice.
Please complete a workshop request form. A workshop coordinator will contact you to discuss the request.
Academic Integrity Workshop
The academic integrity workshop, delivered by professional staff, provides students with detailed information about how to demonstrate academic integrity using sound scholarly practices. Students learn not only how, but why scholars avoid plagiarism. Students will learn the practices that indicate skilled academic integrity: paraphrasing, quoting, and knowing when and what to cite. This workshop gives students all they need to know to submit their work with confidence in their own academic integrity. Request an academic integrity workshop.
Our training for Teaching Assistants and Markers will enhance their ability to provide effective feedback on student writing. Please fill in our online workshop request form to arrange a session for your TAs or Markers, or to find out about a scheduled session in which your TAs/Markers can participate.
We design workshops to address TAs’ particular needs. Our workshops make clear to TAs how to:
- establish goals for marking
- apply strategies to ensure consistency, fairness and efficiency
- find and use appropriate resources
- give constructive feedback
- prioritize issues in assignments.
Here are a few testimonials from faculty who have invited us for in-class workshops:
“Your presentation was just perfect for the class–and really brought out all the different aspects of doing a literature review that are sometimes so hard to make explicit.” – Dr. Mick Smith, Environmental Studies
“Your presentation was really well considered, thoughtful, open minded. Your good humour and willingness to consider alternative viewpoints were very welcomed by… students who are [weary] of being lectured to.” – Dr. Jan Winton, Fine Art
“The students all commented on how much they got out of it, and I am delighted that we have been furnished with a common vocabulary to identify and talk about some of their writing problems.” – Dr. Rebecca Manley, Department of History
Attend a workshop
Every fall and winter term, SASS offers scheduled workshops on a variety of topics for both graduate and undergraduate students. These workshops are delivered by professional staff and/or SASS peer volunteers, depending on the content and audience. See below for our current offerings, or view workshops in the SASS event calendar.
All workshops are in Stauffer 121 unless otherwise noted.+
|Workshop Title and Description
From B to A: How to Improve Your Grades This Year Workshop
How can changing your study habits – managing your time, planning your work, setting goals, reading efficiently – improve academic performance? Our peers will help you produce a study plan to hit your targets this semester.
Location: Stauffer Library room 121
|Wednesday, January 9
||1:30pm – 2:20pm
|Reading Faster, Reading Better Workshop
Did you struggle with masses of textbooks, articles and other readings last semester?
Wondering how to read fast enough to succeed? Learn how to approach your course readings strategically and efficiently with advice from Student Academic Success Services
Location: Stauffer Library room 121
|Thursday, January 10
||1:30pm – 2:20pm
|Taking Notes From Lectures in Class and Reading Workshop
Lectures might seem like a blur: everything’s too complicated, explained too fast, and you just forget everything afterward anyway. Our notetaking class will help you pay attention to the most important parts of the lecture and your readings, organize your information in an effective way, and show you how to work from lecture and reading material when you’re writing assignments or revising for exams.
Location: Stauffer Library room 121
|Friday, January 11
||1:30pm – 2:20pm
|Reading Faster, Reading Better Workshop @ QUIC
Did you struggle with masses of textbooks, articles and other readings last semester? Wondering how to read fast enough to succeed? Learn how to approach your course readings strategically and efficiently with advice from Student Academic Success Services.Location: QUIC, Mitchell Hall, 2nd floor
|Monday, January 14
||1:30pm – 2:20pm
|Speak with Confidence: Presentation & Tutorial Skills (Workshop)
Giving presentations and participating confidently in class can be scary. What are professors looking for, why do they ask you to give presentations, and how can you speak with confidence and clarity? We’ll show you some simple but powerful strategies to overcome anxiety, speak with confidence, and boost your presentation and participation grades.Location: Stauffer Library room 121
|Wednesday, January 23
||1:30pm – 2:20pm
|Math Problem Solving Workshop
Got math? Join our workshop on solving math problems. Using actual worked problems, we’ll help you learn to recognize and apply underlying concepts, express real-world problems in mathematical language, and understand the hows and whys of the problem-solving process.Key concepts include exponential decay, unit conversion, dominant eigenvalues, vector calc and maybe even a little modelling!Everyone welcome.Co-presented by math whiz Yuliya Nesterova and learning strategist Claire Hooker.Location: Stauffer Library room 121
|Thursday, January 24
||1:30pm – 2:20pm
|Workshop Title and Description
Everyone procrastinates, but what can you do about it? Join our team of learning assistants for a drop-in consultation in Speaker’s Corner, Stauffer Library, to produce a personalized anti-procrastination plan.Location: Speaker’s Corner – Stauffer Library – Ground floor of Stauffer Library, next to the Writing Centre. (North end)
|Sunday, February 3
||12:00pm – 5:00pm
|Revolutionize Your Writing WorkshopHow can improved writing skills improve your thinking – and your grades? We’ll work on the higher-level skills that academic writing requires, showing you practical strategies to incorporate at any stage of the writing process and in any discipline.
Location: Stauffer Library room 121
|Wednesday, February 6
||1:30pm – 2:20pm
|Improve Your Writing for Undergrads
How can improved writing skills improve your thinking – and your grades? We’ll work on the higher-level skills that academic writing requires, showing you practical strategies to incorporate at any stage of the writing process and in any disciplineLocation: (QUIC) Queen’s University International Centre
|Friday, February 8
||1:30pm – 2:20pm
|Perfecting Your Writing: Editing Strategies for Academic Writing
Advanced editing strategies ensure your writing is what professors are after: concise, clear, and critical.Join us to discover how to edit and rewrite your work in any subject. Bring your laptop and something to work on!Location: Stauffer Library room 121
|Monday, February 11
||1:30pm – 2:20pm
|Ace That Midterm! (Workshop)
Did midterm season leave you a mess in the fall? How do you know what to study (and what to leave out)? When should you begin? How can you write a test effectively? We’ll help you prep and enter midterm season with confidence.Location: Stauffer Library room 121
|Tuesday, February 12
|Make the Most of Reading Week: Scheduling & Advice Drop-InAs you look towards the assignments piling up for the end of the semester and wonder how you’ll be able to catch up on the material you’ve missed, Reading Week is a great opportunity to get ahead or back on track.
Our Peer Learning Assistants will work with you to produce a for the next week.
Location: Stauffer Library room 121
Thursday, February 14
Location: Stauffer Library room 121
Thursday, February 25
|Workshop Title and Description
|Catching Up! (Workshop)
Most students find that they fall behind in one or more courses. It’s never too late to get back on track, so our Peer Learning Assistants have designed this class to answer your questions and produce a plan of action.Location: Stauffer Library room 121
|Tuesday, March 12
|Editing & Improving Your Writing Workshop
Most students find that they fall behind in one or more courses. It’s never too late to get back on track, so our Peer Learning Assistants have designed this class to answer your questions and produce a plan of action to see you through to the end of the semester.
Location: Stauffer Library room 121
|Wednesday, March 20
|Exam Prep: Your Questions Answered Drop-In Event
Drop in for 5 minutes and learn:
– how to study effectively
– common study mistakes
– where to find practice questions and resources.
Location: Speaker’s Corner – Stauffer Library – Ground floor of Stauffer Library, next to the Writing Centre. (North end)
|Saturday, March 30
|Get It Done ! Drop-in Study Event
As the assignments pile up and exams loom, you’re probably thinking: how am I supposed to get this much work done without catered food, scheduled breaks, and the help of the pros?
We are too! So we’re inviting you to GET IT DONE: a day of supported studying and fun in Ban Righ Dining Hall, brought to you by Student Academic Success Services.
Bring your schoolwork and working minds, because we’ll have everything you need for success, including drinks and food, a comfy study spot, and a team of trained writing and learning assistants to improve your academic work.
Location: Ban Righ – Dining Hall
|Sunday, March 31
|Workshop Title and Description
|Multiple Choice Exam Success Workshop
1000 decisions to make in just three hours? SASS’ peers can help you prepare for and write multiple choice exams in any subjectLocation: Stauffer Library room 121
|Wednesday, April 3
|Essay Exam Success Workshop
Dealing with essay exams can be tricky: how do you produce a complex and clear argument in just a few minutes?
We’ll show you how to revise, how to practice, and how to ace the exam.
Location: Stauffer Library room 121
|Thursday, April 4
|Build Your Exam Study Schedule Drop-In (Vic Hall)
Learn how to schedule adequate time for studying for each of your final exams – no matter how many you might have!
A Peer Learning Assistant will take you through the process step-by-step and answer your questions about revising, catching up and writing exams.
Location: Victoria Hall Lobby
|Friday, April 5
Request a residence presentation
Dons! Are you looking for a fun and effective way to improve your students’ performance in school? Are they drowning in distractions? Wrestling with reading and writing, frustrated by a lack of focus, or stressed by exam season? Request a Residence Presentation!
SASS’s academic skills presentations are simple, one-hour sessions tailored to Queen’s students’ needs. Peer volunteers will prepare the session, deliver it to your floor, and help you with follow-up programming afterwards.
There are six residence presentations to choose from:
So Much to Do, So Little Time
Time management may not sound glamorous, but it’s the bedrock of good study habits for students taking a full course load, participating in extracurriculars and trying to lead a full social life to boot. PLAs will show your students how to manage their expectations, use their time efficiently, and stay healthy while doing it.
This session is appropriate at any time of year. If your students are talking about being overly busy, struggling with finding enough time to sleep, eat and get their work done, this is the presentation you need.
Reading, Listening, and Remembering
Piling through hundreds of pages of dense reading is a tough ask before you factor in the hours of lectures that students attend each week. Processing that material – how to stay focused, prioritize, and remember everything on exam day – is easier with the techniques we’ll teach you in this workshop.
This session is best run between the beginning and middle of the semester. Signs that it might be appropriate include students spending hours on lengthy readings, or complaining about not understanding lectures or complex subject material.
With all the distractions around us, it’s hard to buckle down and get things done. Everyone procrastinates, so we’ll help your students discover the underlying causes of their own procrastination, then develop a personalized plan to stay motivated and focused.
You’ll probably hear students talking about procrastination all year, but this presentation is most effective when run in the middle of a semester. Students will be prepped for the busy end of semester when most deadlines fall.
Writing the Right Way
(NEW in Winter 2018!) Producing written assignments at university can be a mystery. What are professors looking for? How can students pore through readings, produce an appropriate argument, and express themselves according to the demands of academic style? Writing the Right Way will show your students how to answer these questions for any assignment. The talk can be tailored to either science or arts students.
Run this presentation in about week four or five of semester. We will adjust the content according to the semester: fall term workshops focus on basic skills; winter term workshops on identifying and addressing concerns from first semester feedback. Request the presentation if your students have many assignments (including lab reports) coming up, if they’re struggling to understand written feedback, or if they discuss struggling to get started on written tasks.
Study Smarter, Not Harder
What makes a successful student? Innate intelligence? Long hours of work? During this presentation, your students will rethink what goes into achieving a top GPA, reflect on their own study habits, and discover a mix of approaches to improving academic performance.
Try requesting this session in second semester when students are reflecting on what went well (or not so well) during the previous term.
How do you prepare for five exams in a week? How do you remember everything in the course? What’s the best way to approach a multiple choice test or an essay in exam conditions? How do you deal with nerves? PLAs will take your students through a process of planning, reviewing and writing the perfect exam.
Try to organize this session one or two weeks before midterms or the exam period to give your students plenty of time to put what they’ve learned into practice. Put in your request early; we get very busy during exam season!
Email the program coordinator, Ian Garner, with your questions or for suggestions: email@example.com
What if I’m interested in other academic programming?
Email Ian for more information on the following program ideas:
- Try running a regular study group or session for your students. We can help make sure your sessions are tailored to your students’ needs.
- Passive programming is a great way to develop your students’ understanding of good study strategies. We can provide content and material to produce a great passive program focused on academic skills.
- SASS runs academic skills events across campus throughout the semester. Why not bring your students to a suitable event?
- Accompany your students–or volunteer to help at–Get It Done, our all-day drop-in study marathon. The event takes place once per semester (in late November and March).
Download a PDF of this resource
Working with TAsMeet your professorsTroubleshootingContacting your professorEmail etiquette
Working with TAs
Teaching or Lab Assistants are usually graduate students who assist professors with specific tasks. In large classes, they are a connection between undergrads and professors.
- Ask them how they want to be addressed. Even though they may be close in age to you, they may prefer some professional distance.
- Be polite when contacting TAs by email.
- Understand their role: TAs may lead tutorials, mark papers or exams, or hold office hours to answer questions.
- Ask for feedback on tests or assignments. Show your TA that you want to know how to improve (vs. criticize their grading).
- Respect their wishes about how and when you may contact them.
Meet your professors during their office hours.
Professors want you to do well, to enjoy the course, and to develop an interest in their research field.
- clarify difficult content after you have read the notes or text, attended the lecture, or tried the homework.
- encourage you when you may be feeling overwhelmed by the course.
- explain assignments after you’ve tried to understand the purpose, format, or expectations.
- stimulate your interest in a subject area. your professor has a research area they are often deeply committed to. Ask them about it and see if you share their passion.
- be a reference for a job, a graduate school application or a research proposal, if they know you first.
- hire you for research help, which builds your practical experience.
Set a goal of speaking outside class with each professor, at least once each term.
- Engage in the course: read your course syllabus for information on course objectives, topics, and key dates.
- Ask questions and offer ideas in class, so the professor knows who you are.
- Look for opportunities to talk with your professors outside of class, especially if you don’t speak in class.
- Request feedback on how you are doing, and how to deepen your understanding or improve your grades.
- Try to learn more about your professors: their research interests, other courses they teach, or their community involvement.
- Attend talks or academic events at which your professors will be present.
- Offer professors or TAs positive and constructive feedback on the courses you are taking with them.
- Respect the professional boundary between professors and students.
For more on how to establish good communication and enjoy a productive working relationship with your supervisor, see this resource from the School of Graduate Studies.
Contacting your professor
- Check your course outline for information about professors’ office hours, email, or phone preferences.
- If possible, inform them in advance about the purpose of any meetings you request.
- Identify yourself by name, course, and section.
- Before requesting an extension on an assignment, check the syllabus for answers to all logistical questions. For example, are marks deducted? When? How many? Are there exceptions?
- Communicate clearly and concisely. Like you, professors are busy.
- Be polite and formal in your interactions, unless you are invited to be informal.
- Do not expect an immediate response to your request. Professors might not check emails at night or on weekends.
- Respond promptly to their messages.
(Correct option in bold!)
1. Fill in the subject line with:
- absent from MATH121 on Monday
2. Start an email to an instructor with:
- Hi Kim
- Hello Prof. (or Ms./Mr.) Young
3. Identify yourself, saying:
- Nothing. They can read the email address.
- I’m a student.
- I’m in your MATH121 (Section B) course.
4. State your request:
- please send the homework solutions
- I was sick and missed class. Any solutions handed out?
- I was sick and missed class. I got notes from a friend, but I have a few questions. Can we please meet?
5. Sign off with:
- Greg Jones
- Thanks for your time, Greg Jones (Student #15869923)