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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 habitsHow to solve problemsProblem solving strategiesWhat to do when you're stuckCommon issues/problemsStudyingResources

Helpful habits

Spend enough time on your math courses.

  • See how you do by putting in 8-10 hours per week on each course (this time includes time you spend in class, labs, etc.).
  • Spread out your work; do some math every day. It will add up.
  • Keep up with the homework; concepts later in the term build on concepts from earlier in the term.
  • Having trouble with time management? See us at SASS; we can help!

Don’t give up.

  • Expect math to take time and to be a challenge, and just keep trying.
  • Mistakes and uncertainty aren’t a sign that you’re bad at math. They’re part of the process.
  • Get help or take a break when you are stuck or frustrated.
  • Be optimistic; the problem does have a solution.
  • Don’t assume you’re “not a math person.” Everyone can improve their math skills.

Recognize repeat concepts.

  • Most math courses ask you to do hundreds of problems, but the problems usually fall under only a few key concepts that you’ll revisit in different forms over the term.
  • Learn to identify and understand these few concepts and their relationships to each other, and recognize them when they take different forms.
  • The learning objectives of a course syllabus often tell you what the key concepts are.

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

  • Take a systematic approach. Many mathematicians use Polya’s.
  • Read and define the problem first; this takes time.
  • Look for and understand the underlying concept of each question.
  • Produce a complete and well-reasoned solution, not a superficial one.
  • Aim for accuracy before you aim for speed.

Use your resources.

  • TAs and professors want you to succeed and will generally welcome questions, even if you don’t know where to start.
  • Make math more social to boost your skills, motivation and confidence. Work with others: share resources, talk through solutions with each other, and explain concepts to each other.
  • Check out resources at SASS: online resources, workshops and appointments.

How to solve problems

Practice problems are for figuring out, and then practicing, new and different ways to solve a type of problem. The process is what matters.

Before you start your homework questions, review your class notes / relevant textbook chapter, and identify the key concepts that they describe. Try working a sample problem from your notes or text, without looking at the solution, to see if you understand the idea. Then try the homework problems:

  • Think of problems as a way to communicate, from the problem-setter to you. Ask: what do we know (givens)? What can we do? Are there clues or buzzwords in the problem that point to a concept?
  • Try to identify a key course concept that applies to the problem. See our concept summary strategy.
  • Diversify your thinking; there’s often more than one way to solve a problem.
  • Accept mistakes as a valuable part of the learning process.
  • Identify where you get stuck and, if you can, why.
  • Prepare questions to bring to your TA / prof / help desk.
  • Model the problem, draw it, talk it out, use analogies, change something (e.g., the scale), or ask “what if…” to see the problem in a new way.
  • Predict / explain as you go, to understand more analytically.
  • Work out loud; notice what strategies you’re using and why.
  • Use a two-column approach to notes (one for the solution steps and one for your explanation of why you’re taking each step, including when you are uncertain).

What good problem-solvers do

  • describe their thoughts aloud as they solve the problem.
  • occasionally pause and reflect about the process and what they have done.
  • don’t expect their methods for solving problems to work equally well for others.
  • write things down to help overcome the storage limitations of short-term memory (where problem solving takes place).
  • focus on accuracy and not on speed.
  • work with others.
  • spend a lot of time reading and defining the problem.
  • when defining problems, they patiently build up a clear picture in their minds of the different parts of the problem and the significance of each part.
  • use different tactics when solving exercises and problems. Some tactics that are ineffective in solving problems include:
    • trying to find an equation that includes precisely all the variables given in the problem statement, instead of trying to understand the fundamentals needed to solve the problem
    • trying to use solutions from past problems even when they don’t apply
    • trial and error
  • use an evidence-based, systematic strategy (such as read, define the stated problem, explore to identify the real problem, plan, do it, look back). They are flexible in my application of the strategy.
  • monitor their thought processes while solving problems.

Source: Woods, D.R., Felder, R.M., Rugarcia, A., Stice, J.E. (2000). The Future of Engineering Education III: Developing Critical Skills. Chemical Engineering Education, 34 (2), 108-117.

Problem solving strategies

  • Work with a good problem solver and compare your thought process to theirs.
  • Working in groups can be helpful to share ideas, but do some of each problem type yourself…exams are solo events!
  • Don’t try to use solutions from other problems that don’t apply. Focus on identifying underlying concepts first.
  • In labs: relate experiment or process to problems in class. Do specific equations describe phenomenon being observed in the lab?
  • Check your work using a different method, if possible.


General problem solving strategy

Based on D.R. Woods, “Problem–based Learning,” 1994.

A systematic approach to problem solving helps the learner gain confidence, and is used consistently as a blueprint by expert problem solvers as a way to be methodical, thorough and self-monitoring. This model is used in life generally, as well as in the sciences. The steps are not linear, and multiple processes are happening in your brain simultaneously, but the basic template hinges on effective questioning as you carry out various steps:

Engage and define the stated problem.

Invest in the problem through reading about it and listening to the explanation of what is to be resolved. Your goal is to learn as much as you can about the problem before you begin to actually solve it, and to develop your curiosity (which is very motivating). Successful problem solvers spend two to three times longer doing this than unsuccessful problem solvers. Say “I want to solve this, and I can”.

Define the stated problem

  • Understand the problem as it is given you (ie., “What am I asked to do?”)
  • Ask “What are the givens? the situation? the context? the inputs? the knowns? etc.
  • Determine the constraints on the inputs, the solution and the process you can use. For example, “you have until the end of class to hand this solution in” is a time constraint.
  • Represent your thinking conceptually first, by reading the problem, drawing a pictorial or graphic representation or mind map (see example attached), and then a relational representation.
  • Then represent your thinking computationally, using a mathematical statement

Explore and search

Explore and search for important links between what you have just defined as a problem, and your past experience with similar problems. You will create a personal mental image, trying to discover the “real” problem. Ultimately, you solve your “best mental representation” of the problem.

  • Guestimate an answer or solution, and share your ideas of the problem with others for added perspective.
  • Self-monitoring questions include: What is the simplest view? Have I included the pertinent issues? What am I trying to accomplish? Is there more I need to know for an appropriate understanding?

Plan in an organized and systematic way

  • Map the sub-problems
  • List the data to be collected
  • Note the hypotheses to be tested
  • Self-monitoring questions include: What is the overall plan? Is it well structured? Why have I chosen those steps? Is there anything I don’t understand? How can I tell if I’m on the right track?

Do it, then look back and revise

Do it

  • Self-monitoring questions include: Am I following my plan, or jumping to conclusions?
  • Is this making sense?

Look back and revise the plan as needed.
Significant learning can occur in this stage, by identifying other problems that use the same concepts (remember the spiral of learning?) and by evaluating your own thinking processes. This builds confidence in your problem solving abilities.

  • Self-monitoring questions include: Is the solution reasonable? Is it accurate? (you will need to check your work to know this!) Does the solution answer the problem? How might I do this differently next time? How would I explain this to someone else? What other kinds of problems can I solve now, because of my success? If I was unsuccessful, what did I learn? Where did I go off track?


Decision steps strategy

Taken from: J. Fleet, F. Goodchild, R. Zajchowski, “Learning for Success”, 2006.

This strategy is a specific application of the General Problem Solving Strategy described above, and is suitable for use in statistics, accounting, and other applied problem solving situations.

During the lecture or when reading course notes, focus on the process of solving the problem, instead of on the computation. When your professor is lecturing, listen to their comments on how steps are inked from one to another. This helps you identify the “decision steps” that lead to correct application of a concept. Ask yourself  “Why did I move from this step to this step?”

PDF: Decisions Steps Strategy

Purpose and method

To help learners focus on the process of solving problems, rather than on the mechanics of formula and calculations.

The focus is on correct application of concepts to specific situations. This strategy helps you to increase your awareness of the mental steps you make in problem solving, by “forcing” you to articulate your inner dialogue regarding procedure.

Identify the key decisions that determine what calculations to perform. In lecture, try to record the decision steps the professor uses but may not write down or post.

  1. Analyze solved examples, using brief statements focusing on steps you find difficult:
    • What was done in this step?
    • How was it done; what formula or guideline was followed?
    • Why was it done?
    • Any spots or traps to watch out for?
  2. Test run the decision steps on a similar problem, and revise until the steps are complete and accurate.

Note that these decision steps try to capture what and especially how each step is carried out – including possible alternatives that can be tweaked so that the student is not left wondering how to make the decision needed. Most textbook steps tend to give the what only.


Quantitative concept summary

Taken from: Fleet, J., Goodchild, F. and Zajchowski, R., “Learning for Success”, 2006

Concepts are general organizing ideas, and there are often very few of them taught in a course, along with their many applications. Key concepts may be identified by:

  • reading the learning objectives on the course outline or the course description,
  • referring to the lecture outline to identify recurring themes,
  • thinking about the common aspects of problems you are solving.

Learn and understand the small amount of information essential to each concept. If in doubt, ask the professor what is important for you to “get.”

PDF: Quantitative Concept Summary Strategy. Example of a concept summary for Equilibrium of a Rigid Body (Physics).

Purpose and method

To provide a structure for organizing fundamental, general ideas. The mental work involved in constructing the summary helps clarify the basic ideas and shift the information from working memory to long-term memory. This is an excellent study tool, for quick review.

The organizational elements are

  1. Concept Title
    You can identify key ideas by referring to the course outline, chapter headings in the text, lecture outline. Sometimes concepts are thought of individually, other times they are meaningfully grouped for better recall (e.g., Depreciation, Capital Cost Allowance, and Half-Year Rule; acid, base and PH).
  2. Use general categories to organize material, and then add specific details as appropriate. Sample general categories may include:
    • Allowable key formula- check summary page of text or ask professor
    • Definitions- define every term, unit and symbol
    • Additional important information- sign conventions, reference values, meaning of zero values, situations in which formula do not work, etc.
    • Simple examples or explanations- use your own words, diagrams, or analogies to deepen your thinking and check your understanding
    • List of relevant knowns and unknowns—to help you know which concepts are associated with which problems, use crucial knowns to help distinguish among problems.


Range of problems strategy

Exams will challenge you to apply your knowledge to new situations, so prepare by creating questions or problems that are slightly different in some variable from your homework problems.

Actively think about the range of problems that are associated with a concept. Think in terms of both

  1. level of difficulty of the problems
  2. common kinds of difficult problems.

Use this to anticipate different kinds of difficult problems for exam preparation, and solve some practice problems to test yourself. This is an excellent activity for a study group.

PDF: Range of Problems Strategy.

What to do when you’re stuck

Common types of difficult problems

Taken from: J. Fleet, F. Goodchild, R. Zajchowski, Learning for Success, 2006

See if the problem you’re stuck on falls into one of these categories. Recognizing the type of difficulty you’re facing can be helpful.

  • Hidden knowns: needed information is hidden in a phrase or diagram (e.g., “at rest” means initial v = 0 in physics).
  • Multipart-same concept: a problem may comprise 2 or more sub-problems, each involving the same concept. This type of problem can be solved only by identifying the given information in light of these sub-problems
  • Multipart-different concepts: same idea as above, but the sub-problems involve the use of different concepts
  • Multipart-simultaneous equations: same idea as above, but no single sub-problem can be solved by itself. You may have 2 unknowns and 2 equations or 3 unknowns and 3 equations, and you will need to solve them simultaneously, e.g. using substitution, comparison, addition and subtraction, matrices, etc.
  • Work backwards: some problems look different because to solve them you have to work in reverse order from problems you have previously solved
  • Letters only: when known quantities are expressed in letters, problems can look different. If you follow the decision steps, they are not usually as difficult.
  • Dummy variables: sometimes a quantity that you think should be a known is not specified because it is not really needed – that is, it cancels out.
  • Red herrings, unnecessary information: a problem may give you more information than is needed, which is confusing if you think you should use everything provided.

Use questions to support your learning

Effective problem solving requires thinking about how you think! It’s helpful to know the difference between metacognitive strategies (i.e., “thinking about how you best learn mathematical concepts/skills”) and cognitive strategies (“interacting with the specific information to understand it”). Next time you start to solve a problem, see if thinking through your responses to these questions can help you focus your efforts.

Metacognitive strategies

Advance organization What’s the purpose in solving this problem? What is the question? What is the information for?
Selective attention What words or ideas cue the operation or procedure? Where are the data needed to solve the problem?
Organizational planning What plan will help solve the problem? Is it a multi-step plan?
Self-monitoring Does the plan seem to be working? Am I getting the answer?
Self-assessment Did I solve the problem/answer the question? How did I solve it? Is it a good solution? If not, what else could I try?

Cognitive strategies

Elaborating prior knowledge What do I already know about this topic or type of problem? What experiences have I had that are related to this? How does this information relate to other information?
Taking notes What’s the best way to write down a plan to solve the problem? Table, chart, list, diagram…
Grouping How can I classify this information? What is the same and what is different (from other problems I have encountered, from other concepts in the class…)
Making inferences Are there words I don’t know that I must understand to solve the problem?
Using images What can I draw to help me understand and solve the problem? Can I make a mental picture or visualize this problem?

Many students find these types of questions boring or irrelevant and simply want to blast through all the problems, but it’s important to remember the actual purpose of solving problems (at least in homework, if not on a test): figuring out and then practicing new and different ways to solve a type of problem. The process is what matters, not getting the result as quickly as possible. Focusing on the process helps you to become more accurate and efficient, and it will save you time in the long run.

Diagnose the problem and connect it to a misconception

Sooner or later, you will run into a practice problem that stumps you. This is actually a good thing! It allows you to refine your understanding of the material, so you’ll be better prepared for the exam. At this point, it’s helpful to diagnose why you don’t understand this problem—what about your thought process isn’t working?

Here are steps to follow for diagnosing a misconception:

  1. Return to your notes and review course material on the topic. Try sketching the overall concept or explaining it to someone else without looking at your notes. Is your sketch or explanation accurate?
  2. Review your steps to the question. Look at each step individually: Was this step correct? Why did I do this part? (Think back to your sketch or explanation of the overall concept when trying to answer “why?”).
  3. When you have found the step where you first made an error, identify exactly why you made the error. Did you not read the question carefully? Did you use incorrect data? Did you misunderstand the purpose of the question? Did you misunderstand the concept?
  4. Try to think of other approaches, or find a similar practice problem and see if you can mirror the steps. Ask, “Why is this step correct? How will I modify my Concept Summary, analogy, etc. of the concept in light of this new information?”

Inspired by Chapter 4: Misconceptions as Barriers to Understanding Science from Science Teaching Reconsidered, A Handbook (1997).

Put a star next to this type of problem and be sure to practice this type again before any tests. This is exactly why practice problems are so helpful!

Common issues and problems

  • Self-doubt and isolation
  • Learning outside a real-world context
  • No clear method
  • Giving up too early; not putting in the time
  • Spending time on familiar problems, instead of challenging ones
  • “Siloed” thinking; not using what you’ve learned in other courses
  • Rushing through problems
    • careless errors
    • not thinking about underlying concept, theorem, proof


Here are some study strategies particularly suited to math-based courses. For more study strategies, see our test and exam preparation section.

  • Interleaving: Mixing up problem types supports your learning. The aim is to arrange problems so that consecutive problems cannot be solved by using the same strategy. Retrieval Practice has a guide that can help you get started: Interleaved mathematics practice.
  • Self-testing (including the range of problems strategy) helps you anticipate different kinds of difficult problems for exam preparation, and solve some practice problems to test yourself. Don’t wait until the night before the exam! The more frequently you self-test, the better your learning.
  • Explaining to / teaching others are great ways to make sure you’re thinking aloud, describing the problem, and working with others. Use study groups to compare completed solutions to assigned problems. Teaching someone is a very effective learning and study technique.


McMaster University’s academic resources website. There are 3 videos on Problem Solving illustrating general ideas (Problem Solver I), differences in applying concepts vs. formula chasing (Problem Solver II), and applying the Decision Steps strategy (Problem Solver III).
Link: https://studentsuccess.mcmaster.ca/

Fleet, J, Goodchild, F, Zajchowski, R Learning for Success: Effective strategies for students, Thomson Nelson, 4th ed, 2006

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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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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.

English Academic Writing Support

English Academic Writing Support

  • 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 English Academic Writing Support workshops! It was like a course for me. The things I have learned from these workshops helped me to edit the writing myself. Although I still make mistakes, I believe I will be better and better! Everyone there are super dedicated in learning.”

“The English Academic Writing Support program was one of the first activities I did after my arrival to Kingston; it really helped me to get engaged in the Queen’s University and to adapt to the new academic environment. It is a perfect space to review the most complex topics in English writing for EAL students and even for practicing conversational English while you are meeting new people. They also provide useful tools and handouts in each class.”

Academic English Drop-In Support

Academic English Drop-In Support

  • What is it? A drop-in program for academic English homework support
  • When? Wednesday evenings, 6pm-8pm
  • Where? Stauffer Library, room 143

How does it work? An EAL assistant will sit down with a student for 15 minutes at a time to answer questions, give feedback, and offer strategies. After assisting other students, they will come back to the previous students to check in and answer further questions. Registration is not required.

English Conversation Group

English Conversation Group

  • What is it? An opportunity to practice English language conversation skills
  • When? Thursday evenings, 5:30pm-7pm
  • Where? Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC) in Mitchell Hall

How does it work? Volunteers help guide English conversation with group activities and discussions. There’s a new topic every week. Learn idioms, expressions, and pronunciations in a welcoming environment. Registration is not required.

QUIC Social and Cultural Activities

QUIC Social and Cultural Activities

  • What are they? Activities at QUIC that offer opportunities to meet other students and practice oral communication skills in a social environment.
  • When? Check the QUIC Events Calendar or QUIC social media for activities throughout the year
  • Where? Usually at the Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC) in Mitchell Hall

How do they work? QUIC plans social and cultural events throughout the year to engage all students. Examples include movie nights, community lunches, and bus trips. Some events have fees and require registration.

Grad Writing Lab

Grad Writing Lab

  • What is it? An opportunity for all graduate students to get writing support
  • When? Thursday mornings, 9am-12pm
  • Where? Graduate Student Reading Room on the 3rd floor of Stauffer Library

How does it work? Both domestic and international graduate students can drop in and work on their writing in a graduate community space. There is a dedicated academic writing specialist on site who can help students with writing questions. Registration is not required.

Practice English online

In addition to SASS’s writing and learning resources, you can use these external links to develop your academic English skills.


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, or join the English Conversation Partner program, which partners domestic and international students for social English practice. 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.

Read More

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.

Setting goalsWhere does your time go?PrioritizingEstimating timeSchedulingHelpful toolsEfficiency tipsTroubleshooting guideGraduate students

Setting goals

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.

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.


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.

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.


Watch a SASS peer fill in her weekly schedule!

You can use our weekly schedule and monthly calendar templates to plan how to spend your time. They come with instructions to help you achieve scheduling success!

Use a weekly schedule to:

  • protect time for sleeping, eating, and exercise
  • keep track of classes and other commitments
  • choose when to work on specific tasks
  • plan flexibility and relaxation time.

Use a term calendar to:

  • keep track of due dates and how much assignments/exams are worth
  • see the big picture of the whole term
  • plan ahead for busier weeks.

Here are sample schedules from our SASS peers! [Forthcoming.]

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 calculator: use this tool to break large assignments into small tasks with mini-deadlines; get tips and resources for each stage.
  • Thesis manager: for graduate students; helps you see the big picture and break down the thesis process into small, manageable stages with mini-deadlines.
  • End of term planning chart: fill this in to get a handle on what’s left to do, how long it will take, and how much it’s worth. A helpful tool to regroup and prioritize around Weeks 9-12 of a term.
  • Task Analysis Chart: break a big task into smaller parts and estimate how long each will take.

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?

Read More

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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Adjusting to Canadian academics

Tips for international and exchange students

Welcome, international and exchange students! We are happy to have you here. International and exchange students contribute valuable perspectives and skills to Queen’s University. As you settle in here, you may need to adjust to an unfamiliar academic environment. Here are some tips to help you succeed.

TimeClass structureAssessmentSkillsHabitsRelationshipsLooking for more support?

Time: What should I know about the workload?

  • The 12-week semester goes by quickly, so it is important to keep up, especially when later class materials build on what you learn earlier in the semester.
  • Expect frequent assignments and readings, starting in the first week of classes, in addition to essays and midterm and final exams.
  • Some assignments are worth more grades than others; distribute your work time appropriately among multiple priorities. For example, you might spend only three or four hours on something worth 5% of your final mark, but perhaps 20 hours on something worth 20%.
  • Many professors have specific expectations about meeting deadlines; be aware of these.
  • Look through the sessional dates to get a sense of the important dates in the semester.
  • Use the course syllabus to create a course plan.

On average, expect to spend about 8-10 hours on each course every week, including time spent in class or labs and on homework. Here are some time management tools and ways to stay motivated.

Class Structure: What will my classes look like?

  • There are four main kinds of courses that you might take: lectures, tutorials, seminars, and labs. Each has a different structure and purpose, but they all require regular attendance.
  • Class sizes may be bigger or smaller than you are used to. Some lectures may have as many as 500 students while an upper-year seminar may have as few as six.
  • You may have tutorials or labs, usually led by a teaching assistant (TA), which complement your understanding of the lecture material through marked activities, discussions, and readings.
  • Understand how online systems will be used in each class and get familiar with them as soon as possible. For example, learn how OnQ works.
  • Read each course’s syllabus for important information about communicating with your prof or TA, due dates and grading structure, expectations and learning objectives, etc.

SASS offers tips for success in online courses.

Assessment: How will my prof grade my work?

  • Assignments may take many different forms: essays, presentations, science labs, group work, case studies, reports, problem sets, and creative products.
  • You may also be marked for the quality of your participation in class: i.e., regular attendance, asking relevant questions, offering ideas, etc.
  • If you are unsure how to approach assignments, talk to your prof, visit SASS, or use our Assignment Calculator.
  • In addition to assignments, you are likely to have tests and midterm and final exams.
  • The course syllabus or course website should tell you how much each assignment or exam is worth, and describe the professor’s expectations of your work.

Try our Grade Calculator to determine your mark in a class.

Skills: What are the academic skills I might be expected to use?

  • You may be expected to do a large amount of reading in some courses. Click here for some reading and note-taking tips.
  • Writing and research often take more time than you might expect—start early and get help at the Writing Centre or from a research librarian to save time.
  • Math, engineering and science courses will ask you to solve math problems.
  • It’s very important that you adhere to academic integrity.

You will be asked to think critically, which means analyzing, evaluating and synthesizing information, not just describing it. Speak to your professor or TA if you are unsure of their expectations.

Habits: What should I do regularly?

  • Go to all your classes, labs, and tutorials, and participate: take notes, ask questions, offer your ideas, listen to others.
  • Reduce distractions in class: sit near the front and turn off your phone.
  • Do your homework.
  • After class, write a short summary, in your own words, of key ideas from the lecture and homework.
  • Learn a little every day instead of trying to learn and memorize it all just before a test or exam.
  • Don’t work all the time! Take breaks. Make time for sleep, eating, exercise and fun.

Stress is a common reaction to a new environment, but you don’t have to manage it alone. If stress interferes with your daily life and school, speak to someone. Many people at Queen’s will be glad to help you.

Relationships: How can I connect with my professor, TA, classmates and other community members?

  • Your professors and TA want you to succeed. Go see them during their office hours to get to know them and to ask for help. Here are some tips for communicating with them.
  • In some classes you might work in groups. Here are some tips for navigating group work.
  • Try to develop friendly relationships with your classmates early in the course, to make it easier to share notes, study together, and enjoy attending class.
  • The Alma Mater Society and Society of Professional and Graduate Students can help you find opportunities to get involved on campus and meet people.

Looking for more support?

You are already likely in touch with the Queen’s University International Centre or your exchange office, but here are some other sources of support at Queen’s that you might find helpful:

  1. Need more support with English skills? See our online resources or make an appointment for a consultation with our English as an Additional Language (EAL) coordinator.
  2. Need more help with writing? See our online resources or make an appointment with a writing consultant.
  3. Need more support to help you learn effectively? See our online resources or make an appointment with a learning strategist.
  4. Feeling stressed or in need of advice about course selection, your health, finances, personal challenges, or life as a graduate student? See here for some resources.
  5. Looking for help in a particular course? Here is an overview of subject-specific academic support resources.
  6. Looking for information on each faculty’s regulations, policies, programs, courses, and degree requirements? See the academic calendars.

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Graduate student writing groups

Download a PDF of this resource

Why a writing group?MembershipPurpose and formatManaging feedbackPractical logisticsGroup leadership and rolesAdding new members and ending the group

The ultimate goal of a thesis or dissertation writing group is to help members of the group complete the writing required for a graduate degree, and have as positive an experience as possible.

What do grad students say about the experience of writing a dissertation or thesis?

  • “A writing buddy was essential to staying motivated and productive.”
  • “I felt really isolated before working in a writing group. It was great to see what other students were doing, and how we shared similar struggles.”
  • “My writing group [of people outside my research area] really helped make my work more coherent and improve the logical progression of my thinking, so my supervisor could focus feedback on the content itself.”
  • “Writing the dissertation was such an unbelievably long process. Connecting with others helped me keep perspective, especially when a new member joined who was just starting out. I saw I had made progress, and it felt great to encourage a more junior student.”

Graduate students might create or join a writing group to:

to reduce isolation, to receive feedback, to increase accountability

Another type of thesis writing group is a thesis writing support group, which is often psycho educational in nature and led by a professional counsellor. This article will only focus on peer-driven groups.


There is no formula for creating a group, but here are some things to consider:

  • MA or PhD students?

Given the different expectations in an MA thesis vs. a PhD dissertation or manuscript, it may be preferable to seek members working at the same level.

  • Same research field, or different departments?

If members are in similar fields, they share a general knowledge base, which may be helpful if they offer feedback on each other’s writing. On the other hand, if members come from different fields, they may be more open to divergent interpretations or ideas, more likely to take creative risks in their thinking, and less competitive (e.g., for supervisor’s time, grants, jobs) or less concerned over intellectual property rights.

  • Similar or different stages in the writing process?

Some groups prefer members to be at various stages from proposal writing to final editing, so more experienced students can mentor and encourage less experienced students. Some groups want members to be at similar stages, to share a common experience.

  • Open or closed membership?

An open writing group, with members who just show up to write on a regular basis and then leave, can more readily have an open membership.  These groups often pop up (and disappear) independently in departments, or through the School of Graduate Studies or the Society for Professional and Graduate Students at Queen’s.

Closed groups have a fixed and committed membership that enables trust to develop. These groups may have expectations for adding new members, duration of membership, and departing members.

  • Members who are currently friends or currently unfamiliar to each other?

The person who initiates the group typically will have an influence on soliciting members. It is important that members believe they can be comfortable, trusting and respectful with each other, especially if the group will be interactive.

  • Large or small?

Depending on the purpose served, the group can be very large (60?) or rather small (6?). Other factors, like being able to find available space and a common meeting time, may influence the size of the group.

Determining purpose and format: Types of writing groups

small group of students workingClarifying the writing group’s purpose and structure is critical. For more detailed information on this topic, please see the Stanford University Hume Writing Centre’s Starting an Effective Dissertation Writing Group and the University of Minnesota’s Getting the most from a writing group.

It is also important to establish the group’s boundaries. Completing a thesis or dissertation is very demanding and often challenges a student’s sense of self-worth and professional direction or ambition. A peer writing group is not a therapy group, although there may be emotional and psychological benefits to participating in a writing group.

Students with concerns for their sense of self or well-being should speak to a trusted professor, mentor or counsellor. Counsellors are available to full- and part-time students through the Queen’s School of Graduate Studies or through Student Wellness Services.

Writing groups often fall into one or more of the following categories: community-based, accountability-based, and feedback-based.

Accountability-based group members usually

  • set “public” deadlines for completing specific tasks, in person, an online social media group, or a shared Google doc
  • check in with each other’s progress
  • acknowledge each other’s successes, and encourage each other through setbacks.

One online accountability site is Phinished.org, where writers can make pacts about how much they will finish. Students who want to “show off” their accomplishments might use 750words.com, where students earn points for daily writing and can display their badges on Facebook.

Community-based group members usually develop

  • community norms for noise, conversation, internet use, food, timing, attendance, etc.
  • a structure for breaks, start and end times, social chat time, and perhaps writing exercises

There are no “rules” to follow, but a format for a community-based group might include:

  • A check-in from each member about events of the week, progression on goals, new barriers or issues to be resolved (maybe 2-3 minutes per member).
  • An educational or problem-solving discussion of new or persistent issues (maybe up to 20 minutes). This discussion could include brainstorming solutions, an invited speaker, a group member presenting on a hot topic, or a discussion of a relevant writing technique.
  • Time to set SMART writing goals for that writing session and for the upcoming week (5 min)
  • Writing time (1-2 hours?). The group should agree how much time they would like to spend writing, and when they will take breaks. Breaks support focused, creative thinking. One way to use a longer writing period is to break up the time like this:

Write for 80 minutes, then break for 10 minutes
Write for 60 minutes, then break for 10 minutes
Write for 10-15 minutes to review the writing to identify issues or unclear thinking. Then, write down a question to ponder until the next writing session. Start the next session by writing a response to that question, or discuss unanswered questions with the group or thesis supervisor.

  • Time to socialize after writing (maybe 15 minutes).

Every group needs to work out a format that meets the needs of the members, and is manageable and sustainable.

If your group is designed for feedback, the group

  • shares their work. Some standard systems for writing, editing and collaborating online include Google Docs, OneNote (Outlook) and Dropbox
  • sets expectations and norms for the amount of time any one person will spend on feedback
  • determines the focus of the feedback (content vs writing style) and for when writers need to share with the group
  • members specify what kind of feedback they want, and direct readers to specific concerns.

The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill offers a thorough list of questions to help feedback-based groups set expectations and norms.

In addition to the possible elements of a community-based writing group, feedback-based groups include time for writers to share their work and receive feedback.  Some groups will choose to devote their time to feedback only, and save writing time for non-group time.

Managing feedback

students giving and receiving feedbackWriting groups usually include time for writers to share their work and receive feedback.

The following content is based on work by S. Lee and C. Golde.

Asking for feedback

Feedback groups need to consider:

  • how to schedule feedback: sign-up list, regular rotation, informal approach
  • whether to distribute materials in advance or present material during the group
  • clarifying what writing projects might be acceptable for requesting feedback: outlines? first drafts? polished drafts? conference papers? whole works vs chapters or sub-sections?

Writers seeking feedback should offer a brief overview of the piece’s purpose, audience and key ideas, their own current assessment of it, and a specific request for structural, stylistic or other feedback. The piece should be short enough to allow the group members to review it in a reasonable time frame. Writers seeking feedback should not treat their group members as proofreaders.

Giving Feedback

Giving feedback is a skill, but it starts with intention. Are you there to support the writer or show off your own skills? Be sensitive and helpful, and remember that soon it will be your turn to hear what others think of your writing.

It is a rare opportunity for a writer to hear from others in a “safe space.” Respond with specific references to their work, using language that is clear, non-judgmental and leaves room for the writer to further explain themselves. Avoid overwhelming the writer with too much feedback. Offer praise as part of your feedback; every piece of writing has something praiseworthy about it. Speak as a thoughtful reader, not as an all-knowing judge, and stick to the type of feedback that the writer asked for.

Receiving Feedback

It is an act of courage to request feedback and then listen with an open mind to what is offered regarding your writing. You may not agree immediately (or ever!) with all that you hear, but it is a privilege to have people spend time thinking about your work, so it behooves you to pay attention and sort through comments later.

To accept feedback gracefully,

  • listen to the entire feedback first, and try to understand the meaning of the feedback.  Write down notes and questions.
  • be engaged. If anything is unclear, restate your understanding of what you thought the speaker said.
  • be respectful. Try not to be too defensive. Even if a reader’s response is due to a misinterpretation of the writing, their perspective deserves attention. If several readers agree that a section is confusing, the problem probably lies in the writing.
  • keep a feedback log. Keep track of the kinds of feedback you get. Identify common themes. Address problems with your writing group, or visit the Writing Center or your supervisor.

Practical logistics

students around a tableThe group’s planning and organization could be determined in advance by one person who initiated the group, or they could be negotiated among members during an early meeting. Some logistics to consider:

  • Where will the group meet? On campus or off? What facilities will be needed, depending on the purpose of the group ( e.g., tables, white board, data projector, multiple power outlets)? Rooms on Queen’s campus are available:
  • When and how frequently will you meet?
  • What are the expectations around attendance and preparation (e.g., for a feedback-based group)? What is the consequence of failing to keep the commitment?
  • How can new members join, and what is the process when a member decides to leave?
  • What work can be brought for feedback? Initial ideas or outlines or rough drafts or polished drafts? Research proposals? Thesis or dissertation writing only? Conference presentations? Publication submissions? Grant proposals? Job applications or CVs?

Group leadership and roles

three students working at a cafeDepending on the focus of the dissertation writing group, there may or may not need to be a leader. For example, an online accountability group like Phinished.org has a web manager rather than a leader.

A group aimed at increasing community may not require a leader, but may need someone to book rooms and communicate with members.

A feedback-based group will benefit by agreeing on a leadership or organizational model. Members may decide to have a single leader or rotate the leadership, to manage or delegate tasks such as:

  • scheduling meeting times
  • booking rooms
  • communicating among members
  • setting the agenda and facilitating the meeting (e.g., who presents work for feedback, selecting writing activities, inviting quest speakers, etc.)
  • keeping the meeting on track and on time
  • note-making for feedback
  • bringing the cookies 🙂
  • setting up and/or cleaning up the room

Adding new members and ending the group

several students working on one computerAnother logistical decision is: will the group be open or closed in membership?

New members may be added to a closed feedback-based writing group once an established member completes writing their dissertation, or no longer wishes to be part of the group. Generally, the culture of a closed group will be better maintained if a group member talks to a prospective member before inviting them to join, in terms of

  • their writing goals (does this group meet their needs?)
  • their ability to make the same time/space/duration/ possibly “feedback homework” commitments of the existing members
  • whether they appear to be compatible with the existing members

Some groups might choose to vet prospective members for “fit” or have a trial period before the prospective new member has to officially join the group. As new members join, there usually is a period of re-adjustment and a shift in the developmental stage of the group.

Endings are inevitable, and often generate mixed feelings: “YEAH, I did it! But I’m going to miss you so much!”

Individual members of a feedback-driven group will leave as they complete their own projects or the group may disband as planned after some period of time, or just dwindle out. Ending a feedback-based or community-based thesis writing group hopefully signals great accomplishments for members.

Regardless of the reason, the end presents an opportunity for self-reflection, either individually or as a summative exercise by the whole group. Some reflective questions to consider:

  • How did this group help me meet my personal goals?
  • Are there ideas or work habits or activities that would be useful to include in my future large writing projects?
  • What can I take away and quickly put into practice in my academic life?
  • Is there unfinished work (personal or professional writing or activity) that I need to complete? For example- do I need to reduce my fear of speaking in public?
  • Can I get ideas or resources from the group to help solve a particular problem before we end?

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Online learning

Online learning is increasingly common at Queen’s, where nearly 3000 students take courses online every year. Whether you’re taking a course entirely online or one that combines on-campus tutorials with internet-based discussion and lectures (a “blended” course), online learning requires special skills.

Online courses are just as intellectually challenging as on-campus courses. You’ll still be asked to read articles and books, complete assignments on time, write tests and exams, and display academic integrity. But in online courses, you may find that your professors and classmates seem distant or absent, that your written communication skills are called on more regularly, and that your ability to motivate yourself to work independently is challenged.

This guide is just an introduction to the keys to success in online courses. You may find our modules on time management and motivation and procrastination useful. If this is your first university course, or you’re returning to education after a long time away, try reading our Academics 101 guide. If you need one-on-one help, SASS offers learning strategies and writing appointments by telephone or on campus.

Keys to successGroup work & discussion boardsWhere do I go from here?

What are the keys to success in online courses?

Review the course syllabus.

As in any other course, your first job is to read the syllabus, which you should find on the course homepage (generally through your onQ portal, although some faculties use different online platforms). If there’s anything that isn’t clear or that you don’t understand, make sure you ask your professor or TA for help. Here are some guidelines for communicating with professors and TAs.

Understand the platform.

Spend time exploring the layout and organization of your online course. Refer to the syllabus, explore menus, and ask questions if you’re unsure. Avoid missing an important resource or losing marks on a quiz because you didn’t know where to find it on the course page or how it worked. You may be asked to write quizzes and exams entirely online, so if your prof plans to do a dry run of an online exam (i.e., run one for no marks), take it. It’s a great opportunity to understand how the real exam will be administered. Prepare for online exams in the same way as you would an on-campus exam.

Be an active participant.

Developing a learning community is vital for success in an online course. Think of discussion boards as virtual class discussions. They’re a chance to share ideas with peers and show professors your critical thinking. Even if the professor doesn’t comment, she is reading the thread to make sure the conversation is staying on track. Making connections with your peers can be more difficult in an online course, but it’s still important. Use online tools and helpful apps to connect with your peers and instructors. Ask questions, share ideas, engage!

Take responsibility.

You’re responsible for all of your own learning in all university classes. In an online course, where you may never meet your teachers or classmates, that’s even more true. It’s up to you to do readings, watch video lectures, complete assignments on time, and work towards mastering the course content. That might take, on average, 8-10 hours a week—more if you’re taking a condensed summer course. You might find our time management guide helpful.

Get organized.

Contrary to many students’ expectations, online courses are not easier because they appear to easily fit into any schedule. They require plenty of work and organization! Treat your online course just as you would an on-campus course by scheduling time to “attend” regularly—3-4 times a week—and to keep up with readings and homework.

  1. Manage your time

Good time management skills will help you get started, stay on task, and finish on time. That’s especially true when grades are increasingly based on a large number of small tasks, rather than a single assignment and exam. If you’re already using a weekly schedule, make sure to slot in times every week to check in with your online course to ensure you’re aware of approaching deadlines and have apportioned sufficient time to tackle them. Professors also post course updates online, so regularly logging in will ensure you’re aware of important news.

  1. Log in and accomplish specific tasks

Reviewing the syllabus and your course pages will help you know what you have to do and when you have to do it. Then, log in regularly (two or three times a week) with specific tasks in mind each time. Think of it like a regular on-campus class: sometimes you attend a lecture, sometimes you block off time for homework or reading, and sometimes you participate in a tutorial or group discussion.

For example this schedule illustrates a possible week’s schedule. In total, the plan below allows the student to spend 10.5 hours on coursework:

Morning Evening
Tuesday Start week’s readings (2 hours) Finish week’s readings (1.5 hours)
Thursday Write week’s notes
Complete weekly quiz (1.5 hours)
Friday Write group project (1 hour) Edit group project writing (1 hour)
Saturday Watch weekly video lecture (2 hours) Write three discussion board posts
Check in with group members for midterm project (2 hours)

Try planning and sticking to a schedule like this one. Your specific tasks might change over the course of the term, but if you make the commitment to log in regularly, you’ll equip yourself for success.

Expect the unexpected.

Be prepared for glitches and issues; that’s just the nature of technology. Have a back-up plan and keep copies of your work, even after you’ve submitted it. If your computer fails, you can use the computers at Stauffer Library. If you can’t get there, contact your professor to let them know about your problem.

Group work

Group work can be tricky in general, but even more so when you’re working online and can’t meet with your team in person. Since professors frequently set group assignments in online courses, try referring to the SASS guide to group work or using a helpful app (e.g., Slack, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc.) to help you manage group work online. When using apps, make sure your entire group agrees to use whichever app you choose and that you all check regularly for updates to chat threads, comments on shared work, etc.

Discussion boards

The following was developed based on the suggestions and strategies in the University of Leicester’s resource for seminar and tutorial participation.

In an online course, you’ll often be asked to explain thoughts and communicate with others solely in writing. Many online courses make participation in a discussion board or forum mandatory. You may be asked to post regularly, comment on others’ ideas, or pose questions about course topics. If this is a requirement, make sure to read your syllabus carefully for your professor’s expectations about what you’ll need to contribute. Participating in fruitful discussions is also a great way to connect with classmates and teachers whom you may never have met in person.

To ensure you are getting the most out of the discussion board format, think of your responsibility as a 3-step process: preparation, discussion, and follow-up.


Keep up with the required coursework (e.g., readings, weekly quizzes) so you’ll be able to understand, analyse, and meaningfully comment in the discussion. In advance of posting anything, try:

  • summarizing the main ideas from that week’s readings and video lectures in your own words. Use our guide to reading and notemaking for help.
  • brushing up on relevant topics from previous weeks when necessary.
  • keeping a list of topics that would make good discussion board posts or that relate to the week’s key themes: thoughts or questions you have; tricky or unsubstantiated issues; topics you found especially interesting or surprising.


What to say

You may be nervous about engaging in public discussion, in person or online. It can feel like there’s a lot of pressure to show the professor you’re a great student, but that’s not what academic discussion is for: the idea of the discussion is to reflect on, challenge, or constructively add to others’ ideas. If you have a thought or a question about the material, someone else may share your ideas—and they’ll be grateful when you post them. Try the following strategies:

  • Reading the whole discussion before you add a comment. It’s much easier to join a conversation if you’ve been listening long enough to know what people are talking about and what’s been said.
  • Adding simple and constructive ideas to a complex discussion is okay. Generally, the best discussions don’t arrive at an answer immediately. They take time to explore different avenues first, so it’s okay if you don’t have all of the answers straight away.
  • Sharing responsibility with your classmates. Don’t dominate or avoid the discussion boards—find a balance between leading and standing aside for others.
  • Being positive and respectful of others’ opinions and interpretations of the material.

Adhering to the following strategies will ensure your posts remain on topic, insightful and appropriate:


Link your comments and posts to what others have said, to show you’re following and building on the discussion, not just interjecting with unconnected thoughts. Use names and short, direct quotes to make it clear to whom/what you’re referring.


Agreeing with your classmates is a nice way to start. Try something like “I agree with Will that…” or “Will makes a good point about…” Having shown where you agree, develop the discussion by adding a new connection, a point of disagreement, or showing the idea in a new context. For example:

“Yes, I agree with Will that Said was taken out of context in that case. The same is true of another text we read…”


Adopting the observation strategy involves commenting on the state of the discussion as a whole, showing that you’re appreciative of all the efforts your fellow discussants are making and that you can take a broader view of the material. For example:

“We began by discussing Noonuccal, but now we’ve moved away from that…”
“It feels like our discussion of this week’s reading has highlighted some of the key course concepts. For example…”

Offer alternative views

It can be tricky to disagree with other students, but presenting a well-reasoned alternative viewpoint shows your engagement with the material. Don’t be afraid to disagree with someone, so long as you remain civil and explain your reasoning. Start by showing you understand the point that was being made, then explain why you disagree. The explanation is crucial: it will show you’re not just arguing, you’re engaging in critical thinking, which demonstrates real understanding of your course.

e.g., “You said that Vygotsky’s theories remain relevant for today’s teachers, but doesn’t that contradict with…”


Outstanding students try to make new points, direct the conversation, and bring other people into the discussion. Explaining the logic behind why you are trying to shape the discussion will ensure that you’re not just cutting other students off, but trying to lead the discussion towards a new and interesting place.

e.g., “I think we need to look more closely at the impact of…because…” or “What Carmen said earlier about lateral violence was really interesting, since… Do you think that..?”

How to say it

Online communication has a reputation for bringing out the worst in people. The lack of face-to-face interaction can make you feel anonymous, granting permission to behave differently from how you would otherwise. That means it’s important to participate in online discussions with a professional tone—that means both what you say and how you say it.

Remember that a discussion board is an academic environment. You are being graded in part on how you interact and communicate your ideas. Remember that once you’ve pressed send on your comment, you can’t take it back. Spend time carefully thinking about content and tone before making your comments public. The following rules usually help:

  • You should always be respectful of your classmates, your professor, and the material you are working with.
  • Find out if your professor has suggested a code of conduct or posted a guide to communication. Follow it.
  • Try to remain objective and don’t get personal. Comment on course content, not the person expressing an opinion.
  • If you feel yourself getting upset, take a break to calm down before responding. Read over your post before submitting to make sure you’re saying what you mean to say.
  • Use the strategies in the table above to keep the discussion on track and defuse potential conflict before it escalates.

If you’re struggling with how to express your thoughts in online forums, contact the Writing Centre at SASS.

Follow-up work

Depending on the purpose of the discussion board communications, your understanding of the course material may be enhanced and/or you may wish to re-examine or extend your readings on a particular topic. Be sure to keep track of any connections, relationships, reinterpretations, problem solving methods, or analyses that require follow-up.

Finally, remember that in an academic environment, you are subject to academic integrity—even if it’s on a discussion board. You cannot use your classmate’s thoughts or words without proper citations. (See OWL Purdue’s citation style chart for an example of how to cite discussion board posts in APA.)

Where do I go from here?

All of SASS’s services are available to students taking online courses. Telephone appointments with writing consultants and learning strategists can be booked online, so you never need to feel like you’re alone.

The following resources are useful guides to some of the content discussed on this page:

Queen’s provides extensive support to both online and on-campus students. The following services may be of use:

Online courses might seem like a challenge, especially if you’ve been out of school for a while, you’re juggling lots of other commitments, or you’re unused to using online tools for communication and study. Try adopting some of the habits outlined in this guide to ensure you’re in top shape for the course and, as ever, if you have questions, just ask—the staff at SASS are a great first port of call!

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Communicating with profs and TAs

Download a PDF of this resource


Working with TAsMeet your professorsTroubleshootingContacting your professorEmail etiquette

Working with TAs

Teaching or Lab Assistants are usually graduate students who assist professors with specific tasks. In large classes, they are a connection between undergrads and professors.

  • Ask them how they want to be addressed. Even though they may be close in age to you, they may prefer some professional distance.
  • Be polite when contacting TAs by email.
  • Understand their role: TAs may lead tutorials, mark papers or exams, or hold office hours to answer questions.
  • Ask for feedback on tests or assignments. Show your TA that you want to know how to improve (vs. criticize their grading).
  • Respect their wishes about how and when you may contact them.

Meet your professors during their office hours.

Professors want you to do well, to enjoy the course, and to develop an interest in their research field.

They can:

  • clarify difficult content after you have read the notes or text, attended the lecture, or tried the homework.
  • encourage you when you may be feeling overwhelmed by the course.
  • explain assignments after you’ve tried to understand the purpose, format, or expectations.
  • stimulate your interest in a subject area. your professor has a research area they are often deeply committed to. Ask them about it and see if you share their passion.
  • be a reference for a job, a graduate school application or a research proposal, if they know you first.
  • hire you for research help, which builds your practical experience.

Set a goal of speaking outside class with each professor, at least once each term.


  • Engage in the course: read your course syllabus for information on course objectives, topics, and key dates.
  • Ask questions and offer ideas in class, so the professor knows who you are.
  • Look for opportunities to talk with your professors outside of class, especially if you don’t speak in class.
  • Request feedback on how you are doing, and how to deepen your understanding or improve your grades.
  • Try to learn more about your professors: their research interests, other courses they teach, or their community involvement.
  • Attend talks or academic events at which your professors will be present.
  • Offer professors or TAs positive and constructive feedback on the courses you are taking with them.
  • Respect the professional boundary between professors and students.

For more on how to establish good communication and enjoy a productive working relationship with your supervisor, see this resource from the School of Graduate Studies.

Contacting your professor

  • Check your course outline for information about professors’ office hours, email, or phone preferences.
  • If possible, inform them in advance about the purpose of any meetings you request.
  • Identify yourself by name, course, and section.
  • Before requesting an extension on an assignment, check the syllabus for answers to all logistical questions. For example, are marks deducted? When? How many? Are there exceptions?
  • Communicate clearly and concisely. Like you, professors are busy.
  • Be polite and formal in your interactions, unless you are invited to be informal.
  • Do not expect an immediate response to your request. Professors might not check emails at night or on weekends.
  • Respond promptly to their messages.

Email etiquette

(Correct option in bold!)

1. Fill in the subject line with:

  • nothing
  • help
  • absent from MATH121 on Monday

2. Start an email to an instructor with:

  • hey!
  • Hi Kim
  • Hello Prof. (or Ms./Mr.) Young

3. Identify yourself, saying:

  • Nothing. They can read the email address.
  • I’m a student.
  • I’m in your MATH121 (Section B) course.

4. State your request:

  • please send the homework solutions
  • I was sick and missed class. Any solutions handed out?
  • I was sick and missed class. I got notes from a friend, but I have a few questions. Can we please meet?

5. Sign off with:

  • Greg
  • Greg Jones
  • Thanks for your time, Greg Jones (Student #15869923)

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Strategies and tools for quantitative problem solving

Return to Quantitative Problem Solving

General problem-solving strategyUse cognitive and metacognitive questions to help you learnHomework: Approaching practice problemsHomework: Diagnose the problem and connect it to a misconception

General problem-solving strategy

A systematic approach to problem solving helps the learner gain confidence, and is used consistently as a “blue print” by expert problem solvers as a way to be methodical, thorough and self-monitoring. This model is used in life generally, as well as in the sciences. The steps are not linear, and multiple processes are happening in your brain simultaneously, but the basic template hinges on effective questioning as you carry out various steps

1.  Engage

Invest in the problem through reading about it and listening to the explanation of what is to be resolved. Your goal is to learn as much as you can about the problem before you begin to actually solve it, and to develop your curiosity (which is very motivating). Successful problem solvers spend two to three times longer doing this than unsuccessful problem solvers. Say “I want to solve this, and I can”.

  1. Define the stated problem…a challenging and time consuming task
  • Understand the problem as it is given you, ie. “What am I asked to do?”
  • Ask “What are the givens? the situation? the context? the inputs? the knowns? etc.
  • Determine the constraints on the inputs, the solution and the process you can use. For example, “you have until the end of class to hand this solution in” is a time constraint.
  • Represent your thinking conceptually first, by reading the problem, drawing a pictorial or graphic representation or mind map (see example attached), and then a relational representation.
  • Then represent your thinking computationally, using a mathematical statement
  1. Explore and search for important links between what you have just defined as a problem, and your past experience with similar problems. You will create a personal mental image, trying to discover the “real” problem. Ultimately, you solve your “best mental representation” of the problem.
  • Guestimate an answer or solution, and share your ideas of the problem with others for added perspective.
  • Self-monitoring questions include: What is the simplest view? Have I included the pertinent issues? What am I trying to accomplish? Is there more I need to know for an appropriate understanding?
  1. Plan in an organized and systematic way
  • Map the sub-problems
  • List the data to be collected
  • Note the hypotheses to be tested
  • Self-monitoring questions include: What is the overall plan? Is it well structured? Why have I chosen those steps? Is there anything I don’t understand? How can I tell if I’m on the right track?

5.  Do it

  • Self-monitoring questions include: Am I following my plan, or jumping to conclusions?
  • Is this making sense?
  1. Look back and revise the plan as needed. Significant learning can occur in this stage, by identifying other problems that use the same concepts (remember the spiral of learning?) and by evaluating your own thinking processes. This builds confidence in your problem solving abilities.
  • Self-monitoring questions include: Is the solution reasonable? Is it accurate? (you will need to check your work to know this!) Does the solution answer the problem? How might I do this differently next time? How would I explain this to someone else? What other kinds of problems can I solve now, because of my success? If I was unsuccessful, what did I learn? Where did I go off track?

Based on D.R. Woods, “Problem–based Learning”, 1994

Use cognitive and metacognitive questions to help you learn

Effective problem-solving requires thinking about how you think! It’s helpful to know the difference between metacognitive strategies (i.e. “thinking about how you best learn mathematical concepts/skills”) and cognitive strategies (“interacting with the specific information to understand it”). Next time you start to solve a problem, see if thinking through your responses to these questions can help you focus your efforts.

Metacognitive strategies

Advance organization What’s the purpose in solving this problem? What is the question? What is the information for?
Selective attention What words or ideas cue the operation or procedure? Where are the data needed to solve the problem?
Organizational planning What plan will help solve the problem? Is it a multi-step plan?
Self-monitoring Does the plan seem to be working? Am I getting the answer?
Self-assessment Did I solve the problem/answer the question? How did I solve it? Is it a good solution? If not, what else could I try?

Cognitive strategies

Elaborating prior knowledge What do I already know about this topic or type of problem? What experiences have I had that are related to this? How does this information relate to other information?
Taking notes What’s the best way to write down a plan to solve the problem? Table, chart, list, diagram…
Grouping How can I classify this information? What is the same and what is different (from other problems I have encountered, from other concepts in the class…)
Making inferences Are there words I don’t know that I must understand to solve the problem?
Using images What can I draw to help me understand and solve the problem? Can I make a mental picture or visualize this problem?


Many students find these types of questions boring or irrelevant and simply want to blast through all the problems, but it’s important to remember the actual purpose of solving problems (at least in homework, if not on a test): figuring out and then practicing new and different ways to solve a type of problem. The process is what matters, not getting the result as quickly as possible. Focusing on the process helps you to become more accurate and efficient, and it will save you time in the long run.

Approaching practice problems for homework

This strategy encourages a deep understanding of concepts and procedures in calculation. The time you spend on this will reduce the amount of time you may spend in “plug and chug” attempts to do the homework, and reduce the amount of time you will need for studying later on. Remember that the purpose of practice problems is to help you learn, not to get through all of them quickly – it is perfectly normal if you can’t get the right answer on the first try. Think of them as experiments!

  1. Prepare for the homework questions.
  • review class notes and understand the concepts in the examples. This might take 30 – 45 minutes.
  • write the first line of a sample problem, close the book, and work as far as you can without looking.
  • refer back to notes, and then again attempt sample
  • repeat over again until you can solve the sample problem both accurately and quickly.

You will have memorized the rules in the process. This might take 1 hour.


  1. Start the homework questions. Interrogate your problem solutions: ask questions about the problem and your method of solving it. E.g.
  • What are the givens? Can the givens be classified as Assets, Liabilities, Owner’s Equity, Income, Expenses, etc? Is there any Depreciation?
  • What is required?
  • Can I diagram this?
  • What concepts are referred to? Theorems? Operations?
  • Is the problem similar to others I solved/How?
  • What more do I need to understand this?
  • Are there any “tricks” to the question? If so, how do I deal with them?


  1. Keep track of problems you have trouble solving, isolate the particular difficulty, and get help to figure it out. Drill these problems until you are both accurate and fast in solving them.

Diagnose the problem and connect it to a misconception

Sooner or later, you will run into a practice problem that stumps you. This is actually a good thing! It allows you to refine your understanding of the material, so you’ll be better prepared for the exam. At this point, it’s helpful to diagnose why you don’t understand this problem – what about your thought process isn’t working?

Here are steps to follow for diagnosing a misconception:

  1. Return to notes and review course material on the topic. Try sketching the overall concept or explaining it to someone else without looking at your notes. Is your sketch or explanation accurate?
  2. Review your steps to the question. Look at each step individually: Was this step correct? Why did I do this part? (Think back to your sketch or explanation of the overall concept when trying to answer “why?”).
  3. When you have found the step where you first made an error, identify exactly why you made the error. Did you not read the question carefully? Did you use incorrect data? Did you misunderstand the purpose of the question? Did you misunderstand the concept?
  4. Try to think of other approaches, or find a similar practice problem and see if you can mirror the steps. Ask, “Why is this step correct? How will I modify my Concept Summary, analogy, etc. of the concept in light of this new information?”

 Inspired by Chapter 4: Misconceptions as Barriers to Understanding Science from Science Teaching Reconsidered, A Handbook (1997).

Try timing yourself for each problem. If you exceed your time limit (20 minutes or so?) for a particular question, do your best to determine what about the problem is troubling you and then bring it to your instructor as soon as possible to talk about it and learn a new approach.

Put a star next to this type of problem and be sure to practice this type again before any tests. This is exactly why practice problems are so helpful!

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What is quantitative problem solving

Return to Quantitative Problem-Solving

What is quantitative problem-solving, anyway?Characteristics of expert problem-solversTypical characteristics of novice problem-solversStrategies to improve problem-solving skillsExpert problem-solving self-assessment

What is “quantitative problem-solving,” anyway?

This is a form of learning based on discovery: to solve the problem, you must both think and compute systematically.

It is different from both “exercise solving”, in which past routines are applied to solve similar problems, and the “trial and error” approach some use to match correct formula to problems.

A central idea in problem solving is the use of “concepts”, the fundamental general ideas on which other notions are built. In any subject, there are usually only a few basic concepts (sometimes expressed as formula) applied in a variety of ways. For example, basic concepts include limit of function in math, t-test in statistics, mole in chemistry, and liability in accounting. Identifying and deeply understanding key concepts, and developing an organizational structure to recall how they inter-relate, are essential to problem solving.

The “spiral of learning” occurs when basic concepts are used repeatedly to solve a variety of problems. The central concept is the core of the spiral, and various applications spin out from, and loop back to, that concept. Frequently re-visiting those basic concepts allows you to firmly fix them in your long-term memory, where they can be quickly recalled and applied.

Self-reflection questions

Do you:

  1. understand your own approach: strengths and weaknesses?
  2. focus on concepts to increase understanding, and as an organizational framework?
  3. learn material sequentially?
  4. look for the “spiral of learning”: repetition and expansion of basic concepts?
  5. develop a systematic, methodical approach, to talk yourself through each step?
  6. compute accurately, and eventually… quickly
  7. persist?
  8. get help when needed?

What is YOUR approach to quantitative problem-solving?

Awareness of your attitudes and habits is a good starting point to see your strengths and areas to change. Take our Evidence-Based Components questionnaire to assess your approach.

Characteristics of expert problem-solvers

1. Attitude characteristics

  • Optimistic: you believe in yourself (“I can do it!”)
  • Confident: the problem really does have a reasonable, but perhaps difficult, solution
  • Willing to persevere: you aim for a complete and well-reasoned solution, not an immediate or superficial one
  • Concern for accuracy in reading: you concentrate, re-read and paraphrase to increase understanding, and translate unfamiliar words or terms
  • Concern for accuracy in thinking: you work at a moderate to slow pace initially, perform operations carefully, check answers periodically, and draw conclusions at the end not part way through.

2. Skill characteristics

  • Systematic approach: you have a plan to follow, which
    • reduces the panic
    • allows you to monitor your thought processes
    • helps isolate errors in logic or computation
  • Sound knowledge of basic concepts, which you mentally organize so you can recall and apply them
  • Computational skill, at a good speed
  • Habit of vocalizing or “thinking aloud”: you talk yourself through all thoughts
    • how to start the problem
    • steps to break problems into parts
    • decisions
    • analyses
    • conclusions
  • Awareness of your own thought processes: What did I do or learn? How did I do or learn this? How effective was my process?

Typical characteristics of novice problem-solvers

  1. You don’t believe that persistent analysis is essential, therefore your effort and motivation to persist is weak.
  2. You are careless in your reasoning.
  3. You don’t break problem into component parts and go step-by-step, therefore there are errors in logic and computation.
  4. You focus on individual details, and don’t see how details relate to concepts. Therefore, every problem feels new…how overwhelming!
  5. Formula-memorizing is the main strategy.
  6. You get behind in your learning, and then sequential learning is hampered.
  7. You lose confidence in your ability to solve problems, due to lack of success.

Strategies to improve problem-solving skills

1.   Use time and resources effectively

  • Work on courses regularly: keep up so you can build on past knowledge (sequential learning), and get help quickly for difficulties.
  • Do all the questions assigned, rather than dividing questions among group members, as you will get more practice with the concepts your Professor expects you to know. Aim for accuracy, then speed. Start assignments at least a week ahead of the due date, so you have time for help if needed.
  • Use study groups to compare completed solutions to assigned problems. Teaching someone is a very effective learning and study technique.
  • Choose problems wisely: learn to apply a specific concept to solve a variety of related problems. Start with simpler ones, and work up. Identify the relevant concept and practice until you know when and how to apply it, i.e. you may not need to do all questions.
  • Set a time limit: attempt a new problem every @ 15-20 minutes. If you can’t complete a problem, check your “thinking strategies” and change to a new problem. Get help with the problems you couldn’t complete, at tutorial, etc.
  • Do some uncalculated solutions: If you are confident in your calculations-set up the solution but don’t finish the calculation.
  • Learn the necessary background and skills: find out from professor, course outline, etc. what the course involves and upgrade before the course begins if you don’t feel confident about the prerequisites.
  • Find and use help resources: use tutors, professors, TAs, friends, text, internet. For example: in accounting, economics, and finance texts, it is common to find examples that are quite similar to the problems at the end of the chapter. Work through the logic of the examples to develop a better understanding of how best to start the homework problems, if you run into trouble.

2.   Develop strategies to organize your thinking

General problem-solving method

Use a methodical, thorough approach to solve problems logically from first principles. Refer to the self-assessment questionnaire by Woods et al. (2000) in this guide to remind yourself of target activities you need to focus on.


  • Engage with the problem
  • Define and understand the problem- what is being asked? Express your thinking in several ways, such as verbally, graphically or pictorially, and finally mathematically
  • Explore links between the current problem and related ones you have previously solved.
  • Plan how you will solve the problem
  • Do it √
  • Evaluate your method and result, and revise as needed

Tool: General Problem Solving Strategy, Cognitive vs Metacognitive Questions.

Approaching practice problems for homework

Use homework as a learning tool; the important part isn’t to get all the practice problems right (in fact, you probably won’t, since it is new material!), but to pay attention to common patterns, themes, and areas where you will need to ask for clarification from the instructor.

Effective learning of the concepts and general methods will reduce the number of problems you may need to solve to feel confident in your knowledge and computations.

Tool: Problem Solving Homework Strategy, Diagnosing the Problem Questions.

Decision steps strategy

This strategy is a specific application of the General Problem Solving Strategy described above, and is suitable for use in statistics, accounting and other applied problem solving situations.

During the lecture or when reading course notes, focus on the process of solving the problem, instead of on the computation. When your professor is lecturing, listen to their comments on how steps are inked from one to another. This helps you identify the “decision steps” that lead to correct application of a concept. Ask yourself  “Why did I move from this step to this step?”

Tools: Decisions Steps Strategy, and examples of Decision Steps in Calculus and Decision Steps for Rational Expressions.

View McMaster University’s video: click Online Resources, scroll to “Math”, select topic and format.

Quantitative concept summary

Concepts are general organizing ideas, are there are often very few of them taught in a course, along with their many applications (ie. the spiral of learning). 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”.

Tools: Quantitative Concept Summary Strategy, Concept Summary form, an example of a Concept Summary for Ordinary Simple Annuities.

View a video about Concept Summaries at McMaster University. Click on Online Resources, scroll to “Math,” then select desired topic and format.

Range of problems strategy

Exams will challenge you to apply your knowledge to new situations, so prepare by creating questions or problems that are slightly different in some variable from your homework problems.

Actively think about the range of problems that are associated with a concept. Think in terms of both

  1. level of difficulty of the problems
  2. common kinds of difficult problems.

Use this to anticipate different kinds of difficult problems for exam preparation, and solve some practice problems to test yourself. This is an excellent activity for a study group.

Tool: Range of Problems Strategy.

View McMaster University’s video: click Online Resources, scroll to “Math”, select topic and format.

Some evidence-based components of expert problem-solving[1]

Observe yourself as you solve problems. Rate how often you DO any of the following. Progress toward internalizing these targets, aiming for doing these activities 80-100% of the time.

Targets for expert problem-solving






1.      I describe my thoughts aloud as I solve the problem.
2.      I occasionally pause and reflect about the process and what I have done.
3.      I don’t expect my methods for solving problems to work equally well for others.
4.      I write things down to help overcome the storage limitations of short-term memory (where problem-solving takes place).
5.      I focus on accuracy and not on speed.
6.      I interact with others.[2]
7.      I spend time reading the problem.[3]
8.      I spend up to half the available time defining the problem.[4]
9.      When defining problems, I patiently build up a clear picture in my mind of the different parts of the problem and the significance of each part.[5]
10.  I use different tactics when solving exercises and problems.[6]
11.  I use an evidence-based systematic strategy (such as read, define the stated problem, explore to identify the real problem, plan, do it, look back). I am flexible in my application of the strategy.
12.  I monitor my thought processes about once per minute while solving problems.

Source: Woods, D.R., Felder, R.M., Rugarcia, A., Stice, J.E. (2000). The Future of Engineering Education III: Developing Critical Skills. Chemical Engineering Education, 34 (2), 108-117.


[1] Problem-solving contrasts with exercise-solving. In exercise-solving, the solution methods are quickly apparent because similar problems have been solved in the past.

[2] An important target for team problem-solving

[3] Successful problem-solvers may spend up to three times longer than unsuccessful ones in reading problem statements.

[4] Most mistakes are made in the definition stage!

[5] The problem that is solved is not the textbook problem. Instead, it is your mental interpretation of that problem.

[6] Some tactics that are ineffective in solving problems include:

  • trying to find an equation that includes precisely all the variables given in the problem statement, instead of trying to understand the fundaments needed to solve the problem
  • trying to use solutions from past problems even when they don’t apply
  • trial and error

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Tools: Different Exam Formats

Return to Exam Prep

Multiple choice examsEssay examsTake-home essay examsProblem-type examsShort-answer examsScience examsPreparing for essay exams: Five studying stepsEssay Exams: Plan Before You AnswerInstruction words in essay and short answer questionsMultiple choice: Revered or feared?Multiple choice exam strategies (incl. the 3-Pass Method)Multiple Choice: Ready, set, go!Math and science tests

Exam Type: Multiple choice

What to study?

For explicit comprehension questions, focus on memorizing terms, definitions, facts, and concepts that can be stated in a succinct way.

For application questions, practice applying the concepts and/or procedures to new situations. Think deeper and focus on the Big Picture (this takes longer than basic comprehension questions).

How to study?

Study in short blocks (20-30 minutes with a 5-10 minute break) over many days. Review daily. Answer the study guide.

Further Resources

Three types of multiple choice exam questions

Strategies for multiple choice exams

Writing multiple choice exams: Ready, set go!

Exam Type: Essay

What to study?

Focus on the major themes of the course to get the Big Picture: think deeply to understand how the main ideas and details are related. Elaborate, compare, evaluate the materials. Generate possible exam questions and answer them in writing (or if you don‘t have time, make a detailed outline for each).

How to study?

Use mindmaps and graphic organizers which organize around the central theme. Study in longer blocks (e.g., 2.5 hours: 50 minutes, 10 minutes break, 50 more minutes). Start far enough ahead of the exam for the information to percolate in your mind.

Further Resources

Five Study Steps for Essay Exams

Essay Exams: Plan Before You Answer

Instruction Words for Essay Exams

Take-Home Essay Exams

Exam Type: Take-Home Essay Exams

Purpose: to test understanding and expression, not retention of information.

How to prepare

  • Know the prof’s expectations.
  • Anticipate possible questions.
  • Know where you can find resources (e.g., library materials, websites). Ensure all your notes are organized.
  • Organize a work schedule. Leave yourself lots of time for finishing the take-home.
  • Write a polished paper: well organized, argued, and clearly written.

Exam Type: Problem Solving

What to study?

Focus on solving problems and identifying the underlying concepts. Try to see a pattern (e.g., look for problems that cluster around the same theme to reduce the number of problems you will need to do). Practice by answering old exams, test, labs, and homework questions.

How to study?

Allow for long study sessions and breaks (2 hours with a 30 minute break).

Exam Type: Short Answer

Beware of two potential dangers!

  1. Writing too little: too general, not enough evidence. Outcome: don‘t get full marks.
  2. Writing too much: repetition, too much evidence. Outcome: run out of time.

How to prepare

  • Review lecture notes and readings.
  • Make a list of important terms and their definitions. Cue cards are useful here.
  • Relate each term to the general ideas of the course. Mind-maps help. Add supporting evidence.

How to write

Short-answer questions are organized like a main idea paragraph in the essay exam:

  1. Identify the direction word.
  2. Main idea—translate into a strong, focused topic sentence.
  3. Evidence—check how many points are assigned to guide you. 3-4 sentences with evidence should suffice.
  4. Summary Sentence—recap the gist of the paragraph.

Exam Type: Science Exams

  • Translate the problem into your own words. This will help you understand what the question requires.
  • Perform opposite operations
  • Analyze the problem before you begin to solve it.
  • Draw a picture or diagram to help you visualize the problem.

See also: Special techniques for math and science exams

Essay Exams: Five Study Steps

  1. Generate possible essay topics
  2. Write thesis statements
  3. Write 3-4 main points
  4. Organize evidence for each main point
  5. Write a few mock essay exams

1. Generate topics

Look at topics given for the course. Look at old exam questions. Look over your lecture notes and predict possible topics. Focus on areas that were given emphasis and/or repeated themes.

2. Write thesis statements

The thesis statement is your purpose, aim or argument in the paper. Identify the instruction word first (e.g., analyze, compare, etc.). This will help focus your thesis statement. For example,

Topic: Effects of globalization on the Canadian textile industry
Instruction Word: Discuss (Argument: pros/cons)
Thesis: Due to globalization, Canadians can now buy cheap clothing, mostly produced in developing countries. However, buying cheap clothing does not mitigate the dire consequences [Argument-Against] of globalization to our local textile industry.

3. Add main points to each thesis statement

Identify 3-4 main points which defend the thesis statement. Using the example above, three negative effects might be: 1) Canadian job losses, 2) local manufacturers must keep costs down, and 3) export market suffers.

Write these main points into topic sentences. A topic sentence has two parts: topic and purpose. Usually a topic sentence appears at the beginning of a paragraph.

Determine the order for each main point.

  1. Random order: any order will do.
  2. Chronological order: there is a time line. Used for describing a process, history, etc.
  3. Logical order: one idea needs to be explained before the next can be understood.
  4. Concession order: argument or strongest points go at the end where the reader is more likely to remember them.

An example of a topic sentence on Canadian job losses: “Our textile industries’ closure led to massive job loss [TOPIC], with workers now facing poor employment prospects [PURPOSE].”

4. Organize evidence for each main point

After stating your topic sentence, add evidence/facts to your main idea. Go over your lecture notes, readings, research on the topic as if you were doing research for a term paper.

Under each topic sentence list your evidence. Listing allows you to memorize your evidence in chunks. Use memory devices to assist in retaining this information.

Types of evidence include statistics, examples, case studies, anecdotal information (use sparingly), observational notes, expert quotes, illustrations, graphs.

Here‘s some evidence for our example on job loss:

  • In Ontario 82% factories closed since 1980s
  • 50,000+ jobs lost
  • only half have full-time jobs
  • Bob Owens, CTWA representative—many long-term unemployed, not retrained

5. Write a mock essay exam

See how long it takes you to put it all together. Time yourself.

Spend most of your time on the BODY. That‘s where the majority of the marks lie. Therefore, do NOT write the conclusion first (as some would argue). Leave 5-10 minutes to proofread your writing for careless mistakes.

When finished the mock exam, self-assess the essay. Do you think it would pass?

Example: Job Losses

Due to globalization, Canadians can now buy cheap clothing, mostly manufactured in developing countries. However, buying cheap clothing does not mitigate the dire consequences of globalization to our local textile industry. Globalization has produced three significant negative effects on our Canadian economy: massive job losses; struggling local manufacturers with poor bottom lines; and poor export sales due to high costs of Canadian made goods.

Firstly, the closing of our textile industries has created massive job loss with many workers now facing poor employment prospects: unemployment, casual, or part time work. In Ontario since the early 1980s, 72% of textile factories have closed representing over 50,000 job losses. Moreover, of these 50,000 workers, only half have found full-time, permanent jobs. Bob Owens, CTWA representative, reported that many of these workers face long-term unemployment with little hope of retraining due to age, language, and education issues. Without jobs, a cheap sweater from China is meaningless.

Secondly, in order to compete globally our remaining Canadian textile business…

Essay Exams: Plan Before You Answer

1.   Read the exam directions carefully.

Do you need to answer all the questions? Can you choose between questions?
Are there any time limits?

2.   Make summary notes on the back of the exam sheet.

Before reading any exam questions, unburden your mind by quickly jotting down on the back of your exam booklet ideas, details, formulae, sequences, etc. that you have memorized but think you might forget. This is almost like making a summary of your summary sheets! Aside from getting down your ideas, this is a positive action that gets you involved in the exam and, thereby, builds self-confidence.

3.   Plan your time.

How much time should you allot to each question?
Plan the number of minutes per question and stick to it.

4.   Read all the questions.

Before you start writing anything, read ALL the questions. If you can choose between questions, select those for which you are best prepared. As you read the instructions to the question, underline or circle key words or instruction words. For a list of instruction words, go to Instruction Words for Essays & Examination Questions.

5.   Jot cues alongside each question.

While reading each question, quickly note a few words or phrases that immediately come to your mind. Later, when you begin writing, use these jottings and those on the back of the exam sheet to organize your answer.

6.   Start with the easiest questions.

Starting with something you know at the beginning will inspire self-confidence, help you relax, and think clearly. Success begets success!

7.   Leave time at end.

Leave about 10-20 minutes at the end to read over your exam. Correct any glaring errors and misplaced ideas or words which would hamper comprehension of your answer and potentially lose you marks.

Adapted from: Wauk, P. (1989). How to Study in College. 4th edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 293.

Essay and Short Answer Questions: Instruction Words

Analyze: Examine the statement or subject in a critical manner. This involves breaking the subject into separate parts and discussing and interpreting each part (e.g., cases, key factors, results, and then demonstrating how each part fits together to form the whole).

Assess: Briefly describe the subject, analyze the positive and negative characteristics, state results or consequences. Using these points to support your answer, offer an opinion or judgment on the value or the character of the subject.

Cite: Make mention of, bring forward as proof (e.g., Cite the reasons the philosopher Hobbes gives for saying that humans are inherently selfish and competitive).

Compare: Present similarities or resemblances between two things. Emphasize these similarities but also present differences (e.g., compare the British and Canadian parliamentary systems).

Contrast: State the ways in which the subjects are not similar (e.g., Contrast the Canadian parliamentary system with the American system of government).

Criticize: Make your own judgment about a subject, defining its merits and shortcomings. Give evidence for what you say (e.g., Criticize the conservative argument that NATO countries must maintain troops in Afghanistan for global security). Say what you think, why, and support your judgment with evidence.

Define: Tell the meaning or significance of the term (e.g., Define and state the significance of ‘gerrymandering’ as it applies to the Canadian electorate system).

Describe: Mention the chief characteristics of a situation or retell the central features of a story (e.g., Describe Dante‘s The Inferno).

Discuss: Give a complete and detailed presentation of the topic. Describe the subject, provide reasons on both sides of the argument or for various views held about the subject (e.g., Discuss the implications of a separate Palestinian state).

Distinguish between: Define each term to show the main differences between them (e.g., Distinguish between the following film genres: mystery and horror).

Elaborate on: Provide more specific details regarding the subject. Note the connection with or the impact of this subject on other related areas of thought.

Evaluate: Appraise the issue giving both advantages and disadvantages. Quote other sources if possible and include your opinion. Always support your opinions with evidence.

Explain: Give an interpretation of the subject which clarifies it. This may mean analyzing the causes or reasons for an event or situation (e.g., Explain the Communist Chinese government’s shift from a closed economy to a market economy).

Illustrate: Give specific examples of something which demonstrates the meaning or situation (e.g., Illustrate what is meant by ―the middle way in Buddhism).

Interpret: State the meaning in simpler terms, using your own judgement (e.g., Interpret George Bernard Shaw‘s ideas of heaven and hell in Man and Superman).

Outline: Organize your answer into main points and subordinate points. Make a short summary using headings and subheadings (e.g., Outline the wave particle duality of light).

Relate: Show the connection between the ideas mentioned in the question; how one influences the other. This does not mean compare and contrast (e.g., Relate the American and the French Revolutions).

State: Explain precisely (e.g., State the three dimensions involved in Weber‘s model of power).

Trace: Show the main points from the beginning to the end of an event (e.g., Trace the rise of Islamic fundamentalism at the end of the 20th century).

Multiple choice: Revered or feared?

Do you like multiple choice tests or fear them?

Although some students like having the possible answer given to them, many students find multiple choice questions very difficult. Why?

Interestingly, it‘s not the content that is difficult but the structure.

Why is the structure so difficult?

  1. There are many questions to answer and the topics are often scrambled and shuffled.
  2. Ideas from lectures and/or readings may be reworded in different/unfamiliar ways.
  3. Very often the question is not asking for simple recognition of ideas but asking you to go beyond straight memorization and apply knowledge from the course, make an analogy, solve a novel problem. Professors assume you are capable of memorizing details.

What are the different question types?

Type 1: Explicit knowledge question

Tests knowledge taught in lectures and texts (about 1/3 of the questions!)

Study Strategy: can simply memorize

Level of Difficulty: easiest

Type 2: Finer detail question

Asks you go to beyond straight memorization of concepts and see how the details relate to the concept. For example,

Which of the following is not related to the process of elaborative rehearsal?

  1. adding details to ideas and concepts
  2. analyzing component parts of an idea
  3. restating knowledge in your own words
  4. practicing remembering the information
  5. none of the above

Study Strategies: elaborate and draw connections between the concept and its evidence.

Level of Difficulty: Medium (i.e., more difficult than Type 1).

Type 3: “Thinker” question

Tests your ability to understand the relationship between a theory and its evidence and then apply this understanding to ―cope with a hypothetical relationship. For example,

In the study by Bahrick and Hall (1991), we find that graduates of college mathematics courses recall high school math knowledge for many years after. According to Bahrick and Hall, which of the following would you expect to be true of a group of university graduates who did not take math courses at university:

  1. they would recall their math from high school to essentially the same extent as those who took math courses in university
  2. most would recall little or none of their high school math 50 years after
  3. they would recall best those things which they learned more about in their university course
  4. both b) and c)
  5. all of the above

Study Strategies: practice recalling the theory, elaborative review, and some creative thinking (i.e., what might change in a variety of slightly different circumstances from those presented in the theory)

In-test Strategy: read the question twice to ensure you understand it correctly. The question stem is made up of two parts: 1) the context reference for the question (tells you to think back to something you’ve studied) and 2) the question part. Pause after the first part and recall the theory or research study. Next, because the alternatives in this question are usually quite long, try reading the question part of the stem followed by each alternative, to keep clear on what you are being asked.

Level of Difficulty: Hardest. These questions are appearing more and more on multiple choice tests, so don’t avoid preparing for them!

(Answers: 2. e; 3. d)


Multiple choice tests are NOT simple. They require a rigorous study approach.

Multiple choice: Exam strategies

Key Concepts

Memorization/recall and recognition of details are not enough. Focus on complex levels of thinking: understanding, connecting, applying, analysis. Practice: Use old exams, study guides.

Strategic Approaches

Breathe, focus and perhaps, dump information you are worried about forgetting. Check timing: how many questions? Average time per question?

1. How to approach the exam overall: The 3 Pass Method

Pass #1: Begin by answering the questions you know, in the exam booklet, then transfer the answers on to the Scantron sheet, in groups of 10 questions.

Code the answers you don’t know (e.g., use a “?” for the ones you have some idea about but need more time to think about, and an “X” for the ones that you have no idea about at all. Move on to questions you feel more confident about. Feel good! You’ve just earned marks!).

Pass #2: Next, return to the questions marked with the “?” and answer these directly on the Scantron, so you don’t misrecord any questions.

Pass #3: Checking the time left, begin guessing the ones marked “X” on the Scantron.

2. How to approach individual questions

  1. Read the stem SLOWLY
  2. Process it by underlining key words
  3. Cover the answers
  4. Predict answer. Not there? Then process the options (e.g., Is this the most correct?)
  5. Eliminate wrong answers, and select the best option

3. Strategies for guessing (a LAST resort)

  • Avoid answers with extreme values – either numbers or statements
  • Choose inclusive answers (e.g., all or none of the above)
  • Choose the longest answer
  • Choose b or c

If there is no penalty for incorrect responses, and no time left, when all else fails, randomly fill in the Scantron.

Adapted from: Learning Skills Programme. (1997). Preparing for Tests and Exams. Counselling and Development Centre, York University, Toronto. pp.10-15.

Multiple choice exams: Ready, set, go!


  1. Breathe and calm yourself
  2. Survey the exam
    • give yourself a bit of time to go back to hard ones
    • mark where you should be done halfway
  1. Determine the ground rules
    • read the directions
    • is there a penalty for guessing? If not, GUESS!


  1. Read questions carefully, slowly, start from the beginning
  2. Cover up the options. Do you already know the answer?
  3. Underline key words to focus your attention


  1. Read all the options. Choose the BEST answer – there may be multiple correct ones!
  2. Eliminate options if you know it’s definitely wrong
  3. Watch for qualifiers (e.g., all, usually, almost, good, best, normally, etc.)
    • think about how they define or limit the stem or options. Be alert to unstated qualifiers which define an option (e.g., “Birds fly south in winter” means ALL birds).
  1. Watch for negatives
    • two negatives make a positive (e.g., “It is atypical for children NOT to go through the following stages” = “it IS is typical for children to go through…”)

If after all that, you still don’t know …

  • Use Educated Guessing
    • for compound options (e.g., “all of the above”), select the compound including simple options about which you are certain
    • avoid extreme values, either numbers or statements
    • change answers only if you have a good reason to do so
    • check for lookalike options. One of them is usually OK.
    • “all of the above” can be a good guess
    • options looking foolish, incongruous or unfamiliar or usually incorrect

What to do if you hit a WALL?

  1. Mark difficult questions and come back to them – don’t let yourself get stuck
  2. Keep your process active (re-read question, make marks, write notes…you can do this!

Math and science tests: Special techniques

1. Translate problems into English.

Putting problems into words aids your understanding. When you study equations and formulas, put those into words, too. The words help you see a variety of applications for each formula. For example, c2 = a2 + b2 can be translated as “the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.”

2. Perform opposite operations.

If the problem involves multiplication, check your work by dividing; add, then subtract; factor, multiply; square root, square; differentiate, integrate.

3. Use time drills.

Practice working problems quickly. Time yourself. Exchange problems with a friend and time each other. You can also do this in a study group.

4. Analyze before you compute.

Set up the problem before you begin to solve it. When a problem is worth a lot of points, read it twice, slowly. When you take time to analyze a problem, you may see computational shortcuts.

5. Make a picture.

Colour an elaborate picture or diagram if you are stuck. Sometimes a visual will clear the mind.

6. Estimate first.

Estimation is a good way to double-check your work. Doing this first can help you notice if your computations go awry, and then you can correct the error quickly.

7. Check your work systematically.

When you check your work, ask yourself: Did I read the problem correctly? Did I use the correct formula or equation? Is my arithmetic correct? Is my answer in the proper form?

Avoid the temptation to change an answer in the last few minutes–unless you’re sure the answer is wrong. In a last-minute rush to finish, it’s easier to choose the wrong answer. If you redo a solution, do not erase the original answer—just draw a line through it.

8. Review formulas.

Right before the test, review any formulas you’ll need to use. Then write them on the margin of the tests or on the back of the test paper.

Source: Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 183.

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Tools: Strategies for effective studying

Return to Exam Prep

How to approach a course when you have to...Preparing summary sheets for studyingMemory strategiesHow students can best prepare for tests and examsUnderstanding key information: elaboration helpsPredicting test/exam questionsSelf-testing as a study strategy

How to approach a course when you have to…


A few courses require you to memorize specific facts or rules (e.g., language courses). Science courses such as Biology and Anatomy also require a large amount of information to be memorized, alongside understanding concepts.

How should I approach these courses?

Because memorizing is very intensive work for our brains and because brains can’t take in too much at one time, it’s better to spread the learning out.

  1. Swiss Cheese Method: nibble away to make holes in the material rather than gobbling it up all at once.
  2. Distributed Learning: Spend a short time (20-30 minutes) learning one thing and then take a break. Come back later and review what you’ve learned in the previous session. Add something new. Remember: short sessions with lots of repetition.
  3. Chunking & Making Connections: It‘s important to make connections among all the details so that they are easier to remember. For example, in Biology you might make a chart of all the hormones and proteins covered in the course with the main characteristics of each one. In French, you might make a chart of all the kinds of pronouns and their uses.


Understand Concepts

Many courses, especially in social sciences, require you to understand concepts and are not about memorizing information to regurgitate on tests. Rather, they are about reaching a deep level of understanding of the concepts. To reach this level, you have to see the BIG PICTURE.

How should I approach these courses?

Think of your course as a giant jigsaw puzzle and each lecture, each reading is a new piece of the puzzle. Your job is to fit all the pieces together.

  1. Integrate material from lectures with information from the text and additional readings.
  2. Organizing information around major themes and concepts (identified by the instructor and/or in the textbook). Make mind-maps, charts and visual outlines showing how the ideas fit together. The visual needs to show how important details form a concept and how a concept fits with the course.
  3. Test questions often ask you to evaluate, compare, and apply the concepts. So prepare study questions which reflect these ways of thinking. Use concrete examples to clarify.


Solve Problems

Many courses in Science, Engineering, and Commerce require problem-solving. Course material is best learned by doing problems. Spending time just reading your textbook is not the best use of your time. Working through the problem and then reading the theory often helps to clarify it.

How should I approach these courses?

  1. Read your textbook backwards! Skim the chapter quickly, then start on the problems at the back of the chapter. When you get stuck, go back to read the pertinent parts of the text. By doing so, you get the problem done AND understand the theory.
  2. Organize problems around concepts. Each problem is not unique but rather part of a family of problems where each procedure is a variation on the concept. To help you understand discreet differences among procedures, use maps or flow charts to show how the various procedures connect to the concept.

Also see Special Techniques for Math and Science Tests.

Source: Mary O‘Malley, Concordia University

Preparing summary sheets for studying

Why use summaries?

  • deepen your understanding of the material
  • determine the key ideas (refer to the course outline for learning objectives)
  • organize material into themes, or hierarchies
  • look for connections among ideas, concepts, or problem sets
  • reduce the volume of content for faster reviews

Summary Formats

Choose a summary method that reflects the content plus your preferred way of learning. These methods highlight studying the overall concepts. Drilling information on cue cards focuses on isolated details and complements these conceptual summary methods.

Here are some useful formats (see also: Academic Reading module):

  1. Cornell
  2. Mind-maps
  3. Charts/Tables
  4. Concept Summary
The Cornell method

When to use: To combine lecture notes or power points with text or course manuals

How to use:

  1. Start with the topic or title at the top of the page.
  2. Draw a 2-3 inch column down the left side. Have your lecture and text open together. Write points from the lecture in the larger space, and add structure from the text in the smaller column. For example, add subtitles, key terms, definitions or formula, pose questions.
  3. Finish with a 4-6 sentence summary of the unit, topic or lecture.
  4. Review by covering the larger column and asking questions based on the cues on the smaller column, or rehearsing final short summary.Cornell notes chart
Mind maps

When to use: To see associations among relational material. This method is particularly helpful to visual learners, so use colour as an additional aid.

How to use:

  1. Identify the main topic or concept in the web’s center. Structure sub-topics in the next layer.
  2. Add information such as Point, Interpretation, Explanation/evidence/example (PIE) for each detail.
  3. Look for recurring ideas, to see connections among various sub-topics.

Mind maps can be as compressed or as comprehensive as you wish by adding additional sub-sections.


When to use: If there was a repeated pattern to the material you are summarizing; to facilitate comparative thinking.

How to use:

  1. Identify the topics covered along the top of the chart, and the pattern of sub-topics along the side. This is the more conceptual thinking, and filling in the details of each cell is a more factual focus.
  2. Completing the matrix allows you to study all about a single theory (i.e., within a column) and compare details across theories (i.e., across rows).


Theories of Personality

Trait Psychoanalytic Behavioural Humanistic
Social context
Key ideas
Application of theory
Concept summary

When to use: If you are working with math or computational material (finance, physics, chemistry, etc.). It encourages conceptual thinking in addition to performing calculations.

How to use:

  1. Identify the key concepts taught and the various applications related to those concepts.
  2. Design a summary sheet what highlights key information such as: concept title, allowable key formula, definitions, other important information (sign conventions, exceptions, etc) simple example or explanation, list of relevant knowns and unknowns to help distinguish between problems or concepts.

For a completed example (“acid-base chemistry”), see our Quantitative Problem Solving section under Concept Summary.

Memory strategies for exam prep

So how do we remember? Attention → Encoding

1. Attention

Before you can encode the information, you must begin by attending to (i.e., thinking about) it. Then…

2. Encoding

Translate incoming information into a mental representation: Picture (visualize it), Sound (say it), and Meaning (put it into your own words).

Think “GULP”: GET it, USE it, LINK it, and PICTURE it.


  • Chunking/organization
  • Recite: preferably out loud
  • Distributed practice: study in small chunks over a period of time
  • Mind-maps
  • Mnemonics /Acronyms (e.g., S.A.S.S. = Student Academic Success Services!)
  • Rhymes and songs
  • Pegging: link new information to something known

See our online module on Memory Strategies for more information.

The generation effect and levels of performance

How students can best prepare for tests and exams

In a 2005 study, 109 American university students participated in an experiment that involved reading a passage and responding to a 20-item multiple choice test. The students were randomly assigned to one of four groups. The four conditions involved:

  • reading and copying (final test mark 64.50%)
  • reading and highlighting (final test mark 77%)
  • reading and taking notes (final test mark 79.50%)
  • reading and generating questions (final test mark 89.10% – targeted* information)
    * targeted refers to items determined by the student as important to study


Source: Van Blerkom, D., Van Blerkom, M.L., & Bertsch, S. (2005). “Study strategies and generative learning: What works?” CRLA. November. University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

The generation effect

Students retain information they have targeted and generated better than study materials that were generated and targeted by others. This has been dubbed the generation effect. Mental operations in which the student engages while generating materials, such as more distinctive encoding, may produce these results.

(Begg et al., 1991 as cited in Foos et al., 1994; Crutcher & Healy, 1989 as cited in Foos et al., 1994).

Application for students: four levels of performance

🙂 Lowest level — students are simply told what to study

🙂 🙂  Higher level — students are instructed to use the materials and are given some specific study materials or techniques (i.e., professor-generated materials)

🙂 🙂 🙂 Even higher level — students generated their own study outlines

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 Highest level — students generated their own question(s) or questions with answers

Conclusion: Generating potential test questions while preparing for exams is an effective technique for improving performance on materials targeted by those test questions!

Source: Foos, P.W., Mora, J.J. & Tkacz, S. (1994). Student study techniques and the generation effect.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 567-576.

What does elaboration mean?

What does it mean to elaborate? Many things!

  • Going beyond rote memorization of information,
  • Adding details to ideas or concepts,
  • Clarifying the meaning of ideas,
  • Explaining the relationship between two or more concepts,
  • Making inferences,
  • Analyzing the idea/concept for its component parts,
  • Applying the concept to a new situation or creating an analogy, and
  • Connecting/linking material being learned with information already known.
Question stems to help you elaborate

Why don’t students elaborate?

Elaboration is a valuable tool to help you go beyond rote memorization of information to higher levels of thinking and learning. But many students don’t elaborate while studying, because of time pressures and/or they aren’t sure how to do it.

How do I elaborate?

Generating questions will help you elaborate. Use some of the generic questions stems below to help you generate content-specific questions (from lectures, readings, notes, etc.). Then, study by answering your questions, individually or in study groups, and checking your answers.

  • What is a new example of…? How would you use it to…?
  • What would happen if…?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
  • What do we already know about…?
  • How does it tie in with what we learned before? Explain why…?
  • Explain how…? How does it affect?
  • What is the meaning of…? Why is it important?
  • What is the difference between …and…? How are…and…similar?
  • What is the best…, and why?
  • What are some possible solutions for the problem of…?
  • Compare…and…with regard to…?
  • How does…effect or lead to…? What do you think causes…?
  • Do you agree and disagree with this statement: …? Support your answer.

Source: King, A. (1992). “Facilitating elaborative learning through guided student generated questioning.” Educational Psychologist. 27(1). 111-126.

Predicting test/exam questions

Listen for clues in lectures

  • Verbal clues: Professors often give clues to what will be on the exam so observe and listen carefully. Sometimes professors give direct instructions for the test while other clues can be more subtle. For example, if your instructor repeats an idea several times, writes it on the board, or returns to it in a subsequent lecture, you can be sure that it’s important enough to appear on an exam.
  • Non-verbal clues: Don’t forget that non-verbal cues such as gestures showing a critical point, pauses, and looking at notes indicate something is important. If a professor reads a section out loud, take note.
  • Questions: Pay close attention to questions the prof asks in lecture.
  • Outside readings: When your required readings are covered extensively in a lecture, you can bet they are important.

Study smarter, not harder

  • Put yourself into the professor’s head. What kind of questions would you ask? Refer to the learning objectives in the course outline or syllabus.
  • Save and review all graded materials. Quizzes, lab sheets, essays. Quiz questions often reappear on final exam in an altered form.
  • Get organized! Have a separate folder, file, or section in your notes labelled “Test Questions.”
  • Add questions on a regular basis. While the material is fresh (i.e., after each lecture and assignment), add possible test questions to your list.


Part of studying smarter is asking the person who knows — the professor! The format to the test can help you predict questions, so ask the professor how long the test will be and what kinds of questions to expect (e.g., multiple choice). Do this early in the term so that you can listen carefully in lectures from the beginning and brainstorm test questions appropriately.

Practice solving problems

For math and science courses, extend practice as needed: using homework questions, practice working them out anew, using different variables.

See also: Special Techniques for Math and Science Tests.


Adapted from: Ellis, D. (1995). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 168.


Self-testing as a study strategy

The key to self-testing is not to wait until right before your test! To be effective, the attributes of self-testing procedure should be in place over the course of the term. The following set the foundation for self-testing:

Reviewing lecture notes as soon as possible after each class.

◯ Identifying what you know and what hasn’t been clearly understood.

◯ Combining lecture and reading assignment notes into understandable summaries.

◯ Reviewing course material regularly instead of cramming.


Self-testing should be a part of each study session!

As noted above, effective studying involves reviewing course material on a regular basis. That means:

After lectures/tutorials

Lecture or tutorial notes need to be reviewed as soon as possible after each class. What does “reviewing” look like?

  • Test your knowledge and understanding using the notes containing examples and applications of concepts presented.
  • Relate new knowledge to previous topics covered.
  • Link old to new information, which will help you
    • understand the old information better,
    • remember all material covered, and
    • make predictions about what may occur next.

BONUS: Any information that was not well understood can be addressed immediately (asking questions in class, in tutorial).

After reading/note-making

At the end of each reading (e.g., chapter, journal article), set aside a part of your study session just to review your notes. Students often postpone self-testing until just before a scheduled test — it will still help to self-test, but by this time it’s too late for full effectiveness.


Brogue, C. (1993). Studying in the Content Areas: Science. Clearwater, FL: H&H Publishing Co.

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Course planning resources

Return to Time Management

Steps for Getting OrganizedHow to use homework timeCourse PlannerCourse Tracking SheetEnd of Term Planning ChartGrade CalculatorThe Study Plan

Steps for Getting Organized

  1. Use term calendars, weekly calendars, and daily to do lists. (Here are some helpful templates to get you started.)
    • If you need some flexibility, try not to pack your weekly calendar with too many activities. If you find that using calendars and to-do lists make you feel even more stressed, try looking at your life as a whole. Ask yourself: What are my values? What are my goals for the future? List your goals and then prioritize them. This might help you focus on what to do today and in the future.
  1. Don’t overbook. Schedule downtime every day. During downtime, you are not accountable to anyone or anything!
  2. Use a mind map. To see the whole picture first, draw a mind map. Mind maps are powerful visual tools for seeing the connections between a big concept and its associated detail. In other words, it allows you to see both the forest AND its trees! A bonus of mind-maps is that details can be easily added, deleted and moved around.
  3. Break down big projects.
    • Start by brainstorming.
    • Break the project down into steps, focusing on one step of a project at a time. Imagine putting on blinders like a racehorse so you can help yourself focus. You can do this by reorganizing and redrawing your mind map; writing the steps on sticky notes and rearrange until you have the right order; or using the Task Analysis chart.
    • Break steps into activities. You could then make a new map for each step.
    • Schedule activities: Use an agenda. Put sticky notes in an agenda and only take off the ones that are to be completed that day.
    • Complete project.
  4. Just do it. Sometimes just getting started on a task can help you feel better and will jump-start your motivation.

How to use homework time: Work smarter, not longer

It can be helpful to make a distinction between learning and studying.

Learning is focused on increasing your understanding of facts, concepts, processes and relationships (i.e., your understanding of the material).

Studying is designed to increase your recall of subject matter, through repetition of previously learned material.

The following ideas explain how to use homework time for effective learning, which will also result in less pressured studying.

Homework activities

1. Preview the lecture:

  • Before class, preview the lecture outline, web notes, lab objectives, or assigned problem set to begin to form a picture of what the class will be about.
  • Skim or read the assigned text. Read to get the BIG PICTURE, by reading the chapter introduction, summary, glossary and review questions. Then, return to the chapter beginning and read for more detail, or skim by reading the subtitles, first and last sentence of each paragraph. Be aware of material that is totally new and complex, and listen for that in the lecture.

2. Review your notes after the lecture:

  • Before sleeping that night, read over your notes from each class that day; this facilitates establishing a strong memory trace – which is very helpful when it comes time for studying! This might take 10-15 minutes for a single lecture.
  • Fill in gaps in your notes, add titles, and identify what you do not understand.
  • Summarize each lecture (don’t just copy it over verbatim) to use as study notes.

3. Complete assignments:

  • Keep up to date with assignments, aiming to finish 1 day ahead of due date to allow for human or technical malfunction!
  • Read in detail if you need further clarification, if the course is based on the text, your prof.expects you to, or you have time and enjoy the topic.

4. Do a weekly review:

  • Schedule a block of time for regular review of your summarized lectures or readings notes, concepts in key problems or labs, made over the past week. This might take 20-30 minutes per course.
  • Pay attention to what you do not know, and set a goal of figuring it out over the next week.

How much is “enough” homework time?

(Psst! Did you know there are 168 hours in every week?)

Time estimates vary according to course content, academic goals, other responsibilities and commitments, but…

  • A minimum is typically 1 hour of homework for every hour of undergraduate Arts.
  • Often, 2-4 hours of homework for every hour of lecture is needed for preview, review, and either keeping up with labs and assignments, or reading in the humanities or social sciences.
  • Lab and applied science courses are harder to predict, so track your own patterns and estimate based on that. Remember to include preview and review.

Consider school your full-time job

  • 15 lecture hours + 15 homework hours = 30 hours/week
    15 hours of class + 30 hours homework = 45 hours/week
  • Most full-time jobs range from 30 to 45 hours per week! Celebrate the flexibility of your working hours!

Course Planner

Download Course Planner Template


(Labs, essays, exams, tests, seminars, projects, etc.)
Value Due Date Grade
Midterm exam
Final exam


  1. Make one copy for each course and place in the front of each binder.
  2. Review the course syllabus and record all assignments, exams, etc. on your planner.
  3. Record the value of each item and the due date.
  4. Transfer due dates to monthly wall calendar.
  5. As tasks are completed during the term, enter the grade received.
  6. Prior to the final exam, calculate grade achieved thus far.
  7. Assess what your grade will need to be to maintain or improve your grade.

Course Tracking Sheet

Download Course Tracking Sheet Template

Use this to set goals, record your progress, and make decisions about allocating or re-distributing time among your courses. Do you need to shift amount of time you spend on each course, to meet your goals? How many marks do you need on final exam or paper to achieve your goal?

Course Grade  Goal Accomplishments (record as weighted value or % if assignments & tests are of almost equal value)

End of Term Planning Chart to complete assignments

Download End of Term Planning Chart Template

Behind in the work? Aiming to finish your term work by the last day of class? Looking for a plan?


  1. Make a list of the things you need to accomplish and enter these things on your Term Calendar. Break large projects into smaller chunks, so they feel more See the Assignment Calculator for research papers.
  2. Create an End of Term Planning Chart and include 7 columns:
    • Course, task or assignment, % value if relevant, due date if
    • Then add: estimate of time needed to do the task, leave a column to record the actual time taken, and finally, a column for “DONE.”
  3. Look at your Weekly Schedule to see when you have homework time available, and slot in hours for your different tasks or Separate your “keep up with regular work” from your “catch-up” time. It is often helpful to make a schedule for each week, by copying the basic template of classes, other commitments, health habits (eating, sleeping, exercise), and filling in the rest based on your immediate priorities.

NOTE: If you estimate you need more time to do your tasks than is actually available, you will need to re-adjust your estimate.  Can you take time from one project and re-assign it to another to better reach your goals? Or can you accept using less time than you would like on something?

You can’t make more time, so you will need to fit your work into the time available.


Course Task % Value Due Date Estimated Time
to Complete
Actual time Done!
CRSS 335 Chapter 5 (30 pages) Nov. 15 10 hrs 2+1.5+ 2+

3+3 (11.5)

PHIL 202 20 page essay

  • confirm topic
  • make research plan
  • research, make notes
  • outline
  • messy draft
  • edit, rework
  • visit the Writing Centre
30% Nov. 22

  • Nov. 7
  • Nov. 8
  • Nov. 11 
  • Nov. 15
  • Nov. 18 Nov.19 Nov. 20
3 or 4 days

  • 1 hr
  • 1.5 hrs
  • 10 hrs
  • 3 hrs
  • 8 hrs
  • 2 hrs
  • 1 hr




End-of-Term Planning Chart

Course Task % Value Due Date Estimated Time
to Complete
Actual time Done

Grade Calculator

Not sure how your marks are adding up? Download the grade calculator, an Excel spreadsheet, to help you keep track of your grades.

Download the Grade Calculator

The Study Plan

Download The Study Plan Template

Why should I start studying early?

Did you know that the human brain learns academic material faster and better if done in brief blocks of time spread over longer periods, rather than in a few lengthy sessions?

For example, you will perform better on an exam if you spend one hour studying each day for 20 days than if you spend 10 hours studying for two days before an exam. Which means that cramming is BAD NEWS!

What if I have to cram?

Ok, so sometimes life gets crazy and we end up having to cram, right? If you have to cram, try to focus on remembering the information you know already rather than trying to learn new information. And here’s the kicker: you will typically NOT remember what you tried to learn the night before the exam, so it’s best to make sure you really know some of the information well. If you do have a few days, try to spread the studying out so you are not doing it all in one day.

How should I plan my exam preparation?

If you plan ahead, many students have found the “The Study Plan” gets good results. However, five days is really the minimal and we recommend a much longer study plan, if possible. For example, if you have not read any of your BIOL 101 textbook and a multiple choice quiz of over 100 test questions is looming, 5 days will probably not suffice.

Components of The Study Plan:

  • Space out your learning over a minimum of 5 days.
  • Divide your material into workable “chunks,” (e.g., a chapter, a set of lecture notes).
  • During each day, prepare a new chunk. Preparing might be reading and note-taking, amalgamating lecture and textbook information, reorganizing lecture notes.
  • Review previous material.
  • Use active learning strategies such as questioning, reciting, cue cards, study groups, etc.
  • Use self-testing techniques to monitor your learning.

How much time should I set aside to study?

You might need a minimum of 8-10 hours of studying to get a good mark on an exam. However, the time you need to spend really depends on many things such as:

  • the difficulty of the course
  • to what extent you have kept up with the materials during the term
  • how important this exam is to you

How to make a Study Plan

  1. Break your material into chunks. If it can be divided by chapter, article, theme or topic, then use that. If not, divide the material in a way that is manageable to you. For example, if one chapter is very long and/or complex, break that chapter into sections.
  2. Plan to spend 2.5-3 hours studying on each of the five (or more) days.
  3. Each day, begin by reviewing the previous day’s work, focusing on what you did not know on the self-test, and then preparing a new section. End with a self-test.

Example time frame:

Date What to do What to study Length of time
Day 1 Prepare
1st section/chunk
(e.g., a chapter)
2 hours
20 minutes
Day 2 Review
Prepare Self-test
1st section
2nd section
20 minutes
2 hours
20 minutes
Day 3 Review
Prepare Self-test
1st section
2nd section
3rd section
10 minutes
20 minutes
2 hours
20 minutes
Day 4 Review
1st section
2nd section
3rd section
4th section
5 minutes
10 minutes
20 minutes
2 hours
20 minutes
Day 5 Review
1st section
2nd section
3rd section
4th section
5 minutes
5 minutes
10 minutes
20 minutes
2 hours

You may need to extend the preparation time depending on the information and to match your own learning pace. However, studying for more than 3-4 hours at one session is not as helpful as several shorter ones.

Also, don’t forget to take short breaks throughout!

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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.

Download a PDF of Academics 101

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 Reading and Note-making.

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 is heavily used by undergraduates and graduate students for free consultations with professional writers or trained upper-year students. You can develop skills such as generating ideas for a paper, working with an outline or early draft, refining a thesis statement, strengthening an argument and writing more clearly and concisely. You can also check out our popular series of tips on academic writing.

When it’s time to research a paper, go to a librarian for help. Each academic department has a liaison librarian and there are research resources for most departments.

Many resources are also available online through the Writing Centre. Credit courses in writing are also available through Continuing and Distance Studies.

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!

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Academic integrity

Download a PDF of this resource

There are a lot of reasons to attend university, but one of the most important is the opportunity to further your own academic and personal growth. Queen’s University is committed to the “dissemination and advancement of knowledge, personal and professional development, and good citizenship” in its scholarly community (Queen’s Code of Conduct, p. 3).

In this module, you’ll find information about

  • what “academic integrity” means,
  • why it matters,
  • what counts as academic dishonesty, and
  • how we can help you maintain your academic integrity while you’re at Queen’s.
What is academic integrity?Why does it matter?Violations of Academic IntegrityHow SASS Can HelpAdditional InformationFAQ

What is academic integrity?

Academic Integrity means the practice of honest and responsible scholarship. It’s a key part of everything we do at university.

Academic Integrity consists of the “fundamental values of honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility,” which are “central to the building, nurturing, and sustaining of an academic community” (see the Centre for Academic Integrity).

It is your responsibility to adhere to the principles of academic integrity.

You probably have questions. Maybe you’ve heard of “plagiarism,” but aren’t sure exactly what it means. And then–how do you avoid committing it? Is plagiarism the only way you can violate academic integrity? And why does it all matter so much, anyway?

NEXT: Why does academic integrity matter?

For more information on policies and procedures specific to your faculty or school, click here.

Why does it matter?

Academic integrity matters because it’s what makes your degree worth something. Studying at Queen’s means you are part of a scholarly community, one in which all members (students and faculty alike) are held in mutual respect. Academic Integrity also supports the reputation of Queen’s University; universities, and the degrees they confer, are only as strong as their reputations.

Violating academic integrity can have serious consequences, from failing a course to being expelled from Queen’s. Keep the big picture in mind: you’re paying a lot of money for the opportunity to learn and develop your knowledge and yourself.

Cheating affects those around you, but, most of all, it affects you–ultimately, you are cheating yourself.

Maryellen Weimer, professor emerita at Pennsylvania State University, outlines some of the consequences of cheating in a blog post on the Teaching Professor Blog. Paraphrased from that blog post, here are six reasons not to cheat:

(1) Knowledge is cumulative.
  • What you learn later will draw on what you’re learning now. Cheating now means you’ll have to do twice the work later to catch up.
(2) Train your brain.
  • When you cheat, you don’t learn. You won’t develop your writing, critical thinking, and problem solving. These critically important skills are ones that employers will assume you have upon graduation.
(3) Once a cheater…
  • Research shows that cheating is almost never a one-time thing. In fact, you might get used to cheating and do it after you leave Queen’s (e.g., at work, on your taxes, with unethical business practices, in your personal life).
(4) It’s about integrity.
  • It doesn’t feel good when people are dishonest with you. Think about the kind of person you want to be: it probably isn’t someone who cheats.
(5) You’ve got this.
  • You can achieve your goals without cheating! Successful university students are those who adopt positive and tested approaches to studying, not necessarily those with the most innate intelligence. There are resources on campus (like SASS) that can help.
(6) Pride and self-respect from your grades.
  • You’ll feel a sense of satisfaction and receive a self-respect boost from grades you’ve earned honestly.

Academic integrity is a principle that will follow you beyond any one class to graduation and into the workforce. Here’s a powerful example of how cheating can haunt you from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (Learning Module 1, pg. 3):

“[I]n 2013, Chris Spence was forced to resign as the director of education for the Toronto District School Board after he was caught plagiarizing parts of several opinion-editorial articles published in a Toronto newspaper.

Subsequently, he was also found to have plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis which was completed in 1996. While no decision has been made yet regarding this allegation, Spence risks having his degree revoked. He now must work to restore his reputation in order to find new work. Academic misconduct is a serious offence which may affect not only your university career, but also your professional career.

NEXT: Examples of violations of academic integrity.

Violations of Academic Integrity

According to the Senate policy on academic integrity, the specific violations of academic integrity are: plagiarism, use of unauthorized materials, facilitation, falsification, and forgery.


What is plagiarism?

  • using someone else’s ideas or phrasing without proper acknowledgement
  • intentionally or inadvertently, representing some or all of another author’s ideas as your own

For example, it’s plagiarism if you:

  • copy and paste from the internet, a printed source, or other source and fail to provide appropriate acknowledgement
  • copy from another student
  • use direct quotations or paraphrased material in an assignment without appropriate acknowledgement
  • paraphrase so closely that most of the phrasing resembles that of the original source
  • submit the same piece of work in more than one course without the permission of the instructor(s).

How to Avoid Plagiarism

Many students struggle with academic integrity simply because they do not understand what scholarship means: a key factor is community. Becoming part of a community of scholars means that you are joining an ongoing discussion. Counter to many students’ expectations, it is not necessary, especially at the undergraduate level, to create new knowledge in every assignment. Instead, students are expected to build on and refer to established knowledge. Many students are tempted to cheat because, fundamentally, they don’t understand the expectations: “the more [citations you] have, the smarter [you] look!” (Prior, 2001).

Think of it this way:

It’s not that you have to cite sources, it’s that you get to cite them.

You can avoid plagiarism if you:

For more on how to avoid plagiarism in your writing assignments, see our handout on Avoiding Plagiarism.

For students with English as an Additional Language: Many EAL students struggle to meet their instructors’ expectations for academic writing when they are learning not only the subject matter, but also the English language. it isn’t always clear how to write in your own words. See here for more information on academic integrity, plagiarism, and instructors’ expectations.

Use of Unauthorized Materials

What does it mean to use unauthorized materials? 

  • possessing or using unauthorized study materials or aids during a test,
  • copying from another student’s test paper,
  • using an unauthorized calculator or other aids during a test,
  • removing materials from the library without authorization, or
  • deliberately concealing library materials.

This is the “classic” form of cheating that you have probably seen in movies or in stock photography. Leaning over to copy an answer from another student’s paper, writing the formulae on your arm, using your phone to look something up, smuggling notes into an exam–these are all considered violations of academic integrity.

You can avoid use of unauthorized materials if you:


What is facilitation?

Facilitation refers to deliberately enabling another person’s breach of academic integrity. For example,

  • knowingly allowing your essay or assignment to be copied by someone else,
  • buying term papers or assignments and submitting them as your own, or
  • selling term papers or assignments.

Buying and selling academic work are more explicit examples of facilitation, ones that most students would identify as breaches of academic integrity. However, allowing a friend to copy your assignment (in whole or in part) is also cheating. If either of you is caught, you could both face consequences.

You can avoid facilitation if you:

Inappropriate Collaboration

Is it all right to work together on an assignment? Never guess or assume, no matter what “everyone else” is doing–ask your professor to be sure!

“Collaboration” includes group work (e.g., on a lab or assignment), jointly working on homework problems, having a friend help you rewrite a paper–even checking homework answers prior to submission. In all these cases, it is your responsibility to ensure that the work you submit is the result of your own effort–if the work has your name on it, you are responsible for all of it.

So when is it not okay to collaborate? If “two or more students submit identical or nearly identical work, claiming it is their own,” it’s inappropriate–and it’s cheating. More broadly, it’s cheating if students “work together or share information without specific instructions [to do so] by the professor“–on any assignment or task that will be submitted for marks!

For more information, see “Collaborating with Integrity.


What is falsification?

You commit an act of falsification when you misrepresent yourself, your work, or your relationship to Queen’s. For example, you cheat by falsification if you:

  • create or alter a transcript or other official document,
  • impersonate someone in an exam or test, or
  • falsify or fabricate research data.

While most students violate academic integrity inadvertently, it is difficult to commit falsification by accident. This category of academic dishonesty takes purposeful effort.

You can avoid falsification if you:

  • just don’t do it! There’s always another way.
  • plan ahead (see time management in grad school, goal setting, planning your assignments, and prioritizing your time)
  • keep lines of communication open with your professor or supervisor and disscuss challenges.


What is forgery?

Forgery is falsification taken to the extreme: it is not the altering of official documents, but the submission of documents which are entirely fraudulent (e.g., medical notes, transcripts, etc.).

It is extremely unlikely that you could commit forgery by accident; just as with falsification, this category of academic dishonesty takes purposeful effort. Forgery is a transparently deliberate act of cheating.

You can avoid forgery if you:

  • just don’t do it! There’s always another way.
  • plan ahead (see time management in grad school, goal setting, planning your assignments, and prioritizing your time)
  • keep lines of communication open with your professor or supervisor and disscuss challenges.

NEXT: How SASS can help you avoid violations of academic integrity

How SASS Can Help

It can be challenging to maintain your GPA, balance the demands of a full course load, keep up with coursework, submit assignments on time, and still have time to manage the rest of your life.

We get it. Student Academic Success Services is here to help make sure that students have the skills in place to avoid violations of academic integrity. In fact, 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. You can do it and we can help!

We offer a variety of resources, from workshops to online resources to one-on-one consultations.

Academic Integrity Workshops

Throughout the term, SASS offers workshops on issues related to the effective practice of academic integrity. For example, we have workshops on

  • effective time management that can help you avoid time-crunches that might tempt you to cut corners;
  • note-taking skills that can help to ensure that you’ve accurately recorded source material and the sources from which you’ve borrowed;
  • the practice of academic integrity in student writing.

SASS Handouts and Resources

Looking for resources online you can read right now? We have

1:1 Writing & Learning Consultations

Our staff of professional writing consultants and learning strategists can help you learn to

  • integrate sources into your work
  • properly paraphrase, quote, and use citations
  • manage your time to avoid the temptation to take short cuts
  • and more!

Book an appointment online to find out how we can support your writing and learning.

NEXT: Additional sources of information and frequently asked questions about academic integrity

Additional Sources of Information

There are number of useful resources from other post-secondary institutions that address academic integrity. The following resources can help you further develop your understanding of and adherence to the principles of academic integrity.

Video: Academic Integrity at Queen’s University

Who’s with you in your writing? is a video presentation created by some of the writing experts at Student Academic Success Services. It covers topics such as what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it, how sources can enhance your argument(s), how to work with sources, and how to quote with accuracy and integrity. [32:32 in length]

Frequently Asked Questions

Students often have specific questions about what is considered an academic integrity issue and what is not. Some of these questions are below (adapted from the Academic Integrity @ Queen’s website):

Is it true that if I paraphrase or slightly alter the wording from a source, I do not have to give credit?

This is not true. If you take anyone’s ideas or words and present them as your own argument or use them to support your argument, you must give appropriate credit. If you are unsure how to do so, click here for citation resources or ask your instructor for help.

Is it true that as long as I provide a citation when I copy something, I am not plagiarizing?

Providing a citation is a good start, but you must add quotation marks if you are copying someone’s idea word for word.

Am I allowed to re-submit previous assignments since I own them?

Although this may seem logical, it is prohibited and an example of “self-plagiarism.” If you truly feel that your previous work is related to your current assignment or project, talk to your instructor(s) to see if it can be re-submitted or revised for an alternate submission.

Since my instructor did not ask for my sources, do I need to include any?

Just because your instructor did not ask for them, it is not a legitimate excuse to avoid giving proper credit. You may still be found to have committed plagiarism if you don’t. Further, it is good practice to include your sources in order to acknowledge where your ideas come from.

Is it okay if I forgot or didn’t know that I was plagiarizing/breaching other aspects of academic integrity?

It is your responsibility to understand what conduct is not permitted at the University. “Not knowing” is not an excuse, so you should familiarize yourself with the forms of academic dishonesty and school policies, or ask your instructor if you are still unclear.

Is sharing information with friends on an assignment all right?

There is a distinction between inappropriate collaboration and ethical group work.  If the work is meant to be independent, you are breaching academic integrity by discussing answers with others. If your instructor does not address the issue, it is your responsibility to find out, rather than assume that it is collaborative group work.

Is it true that submitting papers that I buy online is not plagiarizing, since they are available? 

This is definitely not true. The act of purchasing a paper to submit is cheating.

Will I be at a disadvantage if everyone cheats except for me?

If others are earning their marks and even degrees by cheating their way through, it won’t be long before they get caught. Furthermore, they will not develop the necessary skills for life and work after university. Holding yourself to high standards of academic integrity in learning will pay off in the future and make you proud of a degree that you worked hard to get.

Have a question about academic integrity? Email us! Or book a 1:1 appointment with a learning strategist or a professional writing consultant.

Image courtesy of Caleb Roenigk under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivations 2.0 license.

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Academic skills and writing resources

Under Learning and Writing Resources, you’ll find a wide variety of resources that address students’ academic needs. Resources are divided into two main areas:

  • In the academic skills resources tab, you’ll find tools and resources for managing time, improving focus and motivation, studying efficiently, learning from lectures, etc.
  • In the writing resources tab, you’ll find resources on the writing process, punctuation, grammar, style, discipline-specific writing, referencing, etc.

Not sure where to begin? Assess your current skills with our study skills and habits questionnaire.

Academic skills resourcesWriting resourcesHow do I...

How do I…

Avoid burnout? I feel disorganized, stressed and overwhelmed.
  • Module: Academics 101 (Especially helpful for first year students, but there’s something for everyone!)
  • Avoiding burnout starts with good Time Management skills. (Especially: term calendar, weekly schedule, goal setting, end of term course planner, and five domains of health.)
  • Module: Academic Stress
  • Assignment Calculator (breaks down large assignments to help you get them done, piece by piece)
  • Module: Focus and concentration
Know what my profs expect from me?
Ace this course?
Get the most out of lectures and homework?
Get all of my work done and still have balance?
  • First, figure out where your time is going. See Time Management (for example, the weekly time use chart).
  • Know what needs to be done, and what time you have available. See Time Management for the Term Calendar, Weekly Schedule, and information on goal setting.
  • Divide big projects into pieces. The Assignment Calculator can help!
  • Pay attention to the other aspects of your life. See the Time Management module’s section on the 5 Domains of Health.
Stop procrastinating? (I just don’t care anymore. I can’t get started. I keep procrastinating.)
Stay on top of my work while studying for midterms?
Write a lab report?
Write my thesis?
Deliver presentations well?

Practice whenever you can. See Presentation Skills.

Do this? I feel like everyone else knows what they’re doing…

Make an appointment with a Learning Strategist or a Writing Consultant.

FAQ image courtesy of Airpix under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivations 2.0 license.

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Students may book appointments for help with academic skills, writing, and English language skills. All appointments are confidential and free for Queen’s University students.

All appointments are booked through our online booking system. (Click here for frequently asked questions about the system.)

Academic skills appointmentsWriting appointmentsEAL appointmentsPeer writing appointmentsOnline appointmentsHow to book appointmentsFAQs about WCOnlineAppointment policies

Academic skills appointments

For graduate and undergraduate students.

  • Want to stay on top of your academic game?
  • Behind in your readings?
  • Feeling disorganized or unmotivated?
  • Trouble writing exams?

two people sitting at a table for an appointment

Meeting with a learning strategies advisor can help you improve your performance and confidence. We welcome all Queen’s students, regardless of year, program, or academic standing. Our team of learning strategies advisors can help by coaching and encouraging you in different strategies, skills, and mindsets for learning.

Appointments are about 50 minutes long, and are free and confidential. No information will be shared unless the student gives specific permission to do so. Referrals are not required.

Before your first appointment, consider…

  • For you to feel more satisfied with your school performance or experience, what would need to change? Are there academic skills to improve? Personal habits to modify? Attitudes to re-evaluate?
  • What went well last term or year?
  • What academic (or personal) habits or skills held you back from being your best?
  • Have you run into these issues before? What helped?
  • Is there feedback from your profs that you need to address?

At your first appointment, you are encouraged to bring…

  • a completed study skills and habits questionnaire
  • relevant materials, e.g., a text for help with reading, or class timetable for help designing a weekly homework or research schedule, or notes to practice summarizing methods
  • an experimental frame of mind, as finding a better approach involves trying new ideas or methods

Wait time for a learning strategies advising appointment may be 1-3 weeks, or longer during midterm and final exams.

To maximize your opportunity to meet with a learning strategies advisor and allow you time to practice new strategies, students are welcome to book up to one appointment per week and two per month with the same advisor. In exceptional circumstances, the advisor may adjust this policy.

Writing appointments

A writing consultant and a student pour over an essay draft

Undergraduate and graduate students of all faculties, writing proficiencies, and levels of academic achievement at Queen’s University use SASS’s popular writing service. These free, confidential appointments are specific to individual student needs, but commonly include topics such as

  • understanding an assignment
  • brainstorming ideas
  • developing an argument or thesis statement
  • organizing main points
  • revising a draft
  • improving grammar and style
  • integrating research

Please use our online booking system to book a 25- or 50-minute appointment with a writing consultant (click here to book an online appointment).  If you have questions about the online booking system, please see our FAQ tab.

If possible, book early–our appointments are popular!

Please click here for important information about writing appointment policies.

SASS also offers online appointments to students who are studying at a distance from campus and students who have disabilities requiring accommodation (documentation required for accommodation). Requests from other students in special circumstances will be taken into consideration. Find out more about online appointments here.

Having trouble getting an appointment? If you are a first- or second-year student seeking help with an assignment, you can sign up for an evening appointment with a Peer Writing Assistant (see Peer writing appointment tab). 

Frequently asked questions

How far in advance should I book my appointment?

Book appointments early—if possible, well before your assignment is due. We recommend that you book an appointment as soon as you know your assignment’s deadline. Please note that you may only have one appointment per week; students who would like a second appointment in a given week can make that request and will be contacted about a second appointment only after those on the waiting list have been accommodated.

How do appointments work?

You will have a private appointment with one of our trained staff, who will ask you questions about your assignment and offer suggestions specific to your concerns. The session may involve working through an entire draft or only selected parts of it. Our consultants work with students at any stage of the writing process – understanding the assignment, brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and revising. Here are some suggestions for making the most of your appointment:

  • Consider in advance how you would like us to help you. Are there specific parts of a draft, or specific skills, you want to focus on? Be realistic about what you can accomplish.
  • Be prepared to collaborate. Rather than “fixing” your paper for you, our consultants help you develop your skills within the context of working through your assignment. Come prepared with questions, ideas, and your learning goals.

When should I book a 50-minute appointment? When should I book a 25-minute appointment?

Appointments of any length are subject to availability, but, generally speaking, 50-minute appointments are more suitable for longer papers and more complex issues (generating an argument, overall coherence, organizing the paper, etc.), while 25-minute appointments are more suitable for short questions, clarifying your purpose, grammar issues, short brainstorming sessions, and follow-up sessions. Note career document appointments (cover letters, personal statements, professional school applications, etc.) can only be booked for 25-minute sessions, no exceptions.

What kinds of writing can you help me with?

We work with all kinds of academic writing—labs, essays, dissertations, reports, and more. You are also entitled to one session per academic year to work on a cover letter, personal statement, or other application document. Please note that consultants will not work with take-home exams, including graduate comprehensive exams, no exceptions.

What should I bring to my appointment?

  • The assignment instructions. A course syllabus can also be helpful.
  • A double-spaced, printed hard copy of your draft, if you have one (it’s okay if you do not yet have a draft). Our consultants do not work on laptops.
  • Questions you would like to ask the consultant or issues you would like addressed during the session.

Will you proofread my essay?

We cannot proofread for you. That would make us better editors, but it would not help you become a better writer. We can, however, help you become a better proofreader of your own writing.

How many appointments can I have?

Anyone registered at Queen’s is entitled to 6 appointments per academic year (please note that there is a limit of one appointment per week, per student). Appointments may be 25- or 50-minutes long, depending on the particular writing issue, subject to availability.  First-year students may also use the 25-minute drop-in sessions offered by our Peer Writing Assistants (these appointments will not count towards your 6 appointment limit). Appeals for additional sessions can be addressed to the Director, Susan Korba (korbas@queensu.ca).

What if I need to cancel an appointment?

We require at least 6 hours’ notice of cancellation; many students are on our wait list and we can fill your place if we have enough time. Students who do not give us at least 6 hours’ notice of a cancellation may not be entitled to further sessions and will have a $25 charge placed on their Queen’s account. See our appointment policies tab for more information.

When are appointments available?

During the Fall and Winter terms, appointments are available throughout the day, some evenings, and some Saturday mornings (please note that fewer appointments are offered during the first few weeks of the Fall term, during Study Weeks and Reading Week, and throughout the Spring and Summer terms). Evening appointments are also available with Peer Writing Assistants most evenings during the week.

Do only struggling writers use this service?

No. Even accomplished writers find writing difficult at times. At SASS, we see writers of every level of proficiency. Everyone can benefit from having someone read through a draft and offer suggestions for improvement. As Ernest Hemingway said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

For more important information, please review the appointment policies tab.

EAL appointments

ESL Poster on Door

At SASS, we want English as an Additional Language (EAL) and international students to be able to communicate fluently and confidently while studying at Queen’s University. Our EAL programs feature one-to-one personalized consultations focusing on writing, speaking, listening, and reading skills. For example, multilingual students can book one of the popular P&P consultations (Pronunciation and Presentation Skills) to get feedback on pronunciation issues and/or practice for an upcoming oral presentation. We also offer workshops, EAL resources, and access to computer softwareInspiration and Kurzweil 3000—through the Academic Skills Lab so that students can work independently on writing and reading skills, which can improve overall fluency.

Book an introductory consultation

Multilingual students who would like language skills support should begin by booking an introductory consultation with the EAL Program Coordinator.

Request an introductory appointment

Please note that EAL students who want help with writing assignments can book writing appointments in our core writing program.

For more information, please visit the EAL Support Page.

Peer writing appointments

If you are a first- or second-year student and would like some writing assistance, you might like an appointment with a Peer Writing Assistant.

What is a Peer Writing Assistant?

SASs’s Peer Writing Assistants (PWAs) are upper-year and graduate student volunteers who are committed to helping other students develop their writing skills and confidence.

What do PWAs do?

PWAs are trained to work on-on-one with students taking first- and second-year courses; they help with clarifying the terms of the assignment, brainstorming, pre-writing and structuring, providing feedback, and directing students to the resources they need to produce good papers. For many students, this service makes a significant difference in their academic performance and confidence.

Sessions are 25 minutes long and are based on a collaboration between the PWA and the student seeking assistance—i.e., PWAs do not proofread or make writing decisions for the students they help. Instead, they help students develop their own skills in writing, editing, and critical thinking, in the context of working on a particular assignment.

When are PWA appointments available?

PWA sessions take place Monday-Thursday, 6:30-8:30 p.m. from mid-September to the end of November and from mid-January to the end of March. Please book early; these appointments are popular.

If you are booking with a PWA, please note:

  • students may sign up for only one appointment per evening and a maximum of two appointments per week
  • these appointments are for first- and second-year course assignments only
  • please bring your work in hard copy; our PWAs do not work on laptops
  • PWAs will not help with take-home exams

How to book an online appointment

Please use our online booking system to book an online appointment with a writing consultant or learning strategist. If you have questions about the online booking system, please see our FAQ tab.

When you book an appointment, please indicate whether you would like to meet in person or online by selecting a choice from the drop-down menu on the booking form.

If possible, book early—our appointments are popular!

How to prepare for an online appointment

To begin your online session, click on your appointment slot and enter the link “Start or Join Online Consultation.” When you click on that link, you will be redirected to the virtual space that includes a shared whiteboard, a text chat box, and video chat windows. You have access to the virtual space as soon as you make the appointment.

We encourage you to go in before your appointment time to ensure that the connections and functions are all working properly for you. Online consultations are best facilitated through a Chrome browser.

If you have any technical problem, please let us know via email.

How to book appointments

Students can book an appointment at any time using our online booking system. You must register before you can make an appointment. Once in WCOnline,

  • select a date, timeslot, and a consultant. Available appointment timeslots are WHITE. (RED indicates a timeslot is already taken, and BLACK indicates that appointments are not available during that time. A GREY timeslot indicates an appointment that has already occurred.)
  • all appointments begin on the hour or on the half-hour. For example, if you want to sign up for a 25-minute appointment at 10 a.m., reserve the time between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
  • click on an open (white) appointment time to open the Reservation Window.
  • when the Reservation Window opens, you must complete the required information in order to continue. We ask this information to ensure you receive the best possible consultation. This information is considered private and is accessible only to relevant SASS staff.
  • after completing the form in the Reservation Window, click “Save” to finish. Your appointment will now appear on the schedule in red, and you will receive a reminder email with the date and time.

We look forward to seeing you here! If you have any questions, you can email academic.success@queensu.ca, call 613-533-6315 or visit the Student Academic Success Services reception desk on the main floor of Stauffer Library between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday (note that our front desk is usually closed for lunch from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m).

Frequently asked questions about WCOnline

How do I cancel an appointment?

If you must cancel your appointment, here’s what you should do

  • Ensure that you are cancelling 6 hours in advance of the appointment, in accordance with our cancellation policy (this policy does not apply to peer writing appointments).
  • Log into the SASS appointment booking system.
  • Locate your appointment on the schedule.
  • Select your appointment to open the reservation window.
  • In the reservation window, scroll to the bottom and locate the checkbox labelled “Cancel this Appointment.”
  • Click the “modify” button. Your appointment is now cancelled. You may also call the front desk 6 hours in advance to cancel an appointment (leave a Voicemail message if your call is not answered; phone messages are date and time-stamped, so you will not be charged if you have called 6 hours in advance of the appointment).

Failing to provide 6 hours’ notice when cancelling appointments will result in a $25 fine levied against your Queen’s account (this policy does not apply to peer writing appointments). Note that students who “no-show” (fail to cancel appointments with 6 hours’ notice and do not show up for the appointment) are not entitled to further appointments until the fine has been paid.

I want to make my first appointment but I can't log in.

If you are making an appointment for the first time, you have to register with the system before it allows you to make an actual appointment. Please register using the link to the SASS appointment booking system. After completing the registration form, you will be ready to make appointments. You will not need to register again.

I'm having trouble navigating WCOnline.

The main page of WCOnline is the Main Schedule, and you will automatically be brought to it when you log in. If you navigate away from the Main Schedule, you can select “View Schedule” from the main menu drop-down (hover over your name in the upper left-hand corner). When using WCOnline, it is important to use the menu and pop-up windows. Using the “back” option in your browser does not always help. It can sometimes cause the browser to require a manual refresh (the browser will prompt you to do so if this occurs).

WCOnline uses pop-up windows. If your computer uses a pop-up blocker, please allow WCOnline to use pop-ups. You will not be able to make appointments without them.

Sometimes the pop-up windows can “hide” behind the main window, so if a pop-up window is not showing and you have not disabled pop-ups, try minimizing the main window—the pop-up is probably behind it.

My account won't let me reserve appointments.

If you have missed an appointment that you did not cancel with sufficient notice, and you have not yet paid the fine, your account has been disabled and you will not be able to make online appointments. OR you have already met the appointment limit for the day, week or academic year. Please contact the front desk at 613-533-6315 if you want to speak to the Director about securing additional appointments.

The reservation window isn't appearing.

The reservation window is a pop-up. Be sure you have pop-up windows enabled for WCOnline. On a rare occasion, it may open behind your current window. In that case, simply minimize the browser and it should be open behind it.

I want to change my password.

You can change your password through the main menu. On a laptop or computer, hover over “Welcome” with the cursor on the upper left portion of the screen, and a drop-down menu will appear. On a smartphone or tablet, you will need to tap or touch the “Welcome” message. Select “Update Profile and Password” and follow the instructions on that page. Please note that changing your password is only possible if you have filled out all the required information! WCOnline will not save your password if you do not have all required responses (fields marked with * are required).

I forgot my password.

If you don’t remember your password, all you have to do is reset it from the login page. Simply click the prompt towards the bottom of the page and a new password will be emailed to your account. The new password will be case sensitive, so it’s best to copy and paste the new password into the system rather than trying to retype it. Once you are back in the system, follow the steps above for “I want to change my password.”

I need a text-only version.

You can access a text-only version of our online scheduling service from the login page. Below the login information and password reset link, there is a link to the text-only scheduler. Simply click that link, and continue into the WCOnline scheduler.

Appointment policies

How many appointments can I have?

We at SASS want students to succeed and feel supported. We therefore do our best to accommodate as many students as we can in our appointment schedule. Availability of appointments depends on the type of appointment (see below) and, to some extent, on demand; some times of year are much busier than others. (You may book appointments weeks in advance to secure your preferred dates and times.)

  • Students are entitled to six writing appointments during the fall/winter school year.  Appeals for additional sessions can be addressed to the Director of SASS. Students may book up to six additional appointments in the spring/summer term. Because of high demand for appointments, students are limited to one writing appointment per week.
  • Generally, students meet with their academic skills specialist about once every two weeks. In times of high demand, this frequency may be reduced; under some circumstances, this frequency may be increased. There is no other limit on the total number of academic skills appointments students may have.
  • Students may have a maximum of one EAL appointment per week. The frequency of EAL appointments is determined during and after the introductory meeting by the EAL coordinator and the student.
  • Students seeking help with writing assignments in first- or second-year courses may book up to two Peer Writing Assistant appointments per week.

What if I need to cancel my appointment?

  • First, be aware that students who have booked writing appointments can benefit from them even if they don’t have a draft to work on. Writing consultants work with students at every stage of the writing process.
  • If you need to cancel your SASS appointment, please do so 6 hours in advance, online or by phone. Failure to give the required notice or to appear for a scheduled appointment will be considered a “no show” and result in a $25 charge added to your Queen’s account.
  • Any student who arrives more than 10 minutes late may forfeit that appointment.
  • Any student who fails to either attend or cancel an appointment may not be entitled to further services at SASS. In the case of writing appointments, “no-shows” will be counted as one of a student’s six allotted appointments.
  • A student may not transfer an appointment to another student or send a proxy to attend an appointment on their behalf. Any student who violates this policy will no longer be allowed to use the service.
  • Appeals due to extenuating circumstances should be directed to the director.

Can you help me with take-home exams?

  • Take-home examinations cannot be the subject of any SASS consultation (this includes graduate comprehensive exams).
  • Students who know they will be writing a take-home exam are encouraged to prepare in advance by booking appointments to work on their general writing and exam prep / taking skills, attending workshops and reviewing our online resources.

Can you help with course content / comment on a mark I got on an assignment?

  • SASS staff do not appraise comments and/or the grade on a marked paper, nor do they advocate on behalf of students. We adhere to a strict policy of non-interference in regard to student-instructor relations.
  • SASS staff cannot fulfill the duties of a teaching assistant. Questions about course content, including questions about citation format, should be directed to your instructor or TA.
  • Although some members of our staff teach or act as TAs or markers for various Queen’s courses, appointments may not be used for students to meet with their instructor or TA.

Appointments with professional writing consultants / Peer Writing Assistants

  • We want to help you as much as possible, but we cannot be very helpful if you visit us the day your assignment is due. Leave enough time (several days) to revise your work after your appointment.
  • You are welcome to book appointments weeks in advance, to help you plan your writing. The earlier you start on your writing, the better quality it will be.
  • Our writing consultations are not intended to be used for editing or proofreading your paper. Although our staff will point out patterns of grammatical or stylistic weakness and explain how to identify and fix them, they mainly concentrate on structure, strength and clarity of argument, integration of sources, and writing process strategies, leaving it up to you to apply them. The responsibility for making any changes to your work rests with you.
  • For in-person appointments, please bring a hard copy of your work. In-person appointments will not be conducted on laptops.
  • Students may use one writing appointment only to seek help with a job search document or other application (personal statement, cover letter, graduate or professional program application, etc.).  These appointments are intended to help the student clarify and reorganize the document and do not involve editing or proofreading.  The final document is the student’s own responsibility and should reflect the student’s own voice and skill level.

Online appointments

  • Students must have a viable internet connection for online appointments.
  • We encourage students to log in to their appointments several minutes before their appointment time to ensure that connections and functions are all working properly. Online consultations are best facilitated through a Chrome browser.
  • Students are responsible for uploading any document(s) they wish to discuss in their appointments.
  • Generally, online appointments at SASS have few or no technical issues, but in the case of audio or video failure, appointments may rely on text box communications / document markup only.

How do I pay my fine?

If you are more than 15 minutes late or you fail to give 6 hours cancellation notice, you will forfeit the appointment and will be charged $25.00. You will have one month from the date of your missed appointment to pay the debt, after which time the fine will be reported to the Registrar’s office and charged to your student account. You can pay your fine at the SASS front desk between the hours of 8:30 am – 3:30 pm, Monday to Friday. Please note that we only accept cash.

If a second appointment is missed, your account will be disabled and any subsequent appointments you have booked will be cancelled. If you wish to reinstate your account please email the Director.

Any student with questions or concerns about SASS programing or policies should make an appointment to speak with the Director of SASS, Susan Korba, at 613-533-6000, ext. 77630, or by email at korbas@queensu.ca.

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