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Academics 101

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.

Academics 101 (PDF)
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):

pyramid of bloom's taxonomy

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.

Thinking level

Activities that support this thinking level

Specific strategies

(see Learning Resources for details on these)

Memorizing 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.”
Understanding 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.”
Conceptual thinking
(analyzing, applying)
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?”
Evaluative thinking 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:

Class time

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.)

Reading skills

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?

Ask yourself:

  • 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 academic reading and note taking.

Writing skills

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 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.

Credit courses in writing are also available through Arts and Science Online.

students working in a groupGroup work

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!

bloom's taxonomy, annotated

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:

Feeling overwhelmed?

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.

Week One

  • 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.

Week Two

  • 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.

Week Three

  • 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.

Week Four

Week Five

Week Six

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!

Read More

SOCY 122 essay guidelines

Return to Writing Resources Download a PDF of this resource

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.

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”

Cover Pages

Cover Pages

  • 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:


  • 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.

Three ways to embed citations

There are three acceptable ways to do textual references in ASA style:

  1. According to Howell (1993), the divorce rates can be explained by social… (34).
  2. The divorce rate can be explained by social…(Howell 1993:34).
  3. According to Howell (1993:34), the divorce rates can be explained by social …

Avoid placing citations in the middle of sentences. Arrange your words so that the citations come at the beginning (e.g., Howell (1993) explains the divorce rate…”) or the end of the sentence. Note that the punctuation always comes after the bracket, but the quotation marks for a quote occur before the bracket, e.g., “Sentence you are quoting” (Smith 1980:24).

(ASA has given up the long-standing practice of putting commas after the author’s name in the in-text citations.) Note there is no P. for page in these citations.

ASA style guides state that page numbers are used only when directly quoting from the work or referring to specific passages. For first year students, we request that students always include the page numbers, even for their paraphrased material, while upper year students can follow the official ASA guidelines.

If the work you are using is online HTML and has no page numbers, you can go with simple (author date) or (author date: N.P.) N.P. stands for no page.  However, most PDF files will have the proper page numbers for online material, especially journal articles.

Other citation rules including punctuation

More Rules

If the author’s name is in the text, follow it with the publication year in parentheses: Thomson and Biers (1995) debated the issue…

If the author’s name is not in the text, enclose the last name and year in parentheses: Suburban growth has slowed (Paulan 1989:45-60).

If the page number is to be included it follows the year of publication after a colon: Braverman (1992:147) writes that…

If the information is cited from more than one source by the same author, enclose the years of publication, separated by a comma, in parentheses:  Dingwall (1951, 1958) suggests…

If the information is cited from more than one source by the same author published in the same year, distinguish them by using letters, e.g., (Trigger 1968a:78).

If a work cited was reprinted from a version published earlier, list the earliest publication date in brackets, followed by the publication date of the recent version used: …Veblen ([1899] 1979) stated that…

When citing two different authors with the same last name, use identifying initials, as in (L. Beard 1988).

When you cite more than one source, alphabetize citations by authors’ last names within parentheses and separate with a semi-colon, as follows: … to parallel the rise and fall of working class militancy (Andersen 1987; Leaky 1977; Vintner and Parks 1991).

If you wish to cite a study referred to in the source you are using and you have not read the original yourself, you can note it as follows: (McNeil cited in Hamilton 1996:23). This indicates that you are reading Hamilton and she is citing McNeil on page 23 of her book. This is the most common question first year students ask therefore it is highlighted in RED!

If there are two authors, include both names: A contemporary study (Carr and Ventelli 1986)…

In citations with three authors, all authors’ last names should be listed the first time the reference is cited, but thereafter substitute et al. for the second and third authors’ names. First citation: (Smith, Garcia and Lee 1954); subsequent citations: (Smith et al. 1954).

In the first in-text citation of sources with four or more authors, use the first author’s last name and the words et al., as in (Parker et al. 1995). List all names only when et al. would cause confusion.
For unpublished materials, use “forthcoming” to indicate material scheduled for publication. For dissertations and unpublished papers, cite the date: (Smith, forthcoming 2011).

For institutional authorship, supply minimum identification from the beginning of the reference item, as in (Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans 1991:98).

Ampersands (&) should not be used as a substitute for “and” in citations and references.

Use of ibid.

  • The use of (ibid.) is encouraged when you are citing the same author many times in the same paragraph. The first time you give the citation in full (Jones 1998:23). The subsequent times you may say (ibid.) or if the page number changes (ibid:24). Ibid. refers to the previous reference, so any time a different author’s citation is used you must start the process all over again.

Miscellaneous Style and Grammar Matters

Referencing Problems

Referencing Concerns

Do not cite your professor, teaching assistant, or high school teachers. These are not considered research sources. Furthermore, a research paper requires effort and use of the library. It is NOT acceptable to have only open web based sources in your reference page. Never use Wikipedia, and only use Google Scholar as a last resort. However, online peer reviewed journals found on the library subscription platforms are acceptable “online sources.” Abstracts do not count as articles for the purpose of your research essays; you must find the actual article. Book reviews are also not appropriate research sources, although you may choose to find the book being reviewed. Using the web to do research can be helpful, but you must take care that the web-based sources you use are legitimate. Use only reputable organizations and take note of the fact that many organizations online will have a very clear political position that they are supporting. While students are encouraged to use sociology encyclopedias and dictionaries to help them understand their topics students are encouraged to move away from this type of reference material when citing in their essays. It is important to attempt to define your terms based on the sources you are using rather than a dictionary definition. The Annual Review of Sociology is a helpful journal for picking essay topics but note that these are large overarching literature reviews and you will have to narrow your focus.

Evidence vs. Example

Evidence versus Example

All forms of journalism including newspapers, magazines, blogs, investigative TV shows, music, etc. are all useful ways to find examples of the issues you may be discussing in your paper. They do not, however, constitute evidence.  Pop culture is not considered academic evidence; it is only used as example.



Conducting interviews is not permissible without an ethics review process and this will not be granted to first year students. If you want to incorporate material of this nature it must be stated as personal experience. You may not quote other students and you should not be asking other people questions without going through the ethics review process.

Avoid Vague, Unfocused Thesis Statements

Avoid Vague, Unfocused Thesis Statements

A vague thesis statement often results in a paper that is unfocused and never reaches meaningful conclusions. You should avoid putting issues in the thesis statement that are never followed up on, and avoid putting issues in the paper that are not accounted for in the thesis statement. The thesis statement is the most important and difficult piece of writing. Your thesis paragraph sets up a “contract” between you and your  reader and should indicate the specific issues(s) that will be analyzed in the paper (i.e., what is to be argued) and the direction that the essay will take (i.e., how it will be argued). You should endeavour to answer the question “So what?” What is the social significance of the issue at hand? A thesis statement is not the same thing as a topic. A topic is broad and a thesis is very specific. Please consult the Writing Centre web page under the “Writing Resources” → “Handouts” tabs for more information on proper thesis construction.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the thesis indicate a specific problem or question?
  • Is the thesis sufficiently developed?
  • Does the thesis offer an evaluation?
  • Is the thesis arguable? Is it too broad or too narrow?
  • Is the thesis too obvious or too obscure?
  • Is the thesis clearly expressed?

A thesis is:

  • NOT a description (This essay will discuss the wage gap and the way it affects Canadian women ….)
  • NOT a statement that is self-evident (Understanding the wage gap is important …)
  • NOT a statement of fact (The wage gap continues to affect women in the Canadian workforce …)
  • NOT a question (Does the wage gap still exist in today’s Canadian workforce?)
  • NOT a matter of personal opinion or preference that cannot be argued against (Men have had their share of the pie long enough …)
  • NOT a broad generalization (Men are from Mars; women are from Venus …)


If you use footnotes, their purpose is to discuss any matter, which cannot appear in the text without constituting a digression. Where the footnote’s purpose is documentation, the reference must be sufficiently full that an interested reader can go with complete certainty to the same place in the same source to check the accuracy and fullness of the reference. A footnote to text material is shown by a superscript number or figure, which should follow a word or sentence to which it pertains. It follows the word without a space, but comes after the punctuation marks. Footnotes are to be numbered consecutively. The separation between the footnotes and the body of the text should be marked by a line across the page. Each footnote takes paragraph indentation and should be single spaced.



Paragraphs should be at least three lines long and have a beginning, a middle, and an end – with a point clearly made somewhere in them. You need smooth transitions between paragraphs. Paragraph transitions technically occur at the beginning of the new paragraph, not at the end of the old one. Relate paragraphs to each other through introductory and (if needed) concluding sentences. Avoid dealing with too many ideas in one paragraph. Hence, break up long paragraphs (most paragraphs should be less than half a page in length). Do not introduce new ideas or information in your concluding paragraph. Use your conclusion to reiterate your thesis and sum up. You must move beyond the “five paragraph hamburger” essay model that you used in high school. Essays will contain as many points and as many paragraphs as are needed to address an issue.



Quotations that would exceed four lines in the regular text should be offset from the rest of the text, single- spaced. (We realize some style guides say double spaced, but we don’t want you to do that) with no quotation marks and indented on the left side only. For example, you might write the following:

In his essay on “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science and Social Policy,” Weber (1949:54) argued:

An empirical science cannot tell anyone what he should do – but rather what he can do – and
under certain circumstances – what he wishes to do.  It is true that in our sciences, personal
value-judgments have tended to influence scientific arguments without being explicitly

Suspending one’s personal value judgments when writing an essay is crucial to the sociological enterprise, and students should avoid the error of letting them slip into their arguments.

NOTE: Some formal guides close offset quotes with a period and then follow that punctuation with the citation (Jones 1983:23).  – closing with another period! We see no logic to this format. No sentence should be punctuated with two periods.

Regular quotations are integrated into the sentence and do use quotation marks, as in the following:

Weber (1949:54) argued that “in our sciences, personal value-judgments have tended to influence scientific arguments without being explicitly admitted.”

Use single quotation marks only for noting quotations within a quote. For example you might write the following:

Weber (1949:60) also emphasized that the journal “has not been a ‘socialist’ organ hitherto and in the future it shall not be ‘bourgeois’.”

Refrain from using quotations at the end of paragraphs. It is better to sum up your point in your own words. Quotations do not stand alone on merit: you must tell the reader what is important about the quotation or sum up the point. Otherwise, the quote just seems dropped in to take up space. If the quotation starts with a capital letter, then a colon is used, e.g., She states: “When….” If the quotation it is not capitalized, then a comma is used, e.g., She states, “when…”

Avoid Wordiness

Avoid Wordiness

Keep things simple and to the point. Don’t repeat yourself and don’t throw in extra descriptions in front of people’s names like “the renowned writer Weber” – unless it is important to your point. Don’t cite entire book titles in the essay; that is why there is a reference list at the end of your paper.

Avoid Sweeping Assumptions

Avoid Sweeping Assumptions

Refrain from ahistorical or sweeping assumptions that you cannot prove or worse yet can be easily disproved, such as “for all of time,” or “throughout history,” or “since the beginning.” Always use qualifying words to be safe, such as “some,” “many,” “most.” Any student who starts their paper with any of these above dreaded fallacies is going to cause despair in the grader, remember you are not in high school anymore!



  1. Canadian spelling is required, e.g., “colour,” not “color.” Change the spellchecker language in your computer to English (Canada).
  2. Use complete clear sentences. Watch verb tense and grammar.
  3. Be aware of the difference between “there” and “their,” “to” and “too,” and “then” and “than.” “It’s” is not possessive! It is a contraction that stands for “it is.”
  4. NOT 1990’s. The apostrophe makes it possessive. Only use it when you mean the date to be possessive.
  5. Avoid gender specific language unless you mean to be gender specific.
  6. Don’t use big words when small ones will do.
  7. Be careful with that thesaurus: make sure the words you choose capture the intended meaning.
  8. Colloquial terms are not used in formal writing, e.g., “to hell in a hand basket,” “the rat race.”
  9. Keep an academic tone. Contractions are not used in formal writing. Avoid writing the way you talk.
  10. When using an acronym, spell out the complete term the first time you use it and present the acronym in parentheses: First use: “The Current Population Survey (CPS) includes . . . .” Later: “CPS data show that . . .”
  11. Racial/ethnic names that represent geographical locations or linguistic groups should be capitalized. For example, Asian, African Canadian, Caucasian, Indo Canadian. The words black and white are not capitalized.
  12. Type only one space after punctuation and do not use periods in acronyms like NAFTA (not N.A.F.T.A.)
  13. Italics should be used for book titles in the text and in the list of references and for obscure foreign language words. Commonly used foreign words or terms, however, should appear in regular type. Examples are per se, ad hoc, and et al.

Do not abbreviate the names of institutions or people’s rank or title unless it is Dr.

Using Numbers

Using Numbers

Spell out numbers one through nine. Use numerals for numbers 10 or greater. Always spell out numbers at the beginning of a sentence. Always use numerals for tables and figures. Spell out centuries. Spell out common fractions. Always use numerals with percents.  Numerals are always used to represent time and money.

Active Voice

Active Voice

The active voice is more precise and less wordy. The subject of an active sentence tells the reader who did something. For example: A team of 14 trained interviewers queried 350 college graduates. A passive construction would read: Three hundred fifty college graduates were queried. Always try to write in the active voice.

Subject-Verb and Number Agreement

Subject-Verb Agreement and Number Agreement

The subject of a sentence must agree in number with the verb regardless of the words or phrases that come between them. If you use the word “woman” the verb must be singular. It is very common to see students write “woman are” which makes no sense.  The word data is plural and takes a plural verb as in “the data as reported are correct”.

What is a Social Theory? What isn’t?



A model is a temporarily useful way of seeing. A model is a way of organizing a set of recognizable facts in such a way as to describe social reality at least for a time or for a specific purpose. It treats some “facts” as relevant and others as anomalies or irrelevancies. Models provide an immediate image of something that has been identified from experience. Parson’s model of the structurally isolated nuclear family would be an example. A model is not a theory, although it may be a starting point for the construction of a conceptual framework.

Conceptual Framework:

Conceptual Framework:

Conceptual frameworks provide key concepts used for analyzing and communicating about the observations represented in a model. It sets out the basic abstract building blocks that might be used in the construction of a theory but in and of itself does not constitute a theory. They can be thought of as theoretical perspectives that suggest the kinds of questions we should ask, direct our attention to certain events, and they help interpret what we observe. For example, an anti-racist conceptual framework would focus on colonialism and imperialism as key concepts for framing analyses around “race.”


Theory: A theory is a set of systematic abstract statements based upon the subsumption of observable phenomena within a conceptual framework which attempts to provide an EXPLANATION that includes a description of how social reality works and an understanding of why it works the way it does. The worth of theory lies in its ability to EXPLAIN the facts, not just to describe them. The more facts a theory seems to explain, the greater the GENERALITY of that theory. Other criteria of assessment would include the clarity of the logic of the explanation (parsimony), the specificity of the concepts and propositions (discriminability), and the testability – the extent to which the assertions of the theory can be disconfirmed by evidence.

A theory at a macro level of analysis is a theory that purports to describe and explain the way whole societies function, often in terms of the effect of the economy on all other aspects of the society.

A theory at a micro level of analysis is a theory that purports to describe and explain small-scale interactions amongst two or more persons, such as the internal dynamics of family.

There are a whole range of levels of analysis between macro and micro. R. Merton referred to these as theories of the middle range as they attempt to explain social relations in particular sorts of social institutions such as bureaucracies. Max Weber is a good example of a major sociologist who theorized at this middle range.

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.

Ideology vs. Theory

Ideology vs. Theory

An IDEOLOGY is a comprehensive world view that may or may not be “true” and is not the only way of viewing the world. Ideologies emerge from material realities but also help to construct material realities and often function as a system of social control. Ideologies will give broad answers to questions of social meaning including What is right / wrong? Who/what is responsible (what is the cause of the problem)? and what can be done about it (what changes are needed)?

Alternatively, a theory aims to explain social relations (What/ How/ Why) based on evidence. Theories must be tested against evidence, whereas ideologies may stand relatively unexamined unconscious and untested. Sociological theory is dependent for its validity upon evidence which is examined both historically (diachronically) and cross-culturally (synchronically). Theory can be a guide to what is researched. There is a dialectical (dynamic tension) between theory and evidence as they will impact each other and change each other. All theory contains ideological elements; implications about what is right or wrong and about what can be changed. Critical analysts should tease out and address these “hidden” implications of particular theories and show what the consequences may be.

Include Theoretical Depth

Include Theoretical Depth

It is very important in sociology that you not rely on commonsensical notions, perceptions or opinions. Sociology is not “common sense.” Support your ideas with material from the literature. When doing sociological research, you do not enter the library to attempt to prove a point you have in your head. You enter the library to read some of the scholarship on a topic and then develop your argument from there. Use specific examples to illustrate points and concepts. Demonstrate your assertions. Sociologists analyze and explain, they don’t just describe. It is the social theories that will help you to explain your topic. A theoretical perspective is a point of view on an issue, and everyone has one.

Students have a tendency to write about theories in one separate paragraph as if they had nothing to do with the rest of the argument in the paper. Avoid doing this. Sociology students writing argumentative essays write from a theoretical position not about theoretical positions. Theories do not cause the event you are looking at. Rather, they attempt to explain it. Therefore avoid sentences that say such things as “Due to Social Learning theory, children do better when…” The theory is not the cause of whatever you are discussing. The better your use of theory, the more solid your argument will be, and ultimately the better your paper will be as it will be more coherent.

Methodological Errors

Methodological Errors

Methodological individualism: Inferring properties of social relations from properties of individual persons. Sometimes theories at the micro level claim to be self-sufficient generalizations about the whole of human nature. For example, socio-biologists explain male-female relations in terms of biological parental investment. This is criticized by many sociologists as REDUCTIONIST, because it seems to reduce generalizations about the whole of societies to generalizations about the behaviour of individuals. This form of reasoning is also described as ESSENTIALIST and is said to represent the problem of methodological individualism.

Reification: The fallacy of misplaced concreteness: treating that which is abstract (e.g., society) as though it were concrete (e.g., society needs to work harder to fix inequality). Society is a thing, not an agent. Reification means to make concrete that, which is abstract. When you start sentences with phrases such as “society thinks,” “cultures have views,” and “institutions force,” what you are doing is giving those non-human things human qualities. Institutions cannot force: only people force. You need to be specific about who does these things. Medical professionals have opinions, medicine does not. When you reify, you are really making a functionalist statement that implies that everyone in society has the same values, thus denying that people with differing views are part of society. If society makes women feel fat, where does that leave all the people who would not make women feel fat? The question is: who or what processes result in women feeling fat? Think carefully about your word choice.


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.

Submitting Essays

Submitting Essays

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.



Book with One Author

Author’s last name, first name. date of publication. title in italics. place of publication: publisher.

Acker, Joan R. 1989. Doing Comparable Worth: Gender, Class, and Pay Equity. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Prus, Robert C. 1996. Symbolic Interaction and Ethnographic Research: Intersubjectivity and the

Study of Human Lived Experience. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.                 

Book with Two Authors (second name not reversed)

Bryk, Anthony and Stephen Raudenbush. 1992. Hierarchical Linear Models for Social

and Behavioral Research: Applications and Data Analysis Methods. New York: Sage.

Renzetti, Claire M. and Daniel J. Curran. 1998. Living Sociology. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Book with Three or More Authors (the use of et al. is not acceptable in references section)

Belsley, David A., Edwin Kuh, and Roy E. Welsch. 1980. Regression Diagnostics:

Identifying Influential Data and Sources of Collinearity. New York: Wiley.

Book, Edited

Turner, Stephen P., ed. 1996. Social Theory and Sociology: The Classics and Beyond.

Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Leonard, Kimberly Kempf, Carl E. Pope, William H. Feyerherm, eds. 1995. Minorities in Juvenile Justice.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Book, Editions

McCullagh, Peter and John A. Nedler.1989. Generalized Linear Models. 2nd ed. London, England: Chapman

and Hall.

Book, Volumes

Gurr, Ted Robert, ed. 1989. Violence in America. Vol. 1, The History of Crime. Newbury Park, CA: Sage


Book, No Author (listed alphabetically by the first significant word in the title. Do not use “Anonymous.” If you can ascertain the name of the author when it is not formally given in the work itself place the author’s name in brackets)

The Chicago Manual of Style. 2003. 15th  ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[Morey, Cynthia]. 1997. How We Mate: American Dating Customs, 1950-2000. New York: Putney.

Book, Chapter

Author1(last name inverted), Author 2 not inverted and author 3. Date of publication. “Title of the article”. P.p. with page numbers in Name of the publication (italicized), edited by editor’s initials only for first and middle names and not inverted. Location of publisher: publisher’s name.

Borjas, George, Richard Freeman, and Lawrence Katz. 1992. “On the Labor Market Effects of Immigration and Trade.” Pp. 213-44 in Immigration and the Work Force, edited by G. Borjas

and R. Freeman. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Book, Chapter ( not edited)

Neuman, W. Lawerence. 1994. “Qualitative Research Design.” Pp. 316-29 in Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. 2nd ed. Boston,

MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Book, Collected Works (Anthology), Article

Sampson, Robert J. 1992. “Family Management and Child Development: Insights from Social Disorganization Theory.” Pp. 63-93 in Advances in Criminology Theory, vol. 3,

Facts, Frameworks and Forecasts, edited by J. McCord. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Book, Compilation

Trakas, Dylan, comp. 1998. Making the Road-Ways Safe: Essays on Highway Preservation and Funding.

El  Paso, TX: Del Norte Press.

Book, Translated

Stomper, Jean. 2000. Grapes and Rain. Translated by John Picard. New York: Baldock.

Lattimore, Richard, trans. 1951. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Book, Republished

Bernard, Claude. [1865] 1957. An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. Translated by H.C.

Greene. Reprint, New York:  Dover.

Books, Electronic

Last Name, First Name. Year. Title. City, Province. Publisher. Date retrieved (website address).

Torres, Carlos Alberto and Theodore R. Mitchell, eds. 1998. Sociology of Education: Emerging

            Perspectives. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Retrieved April 26, 2005


Journal Articles

Journal Articles

NOTE: Volume and issue numbers in journals are often confusing for students. Generally the volume number comes first and if there is an issue number it comes second. It may look like this:   Vol. 24 Is. 3, or V. 24 No.2,  or  24(2). The last form is preferred.

NOTE:  The majority of journal articles are now found in on-line form in library subscription data bases, for the purposes of SOCY 122 it is not necessary for students to record the retrieval date and URL of the article as the 4th edition of the official ASA style guide indicates. However, if the article is retrieved from the open web then the retrieval date and URL should be provided.

Journal Article, One Author

Author1 (last name inverted). Date of publication.”Title of the article.” Name of the publication in italics Volume Number (Issue Number):page numbers of article.

Waldfogel, Jane. 1997. “The Effect of Children on Women’s Wages.” American

Sociological Review 6293):209-17.

Mehdizadeh, Shahla A. 2002. “Health and Long-Term Care Use Trajectories of Older Disabled

Women.” Gerontologist 42(1):304-13.

Journal Article, Two Authors

Abrahamson, Mark and Lee Sigelman. 1987. “Occupational Sex Segregation in

Metropolitan Areas.” American Sociological Review 52(5):588-97.

Schoenberg, Nancy E. and Hege Ravdal. 2000. “Using Vignettes in Awareness and Attitudinal

Research.” International Journal of Social Research Methodology 3(1):63-74.

Journal Article, Multiple Authors

O’Reilly, Charles A., David F. Caldwell, and William P. Barnett. 1989. “Work Group

Demography, Social Integration, and Turnover.” Administrative Science Quarterly 34(2):21-37.

Journal Article, Foreign Language

Wegener, Berndt. 1987. “Von Nutzen Entfernter Bekannter” (Benefiting from Persons We Barely Know).

Kolner Zitschrift fur soziologie und Sozialpsychologie39:278-301.

Kenny, Martin and Richard Florida. 1998. “Response to the Debate over ‘Beyond Madd Production’” (in

Japanese). Mado 83:120-45.

Journal Article, Open Web (not from Queen’s library subscription data bases)

Schafer, Daniel W. and Fred L. Ramsey. 2003. “Teaching the Craft of Data Analysis.” Journal of Statistics

Education 11(1).  Retrieved December 12, 2006  (http://www.amstat.org/publications/jse/v11n1/schafer.html).

Graham, Lorie M. 1998. “The Past Never Vanishes: A Contextual Critique of the Existing Indian

Family Doctrine.” American Indian Law Review, 23:1 (32,854 words). Retrieved April 26,

2005 (http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe).

Article from an open on-line repository for academic papers, such as Academia.edu

(1) Always cite the published version if the cited work is indeed published. (The published version is the archival work; the Open Access version is merely a means of access to a supplementary version of it. It is not the published work.)

(2) Always give the URL or DOI of the Open Access version for access purposes, along with the citation to the published version.

For more information, please see:


Meinhold Roman. 2009. “Popular Culture and Consumerism: Mediocre, (Schein-)Heilig and Pseudo-

Therapeutic.” Academia.edu. Retrieved Feb 12, 2013 (http://www.academia.edu/202348/Popular_Culture_and_Consumerism_Mediocre_Schein-_Heilig_and_Pseudo-Therapeutic).

Journal Article, Book Review

Saenz, Rogelio. 1990. Review of Migracion en el Occidente de Mexico by Gustavo Lopez Castro.

Contemporary Sociology 19(3):415


Quimby, Ernest. 1993. “Obstacles to Reducing AIDS among African Americans.” Abstract. The Journal of

            Black Psychology 19(2):215-22.

Online Abstract

Howell, Frank M. and William A. Reese. 1986. “Sex and Mobility in the Dual Economy: From Entry to

Midcareer” (Abstract). Work and Occupations 13:77-97. Retrieved 12 March 1998 (http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?RQT=395&SHtm=3&TS=889478198).



Paper, Refereed  Forthcoming

McCall, Leslie. Forthcoming. “Explaining Within-Group Wage Inequality in U.S. Labor

Markets.” Demography.

Paper, Unpublished

Nomiya, Daishiro. 1988. “Urbanization and Income Inequality: A Cross- National Study.” Department of

Sociology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. Unpublished manuscript.

Paper, Working

Williamson, Jeffery. 1996. “Globalization and Inequality Then and Now: The Late Nineteenth

and Late twentieth Centuries Compared.” Working Paper No. 5491. National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA.

Stephenson, Stanley P., Jr. 1980. “In-School Work and Early Post-School Labor Market

Dynamics.” Working paper, Department of Economics, Pennsylvania State

University, State College, PA.

Paper, Conference

Mishel, Lawrence and Jared Bernstein. 1996. “Technology and the Wage Structure: Has Technology’s Impact Accelerated since the 1970s?” Paper presented at the NBER

Labor Studies Workshop, July, Cambridge, MA.

Mortimer, Jeylan T., Michael Finch, Timothy J. Owens, Michael Shanahan, and Michael Kemper. 1989. “The Nature and Correlates of Early Adolescent Work Experiences.”

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, August, San Francisco, CA.

Paper, Discussion

Sorensen, Aage B. 1983. “Processes of Allocation to Open and Closed Positions in Social Structure.” Discussion Paper No. 722-83, Institute for Research on Poverty,

University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI.

Paper, Presented

Zerubavel, Eviatar.1978. “The Benedictine Ethic and the Spirit of Scheduling.” Presented at the annual meeting of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations,

April 22, Milwaukee, WI.

Other Source Types

Other Source Types

Newspaper Article

Rimland, Bernard. 2000. “Do children’s shots invite autism?” Los Angeles Times, April 26, A13.

Snyder, Donna. 1999. “Judge Orders Teen’s Hearing in Murder Case to Be Closed.”  Buffalo

            News, May18, 1B.

Web Version of Newspapers

Clary, Mike. 2000. “Vieques Protesters Removed without Incident.” Los Angeles Times, May 5.

Retrieved May 5, 2000 (http://www.latimes.com/news/nation/updates/lat_vieques000505.htm).

Blank, Rebecca M. 2008. “How We Measure Poverty.” Los Angeles Times, September 15.

            Retrieved January 7, 2009 (http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/sunday/


Magazine Article

Jana, Reena. 2000. “Preventing culture clashes – As the IT workforce grows more diverse, managers must improve awareness without creating inconsistency.”

InfoWorld, April 24, pp. 95.

Gibbs, Nancy. 1999. “Noon in the Garden of Good and Evil: The Tragedy at Columbine Began As a Crime Story but Is Becoming a Parable.”

Time, May 17, 153:54.

Brochure or Pamphlet

Writing: The Goal Is Variety (4th ed.) [Brochure]. Hartford, CT: Author.

Treat pamphlets created by corporate authors in the same way you would treat an entire book written by a corporate author. Do not forget to identify your resource as [Brochure] or [Pamphlet] within brackets.

Reports, Bulletins, Fact Sheets and Newsletters

Report, No Author

U.S. Department of Justice. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2010. “Key Facts at a Glance: Imprisonment Rates.”

Retrieved July 14, 2010 (http:// www.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/glance/incrt.cfm).

Report, Author

Catalano, Shannan M. 2006. National Crime Victimization Survey: Criminal Victimization, 2005. Bureau of Justice Statistics: Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

Retrieved July 10, 2010 (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/content/pub/pdf/cv05.pdf).

Newsletter, No Author

American Sociological Association. 2004. “Public Affairs Update: Concerned Scientists Say Bush Administration Ignores Research…” Footnotes, April. Retrieved July 10,2010


Dissertations and Theses

Valencia, Albert. 1995. “An examination of selected characteristics of Mexican-American battered women and implications for service providers.”

PH.D. dissertation, Department of Education, University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA.

Data Set/Machine-Readable Data Files

Treiman, Donald J., ed. 1994. Social Stratification in Eastern Europe after 1989: General Population Survey. Provisional Codebook (December 7, 1994)

[MRDF]. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Institute for Social Science Research, Social Science Data Archive [distributor].

U.S. Census Bureau. 1996. Statistical Abstracts of the United States, 1995. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce.

Government Publication – Individual Author(s)

Romaniuc, Anatol. 1984. Fertility in Canada: From Baby-Boom to Baby Bust. Cat. no. 91- 524E. Ottawa, ON: Statistics Canada.

Government Publication – Group or Organization as Author

Canada. Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. 1982. Outstanding Business: A Native Claims Policy. Ottawa, ON: Ministry of Supply and Services.

Specific Tables in a Government Report or Census Report

U.S. Census Bureau. 1943. U.S. Census of the Population: 1960.  Employment and  Personal Characteristics. Table 26. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

 U.S. Census Bureau. 1956. U.S. Census of the Population: 1950. Vol. 4, Special  Reports: Occupational Characteristics. Table 1. Washington, DC: U.S.

Government Printing Office.

Government Report or Report by a Professional Association

Freeman, Richard, ed. 1997. When Earnings Diverge: Causes, Consequences, and Curses for the New Inequality in the U.S. Report #284, National Planning

Association, Washington, DC.

W.T. Grant Foundation. 1988. The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success for America’s Youth and Young Families. Washington, DC: Youth and America’s Future,

William T. Grant Commission on Work, Family and Citizenship.

Census Data

Example from the 96 Census:

Statistics Canada. 1996 Census of Canada. Profile data. Ottawa, Canada. [Data obtained from PCensus Soft wear, Tetrad Computer Applications, Vancouver, B.C.].

Depending on your needs, you could include more detail in the citation e.g., the level of geography:

…Census of Canada. Profile Data for Kingston at the census Tract Level. Ottawa…..


Scientists and engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT). 2006. “Table B-1: U.S. Scientists and Engineers, by Detailed Field and Level of Highest Degree Attained: 1999.” Retrieved July 10, 2010


Survey Instrument

National Science Foundation. 2006. “2006 Survey of Doctorate Recipients.” Arlington, VA: national Science

Foundation. Retrieved July 10, 2010 (http://….).

Archival Sources

National Archives, Box 133. 1991. File: State and Local Information, September-October 1990. Letter from Vice President of the National Association for the

Advancement of Learning Disabled People to William Wondra.

George Meany Memorial Archives, Legislature Reference Files, Box 6. March 18, 1970. File: 20. Memo, Conference with Gloster Current, Director of Organization,

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Information Posted on Web pages including Academia.edu which is an open on-line repository for academic papers.

American Sociological Association. 2000. “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Workshop.” Washington, DC: American Sociological Association. Retrieved May 5, 2000


Meinhold Roman. 2009. “Popular Culture and Consumerism: Mediocre, (Schein-)Heilig and Pseudo-Therapeutic.” Academia.edu.

Retrieved Feb 12, 2013 (http://www.academia.edu/202348/Popular_Culture_and_Consumerism_Mediocre_Schein-_Heilig_and_Pseudo-Therapeutic).

“Social Science Information Gateway: Sociology.” 2005. University of Surrey. Retrieved April 27,

2005 (http://sosig.esrc.bris.ac.uk/sociology/).

“Statistical Resources on the Web: Sociology.” 2002. University of Michigan Documents Center.

Retrieved April 26, 2005 (http://www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/stsoc.html).

Email Citation

If emails are referred to in an essay they, like other personal communication, should be entered as part of the text and referenced in a footnote. Emails are rarely cited in a reference list. When referring to communication by email obtain the permission of the owner before using it and do not cite the email address.

Example Text: In an email message to the author, Jones indicated that he was leaving the university.

Footnote: number superscript John Jones, email message to author May 19 2010.


Citing a blog in the text requires the author’s last name and date (DeLong 2007). In the reference section:

Delong, Brad. 2007. “Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez Give Their Current View on American Income Inequality.” The Brad Delong Blog, January 7, 2007.

Retrieved January 9, 2007 (http://econ161.berkeley.edu/movable_type).

Religious Texts

If you need to cite religious texts such as the Bible for illustration or example purposes in your essay please see the citation practice for this in the MLA or APA on-line guide on the web. Remember religious texts are not peer reviewed and cannot stand as evidence in a sociology paper.

Lecture Note Citation

Beamish, Rob. 2010.  Class lecture.  September 22.  Queen’s University, Kingston, ON.

Various Examples of Dictionaries and Encyclopedias 

For print copy of an encyclopedia entry:

Last name of the author of the entry, first name. Date of publication. “title of the entry”. Pp. of the entry in Title of the Encyclopedia, edited by first initial last name of editor.

Place of publication: Publisher.

Beamish, Rob. 2011. “Sport and Capitalism”. Pp. 607-608. in The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by G. Ritzer and M. Ryan. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Examples of on line versions of Encyclopedias 

Cronin, Ann. “Socialist Feminism.” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Blackwell Reference Online. 15

November 2010 <http://www.blackwellreference.com/subscriber/tocnode?id=g9781405124331_chunk_g978140512433125_ss1-190> 

Encyclopedia of American Social History.  Edited by Mary Kupiec Cayton, Elliott J. Gorn, and Peter W. Williams.  New York : Scribner ; Toronto : Maxwell Macmillan Canada ; New York : Maxwell

Macmillan International, c1993.

Dictionary of Sociology. By Tony Lawson and Joan Garrod.  London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001. Sociology Dictionary [ Online ]   Iverson Software, Incorporated.  Available:

http://www.webref.org/sociology/sociology.htm (Accessed 10 January 2005)

Online! A Reference Guide to Using Internet Sources. [ Online ] Andrew Harnack and Eugene Kleppinger. Available: http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/online/

(Accessed 7 April 2006).

ASA Format.  [ Online ] Romelia Salinas, California State University, Los Angeles.  Available: http://www.calstatela.edu/library/bi/rsalina/asa.styleguide.html

(Accessed 7 April 2006)

Non-Print Media

Non-Print Media

YouTube Video

Jack Danyells.  2007.  “The Title of the Video”  YouTube Website.  Retrieved February 2, 2007

(URL www.sooedfjhi.com).


National Academics. 2010. “National Getting Better Health Care for Your Buck.” Audio Podcast. Retrieved

June 4, 2010 (Http://media.nap.edu/podcasts/).


Blackside [Producer]. 2009. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 (Season 1). DVD.


Redford, R. (Director). (1980). Ordinary People [Film]. Paramount.

Film of limited circulation

Holdt, D. (Producer), & Ehlers, E. (Director). (1997). River at High Summer: The St. Lawrence [Film]. (Available from Merganser Films, Inc., 61 Woodland Street, Room 134, Hartford, CT 06105)


Lake, F. L. (Author and speaker). (1989). Bias And Organizational Decision Making [Cassette]. Gainesville: Edwards.

Musical recording

Barber, S. (1995). Cello Sonata. On Barber [CD]. New York: EMI Records Ltd.


Title of program. (transmission date) Net Work.


Author (if known, last name first). CD-Rom Title. year(s). CD-ROM: Publisher. (Date you last accessed the database).

Power Point

Cheng, Yin Cheong. 2008. “Reform Syndrome and Educational research in the Asia-Pacific region.” Presented

at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, March 28, New York City.

Retrieved June 5th, 2010 (Http://www.weraonline.org/).


I found this information on Google for MLA style and just put the date after the author which is the convention in ASA.

Speaker.  Date of presentation. “Title of the Speech”. Meeting Name. Location of the Meeting.  Type of Presentation.

Angelou, Maya.  Jan. 19th 1993. “On the Pulse of Morning”. Inauguration of President ClintonWashington D.C. Speech.

In-text citation:

Maya Angelou (1993) said that “text of quotation.” OR “Text of quotation” (Angelou 1993).

Speeches on CD

Taft, William Howard. [1908] 2007. “Republican and Democratic Treatment of Trusts.” Early American Political Speech: A Collection of Speeches of American Politicians. CD.

Minneapolis: Filibust.

Citation in Text:

Place parenthetical citations in context in your sentences, after the word that needs the citation.

Use both the original and the reprint dates in the parenthetical citation:

In a much-loved speech (Taft [1908] 2007), he addressed the issue of trusts.

Speeches on YOU TUBE

Cato Institute. 2008. “John Samples on Free Political Speech in 2009.” You Tube Web site. Retrieved July 23, 2009 (http://www.you tube.com/ watch ?v=fRkUjMP8Byg).

Citations in Text:

Citations are placed in the context of discussion and are formatted like so, using the author’s last

name and the date of publication.

(Cato Institute 2008)

Alternatively, you can integrate the citation into the sentence by means of narrative, like so:

The Cato Institute (2008) has published a video on You Tube in which John Samples discusses

free political speech.

Legislation Examples

Court cases and legislative acts follow a format stipulated by legal publishers. The act or case is listed first, followed by volume number, abbreviated title, and the date of the work in which the act or case is found. The volume number is given in Arabic numerals, and the date is parenthesized. Court cases are italicized, but acts are not. Case names, including v., are italicized.

Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

If retrieved from an online database, such as LexisNexis or HeinOnline, provide access information.

Ohio v. Vincer (Ohio App. Lexis 4356 [1999]).

U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007. H.R. 2. 110th Congress, 1st Session, 2007. Retrieved July 11, 2010  (http://thomas.loc.gov).

Public Documents

Because the nature of public documents is so varied, the form of entry for documentation cannot be standardized. The essential rule is to provide sufficient information so that the reader can locate the reference easily.

Reports, Constitutions, Laws, and Ordinances

New York State Department of Labor. 1997. Annual Labor Area Report: New York City, Fiscal Year 1996 (BLMI Report, No. 28). Albany: New York State Department of Labor.

Ohio Revised Code Annotated, Section 3566 (West 2000).

Telecommunications Act of 1996, Public Law 104-014,  110 U.S. Statutes at Large 56 (1996).

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1990. Characteristics of Population. Vol. 1. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 4.

Citing a census table or map

Information taken from the Statistics Canada Website

Statistics Canada. 2007. Population and Dwelling Counts, for Canada, Provinces and Territories, 2006 and 2001 Censuses, 100% Data (table).

“Population and dwelling count highlight tables, 2006 Census.” “2006 Census: Release topics.” Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 97-550-XWE2006002. Ottawa, Ontario.

March 13. http://www12.statcan.ca/english/census06/data/popdwell/Table.cfm?T=101 (accessed November 3, 2008.)

Statistics Canada. 2002. Québec CMA, Median Age, 2001, by Census Tract (map). “Thematic maps.” “2001 Census of Population.” Census. Last updated March 11, 2003.

http://geodepot.statcan.ca/Diss/Maps/ThematicMaps/age_sex/CMA/ Quebec_medage_ec_f3.pdf (accessed November 3, 2008).

Citing a census table, graph or map from a publication in HTML or PDF

Statistics Canada. 2007. “Brandon, Man., 46, Dissemination area by non-tracted CA, 1 of 3” (map). Dissemination Area Reference Maps, by Non-tracted Census Agglomerations, Update.

Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 92-148-UIB. Ottawa, Ontario. Last updated March 13. http://geodepot.statcan.ca/Diss2006/Maps/Maps_Cartes/ NONTRACTEDCADA/MB/CADA610-D.pdf

(accessed October 27, 2008)

Statistics Canada. 2002. “Moncton, N.B. (13), CMA/CA code 305, map 2 of 2” (map). Census Tract Reference Maps, by Census Metropolitan Area and Census Agglomeration.

Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 92F0145XIB. Ottawa, Ontario. Last updated January 20, 2003.  http://geodepot.statcan.ca/Diss/Maps/ReferenceMaps/retrieve_cmaca.cfm?pdf_index=40

(accessed August 16, 2005).

Citing a census table, graph or map from a publication in print

Statistics Canada. 2004. “Selected characteristics for census tracts, 2001 Census, 100% data and 20% sample data” (table). Profile of Census Tracts in Hamilton.

Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 95-236-XPB. Ottawa, Ontario. p. 8–310.

Wang, Jennie. 2004. “Farmland near cities commands higher prices” (graph). “They’re tilling that field behind the mall.” Canadian Agriculture at a Glance. 2001 Census of Agriculture.

Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 96-325-XPB. Ottawa, Ontario. Statistics Canada. p. 20.

Citing a table, graph or map from E-STAT

Statistics Canada. No date. Under 5 years, both sexes, 2006 (graph). 2006 Census of Population, Population from 1921 to 2006 (Canada, Provinces, Territories) (database). Using E-STAT

(distributor). Last updated October 1, 2008. http://estat.statcan.ca/cgi-win/CNSMCGI.PGM?Lang=E&C91SubDir=ESTAT\&DBSelect=HIST (accessed October 27, 2008).

Statistics Canada. No date. Number of Farms and Selected Averages by Number of Operators per Farm, by Province, Census Agricultural Region (CAR), Census Division (CD), 2001

Saskatchewan (20 Agricultural Regions) (table). 2001 – Census of Agriculture, Farm Operator Data by Province, Census Agricultural Region (CAR) and Census Division (CD) (database).

Using  E-STAT (distributor). Last updated August 12, 2002. http://estat.statcan.ca/cgi-win/CNSMCGI.EXE?ESTATFILE=EStat\English\E-Main.htm (accessed December 5, 2005).

Return to Writing Resources

Read More

Developing a thesis statement (SOCY 122)

Download a PDF of this resource here.

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.

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February 5, 2014: Quick Fixes for Essays

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!



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January 31, 2014: Why You Should Talk to Your Profs

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!


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Common problems in grammar

Several common grammatical problems occur in academic writing:

  • Sentence faults—comma splices, run-on sentences, sentence fragments
  • Problems with pronouns (please also see our handout, Pronouns)
  • Inconsistency in voice or point of view

Download a PDF of this resource here.

Sentence faultsComma spliceProblems with pronounsInconsistency in voice

Sentence faults

Most sentence faults and problems with punctuation are the result of a lack of understanding of how the parts of a sentence fit together.

Sentences are made up of phrases and clauses. Phrases are centred around nouns (in the van, by early morning). Clauses are centred around verbs (she runs the marathon; when he saw the ruins). Sentences are constructed from two types of clauses: main (or independent) clauses and subordinate (or dependent) clauses.

A main clause contains a subject (noun) and a predicate (verb) and expresses a complete thought.

Decision-makers must carefully examine only the best options.

A subordinate clause contains a subject and a verb but does not express a complete thought.

Because the policy options are so numerous…

(Besides because, other words that begin subordinate clauses include although, since, when, while, and despite.)

Combining clauses is what sentence building is all about.

Joining a subordinate clause with a main clause requires only a comma:

Because the policy options are so numerous, decision-makers must carefully examine only the best options.

Difficulties arise when two main clauses are joined together. Options for punctuation include the following:

  • A period: Policy options are numerous. Decision-makers must carefully examine only the best options.
  • A semi-colon: Policy options are numerous; therefore, decision-makers must carefully examine only the best options.
  • A comma with a coordinating conjunction: Policy options are numerous, so decision-makers must carefully examine only the best options.

Other coordinating conjunctions are and, but, yet, or, nor and for.

Comma splice

Do not use a comma to join two main clauses in a sentence: for example, Policy options are numerous, decision-makers must carefully consider only the best options. A comma is too weak a form of punctuation to use in this case.

A common comma splice error occurs when two main clauses are joined with a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, thus, etc.) and only a comma.

Incorrect: The proposed policies are not necessarily right, however, they have survived much careful scrutiny.

Correct: The proposed policies are not necessarily right; however, they have survived much careful scrutiny.

Run-on: Joining two main clauses with no punctuation is called a run-on or fused sentence.

Incorrect: The employers and staff conducted successful negotiations thus they were able to agree on a contract beneficial to all.

Correct: The employers and staff conducted successful negotiations; thus, they were able to agree on a contract beneficial to all.

A sentence fragment occurs most often when a subordinate clause is incorrectly used as a sentence on its own.

Incorrect: Although their co-workers were opposed.

Correct: Members of the staff decided to cross the picket line, although their co-workers were opposed.

When a main clause is added to the sentence, the fault is corrected.

Problems with pronouns

(Please also see our handout on Pronouns, which includes helpful tips for using pronouns clearly and inclusively.)

A common grammatical error occurs when the pronoun in a sentence does not agree with its antecedent. The need to use non-sexist language—to avoid a sentence such as Every employee should hand in his report by Friday—gives rise to the following kind of error:

Every employee should hand in their report by Friday.

This sentence is incorrect because the singular subject every employee does not agree with the plural pronoun their. Below are some possible solutions to correct the error:

  • Use the plural as in All employees should hand in their reports by Friday
  • Use an article such as A successful manager knows the organization instead of A successful manager knows his organization.
  • Repeat the noun by saying The Branch will provide each new employee with training on the equipment. If the employee is already familiar with the equipment, training will be optional rather than …If he is already familiar with the equipment, training will be optional.
  • Reword the sentence, as in The editor should work alone to verify all details rather than The editor should work on his own to verify all details.
  • As a last resort, use he or she, his or her or him or her as in Put each employee’s evaluation in his or her personal file instead of Put each employee’s evaluation in his personal file. Try to use this construction sparingly.

A second problem with pronouns—the use of broad references with this, that, and it—often causes confusion for the reader.

When you use this, that, or it by itself, make sure the reader fully understands what the pronoun renames and replaces. Make sure the pronoun reference isn’t ambiguous (i.e., that the pronoun doesn’t refer to more than one thing). If the pronoun refers to a noun that has been implied but not stated, you can clarify the reference by explicitly using that noun.

Vague: With the spread of globalized capitalism, American universities increasingly follow a corporate fiscal model, tightening budgets and hiring temporary contract employees and teachers. This has prompted faculty and adjunct instructors at many schools to join unions as a way of protecting job security and benefits.

Clear: With the spread of globalized capitalism, American universities increasingly follow a corporate fiscal model, tightening budgets and hiring temporary contract employees as teachers. This trend has prompted faculty and adjunct instructors at many schools to join unions as a way of protecting job security and benefits.

*The possessive pronoun “its” never takes an apostrophe. “It’s” is a contraction for “it is.”

Incorrect: The company’s name is included in it’s logo.

Correct: The company’s name is included in its logo.

Inconsistency in voice

A final grammatical problem is lack of consistency of voice or point of view. Again, the subject must agree with all of the pronouns in a sentence.

Incorrect: If one is a decision-maker, they must carefully consider all best options.

Correct: If one is a decision-maker, one must carefully consider all best options.

Incorrect: Canadian citizens enjoy many civil rights and freedoms. We are able to travel and speak freely; they can even criticize the government without negative repercussions.

Correct: As Canadian citizens, we enjoy many civil rights and freedoms. We are able to travel and speak freely; we can even criticize our government without negative repercussions.

Care should be taken to ensure that the point of view is consistent throughout the piece of writing.

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Developing a topic sentence

Download a PDF of this resource here.

Effective topic sentencesWriting topic sentencesPractice

Developing the “what”: Effective topic sentences

Almost all well-ordered paragraphs begin with a topic sentence, which introduces the main idea you’ll discuss in the paragraph. A good topic sentence helps orient the reader and keeps the writer on track too. Read the following examples of two possible topic sentences from a paragraph about Lev Tolstoy and music. As you read the examples, ask yourself what you can already guess about the content of the paragraph to come: do you feel oriented and guided? Or do you feel that the content would come as a surprise?

  1. Tolstoy’s musical preference was for improvisation, rather than formal training.
  2. Tolstoy also expressed his preference for musical improvisation through his distaste for what I have termed “formal” music: the symphony, orchestras, opera, and conservatory training were all targets of his ire.

Although both example sentences meet grammatical and stylistic standards, the second sentence is a more helpful introduction: it builds on a discussion begun in earlier paragraphs, and the specificity of the examples demonstrate the exact nature of what is to come in the paragraph. Even though you haven’t seen the rest of the essay, you are immediately oriented in the writer’s train of thought. The topic sentence may appear simple, but it’s a vital part of academic writing.

Writing topic sentences

To begin writing a topic sentence, try to summarize the main idea of your paragraph in a brief sentence. You might use notes from an outline to do so, or you might find it easier to write the topic sentence after writing a draft of the entire paragraph. Consider these three elements of crafting a strong topic sentence:

Tell the reader what your paragraph is about.

Tell the reader straight away what your paragraph is about, and how it relates to the text as a whole. In academic writing, which is often lexically dense and deals with complex subject matter, assisting the reader is vital. For example, read this topic sentence from a Queen’s undergraduate student’s paper about the football player Peyton Manning’s public image: “Two notorious incidents—allegations of performance enhancing drug use and of sexual assault—damaged Peyton Manning’s pristine image and ‘Golden Boy’ persona.”

From this well-written example, we easily understand that the writer has described Peyton Manning’s “pristine image” in the preceding paragraphs, and will now undercut that idea with evidence of “two notorious incidents.” We can imagine that the paragraph’s following sentences will describe those incidents, likely using references to source material, and place them in the context of the essay’s overall argument. A corollary benefit of the topic sentence should now be clear: the topic sentence helps keep you, the writer, on track to answer the question, provide appropriate evidence, and weave a consistent argumentative thread throughout your paper.

Be specific.

Be specific. Simply announcing your paragraph’s topic – “I plan to discuss the effects of marital status on the Great Divergence” – doesn’t tell the reader much about where you’re going or how the topic relates to what’s come before and what’s coming after. An altered version clearly signals you won’t just reiterate your entire argument in this paragraph: “Though shifts in marital patterns and the rise of single-parent families are considered recent phenomena in America, their effect on accelerating the Great Divergence is undeniable.” Once again, we can already picture what’s coming in the rest of the paragraph. Vague topic sentences are often an indication that the writer needs to develop, hone, or rethink the ideas going into the paragraph.

Include transitions.

Include transitions before or within the topic sentence to link the new paragraph with those preceding it. Using transition words indicates that your paragraph builds on material you have already discussed. For example, consider the use of the word “also” in this topic sentence: it clearly signals that the writer is referring to information from the previous paragraph. “Inbreeding may also have caused the pond Northern Redbelly Dace population to have a lower observed heterozygosity value than that of the Collins Creek Northern Redbelly Dace population.” Transitions, therefore, help to guide your reader smoothly as you shift your writing’s focus.

If you’re struggling to write topic sentences effectively, try returning to the task when you finish each paragraph (or a longer section of writing). You may find that it’s easier to sum up what you have written after the fact, or you may discover that a paragraph is actually dense, disorganized or illogical—in which case, you’ll need to edit it and then try again to write a topic sentence. Producing the topic sentence might be especially tough if:

  • There are too many ideas in the paragraph. Each paragraph should contain just one main idea, which is clearly linked to the argument of your whole paper.
  • The material in the paragraph, rather than being specific, contains lots of general observations about your topic.


  • Read the following samples of topic sentences. Do they meet the criteria outlined above? What would you do to improve them?
    • “Masaccio did much further work.”
    • “Aerobic training is a modality of exercise that older adults of sedentary behaviour may have difficulty tolerating.”
    • “Having dehumanized individuals and created the idea of a separate race for those who practiced or had ancestors who practiced Judaism, the Nazi German state then pursued its discriminatory cause through the process of miniaturization.”

Read through the last paper you wrote. Highlight the topic sentences, and decide whether they could be improved. If you didn’t include topic sentences, try writing some now.

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Analyzing disciplinary expectations

Download a PDF of this resource here.

Learn more about how to use the disciplinary analysis toolkit for graduate students on the SASS YouTube page.

Analyzing disciplinary expectations

Step 1: Skim reading

  • Skim through the paper in 3‐4 minutes. That means finding (but not reading) major sections like the introduction and conclusion, headings, where references come, etc.
  • Then, quickly read the introduction and conclusion to roughly identify the topic of the  paper. Don’t stop to use a dictionary, re‐read complicated sections, or try to read every word.

Step 2: Analyzing structure

  • What is the paper’s main argument or contribution to the discipline (or thesis  statement, if you can find one)? Where is this argument/contribution stated? How often  is it repeated?
  • If there are headings, what are the heading titles (e.g. “Introduction,” “Conclusion,”  “Results,” “Discussion” etc.)? Approximately how long is each section as a percentage of  the article?
    1. _____________________________  % of length: ______
    2. _____________________________  % of length: ______
    3. _____________________________  % of length: ______
    4. _____________________________  % of length: ______
    5. _____________________________  % of length: ______
    6. _____________________________  % of length: ______
  • How does the writer signal the start of a new section? Do they use discursive markers such as “to conclude…,” “first, second, third…,” “however,…” etc.? (Find a useful list of these here.) This is especially useful to consider if there are no headings.
    • Example signal phrases for section openings: ___________________________________________
  • Does every section or part of the article contain an equal number of references? Do some sections include many or very few references?
    • Yes͕ referenced are used equally throughout.
    • No, references are used more in certain sections than others.
      • Sections with many references: ________________
      • Sections with few references: _________________

Step 3: Assessing argumentation

  • Does the writer highlight similar studies, related articles or books, or other scholarship  in the area? If so, where?
  • Does the writer state exceptions or limitations to their argument? If so, in which sections?
  • Does the writer state plans for future research?
  • How often does the writer make claims—conclusions based on their argument—and how often does the writer use evidence to back up those claims?
  • What kinds of evidence does the writer use to support their ideas?
    • Books
    • Articles
    • Government reports
    • Statistics
    • Experimental data
    • Theories
    • Other
  • How is the evidence presented?
    • Writing description
    • Graphs/charts
    • Tables
    • Appendix
    • Mathematical calculations
  • How much evidence is included? Is it in every paragraph?
  • Does the writer explain the evidence, or leave it in a long list (or e.g., include graphs without any commentary)?
  • What style of referencing is used? (If you don’t know the proper name, write an example).
    • Chicago
    • MLA
    • APA
    • IEEE
    • Other
  • Is there a references or bibliography list? What is its title, and what material does it include?

Step 4: Understanding style

  • Does the writer use a large amount of technical vocabulary that only experts would understand?
  • Aside from technical terms, is the language so complex that a regular reader (a smart undergraduate student) wouldn’t understand it?
  • How long are the paragraphs? How long are the sentences?
  • Does the writer use “I,” “we,” both, or neither?
  • Does the writer include an engaging opening—a hook, an anecdote or sense of  story?
  • Is the title purely descriptive or does it include some wordplay, sense of mystery, etc.?
    • Descriptive title (e.g. “A study of X in…” or “A history of Y…”)
    • Engaging title

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Write like a scholar

Academic language is like a dialect; it’s a subset of English that is used for a specific purpose—academic speaking and writing—and understood by a specific audience—academics. All students, regardless of whether English is their first language, need to learn new academic vocabulary upon entering university. Using a unified vocabulary is one way disciplines create community. When everyone is using the same language, it’s easier to share ideas and engage in conversation.

“Learning academic language is not learning new words to do the same thing that one could have done with other words; it is learning to do new things with language and acquiring new tools for these new purposes” (Nagy & Townsend 2012, 93).

Download a PDF of this resource here.

What is academic language?How do I learn academic language?Key strategiesDo you use these?References

What is academic language?

Academic language is sometimes classified into two categories: general and discipline-specific.

  1. General academic language refers to words that can be found commonly in academic writing across disciplines and are distinct from informal or conversational words (e.g., analyse, study, concept, data).
  2. Discipline-specific language refers to words that are used in specific fields of study, like technical terms or content-specific words (e.g., organism, geometry, existential).

Research suggests that it is more useful for students to develop discipline-specific academic language since words that are considered part of general academic language are often used differently in different disciplines.

Consider the word, “code.” In computing, “to code” means to program a device with a set of instructions. In law, it can refer to a legal document, like “a code of conduct.” In social sciences, it can refer to a set of cultural values that a group of people adhere to collectively and voluntarily, as in “the society followed a moral code.”

This example highlights not only the way in which words vary across disciplines, but also introduces the importance of grouping words together to understand their meaning.

Lexical bundles, as they’re sometimes called, are groups of two or more words that academics frequently put together. They’re not idioms or expressions, but common ways of communicating ideas.
Examples: “within the context of,” “according to the literature,” “given that,” “the results of which show,” this study suggests,” etc.

These bundles are common features of academic language because they effectively and concisely convey meaning by using common and conventional word pairings that readers in the discipline recognize. In other words, using words in common expressions from your discipline is not lazy or unimaginative; it’s a way to be sure your audience understands your intended message.

How do I learn academic language?

Like any language, academic language cannot be learned overnight. Here are some strategies to use over time to help you develop increasing awareness of the ways scholars in your field write and build your own academic vocabulary.

Learn new words in context.

Words in English only have full meaning when understood in a text. When you come across a new word, pay attention to what words are around it. You can keep track of academic vocabulary in a lexical notebook.

Pair learning new words and phrases with learning content.

Use textbook glossaries and disciplinary encyclopaedias to understand key terms related to a concept as you are learning about the concept. You can find these for each subject on the Queen’s Library website.

Familiarize yourself with how your field organizes and structures information in written format.

Knowing which words to use is only half the battle; you also have to know when, where, and how to use them. Pay attention to the typical structure of writing in your field and try to notice where in texts word groupings occur frequently. Use the disciplinary analysis tool to help you.

Consider the function of the words you need.

All words serve a purpose, whether it be to explain, define, introduce, counter, illustrate, or any number of other things. When you find yourself searching for a word or phrase, reflect on what you need that word to do, then use a resource like the academic phrasebank to search for language that fits that purpose.


You might find that you understand words when you read but then have a hard time remembering the words when you sit down to write. In language learning, comprehension of words almost always comes before the ability to produce the words yourself. When you find a text that exemplifies the way you would like to write, take some time to practice modelling. Try paraphrasing or writing a summary that incorporates the language you want to add to your vocabulary.

Key strategies


Academics strive for concision in their writing. To be concise means to convey a message with the most effective, clear, and accurate words to fully describe an idea. Avoiding vague or value-laden words and using transition words thoughtfully are two ways expert writers show concision. Consider this example:

The city council introduced a new initiative on active transportation. This is the best. Moreover, it solves the traffic problem.

The subject of the second sentence, this, is unclear, and the evaluation that “this” is “the best” is unsupported and shows the writer’s personal stance. The transition, “moreover,” incorrectly suggests that the writer is introducing a secondary point that builds off the first. See how this second version corrects these errors:

The city council introduced a new initiative on active transportation. This initiative offers a cost-effective solution to the problem of traffic congestion.

By naming the subject of the second sentence, specifying what about the initiative is good, and getting rid of the inaccurate transition word, the second version does a better job of conveying the writer’s intended message. Refer to the eliminating wordiness resource for inspiration on other strategies to produce concise writing.

Canadian academic writing culture is a writer-responsible culture, which means it is the writer’s job to establish a clear understanding for the reader. Concision is a characteristic of good writing because it is one way for writers to ensure they have clarified their position for the reader. Academics tend to show the reader their position through guiding words like hedges, boosters, and scope markers.

Hedges and boosters

Part of writing critically is to be able to maintain credibility with your reader. Expert writers tend to construct more limited arguments that show respect towards other views and competing positions. They do this partly by using a balance of boosters and hedges.

  • Boosters: words that express certainty and leave little room for other views
    Examples: absolutely, clearly, should, must, very, never, always, certain, more than, a lot, conclusively
  • Hedges: words and phrases that express caution and are open to alternative perspectives
    Examples: possibly, may, might, often, generally, likely, somewhat, almost, nearly, perhaps, suggests, relatively, tends to, for the most part

Expert writers tend to use hedges at a much higher frequency than novice writers, which contributes to an ethos of caution, humility, and diplomacy, rather than too much certainty. Expert writers use boosters mostly to emphasize an idea.


These are words or phrases that indicate the extent to which an argument can be applied. They are used to indicate precision and focus.

Scope shows engagement with the world of research, rather than just the world in general. Expert writers tend to use phrases that keep them in this text-internal world of discourse, while novice writers tend to refer to the broader text-external world.

For example, when you say: “Childhood development is significant in society”, you are using language to refer to the “real world” outside of textual research. But when you say: “In this study, childhood development is examined,” you are referring to the world of research, which is where you want your focus to be in academic discourse.

You can also indicate scope through nouns. Novice writers tend to use general nouns (people, the world, our society), while expert writers tend to qualify nouns to make them more specific and focused (young people, the Arab world, democratic society).

Do you use these?

Although not ungrammatical or objectively wrong, these phrases are not common in academic language. Review your writing for these elements and ask yourself, “Is this the choice I want to make? Is this adding value to my writing?”

  • Clichés, and cultural references
    Example: piece of cake (idiom) or gone to the dark side (cultural reference from the Star Wars films)
  • Contractions
    Example: ‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’
  • Similes and metaphors
    Examples: They’re pretty like a flower. (simile)
    She’s a machine. (metaphor)
  • Rhetorical questions
    Example: She hates cake. Who knew?
  • Interjections
    Example: Wow!
  • Phrasal verbs
    Example: ‘go over’ instead of ‘review’


Aull, L. 2015. First-Year University Writing: A Corpus-based study with implications for pedagogy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Nagy, W. and D. Townsend. 2012. “Words as Tools: Learning Academic Vocabulary as Language Acquisition.” Reading Research Quarterly 47 (1): 91-108.

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Making it work… at home

Studying for exams in a time of global pandemic brings unforeseen challenges. Whether you’re working from your bachelor apartment or your family’s kitchen table, we are here for you.  

Working in less-than-ideal circumstances is challenging! But don’t despair. Many of our recommended strategies for learning and studying remain effective. The academic skills specialists at SASS have compiled this compendium of strategies to help keep you focused and motivated. 

This resource is also available as a PDF.

Before we beginWork efficiently and effectivelySet up your scheduleEffective home study habitsAvoid procrastinationOnline examsSelf-compassion

Before we begin

A sudden shift to remote instruction can create both anxiety and pressure. Even in the wake of this crisis, professors still want you to learn, to enjoy the course, and to do well. This hasn’t changed. 

The best thing that we can all do right now, other than staying home, is communicate. Contact your professors and TAs about time pressures, due-date pressures, grade anxiety and communication anxiety.  

Many of us are fighting hard for a sense of normalcy; we want things to go back to how they were. But this pandemic is changing and will change the way we move, build, learn, and connect. As you adjust to this new context, begin by focusing on food, family, friends, and maybe fitness. Devise a strategy for online social connectedness with a small group of family, friends, and/or neighbours (see strengths-based actions to connect, from a safe distance). Stay in touch; support each other. 

Once you have established the basics, you can start to make the necessary mental shift. Ignore the people who are posting that they are getting tons of work done; ignore the people who feel they will never work again. They are different people, on different paths. 

Don’t compare yourself to others; just compare yourself to yourself. You don’t have to feel pressure to be anything you’re not. These are challenging times. Check in with yourself every day and adjust your study plan accordingly. You’ll get more done some days than others, and that’s okay. 

You are doing what you can, and that is enough. 


Working efficiently and effectively from home

Keep up your old routine as much as possible. Think about what was working for you and take on the parts of that routine that are still realistic. For example, 

  • School is still your full-time job, even if you’re working in less than ideal circumstances. That boils down to 8-10 hours / course / week
  • Maintain a routine
    • If possible, “attend” classes at the same times, on the same days. If this is not possible, work when you can, focusing on 2-3 courses each day. 
    • Between your “classes,” do homework and work on assignments. 
    • Aim to have consistent bedtimes and wake-up times. 
    • Eat meals at regular intervals.  
    • Get dressed and ready for the day. You can still wear comfortable clothes—even switching from “night PJs” to your “day PJs” (or otherwise comfy clothes) can help. 

Having a routine takes some of the decision-making out of your day and can increase your confidence. Working with a realistic schedule, for the situation you’re in right now, can be encouraging! You can do this. 

It’s important to have a balance between work and other activities. Consider: 

  • Doing your most challenging work first, before less difficult or in-depth tasks. 
  • Do your work before relaxing. Earn your reward; you’ll feel better about it. 
  • Take short, frequent breaks: 
    • Work for up to 50 minutes at a time, with 10-minute breaks every hour. If 50 minutes is too long, do what you can. 
    • Work for a maximum of 3 hours at a time, and then take a break for an hour or so. 

Short and long breaks, combined with work before reward, gives you a sense of accomplishment at regular intervals, supporting your motivation. 

Set up your schedule 

SASS offers two types of schedules. Either or both may be helpful for you, depending on your context:  

SASS also has many more strategies on how to study for exams

Part of setting up a schedule is informing the people you live with about your intentions. What are you working toward? When are you not to be disturbed? When do you need quiet? When are you planning to take a break? How can you all work together to support your schedules? 

Control how you use your time 

What do you need to get done? What are your priorities? Look at the big picture first, and then narrow it down to what you need to do each day. See:

Effective study habits 

Set up your space 

Make sure the place you study is used only for studying

This is one of the things about libraries that works for a lot of people. You go there to work—not to sleep, not to hang out, not to watch movies. 

  • When you’re working from home, this separation of activities can be more challenging, but still achievable. During work hours at least, your work spot (e.g., desk, table) is transformed into a work-only zone. Make sure the place you use for studying is exclusively for studying during “work hours.” 

Context matters

  • Find a space with natural light if you can. Natural light will help boost your mood and motivation. 
  • Set a comfortable temperature. 
  • Choose a somewhat comfortable chair. Not too soft! 
  • Have everything you need at hand: computer, notebook, notes, flashcards, pens, etc.
  • Remove the things you do NOT need: phone, chat windows, hobbies, etc. 

Study well 

Organize the course material meaningfully 

  • Identify the main concepts of a course; look at the course syllabus and description, and textbook chapter titles or lecture topics. 
  • Make summary sheets for the main topics in a course; select content for these from your lecture / reading notes.


  • Elaboration helps to make meaning from the material being studied. It’s a way to go beyond memorizing to applying and analyzing. For example, explain the relationships between two or more concepts; analyze the idea/concept for its component parts. 

Solve problems 

  • Work through problems and then review related concepts or theories. Spend about 20% of your time reviewing concepts and 80% of your time doing problems 
  • Each problem is part of a family of problems where each procedure is a variation on the underlying concept. Use the course syllabus, lecture topics, and/or chapter headings to identify the main concepts of the course. 


  • Self-testing helps you identify what you don’t know. It improves memory by requiring you to recall specific information. Include some self-testing every time you sit down to study rather than saving it for last. 

These study strategies and more are part of the study plan. Download the exam study schedule and consult the resource on how to use three-hour study blocks effectively.

Avoid procrastination (as much as possible)

Build activities into your routine by pairing something you want to do (e.g., writing for 20 minutes) with something you already do (e.g., drinking coffee). First, do the thing you would like to do, and then do the thing that you would normally do immediately after. 

Connect with friends and classmates online to form a study group. We recommend about 25% of your study time should be spent studying (virtually) with others. 

Plan what you will do when procrastination tempts you by writing down the things you might do to avoid working (e.g., vacuum, watch YouTube), and then write down something you will do instead (e.g., schedule a different time to vacuum and put it in your calendar, then do five practice problems). When you think about procrastinating (e.g., vacuuming instead of studying), do the alternative thing you’ve written down.

Clarify your goals 

It’s easier to spend your time intentionally when you know what matters most to you. There’s a lot going on right now, so start by reminding yourself of what’s most important, academically.  

Then, focus on that. 

Goals are most effective when they are: 

  • specific 
  • 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. 

For more on goal setting, see SASS’s information on time management.

Reduce distractions 

Avoid multitasking. This means that when you’re working:  

  • your phone should be off and out of your reach 
  • you’re not checking social media
  • you don’t have any chat windows open 
  • you’re not watching a show or movie in the background
  • you have a clear sense of what you’re working on and for how long (e.g., “I want to work on the problems at the end of Chapter 12 for the next 45 minutes”).

Wear headphones. Some students find music (even if it is instrumental) distracting; you may prefer white noise or café noise to help your ability to focus.

Here are just some of the available options: Rainy moodCelestial white noiseDesign your own white noise, and Coffitivity. Headphones also act as an effective do-not-disturb signal to yourself and to those around you. 

Online exams

Open book exams are still demanding

Knowing the course content well will improve your chances of doing well. Even if there isn’t a timer running, the types of questions you will be expected to answer will focus on analysis and application of information you should already know and understand.

  • Use the course learning objectives (and, if available, weekly or unit learning outcomes) to organize the material.
  • Create unit or weekly summaries of the course content. Focus on the key concepts and how they are organized, connected, and related. Summaries come in all types of formats: 1-2 page “cheat sheets” or study notes; concept or mind maps to visually represent the information; summary tables to compare elements and their attributes, etc.

Organize your materials and notes

Don’t rely on your ability to find information that you need while you are writing the exam. To best prepare, create your own study and reference notes by using charts, graphic organizers, concept maps, or reference guides to organize main topics, themes, and information.

  • Reviewing for the exam will also build your familiarity with the course material. If you need to double-check something during the exam, make sure you’ll know where to look.
  • As you create your summaries, keep track of lecture slide numbers, page numbers, etc. to quickly and easily look up information. Add sticky notes, make lists, etc.

Know how the exam will be run before it begins

Can you preview the questions? Can you go back and change your answers?

  • Sometimes, you are not able to go back once you have pressed “next.” In these cases, we encourage you to record your answer first on scrap paper before transferring it online.
  • Read any/all instructions that you have and if possible, ask questions in advance.

Preparing to write an online exam

  • Select a testing space where you will be able to concentrate.
  • Be clear about what you need from those around you.
  • Turn off your phone.  
  • Make sure you have everything you will need:  
    • Computer and charger 
    • Good internet connection 
    • Notes and course material (if allowed) 
    • Scrap paper and a pen/pencil 
  • Avoid plagiarism  
    • Do not chat with friends while taking the exam 
    • Use your own words or cite as required  
    • Keep the exam questions to yourself once you are done writing the test  
  • Don’t forget to 
    • Save your work in case of glitches 
    • Keep the browser open until you are finished and have reviewed your work 
    • Submit the exam and take a screenshot
    • Seek assistance for any technical issues right away

Practice self-compassion

Support your mental health and immune function by getting a good night’s sleep, eating well, exercising, and staying in touch with friends and loved ones. Focusing on academic work doesn’t have to come at the expense of your health. 

  • Your feelings matterIt’s normal to feel anxious, stressed, worried, sad, angry, etc. 
  • Take time to regulate your own emotions. Try to accept what you cannot change and focus on what you can change. 
  • Build in social connections. Try online exercise classes, Instagram live events, group chats, etc. Set up regular social interactions with friends around your study schedule. Make plans to chat with family members in other households on a regular basis. 
  • Be realistic about your own expectations: for your ability to focus, for your productivity. Recognize your limits and do your best to work within them. Your own mental health is the priority. 
  • Deep breathing and meditation will reduce your stress and help prevent burnout (see, for example, loving kindness meditation). 
  • Reframe your perspective in as positive a way as possible (e.g., “I am not trapped at home, but safe at home,” and “Staying home is helping others stay safe and healthy). 
  • There are no norms and expectations for this time, so take advantage of this situation to form new habits, new routines, new traditions. These may be for yourselfwith those who are self-isolating with you, and/or with those you are keeping in contact with online. 
  • Set your foundation by promoting your sleep. Pre-bedtime rituals give you a sense of control and train your body to prepare for sleep. Be sure to regulate anxiety-provoking content just before bed; for example, after 8 p.m., put your phone away or at least don’t read the news.

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Motivation and procrastination

Do you ever feel like you just can’t get started?  Youre not alone. Avoiding tasks and putting things off is a habit, and you can change it. Try some of our recommended strategies to get back on track.

Motivation and procrastination can be difficult to manage on your own. For individual help, please book an appointment with an academic skills specialist.

You might also enjoy Dr. Timothy Pychyl’s podcasts on procrastination.

Start with yourselfSet goalsPrepare to changeStrategies to changeTry it: Proactive stepsGraduate students

Start with yourself

Start by reflecting briefly on your own work habits. Be kind to yourself as you reflect; we are all learning.

When it’s time to work on a task, do you… 

  • avoid it? 
  • need pressure to get started? 
  • feel stressed or guilty? 
  • feel dissatisfied with your results? 
  • keep polishing one assignment at the expense of meeting deadlines or completing other projects? 

What prompts your procrastinationPerhaps… 

  • you don’t understand what’s expected 
  • you have difficulty committing to a topic or decision 
  • you don’t feel like working or getting started 
  • the task seems intimidatingunpleasant or boring 
  • you spend too much time on one project 
  • you doubt the result is good enough, so you keep working. 

Are your barriers related to: 

  • the specific task? 
  • your work habits? 
  • your attitude or mindset? 

Now that you may have more insight into your habits, use the other sections in this topic to help yourself improve your motivation.

Set goals

Successfully completing even small steps toward a personally meaningful goal can be very motivating. 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:

  • specific
  • 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.

For example: “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
  • education
  • career
  • health
  • volunteering
  • finances
  • 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.

Prepare to change

What about your work habits would you like to change? Write down one or two things. Be specific. Why do you want to make this change?  

  • Think about the consequences you’ve faced in the past when you’ve delayed working on a task, or had low motivation for something.
  • If you continue to procrastinate, what will be the costs? If you change, what will be the rewards?
  • Write down three reasons to make this change 

Ask yourself, on a scale of 1 to 10: 

  • How important is it that I change? 
  • How confident am I that I can change? 
  • How ready am I to change now? 

Write down any barriers to change you can think of. As you read through the sections below, note down resources or strategies that you think will help you reduce these barriers. Keep your notes somewhere visible, such as at your desk or on a sticky note on your laptop. 

Strategies for change

When the problem is the task

Many people put off tasks when they aren’t sure how to proceed. If you find yourself avoiding an unfamiliar task, try these strategies:  

When the problem is your work habits

Habits and routines are powerful; adopting ones that remove the “will I or won’t I?” decisions out of your day allows you to be more productive.  

  • Develop a balanced daily routine that works for you. Build in time for meals, sleep, exercise, work time and relaxation time. Try our time management strategies and tools to get organized. 
  • Reduce distractions to improve your focus.  
  • Try working at the same time of day, at the same location.
  • Do challenging tasks when you’re most awake. 
  • Work with a motivated friend.  
  • Try the “five more” rule to get started or keep working: 
    • commit to five more minutes, pages, sentences, problems, etc. 
    • do it and congratulate yourself. 
    • make a choice: do five more, or stop. 
  • If you tend to overwork papers, limit the time or number of edits you allow yourself. 
  • If you think you work only under pressure, create an artificially short final deadline. 
  • Set multiple small deadlines for each stage of a project; share these deadlines with an accountability buddy—someone who will hold you to your promises. 

When the problem is your mindset

Be aware of your emotions as you approach or avoid a task. Discomfort is a signal. Ask yourself: are you unsure, bored, intimidated?  

  • If you feel uncomfortable, don’t give in! 
  • Stay on task, even just for a few minutes at first. Take one, very small, concrete step towards completing the task. Getting started is the hardest part, so keep the first step as small as you need to, so you actually do it.  
  • Congratulate yourself, and then identify the next very small step. Repeat. 
  • Practice this approach to staying on task, so you develop the ability to work for longer, despite unpleasant feelings. 
  • If you have lost interest in your school work, look at your school-life balance. Do you give yourself time to relax and recharge? Make a change and reduce your stress if you need to. 
  • Examine your standards. Is perfect your goal? Is it realistic? Give yourself permission to do work that is good enough. 
  • Face challenges with, “I haven’t learned this well enough, yet.” 
  • Avoid comparing yourself to others.  
  • Remember that intelligence is not fixed. Your abilities will strengthen with effort. 
  • Use the resources available to you; talk with an academic advisor, SASS staff, or a trusted prof.  

Developing new habits

  • Clearly and specifically define a habit you want to adopt. Start small. [give an example?] 
  • Link the new habit (ex., taking a walk) with an existing one (making coffee in the morning). 
  • Start today. 
  • Have an accountability buddy—someone who will start your new habit with you, or hold you to your promises. 
  • Keep in mind that it can take a few weeks of daily practice to establish a new habit. Keep trying; it all adds up. 
  • Be proud of your accomplishments. 
  • Enjoy the rewards of your efforts (feeling calmer, meeting deadlines, a sense of pride, etc.). 
  • Stay positive and resilient. Setbacks may happen, but you can persist. 
  • Accept that discomfort and effort are part of developing a new habit or attitude. Do it anyway; it will get easier over time. 
  • Remind yourself of your original reasons for wanting to change. 

Steps to overcoming procrastination

Avoiding procrastination takes self-regulation and conscious, continuous effort. When we make an intention to act, but then procrastinate, we don’t use the self-control necessary to act as we intended. We tend to procrastinate to avoid unpleasant feelings; we give in to what feels better in the moment. However, giving in like this usually works against our long-term goals.

For example, we might worry that we won’t do well on a complex assignment, so rather than get started on a task we think is challenging, we put it off to (temporarily) avoid those negative feelings of worry and self-doubt. Unfortunately, those negative feelings resurface later and add to the stress we feel about looming deadlines.

The good news is that we can overcome procrastination.

Things to remember:

  • procrastination is a habit, and it takes about 30 days to make a new habit
  • you must make pre-decisions
  • you can do this, even when your motivation isn’t at its strongest.

Follow the steps below to think about what you do now that contributes to your procrastination and make a plan to act differently. Write it down!

Recognize your red-flag thoughts

Do you know what you are thinking when you choose to procrastinate? Write down as many thoughts as you can. Common examples:

I work better under pressure / I’ll do it tomorrow / I’ll do it when I’ll feel better / I won’t start because I can’t get everything done now / it’s not that important / Facebook only takes 5 minutes / I need to clean my room / I’m a terrible writer / I’m going to fail anyway so why bother? etc.

Once you recognize what you say to yourself when you choose to procrastinate, you can decide in advance what you will do to change your habitual response to that thought. You can make pre-decisions!

Make a pre-decision

A pre-decision is an “If…I will instead…” statement.

  • The “if” part of the statement describes a typical thought or action that flags a choice to procrastinate.
  • The “I will instead” statement describes the action you’ll take instead of procrastinating.

When a red-flag thought leads you to procrastinate, you can move immediately to your pre-planned course of action.

For example: IF I say to myself “Facebook takes five minutes” I WILL INSTEAD close my browser or turn off my phone and put it across the room right away.

How does it work for you?

  • What are your flags? (If…)
  • What will you do when this flag comes up? (I will instead…)

Just get started, but keep the task small and concrete

Overcoming procrastination is about just getting started. If you think about a whole project, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s much more manageable to take just the first step. You may find you need to “just get started” many times throughout the day, even on the same task. This is common. Procrastination ends when we start.

Keep your first step simple and concrete: write the title page or begin your reference page if you are not ready to write. Jot down three ideas about what you would write if you could. Be kind to yourself! If you’ve gotten started, you are working and you can keep going.

Graduate students

Graduate students have to be motivated and self-regulated, because they work so independently.  It helps to have 

  • collaborative, respectful relationships with your supervisor and colleagues 
  • a sense of worth in your project and your academic community 
  • opportunities to work autonomously 
  • room to improve your skills and knowledge, and make mistakes, in a safe environment. 

Some challenges to motivation in graduate school

Knowledge / skill issues  

  • unclear expectations (of you generally, or for a particular project) 
  • not understanding information you’re expected to understand 
  • not yet feeling or being competent in an area 

Structural issues  

  • length or complexity of a project 
  • lack of structure 
  • increased responsibility 

Supervisor relationship issues  

  • mismatch in communication or working styles 
  • difficulty forming a collaborative relationship 
  • disagreements over priorities and goals 
  • lack of clarity regarding your responsibilities and independence 

Social/personal issues  

  • isolation  
  • lack of trust in self; fears and worries 
  • unbalanced work/personal life 
  • feeling overwhelmed 

Self-regulation issues  

  • habitual procrastination 
  • not managing distractions. 

Connect to your interests

Positive thoughts and feelings (pride, satisfaction, curiosity, confidence, etc.) can be very motivating in graduate school. You can develop these thoughts and feelings by following your interests.

Ask yourself about your interests: 

  • What topics or questions did you come to grad school to study? 
  • What readings or new findings do you find exciting, and why? 
  • What courses do you find the most interesting, and why? 
  • What problem in the world would you love to find a solution to? 
  • If you could design and work on any project, with no limits at all, what would it be? 
  • What topics or activities do you tend to lose yourself in? 

Look for connections between your answers to these questions and your area of research. If you can’t make any connections, consider talking to your supervisor, a mentor, or another trusted person.

Connect to others

Sharing ideas, problems and experiences with academic colleagues can support your motivation. Others can help you see the value of your work, share resources, give you constructive feedback, and reduce the sense of isolation so common in graduate school. Now is the time to build a sense of academic community! Try: 

  • finding a mentor  
  • joining a social or study group in your field, online or in person 
  • starting a writing group or thesis support group 
  • volunteering or working part-time in your discipline 
  • developing collaborative projects with faculty or postdocs 
  • setting up weekly meetings with another grad student to discuss and keep track of each other’s progress and increase accountability 
  • asking another student to occasionally read and edit your work before you send it to your supervisor; offer to do the same for them.

Improve work-life balance

It’s hard to feel motivated when you’re tired.

Academic life often fosters a hard-driving approach that prioritizes productivity over well-being. However, this approach has downsides: isolation, low mood, exhaustion, and reduced recreation. Over time, it can lead to “burn out,” stealing your energy, happiness, and health.

Taking time to hang out with friends and family, exercise, or take a nap is time well spent. Freeing your mind to wander sometimes supports creative, original thinking. The work-life habits you develop in graduate school can set you up for long-term success.

If you would like help establishing better work-life balance, see our resources on stress management, or book an appointment with an academic skills specialist or with a counsellor.

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Group work

Benefits and challengesCommunicationPlaying to strengthsPlanning and preparationIntercultural considerationsConflict resolutionResources

Benefits and challenges

Many students tell us they find group work challenging. So why is it a part of so many courses? Because it’s an effective way to learn. It gives students the opportunity to

  • develop employment skills in teamwork and project management
  • learn from others’ experiences, knowledge, and backgrounds
  • improve their own—and others’—ideas through group input
  • understand the cultural value of collaboration over individual effort.

Research suggests that group work promotes active learning and increases students’ understanding of the material, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Your group’s members may have differing but entirely legitimate ideas of what’s expected in terms of the work and deadlines, how you all communicateand more. Taking a flexible, respectful approach, and listening to everyone before creating a plan or expectations, can help the group succeed. 

SASS promotes an approach to group work that focuses on leveraging strengths, cultivating areas of growth, and anticipating potential conflicts. This approach requires a communal approach to shared responsibility and success common in cultures outside of English-speaking Canada, and especially in many of the Indigenous nations close to Queen’s.


Effective communication begins with getting to know your group members. The purpose of this activity is to establish shared expectations of what success in the project might mean. Aim to move beyond assumptions and stereotypes about who might have certain skills, knowledge, and experience. Your peers might have unexpected strengths that complement your own and the group’s skills.

Consider reflecting on your own strengths and areas for development before attending your first group meeting using our teamwork skills assessment tool.

At your first group meeting, learn about your group mates’ expectations, backgrounds, strengths, areas for growth, and take action accordingly. Consider cultural norms (e.g., being on time, direct/indirect communication), decision-making styles (e.g., leader decides vs. group decides), and making a plan and assigning specific tasks.

Good communication is the foundation of an honest, positive relationship. This means discussion and agreement about

  • the goal, assignment, and purpose of the group. What are you supposed to do?
  • deadlines. What are the time frames? What is a realistic work plan that will meet your deadline?
  • the meeting schedule. When and where will you meet? Make realistic and respectful choices, for all members.
  • expectations for attending group meetings. 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 ask the professor for assistance?

Playing to the group’s strengths

Group work is an opportunity for group members to develop new skills, but it’s also strategic to know who in your group is especially skilled at certain types of tasks. Either way, it is productive to take time to identify the skills in your group, perhaps by using a tool or inventory made for this purpose. For example, you might try this asset mapping tool. 

Assumptions and stereotypes about who has certain skills, knowledge, and experience can impede your group’s work and lead to a negative experience. Don’t assume someone lacks something because of how they look, their way of speaking English, and/or their past academic experiences. A member of your group might have an unexpected strength or an area of knowledge that does not match your own, but might complement the group. Do your best to stay aware of, and question, your own assumptions about others and their ability to contribute. 

Planning and preparation

Effective groups are organized. Plan and prepare carefully and realistically. Start by breaking the project down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Decide when each task should be done and assign sub-deadlines. Assume that, at some point, something will go wrongComputers break, people fall ill, students have to travel home for emergencies, the prof doesn’t respond to an email as quickly as you’d expected, some task is just complex, etc. Leave some flexibility for each sub-deadline—in project management, the rule of thumb is to add 10-15% more time to each task’s time estimate to allow for complications. 

  • Complete a project charter to ensure all group members understand and remember the agreed-upon procedures. This short (less than one page) document defines the key tasks or objectives, due dates, roles, and expectations for the group. Remember to clearly discuss the meaning of success for your group: adopting a communal attitude that succeeding together is more important than any individual’s grades is likely to be fruitful. The charter is your group’s roadmap; you will refer to it throughout the duration of your project. You may wish to have all group members sign the charter to improve accountability.
  • Complete the teamwork skills assessment form so each group member can indicate what they want to work on. 
  • Assign tasks appropriately. Tasks should be allocated with equal consideration for individual’s strengths and areas for growth. Once you’ve divided the project into parts, complete the asset mapping form so each group member can indicate what they want to work on.
  • Complete a work plan to keep track of who has been assigned which tasks. The plan should include the individual tasks, their deadlines, and the person(s) responsible for completing them. It should also include information on the agreed-upon procedure and communication plan if deadlines are missed
    • Here is a sample of a work plan from a science report.
    • You may wish to have all group members sign the work plan to improve accountability.

Intercultural considerations

Queen’s has a diverse community. One of the benefits of a diverse community is that its members have different ways of thinking and perceiving, communicating and interacting with others, and managing tasks. There is no one “correct” or “better” approach to any of these activities. Having multiple approaches among group members enriches the group’s work and makes it more inclusive, and therefore, in our society, more functional and valuable. 

Your group may find that cultural differences can affect meeting structure and timing, decision-making styles, communication styles, and more. 

Keep in mind that the considerations listed below are tendencies of cultures rather than set characteristics. One tendency is not inherently better than another. Developing awareness of these differences will help your group members understand each other and apply their strengths to various tasks. 

Individual vs group orientation

Some cultures tend towards collectivism, and others towards individualism. For members of collectivist cultures, all members’ voices and experiences are valuable. Therefore, listening fully to others as they share their ideas and experiences is important.  

In an academic context such as a group project, this means that each member should be able to contribute; this goal can affect elements such as meeting structure and timing, decision-making styles, communication styles, etc. It also encourages students to consider the diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and learning goals each group member may hold.

Holistic learning

holistic approach to education incorporates physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual dimensions. 

For more on what we can learn from and through indigenous perspectives on education, see What matters in Indigenous education: Implementing a vision committed to holism, diversity, and engagement (2016) and/or Aboriginal education in the Canadian context (2008). 


Cultural differences also arise in terms of how time is viewed. In cultures with monochronic tendencies, people are very aware of time and often express anxiety about using it well, wasting it, or losing it.  The common expectation is that people will tend to focus on one thing at a time, plan carefully, and complete tasks in a systematic way.  

People from polychromic cultures tend to see time as flexible. Multitasking in this culture is common; group members may working on multiple tasks concurrently or takcalls during meetings. 


People’s communication styles are also very much informed by their cultural identities and experiences, and the values they learn through these identities and experiences. 

Some group members may be very direct in their communication, focusing on clarity and efficiency. Direct communicators may take words at face value and might not analyze the message for underlying meaning. To some people, direct communicators may seem overly blunt, dismissive or disrespectful of their listeners. Others appreciate direct communication. 

Some group members may ascribe to a more indirect communication style, prioritizing politeness to avoid possible conflict or discomfort.  (For example, indirect communicators may say “maybe” or “possibly” when the real answer is “no.) Some people who are unaccustomed to this approach may want more clarity, perhaps via a concrete example or an analogy, from an indirect speaker.  

Difficulty can arise when a group member judges another group member’s communication by their own personal “standard” of communication or makes assumptions about why someone adopts a particular approach to communication.

Very often, group members are reluctant to ask for clarity or to share feelings of discomfort about someone’s way of communicating. It’s not easy to do, but it can help to ask, respectfully and openly, for clarification if someone’s meaning is unclear. Paraphrasing someone’s message back to them and asking if your interpretation is correct is another good way to build understanding. Consider suggesting to the group that you all try a new approach to communication and help them see why it could be valuable. 

Conflict resolution

Conflict is okay, and even expected. The important thing is to figure out a way to move past the conflict, ensure the group remains functioning and move forward. Some of the lessons in group work include how to cooperate, share responsibility, solve problems and maintain a sense of humour.

Potential problems include:

  • “groupthink (i.e., well-functioning groups who are comfortable with each other can often fall into the trap of thinking too much alike, and not questioning assumptions or challenging each other to consider different perspectives) 
  • leadership issues  (e.g., too many leaders, no leaders, poor leadership, power struggles, or one dominant leader who leaves no room for other voices) 
  • absent/struggling teammates 

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. A good way to facilitate solutions to disagreements is to reserve ten minutes of each group meeting to address issues; setting aside time to do so suggests that the group expects and accepts conflict as part of the process of group work, and recognizes the value of addressing conflict. 

Question your assumptions

  • What is it about the group member, or your perception of that member, that might be causing an issue? Commitments outside of school? Cultural misunderstandings? Lack of confidence participating in the group? Feeling left out of the group? 
  • Are you taking a helpful approach? Does this task / issue call for more democracy or more leadership? Is it best to tackle a particular thinking problem individually, then compare notes, or is it best to discuss it as a group? Your answers will have cultural dimensions, of course; although each approach might be more common in or feel more natural to a particular culture, students who can adapt and refine familiar approaches will benefit the most individually and as a group. 
  • Focus on the future, not the past. Focus on group goals, not individual “wins” or “losses”. Keeping the big picture in mind is helpful during conflict. 


  • Solve it tomorrow. 
  • State facts, not your opinions, about others’ behaviour. 
  • Praise your colleagues for work well done.
  • Remember your colleagues’ aim for growth.

Get help

Groups should not hesitate to bring up concerns with instructors—if there are issues, don’t wait until it’s too big to handle on your own. Inform your instructor during the work plan process. However, do raise concerns within the group first, in keeping with the goal of honest, positive relationship. Inform your instructor of the problem, intervention, and outcome so they are aware as the project continues. 

Additional resources

For more on what we can learn from and through indigenous perspectives on education, see What matters in Indigenous education: Implementing a vision committed to holism, diversity, and engagement (2016) and/or Aboriginal education in the Canadian context (2008).

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Studying for exams

Exams are a turning point in the year, signaling the end of a term’s hard work. Although this time of year is usually busy and often stressful for students, our strategies will help you do your best.

Get ready to studyStudy effectivelyThe study planHow to use 3-hour study blocksDuring the examExam typesAfter the exam

Get ready to study

Complete your course work

  • Go to all your classes and take good notes.
  • Complete assigned readings, preferably week by week instead of all at once.
  • Do homework questions; finish labs or assignments.
  • Get help for topics you don’t understand well.
  • See our end of term planner to identify and prioritize your end of term tasks.
  • Use our assignment planner to break a big project into smaller steps.

Get information about the exam

  • For clues about what to study, look at the course learning objectives, course description, and weekly topics listed on your course syllabus.
  • If there’s an exam review class, go to it.
  • Ask your prof or TA if the exam will focus on specific weeks of the course.
  • Ask your prof or TA about the exam’s format: the types of questions, length of exam, breakdown of questions (e.g., 50 multiple choice, 5 short answer), weighting.
  • Look at old exams, assignments, and tests for question types, topics, and key concepts.

Spread out your studying: do small amounts over time

  • See our exam study schedule template and instructions.
  • Check out how to use three-hour study blocks.
  • Break down the content of each course into meaningful chunks. “Meaningful” might involve
    • what you can reasonably study in a three-hour block of time,
    • what content is connected thematically or conceptually, and/or
    • what you want to spend the most time on, like challenging or unfamiliar material.

Improve your memory of course content

  • Pay attention to what you’re trying to learn (see focus and concentration).
  • Learn the content first, to understand it; study it afterwards, to remember it.
  • Be efficient: review what you’ve learned frequently, in brief sessions spread out over time.
  • Get 7-9 hours of sleep at night; eat healthy foods at regular intervals; exercise for at least 150 minutes per week.
  • Learn more about how to improve your memory.

Study effectively

Organize material meaningfully

  • Identify the main concepts of a course; look at the course syllabus and description, and textbook chapter titles or lecture topics.
  • Make summary sheets for the main topics in a course; select content for these from your lecture / reading notes. 
  • Try using charts to organize information that includes repeat types of information.
  • Fill in concept summary sheets for math or problem-solving courses, to identify key underlying concepts.
  • Create mind maps to identify relationships among main concepts and to distinguish big ideas from sub-points.
  • Look over the material to identify less familiar content; spend more time studying this material.


Elaboration helps to make meaning from the material being studied. It’s a way to go beyond memorizing to applying and analyzing.

  • Go beyond questions that ask “what” to questions that ask “how” and “why.”
  • Explain the relationships between two or more concepts.
  • Apply the concept to a new situation or create an analogy.
  • Connect unfamiliar material with information you already know.
  • Make connections between key concepts and the broader themes or applications of the course material.
  • Clarify the meaning of ideas.
  • Make inferences.
  • Analyze the idea/concept for its component parts.

Solve problems

Work through problems and then review related concepts or theories. Spend about 20% of your time reviewing concepts and 80% of your time doing math. 

Each problem is part of a family of problems where each procedure is a variation on the underlying concept. Use the course syllabus, lecture topics, and/or chapter headings to identify the main concepts of the course. 


One of the most effective ways to study, self-testing helps you identify what you don’t know. It improves memory by requiring you to recall specific information. Include some self-testing every time you sit down to study rather than saving it for last. 

  • Answer the questions on old exams and practice problems.
  • Make up your own questions.
  • Use flashcards or quizlets.
  • Study as a group: quiz each other and explain your answers.
  • If you can’t find a study group, try quizzing yourself out loud.

The study plan

Download and fill in the exam study schedule template. (Includes detailed instructions!)

Studying efficiently over five days is a great goal for many undergraduate exams.

A study plan reduces your stress because it helps you stay on track and prioritize healthy habits. The SASS study plan allows you to consider how much time you may need for different courses and helps you distribute your review time among all of them. It includes:

This study schedule works best when you have a period of time with no classes, such as the study week before finals in December and April. Ideally, try to finish the term work of readings, assignments, quizzes, presentations, etc. by the last day of classes in Week 12, so you can then shift to “study mode.” For classes with unfinished term work, you will need to both finish the course requirements and study during the exam period.

Key planning tips 

  • Aim for a sustainable study schedule. It’s like training for a marathon; every day makes a difference.
  • The two-hour breaks are essential. They allow your brain to consolidate the information you’ve been rehearsing, and allow you to relax, eat, and exercise.
  • Try to schedule study blocks at the same time of day that the course’s exam is scheduled.
  • Study for two or three courses in a day.
  • Maximize your memory by distributing, for example, 15 hours of study over five or six days, rather than over two or three days.
  • Study the hardest material during your peak learning times.
  • Build in down time.

Try not to study nine hours each day. It’s OK not to study every available minute!

How to use three-hour study blocks

After you’ve made an exam study schedule, your next challenge is to balance the time you have available with the volume of material you have to study, to make a great study plan.

For each course:

  • Count the number of blocks of study time that you estimated for the schedule (not including any catch-up blocks you needed).
  • Divide your course material into chunks, so that the number of chunks equals one less than the number of blocks (e.g., 5 blocks and 4 chunks, 7 blocks and 6 chunks). Chunks can be divided into topics or units, or number of pages, or importance of the material within the whole course, or chapters, or in any other meaningful way.

If each chunk cannot realistically be covered in 2 or 2.5 hours, you may need to rethink your exam study schedule to re-allocate the study time you have available, or alter your expectations of your preparedness for the exam.

  • In each three-hour block of time, spend about 10-20 minutes reviewing recently studied material, about 2.5 hours studying fresh material, and about 15 minutes testing yourself on the fresh material.
  • Take breaks over the three-hour block of time, to allow information to be consolidated in your memory (e.g., 50 minutes on and 10 minute break, every hour for three hours).
  • Enjoy non-intellectual activities for two hours between study blocks to further support your memory. Stretch, go for a walk, eat, relax, and check your phone. Set a timer if you need to end your break on time.

See here for a sample plan (5 days, 15 hours). Five study days, producing 15 efficient study hours, is just an example—your courses may need more or a bit less.

Your plan will reflect your own needs. Many students study between 10-20 hours for each exam.

Remember to take short breaks during a three-hour block.

What does it mean to study? Summarize using an organized structure (e.g., mind map, table, concept summary, Cornell notes) to see relationships and connections between ideas, and review this structure as often as you need.

What does it mean to self-test? Answer practice questions from your text, assignments, or Exam Bank, or ones you have created based on the course learning objectives or tips from your prof about what is most important.

What does it mean to review? A more general refreshing of your memory, focusing on what you did not know during your self-test of that content.

What is a comprehensive mini-exam? A practice exam, written under “real exam” conditions (e.g., times, formula sheet, open book).

During the exam

Having a plan for how you’ll tackle an exam can make a big difference. Here are some things to try.

  • Aim to stay calm and relaxed so you can think. Here are some strategies to try.
  • Jot down how much time you think you’ll need for each set of questions. Stick to your planned time budget as much as possible.
  • Read instructions and questions carefully.
    • Read each question at least twice before you answer it. Many students lose marks because they rush to answer questions and misread them.
    • Watch for qualifying words such as “not,” “some,” or “most of the time.”
  • Do a memory dump. Jot down any information you’re worried you’ll forget before answering any questions.
  • Do the questions you know first to build confidence.
  • Review your answers before handing in your exam to catch mistakes, and ensure you’ve answered questions thoroughly and clearly.

Exam types

Different types of exam questions call for different strategies. When you know what type of questions you’re likely to face, you can use this information to decide how best to study.

Multiple choice exams

  • Read and answer the question before reading the choices. Then select the best option. Several options may have correct elements.
  • Begin by answering all the questions you know in the exam booklet. Transfer your answers to the scantron sheet in groups of ten questions.
  • Code the answers you don’t know: ? for the ones you need more time for and X for the ones you have no idea about.
  • Return to ? questions first, then X questions if the time permits.

Take-home exams

  • Know the professor’s expectations. Check the course syllabus.
  • Demonstrate your understanding of the course content by applying, analyzing, or evaluating–not just repeating facts.
  • Flag important content in your textbook and notes.
  • Know where you can find resources (e.g., library, websites).
  • Prepare exam aids, such as formula sheets, ahead of time.
  • Reduce distractions while writing the exam.
  • Take short breaks as time allows.

Lab exams (bell-ringers)

  • Take a moment to orient yourself at each station. Look at the visual. Understand what you need to do.
  • Some questions ask more than one thing; answer these fully.
  • Don’t leave the answer sheet blank; you might get part marks for an incomplete answer.
  • Check your answers if you get a rest station.
  • Breathe and stretch while rotating.

Essay exams

  • Your argument should be organized, clear, concise, accurate, and relevant to the question.
  • Brainstorm. Jot down key concepts, theories, facts, or themes.
  • Outline your essay before you start writing.
  • Include one main idea per paragraph. Offer evidence and interpretation.
  • Start and finish with strong opening and closing statements. Write these last.
  • This is not the time to fuss over choosing the right word. Answer the question as well as you can, then move on.

Problem-solving exams

  • Take time to think about the problem. Exactly what do you need to solve?
  • Ask yourself: what concept(s) or theory does this problem cover?
  • Write down all the givens in bullet form.
  • Draw a clear diagram with all conventions: label axes, directions, etc.
  • Keep expressions algebraic, not numeric.
  • Show every step as you solve the problem.
  • Check your answer for common sense (e.g., magnitude, dimensions).
  • Verify your answer using another method, if possible.

Short answer exams

  • Start with a strong, focused topic sentence.
  • Use a simple organizational structure: point, evidence or example, and interpretation.
  • Add a summary sentence to recap if applicable.

After the exam

  • Take a break; get some exercise and food, take a nap, etc.
  • If you have more exams to write, follow your study schedule.
  • If you don’t have more exams to write, enjoy some time off from school.
  • Once your prof has marked your exam, go look at it. Figure out what you did well, and where you went wrong, so you can do better next time. 

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Course-specific exam study guides

An example of the study strategies format.

All study strategies documents above are available for download as PDFs. We have also included helpful one-page summary handouts for each course. Note that these course-specific strategies also apply to upper year courses.

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Drop-in events and coaching

No registration is necessary for these events—come and take advantage of these opportunities for free individualized support.

Ongoing eventsScheduled events

Ongoing events

Drop-in academic skills support

Thursdays 5:00pm – 7:00 pm beginning September 12, 2019 | Stauffer Library, Room 143

No appointments necessary to come discuss your academic skills with our upper-year coaches. They can help with reading, time management, writing, critical thinking, test prep, procrastination, motivation and more!

Drop-in EAL support

Wednesdays 6:00pm – 8:00pm beginning September 18, 2019 | Stauffer Library, Rm  143

If English isn’t your first language, stop by for help with your work, whether it be a piece of writing, readings, or a presentation. An EAL assistant will sit down with you, one-on-one, for 15 minutes at a time to answer your questions, give you feedback, and offer strategies.

Writing lab for graduate students

Mondays and Thursdays 9:00am – 12:00pm | Graduate Student Reading Room (3rd floor, Stauffer Library)

Looking for graduate student support? SASS runs a Grad Writing Lab twice a week. All disciplines welcome; no registration necessary. Just bring your work and your questions on writing. An academic writing specialist will be on site.

Scheduled events

The following opportunities for individualized support in academic skill development are hosted by our SASS peers.

  • How to study for…
    Tuesday, September 10, 2019 (5:00pm – 7:00pm) | Victoria Hall Lobby
    Drop by our tables in Vic Hall Lobby to chat to trained upper-year students for advice on getting a head start in complex first-year courses including: BIOL102, CHEM112, ECON100, PSYC100, ENGL100, HIST124 and others.
  • Get it done!
    Sunday, November 24, 2019 (12:00pm – 7:00pm) | Ban Righ Dining Hall
    Join us all day for a festival of effective studying! Peer and pro staff will be on hand to help you complete assignments, write papers, start prepping for exams, or work on anything else you need help with. Snacks and drinks provided!
  • Your questions answered
    Saturday, November 30 (12:00pm – 4:00pm) | Stauffer Library Atrium
    Our peer volunteers will be on hand to answer your questions about how to prep for tough first-year exams. Chat for 5 minutes or stay for an in-depth conversation about BIOL102, CHEM112, ECON100, PSYC100, ENGL100, HIST124, and others.

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Math problem solving

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 habitsWhat to do when you're stuckHow to solve problemsProblem solving toolsStudyingResources

Helpful habits

Math is about creativity and making sense of the world. It’s also about connections and communication. It’s not just about getting the right answer. One of the most effective things you can do is to try to shift your thinking—about math and about your own ability.

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 the ones from earlier in the term.
  • Having trouble managing your time? Make an appointment with a learning strategies advisor; we can help!

Be thorough. Don’t just rush through problem sets.

  • Take a systematic approach (e.g., Polya’s problem-solving techniques).
  • Read and define the problem first; this takes time, but it’s worth it.
  • Look for and understand the underlying concept (the “why” or “big picture”) of each question, not just the procedure for solving it.
  • Produce a complete and well-reasoned solution, not a superficial one.
  • Aim for accuracy before you aim for speed.
  • Spend time on challenging questions, not just familiar ones.

Recognize repeat concepts.

  • Most math courses ask you to do hundreds of problems, but the problems usually fall under a handful of fundamental 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 (e.g., how are the concepts similar, how are they different?).
  • The learning objectives of a course syllabus often tell you what the key concepts are.

Self-assess and reflect.

  • Monitor your thought process while solving problems (e.g., by using decision steps).
  • Reflect on how you present your thinking. Is it clear and purposeful?
  • Monitor your progress and change course if necessary.
  • Use incorrect answers and failures to motivate a change in strategy.
  • Ask, “does this make sense?” and,”did I solve the problem/answer the question?”
  • Check the reasonableness of your answer.

Don’t give up.

  • Expect math to be a challenge and to take time. Keep trying.
  • Mistakes are valuable! They aren’t a sign that you’re bad at math; they’re a necessary part of the process.
  • Questions are important. Get help when you are stuck. (And take a break when you feel frustrated.)
  • Be optimistic. The problem does have a solution.
  • Don’t assume you’re not a math person. Everyone can do math at a post-secondary level.

What to do when you’re stuck

Math can be challenging and takes time to master. To keep going, even when it’s difficult, you need to use your resources. You don’t have to figure this out on your own!

  • Ask questions: TAs, professors, and peers want you to succeed and will generally welcome questions.
    • If you don’t know where to start with a problem, you can still explain in general what you know about the concept, and what you’re thinking of doing.
    • If you’re stuck in the middle of a problem, but know what to do next, make up an answer for the step you’re stuck on and use it to solve the rest of the problem. Then get help. Your attempt at a solution will get you better feedback from your TA/professor and will mean more than no attempt at all.
  • Self-assess throughout your course as an active way to monitor your own understanding. Thinkabout
    • where you need to be (see learning objectives from the course syllabus),
    • where you are now (your background knowledge, past experience, etc.), and
    • how to get where you need to be.
  • Use the concept summary and decision steps tools to deepen your understanding and awareness of the key concepts, and to improve your ability to recognize and solve problems related to those concepts.
  • Make math more social to boost your skills, motivation, and confidence. Work with others: share resources, talk through solutions, and explain concepts to each other.
  • Check out other SASS resources: academic skills resources, subject-specific academic 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. Thinking through a problem will deepen your understanding and help clarify the questions you will ask peers, TAs, or profs.

Before you start your homework questions, review your class notes and/or the 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 keywords in the problem that point to a particular concept?
  • Try to identify a key course concept that applies to the problem. See our concept summary tool.
  • 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…” as ways to see the problem in a new way.
  • Predict/explain as you go, to understand more analytically. See our decision steps tool. Similarly, you can use a two-column approach to your notes: one for the solution steps and one for your explanation of why you’re taking each step.
  • Work out loud; notice what strategies you’re using and why.

Concept summary

(Fleet, Goodchild, & Zajchowski, 2006)

Concepts are general organizing ideas. A course usually covers a few main concepts, 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: Concept summary. Example of a concept summary for Equilibrium of a Rigid Body (Physics).


Decision steps

(Fleet, Goodchild, & Zajchowski, 2006)

This tool 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 linked 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



In math-based courses, the goal should be to focus on problem solving, not reading. For example, if you have six hours a week to study, spend one hour reading and five hours doing problems.

Use problem sets effectively

  • Do problems to mastery. Once you’ve mastered one kind of problem set, don’t worry if you haven’t finished every single problem—move on to the next type, or apply what you’ve learned in a different context.
  • Use the answer key strategically. Avoid looking at the answer key while you work on a problem, but then check to see if your answer is correct.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Work backwards. For problems where you are given the answer but don’t know the starting point, begin at the end and work backwards to undo the problem step by step.
  • Use images. What can you draw to help yourself understand and solve the problem? Can you make a mental picture or otherwise visualize this problem?

Study techniques

  • 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.

For more study strategies, see our test and exam preparation section.


Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing students’ potential through creative math, inspiring messages and innovative teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Wiley.

McMaster University’s academic resources website, which features three videos on problem solving:

Fleet, J., Goodchild, F., & Zajchowski, R. (2006). Learning for success: Effective strategies for students (4th Edition). Thomson Nelson.

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Parents and students exploring campus during SOAR (Summer Orientation to Academics and Resources)

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.

FAQsAcademicsIntellectual development

Frequently asked questions

My student is coming to Queen’s in September! What can they do to prepare themselves academically?

A good starting point is Academics 101. This online resource describes academic expectations, essential skills and habits, and resources for first-year students. Your student may also like to see our online resources for students who have English as an additional language, or who are international or exchange students.

Can I book a SASS appointment for my student, or register them for a SASS workshop?

When they arrive at Queen’s, students can register for appointments with our online booking system; it’s easy and quick for them to do. Students can visit our workshops page for information about our popular academic skills workshops. As a parent or guardian, you can help your student by reminding them of these resources and encouraging them to sign up for themselves.

Can you confirm if my student attends a SASS appointment or a workshop?

We do not confirm registration or attendance to parents / guardians. SASS follows the University’s confidentiality policy regarding academic, personal, health and other student information. We can share information about students only when they have given us specific written permission. We encourage students and their parents / guardians to communicate directly with each other.

Parents/guardians with serious concerns about their students may contact the Director of SASS.

Does SASS help only students who are getting low marks?

No. SASS helps all students—struggling, high-achieving, and everyone in between—from their first year of undergraduate studies through to PhD level. Students come to us for many reasons and from many different contexts. Our objective is to help students develop skills, strategies and confidence for their individual circumstances.

My student had an IEP / accessibility accommodation in high school. How can you help?

SASS works with all students to support them in their academic skill development, but we do not specialize in working with students with disabilities or accommodations; we refer students with questions about accessibility or accommodations to Queen’s Student Accessibility Services (QSAS).

In terms of how SASS can help your student, we recommend our online resources, our workshops and our writing and learning appointments.

My student seems overwhelmed and stressed by their studies. How can I help them?

Academic demands can certainly feel stressful at times. Learning to recognize the signs of stress and to manage their stress is an important skill your student can develop. We recommend that you review our very thorough online resource on academic stress, and encourage your student to do the same. You can use this resource as a starting point for talking about how your student is doing and how they might take steps to manage their stress. This resource includes links to a variety of helpful resources at Queen’s; students can use these links to seek help.

Parents/guardians with serious concerns about their students may contact the Director of SASS.

My student did not get the mark they were hoping for on an assignment, and now they are worried that their marks won’t be high enough to let them into a particular program. How can SASS help?

Students who would like to study in a particular program should meet with their academic advisor; most undergraduate students can find their academic advisor listed on the ArtSci, Engineering, Nursing, or Business pages.

Students who would like to understand “where they went wrong” on an assignment or exam can meet with their professor / TA.

Students who would like feedback on their writing can book a writing appointment at SASS; our writing consultants cannot comment on marks or comments from professors or TAs, but they can review a piece of writing with a student to identify areas of strength and weakness, and work with the student to help them develop their skills.

Similarly, many students benefit from learning skills appointments, in which they can learn new strategies and habits that can support their academic success.

Another possible starting point is our Subject-Specific Academic Resources listing.

My student has received a fine from SASS.

You can find information about fines and our appointment policies here.

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.

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Two-way or double nouns

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).

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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

Reading context

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.

Before reading

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.”

During reading

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.

After 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

3-step approach

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.

SQ4R method

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.

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Taking notes

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

Active note-taking

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.

3-step approach

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:

  1. read the paragraph or slide, focusing on understanding the material—don’t write anything down yet
  2. take notes (paraphrase the main idea, jot down any questions)
  3. 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.

Cornell method

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.

Concept summary

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.

Mind maps

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.

After-class summary

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.

Weekly summary

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.

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Support for students with English as an additional language (EAL)

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.

SASS staff pose prior to a presentation.

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

EAL appointments

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.

Weekly programs

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.

Write Nights

Write Nights

  • What is it? A chance to learn about and practice English academic writing
  • When? Tuesday evenings, 5:30pm-7:30pm
  • 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 Write Nights 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 Write Nights 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.”

Drop-In EAL Support

Drop-In EAL 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? Monday and 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.


Oxford English Dictionary: comprehensive, traditional dictionary

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English: entries include collocations (i.e. words that go together, like prepositions or common phrases)

Oxford Learner’s Dictionary: entries include definitions, collocations, audio examples of pronunciation, sentence examples, and alternative forms of the word

Linguee: translation tool with concrete examples in both languages, plus examples of the word in external sources

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

Academic language

English Spelling, Oxford Dictionary: explanations of tricky spelling trends

Academic Phrasebank, Manchester University: categorized templates of academic phrases to express specific ideas (e.g., “introduce a new topic”)

Understanding Vocabulary in Context, Douglas College: explanation of strategies and corresponding practice exercises

Lexical Notebook, British Council: strategy for creating a new vocabulary notebook

YouGlish: tool that uses YouTube videos on academic / professional / technical topics to show the pronunciation of English words in context

Independent study: work on English by yourself over time

ELC Study Zone, University of Victoria: lessons and practice for English language learners that are categorized by language level—lessons include grammar, reading and listening, and vocabulary

BBC Learning English:

TED Ed: approximately 5-minute videos with corresponding comprehension questions, discussion questions, and extended reading

Grammar Girl: blog on various grammar and language-related topics

Reading List, Queen’s School of English: suggested fiction for English language learners

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) (eal.sass@queensu.ca).

Frequently asked questions

Does SASS offer ESL support?

Yes, it does! At SASS, we have switched to using the term, English as an Additional Language, or EAL, instead of ESL. The reason for this is to acknowledge that some students speak more than two languages. If you’re looking for ESL support, visit our EAL page.

What does English as an Additional Language or EAL mean?

When we refer to students with English as an additional language, we mean students who learned to speak English after their first language or who are multilingual.

What does Academic English mean?

Just as there is British English, Ghanaian English, and Indian English, you can think of Academic English as a particular variety of the English language that is intended for a specific audience. Academic English refers to the specific vocabulary, style, and conventions that we consider most appropriate and effective when communicating with an academic audience. We use Academic English in scholarly articles for publication in journals, writing assignments for university courses, presentations for academic conferences, etc.

What academic skills can the EAL program help me with?

The EAL program can help you with reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills as they relate to your academics. For more information about what each of these sessions can cover, refer to our language skills descriptions.

How are EAL appointments different from writing and learning strategies appointments?

SASS has three appointment programs, each offering a different but related service to students. In writing appointments, students can learn general writing skills and get feedback on a particular academic writing assignment, such as an essay or a lab report. Learning strategies appointments are for all of the academic skills students need to be successful outside of writing—time management, note-taking, presentations, etc. The EAL program is an intersection of both writing and learning, but specifically through the lens of academic English.

For example, a student may have a learning strategies appointment to work on reading strategies, and then have an EAL appointment to work on understanding English vocabulary in readings.

Another example could be a student who has a writing appointment to get feedback on an essay for History 122, and then has biweekly EAL appointments to work on sentence structure and verb tenses in academic writing in general.

Can I get someone to edit my paper?

No, there are no editing services offered by Queen’s University. At SASS, our mission is to help you develop the academic skills you need to edit and improve your own work. We can, however, help you identify types of grammatical errors and describe strategies for fixing them. If you would like feedback on a particular writing assignment or advice on general writing skills, book a writing appointment; if you would like to work on your academic English writing, book an EAL appointment.

Do EAL appointments count towards my limit of 6 writing appointments?

No, EAL appointments are separate from writing appointments. Students will decide with the EAL Coordinator how many EAL appointments they will have during the initial consultation. This number depends on each individual student’s needs and the plan that will best support the student in developing their goals.

Does SASS help students in all faculties and departments?

Yes, SASS can help students in all faculties and at all levels of degree. Every program at Queen’s requires strong academic communication skills; the EAL program can help students develop their skills, regardless of their research focus or concentration.

I am an international student. Where can I go for advice on how to be successful at university?

International and exchange students can start by reviewing our resource about the Canadian academic environment.

International and exchange students looking for advice about transition to Canadian culture, immigration, health insurance, housing, or other essential services while studying in Canada can access an International Student Advisor at the Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC).

Students looking for advice related to cultural adaptation, adjusting to a new cultural / academic environment, negotiating relationships with peers or professors, or other wellness-related topics can get confidential support from the cross-cultural counsellor.

Students looking for advice about choosing courses or degree requirements can contact their relevant academic advisor from their faculty. Find a range of academic counselling options here.

What can I do if…

I want to practice on my own?

Students can explore our online modules on a variety of writing and learning topics, or visit these external websites for additional English practice.

I am looking for someone to help me practice speaking?

For practice in conversational English, you can attend the Conversation Group every Thursday evening at the QUIC. Additionally, you might be interested in the mentoring programs offered by the Student Experience Office to learn about getting the most out of your student experience. Join the Peer Mentor Program or Q Success, if you are a first-year student.

If you are looking for more intensive support, you can book a pronunciation session with the EAL Specialist. For independent practice, SASS has adaptive reading software available for students to use. Book time with the software by contacting the EAL specialist.

I am fairly confident in my English speaking/ writing but want to keep improving?

SASS helps all students—struggling and high-achieving, 1st-year to PhD—improve their writing, learning, organization, and studying skills. The same is true for students at all levels of English proficiency. Our services are not remedial; rather, we are focused on supporting all students in continuing to develop their skills.

I will be away from campus but still want to work on my English?

Registered Queen’s students are able to book online appointments for EAL support. Online appointments happen using an integrated tool in our booking system, WC Online. If you already have access to the Academic English Skills Support schedule, simply choose the “meet online” option when booking an appointment. To get access to this schedule, please fill out this request form.

Students can also practice with our online resources and exercises on external websites.

I’m an Engineering student and have to pass the EPT. Can you help me prepare?

Yes! You can have an EAL appointment to work on strategies for effective writing or practice EPT-style exercises.

I am a graduate student?

SASS supports graduate students in their academic skills development. Graduate students can book appointments for writing, learning, and academic English. Although our professional staff may not necessarily be experts on your subject matter, they will be able to provide you with strategies that will improve your writing and develop your academic skills.

In addition to appointments, graduate students can attend weekly programming, like the Grad Writing Lab, and participate in Expanding Horizons workshops. They should also visit our graduate student page for additional resources.

I don’t know where to start?

If you are a student who speaks English as an additional language (EAL), start by booking an EAL consultation. You will have the opportunity to meet with the coordinator to create a plan that will best support you in achieving your academic goals.

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Presentation skills

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 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.).


Handling questions

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.

Seminar presentations

  • 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. 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.

For example:

  • “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.

Body language

  • 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.

Visual aids

  •  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.

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Academic stress

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
  • procrastination
  • 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
  • irritability
  • physical tension and/or illnesses
  • avoidance/procrastination
  • 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

Take stock

  • 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: “impostor 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

Add structure

  • Make a task list; make it as complete as possible.
  • Break large tasks into small, specific ones (try our assignment planner).
  • 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.

Get help

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.)

There are plenty of resources on campus to help you; please ask for help if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

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Managing your time at university

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.

PrioritizingWhere does your time go?Estimating timeSchedulingHelpful toolsEfficiency tipsTroubleshooting guideGraduate students


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.

A-B-C method

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.

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.

To-do lists

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
  • prioritize
  • 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.

Estimating time

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.


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.]

Scheduling tips:

  • 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.

Helpful tools

  • 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 planner: 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.

Efficiency tips

  • 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.

Troubleshooting guide

“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 students

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?

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Focus and concentration

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.

Manage distractions

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.

Get started

  • 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.

Motivate yourself

  • 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.

In lectures

  • 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.

More resources

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.

[1] 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.


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