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Peer blog: Taking notes and taking stock

Liyi, Engineering, Class of 2024

Friends! Hi, I hope your school year is coming along smoothly.

This is one of those “in-between weeks” where not a lot is going on, but the preparation for midterms and final projects is creeping into my study life. I have a lot to get on with, but I think I’ve finally found the best way to schedule my life by using timetables and software. Since my last blog, I am happy to say that using timetables to establish a routine has been beneficial! Ensuring that I set aside time to do specific tasks makes it easy to know what I must do. In turn, that limits my indecision from moment to moment.

I generally write out my schedule the night before and try my best to follow it the next day. I have a main to-do list for all the big lectures, tutorials, and practice problems I have to do for each course. Then I have a calendar of all the tasks I have to do each day. I enjoy that spike of dopamine each time I click something as done. Dopamine generates feelings of accomplishment and happiness, but it also motivates me to do the next task. I might check off the most mundane thing, like making my bed, but it gives me a sense of accomplishment: “I can do this.” Although I don’t always complete every task, knowing what I have to complete and what I have already finished brings me a feeling of peace. At least I know I haven’t forgotten anything important. I highly suggest trying timetabling out. It finally feels like after years of changing scheduling methods, it has finally come together.

I’ve also mentioned in the past that I had an issue with organizing notes, as I drown in all those binders and papers. It seems like no matter what method I use my notetaking will never be perfect (and that’s perfectly fine—good enough is okay by me!). I write my notes 100% digitally using OneNote and other programs, though during tutorials I tend to take handwritten notes. After reading week, I am going to start writing everything digitally. There’s something satisfying about the undo button, not having to use whiteout, and never seeing eraser shavings all over my desk. The organizational system and easy transfer to Queen’s OneDrive is a benefit as well. If you work and concentrate best in an organized and tidy environment, I highly suggest writing digitally.

The SASS site has material on taking notes, which I’ve been reading through to develop my notetaking. Now, I change up my approach to what I write depending on the task and the course. For some classes, like chemistry, I annotate on the slides that my professor provides. Annotating frees up mental space for me to listen to my prof as a lot of information and detail is already on the slides. For other classes, like physics, I just handwrite notes from scratch because physics seems to be about understanding concepts. When I handwrite notes, I can focus on really understanding everything that I’m writing, instead of just copying down what the professor is saying.

One method I’m excited to implement is the “after-class summary” SASS recommends. I’ve always had trouble writing down only what was necessary because I have huge FOMO when it comes to course content. I think writing a short summary after class—one paragraph about the key ideas/concepts—will force me to truly focus on concepts. I definitely would like to do a weekly summary, but I’m going to take a small step and focus on the after-class summary first, rather than both. Let’s try together—and I’ll let you know how it goes!

In terms of social media, there has been a lot of troubling news about discrimination against Asians. With more news comes more awareness, which has greats sides but also bad sides. As an Asian individual, I am happy that attention is being brought to the racism against Asians, but each new post is a reminder of the racial injustice, which can heavily affect my and others’ mental health. Staying updated with the news and educating ourselves takes a mental toll, and it’s not so easy to delete social media. I, for one, communicate with my project teams on Instagram, where all of this is taking place. That’s where the line is blurred – fighting racial discrimination but also keeping my mental health in check. I think the best thing to do is use social media sparingly, and only advocate when I have the mental capacity and am not stressed by other factors. Seeing racial discrimination and violence is stressful itself, and should not be compounded with other stressful situations. Here is to hoping that someone creates a distraction-free Instagram, but also that the world also becomes a kinder place. Rahul recently wrote a blog on decolonizing the classroom; you should check it out.

Have a great reading week, everyone! I wish you a restful week. In return, please wish for clear skin for and no stress for me!

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Taking notes

Taking good notes will help you remember what you’ve read and heard. It benefits both learning and studying:

  • your learning is more effective because taking notes helps you to actively engage with the information by making decisions about what to write down and why, as well as how to organize the information.
  • your studying is more efficient and effective when it is based on a strong foundation of understanding, built over the course of the semester. Good notes are critical for this foundation.

Taking good notes is a skill; practice will help you learn to do it well.

This resource is also available as a PDF.

Active note-takingWhat do good notes look like?How should I take notes?Strategies and formatsMaking your notes matter

Active note-taking

Many students find it hard to keep up with lectures and readings because they try to write down everything the professor says, or every point in the textbook. Here are some ways to make sure your note-taking is effective.

Like reading, effective note-taking is an active process. The way you take notes will vary, depending on:

  • your purpose (e.g., getting the gist of it vs. learning it well)
  • how much you already know about the topic
  • the difficulty/density of the subject matter.

Your notes don’t have to be perfect and include everything; they just have to help you understand and remember the course content. That’s why it’s important to make note-taking an active process. You learn more when it’s an intentional and purposeful activity, and when you do something with the notes you take.

What do good notes look like?

  • They summarize course material clearly and concisely.
  • They are written in your own words, with precise definitions or formulae also included.
  • They organize information hierarchically, distinguishing between main points, secondary information, and finer details.
  • They help you see the relationships and connections between ideas.

Having a hard time finding the main idea?

  • Textbooks often identify key concepts and new terms by putting them in headings, subheadings, bold font, or chapter summaries or learning objectives. Preview the chapter by focusing on these clues.
  • Try the 3-step approach to reading and note-taking.

How should I take notes?

What’s the right way to take notes? By hand? Highlighting? Should I rewrite my notes?

To highlight or not to highlight

Highlighting is one way to actively engage with a text when it involves deciding which points are important. However, most studies have shown no benefit of highlighting over simply reading the text, often because students highlight too much or highlight without thinking.

See the 3-step approach for tips on highlighting.

By computer or by hand?

You may have heard that taking notes by hand is better for learning. Studies suggest that students who take notes on laptops perform worse on tests than students who take notes by hand (even after laptop-related distractions were accounted for). Taking notes by computer encourages students to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than thinking about, processing, and putting the information in their own words–that is, engaging actively with the lecture.

Ultimately, taking notes online or on paper is up to you because what’s important is what you are doing when you’re taking notes, not how you’re writing them. You can ensure you are actively engaged by

  • keeping a running conversation going in your head between you and the author as you read a text
  • asking questions and making comments
  • making connections to what you already know, to other classes, or to other content within the same class
  • keeping the big picture in mind as you learn new details
  • summarizing information (e.g., in a list, a short paragraph, a mind map).

Strategies and formats

The note-taking method you choose depends on context and purpose. Overall, taking good notes involves paraphrasing, consolidating, and/or summarizing information.

3-step approach

This method helps you focus and understand what you’re reading. Paragraph by paragraph (or slide by slide, if you are completing an online module), go one step at a time:

  1. read the paragraph or slide, focusing on understanding the material—don’t write anything down yet
  2. take notes (paraphrase the main idea, jot down any questions)
  3. highlight or colour-code the most important information (e.g., key terms or concepts). Highlight no more than 20% of the text.

Annotation

If your professor provides the slides before class, download them in advance and annotate them during lecture. This approach frees up mental space for you to listen and understand the material. You can focus on what the lecturer adds to the information presented on the slides.

Consolidate as you go

When the content of the readings and lectures overlaps significantly, consolidate your notes as you go. Use what you learn from the second source (readings or lecture) to add to your notes from the first (lecture or readings). Use a different colour to distinguish the source of the information.

Cornell method

This is a note-taking system with a pre-organized layout: a large note-taking space, with a cue column (questions, formulae, keywords) to the left and a summary row (at-a-glance summary, 4-6 sentences) along the bottom of the page. Selecting and organizing information for this system ensures active processing, increasing your understanding and recall. It also helps you produce useful study notes. See here for a visual example.

Concept summary

A concept summary helps you organize fundamental, general ideas in math and science courses. Creating one helps to clarify your understanding and improve your memory for the information. First, identify a key idea. Then, use categories to organize the material (e.g., key formulae, definitions, units, symbols, conventions, simple examples, relevant knowns and unknowns, etc.). See here for an example.

Mind maps

Making a mind map involves selecting and organizing information in a visual, hierarchical format. To do so, you need to make choices about what to include, how to show relationships and connections, and how best to present information. You can use a mind map to represent the content of a lecture or textbook chapter, or a whole course.

SQ4R

Use the SQ4R method to improve your ability to understand, retain, and concentrate on what you read.

Survey

Skim to get a preview of the text you are about to read. How is it organized? What does it cover? Use elements like headings, visuals, key terms, summaries, and introductory sections (e.g., title, objectives) to help you.

Question

Try turning headings and subheadings into questions before reading the paragraphs that follow. Reading with a question in mind makes the process more active, supporting memory and concentration. It also helps you to identify the most important, relevant information.

Read and record

Read section by section, seeking the answer to each question; focus on the main idea and the supporting information as it pertains to the question. Take notes as you go, in point form and in your own words.

Recite

Cover up the text and see if you can answer the heading/subheading questions to check your understanding before moving on.

Review

Take a break, then check your understanding again (i.e., repeat the process under Recite). This will further improve your memory of what you’ve read.

Making your notes matter

Taking good notes in lectures and from weekly readings is just the beginning. Remember that your goal is to learn the course content. Make sure you understand and remember the information by engaging with your notes over the course of the semester.

After-class summary

As soon as possible after class, take five minutes to answer the question, “What did we do in class today?” Write it out in 4-6 sentences, using your own words. This will help consolidate the information while it’s fresh in your mind and act as a memory jog when you look back to study.

Weekly summary

When you’ve taken in all the week’s information (i.e., attended all classes, tutorials, and labs; completed readings and notes), summarize the information from that week’s topic or unit.

  • What did you cover this week?
  • How is it connected to other information in the course?
  • How can you best organize it?

Take note of areas of challenge or confusion and get help as needed.

Summarizing requires you to select, organize, and integrate information; doing so will improve both your understanding and memory. Possible summary formats include a 1-page study sheet, a mind map, or a concept summary.

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Peer blog: Academic dual citizenship: My experience as a student and TA

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1 

Happy November, everyone! Here we are, about 75% done with the fall term. Whether you are in the first year of your undergrad or fourth year of your PhD, I can guarantee we are all thinking the same thing: how the heck did I do that? By this point, you have likely handed in a few assignments, completed a few midterms, and, if you’re a TA, graded roughly 7000 assignments and/or midterms. So far, I have quite enjoyed being a dual citizen in academia. By this, I am referring to my status as both a Queen’s student and employee. As a student, I get the opportunity to learn about the things I am truly interested in and, as a TA, I get the opportunity to teach about the same. It’s a win-win situation.

This semester, I am taking the “Biological Bases of Behaviour” course. One of the required assignments was a press release in which we had to translate a recently published scientific article into layman’s terms for a non-scientific audience. The task seemed daunting, but I was intrigued by the challenge. These sorts of writing projects force us, as students, to flex different muscles than what we’re used to, especially because academic writing can be very formulaic. For example, lab reports begin with an introduction, followed by methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. After several years of writing lab reports, this style becomes ingrained in our brains. But then, every once in a while, a professor throws a curveball, like this assignment, which requires us to break the mould and get a little creative.

Press releases allow you to draw on a slew of literary practices otherwise frowned upon in scientific writing. Adjectives? What are those? Personal commentary? You wouldn’t dare! Definitive statements?! I wasn’t sure I even remembered how to write one. Nevertheless, I forged ahead on this journey reintroducing myself to the world of creative writing. As I began to write, I was nagged by the thought of: “well, don’t just summarize it,” which, ironically, is something I often tell my students when they review journal articles. So, naturally, the first thing I did was write a summary of the article. I then turned to SASS’s writing resource about avoiding plot summaries for guidance on what to do next. Although this blog specifically discusses how to avoid summarizing stories, not experimental studies, the key strategies were directly applicable to this assignment: you must provide just enough detail to situate the reader. and then focus on discussing the importance, rather than the story line, of the article. All said and done, I was proud of what I created and received very positive feedback from my professor!

My favourite aspect of TAing is interacting with the students. However, due to COVID-19, I knew this might not be possible because professors were forced to tweak their approaches to teaching. Unfortunately for us TAs, this meant that many professors eliminated the synchronous lab/tutorial components from their curriculum. Although I completely understand why this had to happen given the constraints of distance learning, I was crushed to find out my weekly 3-hour lab sessions had been whittled down to a mere 1 office hour per week. I have been a TA for 2.5 years now, yet this is the first TAship in which I have had almost no face-to-face discourse with the students. On the bright side, this teaching experience (or lack thereof) has only reinforced my fondness for in-person teaching! I look forward to, one day, being able to TA labs in which I can physically be in the same room as the students again!

Well, we made it another month. This is a reminder to celebrate your accomplishments, big and small! With our busy schedules, it is easy to overlook the small things (like receiving positive feedback from your professor), but I challenge you to truly acknowledge the amount of time and effort you put into each feat, and don’t be afraid to bask in the glory of your own triumphs!  A few weeks ago, I presented at my first conference which was a big milestone. I am going to share with you what my supervisor shared with me: take some time to enjoy the success, you deserve it!

See you next month!

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Math problem solving

Math is about creativity and communicating ideas and their connections. It’s not just about getting the right answer. Getting stuck and making mistakes are not a sign that you’re bad at math; they’re a necessary part of the process.

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

Our math strategies are supported by scholarly research; try some of them today.

What math profs hope you doManage your progressGet unstuckIdentify and organizeUnderstand conceptsTrack your progressStudy for tests and examsResourcesReferences

What math profs hope you do

Homework is critical for success in math courses. Problem sets are for figuring out, and then practicing, new and different ways to solve a type of problem. The process is what matters. Thinking through a problem will deepen your understanding and help clarify the questions you will ask peers, TAs, or profs. Below, we offer strategies that will help you get your math homework done effectively.

Learn, then study

  • Learning is improving your understanding of facts, concepts, processes and relationships (i.e., your understanding of course content).
  • Studying is reviewing material you’ve previously learned to increase your recall of course content.

We recommend that you focus on learning during your homework time, and save studying for when you need to prepare for exams and tests. Don’t try to do both at once.

Spend enough time on your math

  • See how you do by putting in 8-10 hours, per week, on each course (this time includes time you spend in class, labs, doing homework, etc.).
  • Spread out your work; do some math every day. It will add up.
  • Keep up with the homework. Concepts later in the term build on the ones from earlier in the term, so get help right away if you start to struggle.
  • If you have trouble managing your time or staying focused, make an appointment with an academic skills specialist; we can help!

Do your homework

1. Review your notes from the day’s lectures:

  • Read over your notes from each class of the day; this habit supports your memory of the content, which is helpful when it’s time to study.
  • Fill in gaps in your notes and identify what you don’t understand.
  • In three or four points, summarize each lecture (don’t just copy it) to use as study notes.
  • This process might take 10-15 minutes for each lecture’s notes.

2. Complete your assignments:

  • Keep up to date with assignments; aim to finish one day ahead of the due date.

3. Preview the next day’s lectures:

  • Before class, preview the lecture notes / assigned problem set to anticipate the lecture’s main ideas.
  • Skim any assigned text to get an overview of the content: read the chapter introduction, summary, glossary and review questions, then return to the chapter’s beginning and read for more detail. Note new or complex content, and listen for it in the lecture.

4. Do a weekly review:

  • Schedule a regular block of time to review your summarized notes from the week’s lectures, readings, concepts and key problem types. This might take 20-30 minutes per course.
  • Pay attention to what you don’t know; set a goal of figuring it out over the next week.

Learn effectively

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

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

  • Take a systematic approach (e.g., Polya’s problem solving techniques).
  • Read and define the problem first; it takes time, but it’s worth it.
  • Think of problems as a way to communicate, from the problem-setter to you. Ask: what do I know (givens)? What can I do? Are there clues or keywords in the problem that point to a particular concept?
  • Look for and understand the underlying concept (the “why” or “big picture”) of each question, not just the procedure for solving it.
  • Diversify your thinking; there’s often more than one way to solve a problem.
  • Model the problem: draw it, talk it out, use analogies, change something (e.g., the scale), or ask “what if…” as ways to see the problem in a new way.
  • Produce a complete and well-reasoned solution, not a superficial one.
  • Aim for accuracy before you aim for speed.
  • Spend time on challenging questions, not just familiar ones.

Recognize repeat concepts.

  • Most math courses ask you to do hundreds of problems, but these problems usually fall under just a few 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 in your course syllabus often tell you what the key concepts are.

Self-assess and reflect.

  • Monitor your thought process while solving problems (try our decision steps).
  • Work out loud; notice what strategies you’re using and why.
  • Reflect on how you present your thinking in your solution. Is it clear and purposeful?
  • Monitor your progress; change your approach if you need to.
  • Ask “does this make sense?” and “did I solve the problem/answer the question?”
  • Check the reasonableness of your answer.

Don’t give up.

  • Expect math to be a challenge and to take time. Keep trying.
  • Mistakes are valuable! They aren’t a sign that you’re bad at math; they’re a necessary part of the process.
  • Identify where you get stuck and, if you can, why. Prepare questions to bring to your TA / prof / help desk.
  • Take a break when you feel frustrated.
  • Be optimistic. The problem does have a solution.
  • Don’t assume you’re not a “math person.”

Manage your progress

Follow the steps and links below to set your course learning goals and progress toward them, while also building your self-regulation and thinking strategies.

Get unstuck

In any class, including math class, you should get stuck. If you’re not getting stuck, you’re not learning.

It’s helpful to plan in advance what to do when you’re stuck, and to keep this plan near you when you do your homework or study. That way, when you’re stuck, you can look at your plan and choose something to do about getting unstuck right away, instead of panicking or feeling discouraged and giving up.

Know your resources

Make a list of where you will go to find information about the math concepts you’re working on. Take some time to think about and write down resources and supports that will help you learn. Ask upper-year students or your TA for ideas for this list.

  • Where to find information: Figure out the key places to find information about what you’re working on:
    • course notes
    • the course textbook
    • different textbooks
    • problem solution books (books with many worked examples of problems)
    • websites that display solved problems in a variety of ways
    • websites that refresh your memory of an underlying concept that you need to grasp before you can work on the problem you’re stuck on.
  • Who can help:
    • your prof / TA; figure out when their office hours are
    • people in your class that you might want to study with
    • the Math Help Desk; note when it offers help for your course
    • ask your prof early on for suggestions for additional resources that may help you learn content or study for the exam.

Ask effective questions

Prepare to ask questions: TAs, professors, and peers generally want you to succeed and will welcome questions.

  • If you don’t know where to start with a problem, you can still explain in general what you know about the concept, and what you’re thinking of doing.
  • If you’re stuck in the middle of a problem, but know what to do after that point, make up an answer for the step you’re stuck on and use it to solve the rest of the problem. Then get help. Your attempt at a solution will get you better feedback from your TA/professor and will mean more than no attempt at all.

If you feel really lost, it might help to review (or learn) content that the current problem is based on. Talk to your TA or prof about what foundational concepts come before this particular concept / problem; look them up in a textbook or on a reliable website such as Khan Academy to make sure you understand them, before returning to the current concept / problem.

Other helpful ideas

Make math more social to boost your skills, motivation, and confidence. Work through problems as a group, share resources, talk through solutions, and explain concepts to each other.

Become more comfortable with uncertainty and the unknown. Try thinking of solving math problems as a game or an interesting puzzle. Play around with creative approaches.

Stop if you become overly frustrated; do something else and try again later with a clearer mind.

Check out other SASS resources: academic skills resources, subject-specific academic resources, workshops, and appointments.

Next, identify and organize the course’s key concepts and problem types.

Identify and organize concepts and problem types

Instructions

Identify and organize key concepts and problem-types in a course by using the course learning tracker or a similar format of your own. Getting this tool “finished” is not the goal. What’s important is that you think about the course’s key concepts and how they relate to the types of problems you’re being asked to solve.

Identify the key concepts, and the problem types for each key concept, by:

  • reading the learning objectives in the course outline or course description
  • checking the syllabus and weekly reading list
  • referring to the textbook’s table of contents and headings within a chapter (focus on how concepts and practice problems are organized and related to each other)
  • thinking about the key formulas (which are often related to key concepts), and common aspects of the problems you are solving
  • referring to the lecture outline to identify recurring themes
  • referring to learning objectives and topics from lectures and other materials
  • past years’ final exams, if available.

Why focus on concepts?

Many students try to jump straight into solving problems without working on understanding the concepts that are being applied in those problems. They try to look for specific formulas that match specific problems and end up memorizing too much information with almost no hierarchy or connection.

This matching of formulas with problem types can work in the short term. It is possible to solve a number of problems very quickly by memorizing a few formulas and solutions, and you may be able to keep this up for a unit or two, but it won’t work over the course of an entire semester, and that’s what we care about in university.

In university math courses:

  • You have far too many formulas and solutions to try to memorize.
  • Professors will often choose exam questions that cannot be solved by referring simply to a specific memorized formula and solution. They want to test whether you really can recognize, understand and apply the underlying concept.
  • Courses, and the units within those courses, are sequential. Like a set of building blocks, today’s concept is built on previously learned concepts. If one of those previous concepts is missing in your understanding, the whole structure will fall down.

The mental work involved in understanding key concepts helps clarify ideas and shift the conceptual information from working memory to long-term memory, which helps you recall material for exams and future courses.

Next, build your understanding of key concepts and problem types.

Understand concepts

Build your understanding of key concepts (e.g., the slope of a line) using the concept summary tool. Build your understanding of problem types / applications (e.g., calculate the slope from a graph) that fall under each concept using the decision steps tool.

When you use the concept summary and decision steps tools, make a note in the “notes” section of the course learning tracker of where you get stuck or what you don’t understand. You can use these notes as a springboard for conversations with your profs, TAs, tutors, and peers that are targeted specifically to your learning needs.

Keep in mind that while the final products of these learning tools—your completed concept summaries and decision steps—are important and will make valuable study aids, the process of thinking, struggling, and questioning while working with these tools is essential for achieving a deep understanding.

Concept summary

Download the concept summary tool (PDF).

(Fleet, Goodchild, & Zajchowski, 2006)

Concepts are general organizing ideas. Often, a course will cover just a few key concepts, along with their many applications. 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.”

Instructions

Choose a key concept from your course (identified when you filled in the course learning tracker), and use the following five categories as a guide for building your understanding of that concept:

  1. title
  2. key equations
  3. definitions of each term in the equations
  4. additional information (e.g., sign conventions, reference values, the meaning of zero values, cases where the concept doesn’t apply, relevant knowns/unknowns)
  5. your own example or explanation.

Note: An example of a concept summary for PHYS 117 is included in the PDF.

Decision steps

Download the decision steps tool (PDF).

(Fleet, Goodchild, & Zajchowski, 2006)

This tool is helpful for any applied problem-solving situation (e.g. mathematics, physics, statistics, accounting). To help learners focus on the process of solving problems, rather than on the mechanics of formula and calculations, the focus is on correctly applying 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 as you go.

Instructions

To build your understanding of the various applications (or problem-types) of key concepts:

  • Choose a problem type in your course (identified when you filled in the course learning tracker), and analyze / build decision steps for a solved example (from a lecture, from your homework, from a study guide) by answering what was done, how it was done, and why was it done for each step.
  • During the lecture or when you read course notes, focus on the process of solving the problem, instead of on the computation. When your professor is lecturing, listen to their comments on how steps are linked from one to another. This helps you identify the decision steps that lead to correct application of a concept. Ask yourself, “why did I move from this step to this step?”
  • Test run these decision steps by using them to solve a similar problem. Usually, your initial decision steps will be incomplete, and require revision.

Note: An example of the decision steps tool applied to PHYS 117 is included in the PDF.

Track your progress

Tracking your progress is vital to understanding the main concepts of your math courses. Why? It will help you:

  • turn your attention to the higher levels of thinking required at this level
  • build the essential skill of self-regulation
  • monitor what you need to know and what you currently know, and find ways to close the gap
  • stay on top of your course work
  • get unstuck, since it helps you ask more specific questions of your professor or TA.

Two tools can help you track your progress: the course learning tracker and the issue bin. You can fill these in with the course concepts (link to “Identify and organize concepts” tab) you identified already.

The course learning tracker

Download the course learning tracker (PDF).

The course learning tracker is a simple chart that you can update weekly as you attend lectures and complete homework, problem sets, and assignments. It’s useful to set up a table like this somewhere you can access it easily—in the front or back of a notebook for a course, or somewhere prominent on your notetaking app. That way whenever you need to note down something about your progress you’ll be able to do so easily.

This chart should have four columns:

  1. Key concepts in the course: you can add to (or delete from) the content of this column as you progress through the course and gain a clearer idea of the main ideas. Add a brief description of each concept in this column.
  2. Concept checklist: in this column, add a check mark against each of the concepts you listed in the “key concept” column if you understand them well enough to explain them to someone else.
  3. Problem checklist: add a check mark here if you can apply the concept or do the problem type on your own and fully explain the process.
  4. Notes while learning: here, add anything that helps you stay organized and track your progress in understanding these concepts and problem types. You might note questions that you want to ask your prof, or flag concepts that are especially important or are likely to come up on an exam.

Issue bin

Download the issue bin (PDF).

The issue bin is similar to the course tracker, but you can use it to describe more general progress. This tool may be particularly useful if you are struggling to define or list the concepts you need to learn in a particular course.

To use the issue bin, create a notetaking file for each course. Since the issue bin can get a little messy, and you’ll constantly write and rewrite it, it’s easier to use software rather than paper to complete it. Add a 2×2 table to your notetaking file, then add a subtitle and information for each of the four squares in the table as shown below.

  1. Questions or misconceptions that I need to address
  2. Held: high priority questions / misconceptions I’ve tried to resolve but can’t yet.
  3. Parked: low priority questions / misconceptions I’ve tried to resolve but can’t yet.
  4. Resolved questions / misconceptions

Write each concept or theory that you don’t yet understand in square A; move it to the other bins as you resolve it. You might update the issue bin every time you work on a particular course as you discover or resolve issues, or you might return to the bin weekly to update it with your progress; it’s up to you.

(In the spirit of academic integrity, we’d like to thank Dr. Alan Ableson from the Faculty of Engineering & Applied Science for sharing this resource.)

Over the course of the semester, as you attend lectures and complete problem sets and assignments, continue to track your progress:

Study for tests and exams

In math-based courses, your goal should be to focus on solving problems, not on reading. For example, if you have six hours to study for an upcoming test, spend one hour reading and five hours doing problems.

Use problem sets effectively

  • Do problems to mastery. Once you’ve mastered one kind of problem, don’t worry if you haven’t finished every single problem in the set–move on to the next type, or apply what you’ve learned in a different context.
  • Use the answer key strategically. Avoid looking at the answer key while you work on a problem, but don’t do problems without checking to see if your answer is correct.
  • Ask for help when you need it. Use the decision steps and concept summary tools to help communicate what you know and where you got stuck so that you can ask specific questions.
  • Work backwards. For problems where you are given the answer but don’t know the starting point, begin at the end and work backwards to undo the problem step by step.
  • Use images. What can you draw to help yourself understand and solve the problem? Can you make a mental picture or otherwise visualize this problem?

Study techniques

  • Interleaving: Mixing up problem types supports your learning. The aim is to arrange problems so that consecutive problems cannot be solved by using the same strategy. Retrieval practice has a guide that can help you get started; see interleaved mathematics practice.
  • Self-testing 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 and memory will be.
  • Explaining to and/or teaching others are great ways to make sure you’re thinking aloud, describing the problem, and working with others. Use study groups to compare completed solutions to assigned problems. Teaching someone is a very effective learning and study technique.

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

Resources

Resources at Queen’s

Your professor/TA: Using the course syllabus, figure out when your professor’s office hours are, and whether they will include online meetings, live seminars or Q&A sessions as part of their course. If there is nothing formal set up, reach out and ask for the best way to contact the instructor. Contact the professor and/or TA as early as possible in the course to introduce yourself and open up the lines of communication. This will make it easier to later ask for help with assignments or with finding additional resources.

Your peers: Everybody will struggle with something in their courses at Queen’s. Use social media groups, course unions, and discussion boards within courses to build a network of people that you might want to study with. The earlier in the term you do this, the more you will benefit from these connections!

Math Help Centre: The Math Help Centre is a valuable source of support.

Tutors: The Math Department has a list of tutors—mostly graduate students and professional teachers—who may be able to help you. You will have to pay for their services, so you many want to make this your last resort, rather than your first.

Academic skills specialists at SASS can work with you one-on-one to discuss your current approaches to math courses, and choose strategies that are likely to help.

External resources

  1. Khan Academy offers free practice problems, explainers, and other help through their website and on YouTube.
  2. MIT’s Single-Variable Calculus Course contains clear explanations of many fundamental calculus concepts that you might encounter in the first year or two at Queen’s.
  3. The Essence of Mathematics Through Elementary Problems is a free PDF book that will teach you many university basics.
  4. Advanced Problems in Mathematics: Preparing for University is another free PDF Book that has great resources for Grade 12 students making the leap to university courses.
  5. McMaster University’s academic resources website features three videos on problem solving:

References

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

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

The Learning Scientists. (2020, November 14). How Students Can Use Interleaving, Elaboration, Dual Coding, and Concrete Examples. Retrieved from https://www.learningscientists.org/learning-scientists-podcast/2018/3/21/episode-15-how-students-can-use-interleaving-elaboration-dual-coding-and-concrete-examples?rq=problem%20solving.

The Learning Scientists. (2020, November 14). https://www.learningscientists.org/learning-scientists-podcast/2017/10/4/episode-4-spaced-practice?rq=problem%20solving.

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How to do your PSYC100 readings

Staff at SASS teamed up with instructors from the Department of Psychology to help you understand how to best approach your weekly PSYC 100 readings and take good-quality notes.

Use this method to stay on track, avoid getting overwhelmed by too much information, and focus on understanding concepts and processes instead of trying to memorize information.

You can also download the reading methods sheet here.

Want more assistance with your reading and note-taking? Try looking over our online resources or the relevant units in Academics 101 or, if you’d like to get advice from a professional, book an appointment with an academic skills specialist.

Step 1Step 2Step 3

Scan Text for Active Reading (STAR)

  • Scan through each chapter in this unit. Pay particular attention to headings and diagrams. Read no more than a sentence or two from each paragraph.
  • Create a list of the key ideas, terms, people, and studies. (Key terms appear in boldface.)
  • Keep skimming the text, even if some of the ideas are unfamiliar or hard to follow. You’ll have time to look into details later. Avoid taking extensive notes or searching terms on Google.
Key Ideas*
e.g., The essential elements of science are found in psychology: systematic observation, testable hypotheses, democracy, cumulative discovery
1.
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* Add additional rows to this table as needed; however, try to summarize the main ideas concisely.

Key Terms
e.g., Empirical methods
1.
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Key People
e.g., Francis Galton (invented self-report questionnaires, did pioneering research with twins)
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Key Studies
e.g., Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help many people suffering from depression and anxiety
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Active Reading

  • Before you begin reading, rephrase each learning objective as a question and enter it in the table below. (Learning objectives are stated at the start of every chapter.)
  • Then, read the text and make notes. Focus on the sections that contain the key ideas you identified in Step One. These sections are most likely to contribute to your understanding of the week’s learning objectives.
  • Define the key terms you identified in Step One. Explain their significance.
Learning Objective Notes
e.g., Can I describe the ethical guidelines that psychologists follow?
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Key Term Definition and Significance
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Consolidate, Connect, Question

Consolidate your notes. Elaborate on the key ideas. Try to connect ideas that appear in different chapters with other concepts you’ve studied in PSYC 100.

At this stage, you could

  • Use flashcards to review key ideas and definitions;
  • Write a summary, clarifying key ideas and explaining their relation to PSYC 100 as a whole;
  • List questions to ask other students or your Teaching Assistant.

You don’t have to complete Step Three immediately. Sometimes, you’ll only recognize the key ideas and the connections between them after a day or two of thinking, or after learning about a new concept.

Key Term Definition
e.g. Ethics A set of guidelines that determine how research participants should be treated with the following considerations: informed consent, confidentiality, privacy, benefits and deception.
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Connecting Ideas
e.g., Researchers in psychology typically engage in the scientific process of exploring phenomena, often using empirical methods to test hypotheses. Researchers in psychology must ensure they are following ethical standards for research.
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6.  

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Studying for exams

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

This resource is also available as a PDF.

Looking for the exam study schedule? Download the fillable PDF here (December 2021)!

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

Get ready to study

Complete your course work

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

Get information about the exam

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

Spread out your studying: do small amounts over time

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

Improve your memory of course content

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

Study effectively

Organize material meaningfully

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

Elaborate

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

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

Solve problems

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

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

Self-test

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

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

The study plan

Download the December 2021 Exam Study Schedule.(Fillable PDF with detailed instructions!)

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

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

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

Key planning tips

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

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

How to use three-hour study blocks

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

See here for a sample plan (5 days, 15 hours).

Five study days, producing 15 efficient study hours, is just an example—your courses may need more or a bit less.

Your plan will reflect your own needs. Many students study between 10-20 hours for each exam. Remember to take short breaks during a three-hour block.

Balance time and material

For each course:

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

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

In each three-hour block...

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

What does it mean to study?

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

What does it mean to self-test?

  • Answer practice questions from your text, assignments, or Exam Bank, or ones you have created based on the course learning objectives or tips from your prof about what is most important.

What does it mean to review?

  • A more general refreshing of your memory, focusing on what you did not know during your self-test of that content.

What is a comprehensive mini-exam?

  • A practice exam, written under “real exam” conditions (e.g., times, formula sheet, open book).

During the exam

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

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

Exam types

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

Multiple choice exams

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

Take-home exams

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

Lab exams (bell-ringers)

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

Essay exams

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

Problem-solving exams

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

Short answer exams

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

After the exam

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

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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.

This resource is also available as a PDF.

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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Managing test anxiety

  • “Even when I study well, I’m so nervous I just forget everything.”
  • “I’m not a good test-taker. I feel tense and nauseous. I can’t handle it.”
  • “My test anxiety is affecting my GPA. No matter how well I do on assignments, the tests always bring my mark down.”

Sound familiar? More than 60% of students at Queen’s have felt overwhelming anxiety at some point in the academic year (NCHA, 2016). Anxiety is a normal human emotion. Many people feel anxious before a test or exam, or when they are making an important decision. An anxiety disorder is different—it causes so much anxiety that it interferes with our ability to lead a normal life (Cleveland Clinic).

In this resource, we focus on students’ feelings of anxiety about tests and exams. Our intention was to create a resource to support students who are experiencing feelings of anxiety—but it is not intended as a treatment for those with anxiety disorders. If you have an anxiety disorder, please follow the recommended treatment and management strategies given by your health care providers.

This resource is also available as a PDF.

This resource was a collaboration between Student Wellness Services and Student Academic Success Services.

AwarenessAcceptanceActionGrounding exercisesResources

Awareness

The first step towards managing anxiety is to understand how anxiety works and how you typically respond to it. Once you are aware of your own pattern, you can develop tools to help yourself interrupt the cycle. This will take practice, effort and patience, but it can be done. Our brains are amazingly malleable!

Understanding anxiety

Anxiety is common. It is usually described as a feeling of apprehension, uncertainty, or uneasiness that arises in anticipation of an impending event or situation, whether real or imagined. Anxiety can feel like stress, worry, butterflies, agitation, jumpiness, nervousness, fear, or panic.

Everyone experiences anxiety, but some of us feel it more often and/or more intensely. When we feel anxious, we may experience some or several of the following signs:

  • Physical (e.g., rapid heartbeat, headaches, muscle tension, shortness of breath, nausea, sweating)
  • Emotional (e.g., excessive feelings of fear, irritation, helplessness, shutting down)
  • Behavioural (e.g., fidgeting, pacing, avoiding, over- or under-sleeping)
  • Cognitive (e.g., going blank, racing thoughts, negative self-talk, difficulty concentrating)

False alarm?

At manageable levels, anxiety can be useful because it prepares us to take action in response to a situation. It signals that something important is at stake and motivates us to make necessary changes to manage that task. It helps us to be alert and get psyched up to deal with the situation at hand.

It’s normal to experience a certain amount of anxiety or nervousness before a test. But if these feelings are too intense, they may negatively affect our performance. As you become aware of your own test anxiety, try to think of it as a resource: it’s there to help you face the challenge at hand.

Increasing awareness

  • Recognize your test anxiety. How does it show up for you (e.g., as physical sensations, thoughts, emotions)? When (e.g., leading up to the test, or just on the day of)?
  • Notice how you typically respond to your feelings of anxiety. Do you avoid situations that make you feel anxious? Do you distract yourself from your thoughts or emotions? Do you procrastinate?
  • Notice your own story. What is your anxiety telling you? When you’re feeling anxious about a test or exam, what do you say to yourself? What thoughts occupy your mind?
  • Are there other habits and patterns that might be contributing to your anxiety? Are you getting enough good-quality sleep? Are you getting a reasonable amount of physical activity? Are you eating healthy foods? Do you have someone to talk to?
  • Have you thought about where the pressure is coming from? It might involve sources such as your own expectations, your parents’ expectations, scholarship status, judgement from peers, etc.

Next: accepting anxiety.

Acceptance

Rethinking butterflies

Shifting your perspective on test anxiety starts with accepting it as something that will happen. Of course you’re going to feel anxious; your test results are important to you. The key is to change your relationship with that anxiety. We cannot eliminate our feelings of nervousness and worry, but there are things we can do to keep their intensity at a more optimal level.

Begin by simply acknowledging that the uneasiness, uncertainty, and physical symptoms feel uncomfortable.

Allow the worry to be there. We are not going to get rid of worried thoughts—sometimes trying to do so will even strengthen our anxiety. Instead, begin to increase your tolerance for situations or thoughts that make you feel anxious (e.g., tests and exams). Try:

  • changing your self-talk (say, “I can do this. I studied well. I know my stuff.”)
  • practicing self-compassion (say, “I’ll do my best, and that will be enough”)
  • practicing meditation
  • learning to see emotions as information, not an order (say, “I’m getting excited to take on this challenge; I can feel it! But I won’t let this feeling take over.”)
  • establishing pre- and post-test routines and rituals in advance (e.g., going to the room where you’ll write the test to get more comfortable in the space)
  • doing grounding exercises when you feel anxious.

Keep moving forward in spite of your anxiety. By doing so, you will gradually retrain your brain to be less reactive. The aim is to work with anxiety instead of resisting it or wishing it would go away.

Working with your anxiety is the goal, but it’s not easy! Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that it’s hard (e.g., “This feels hard for me right now. We all go through hard times. It’s going to be okay—I can do this”).

Being kind to yourself also means making peace with anxiety. Let go of what happened in the past (e.g., “the last time I wrote an exam, I…”). You can’t change the past. Try to think instead of times when you were anxious but pushed through.

Acceptance strategies

Accepting your test anxiety allows you to create some space between your emotions/thoughts and your reactions. This space makes room for a response that will help you work toward your goal of overcoming anxiety.

  • Accepting that anxiety will happen gives you the opportunity to plan out possible responses in advance. Try WOOP (Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan) to help yourself anticipate obstacles and make plans.
    • Wish. Make a wish that feels challenging but doable. For example, I feel overcome by anxiety in exams. I wish I felt calmer.
    • Outcome. What will happen when you reach your goal? For example, if I felt calmer, I could think more clearly and I’d do better on the exam. That would feel great.
    • Obstacle. The main internal obstacle that keeps you from your goal. For example, I want to feel calmer, but… (negative self-talk, poor study habits, I stay up all night worrying, etc.) prevents me.
    • Plan. What can you do to overcome your obstacle? Try framing it as an if/then. For example, if I change my _____, then I will feel calmer and less anxious. I’ll be able to think better and do better on the exam. If I feel anxious, then I’ll remind myself to take deep breaths and persevere!
  • Externalize or personify your anxiety. Some students even find it helpful to give it a name to further separate it from themselves. When anxiety is externalized, it’s easier to address it and move forward (e.g., Ah yes, hello anxiety. I expected you to show up today. I hear you, but back off! I need to write this exam.).
  • Reframe your perspective. Change how you interpret your thoughts and feelings related to anxiety. You are having an intense or uncomfortable experience of a normal reaction to stress. The goal is to find a way to keep moving forward, even though you feel uncomfortable. For example, I want to _________, so I am willing to ____________.

Next: taking action.

Action

Once you’ve become aware of how you experience anxiety, and have stopped resisting it and started accepting it, you’re ready to take action. Just take it one step at a time. Focus on micro-changes: you don’t have to change everything all at once. Pick something, even the smallest thing that you think you can achieve. What do you think you can start with?

What do you want? What are your goals? Use these to motivate yourself. Effort and perseverance are the keys.

Before the test

Effective study habits can help you reduce and manage your test anxiety. When you feel you have the tools to meet a challenge, it helps to keep stress at a more manageable, productive level. Try

  • keeping up with the workload during the semester so you don’t feel overwhelmed: do a little at a time. Use a term and your weekly schedule to manage your time and workload.
  • engaging actively with the course content (when reading, when learning, when studying).
  • using the course learning objectives (in the syllabus) as a guide to the big picture of the course.
  • focusing on re-organizing material meaningfully (rather than re-reading or re-writing it) into a different format (e.g., a mind map or concept summary), or focusing on how best to organize it, or on the connections and relationships between main ideas.
  • giving yourself time to study: make a study schedule and use effective study methods like summarizing, memorizing, understanding, elaborating, and self-testing.
  • over-learning the material. Understanding, application, and analysis are all important, but so is memorization. Drill, drill, drill on the material you just have to memorize.
  • visiting the room where you will write your test or exam. You might even study there, if possible.

In terms of your mindset, try

  • visualizing yourself successfully writing the test. Imagine what your positive energy feels like and how it drives your performance.
  • noticing your thinking. We can’t always control the thoughts that arise but we can control how we respond to them. Thoughts are like background noise in your head, and this noise can affect your focus, motivation, confidence, and ultimately your performance. Make sure your thinking makes you feel empowered and confident.
  • avoiding procrastination. Reduce the number of situations in which you’d have to practice self-control. Just as you might avoid buying cookies so you won’t have to resist eating them, set yourself up for success by establishing good practices.
  • use encouraging words with yourself (e.g., “I can do this,” “I’m prepared”) when you notice thoughts of self-doubt.

During the test

Before you go in to write the test…

  • Stop studying at least an hour before the test or exam. Give yourself a break instead: have lunch, go to the gym, get some fresh air. Run a flight of stairs to release some nervous energy! Tell yourself, “I’m excited.”
  • Keep yourself calm: put on headphones, find a quiet space, engage with a mindfulness app. Don’t engage with friends/classmates who are stressing or cramming!
  • Do a brain dump of your worries. Write them all out, then categorize them: which ones can you do something about and which ones are just background noise? Leave your worries at the door when you go to write the test.

Just before you write, or while you’re writing…

  • It can be helpful to have a routine to follow. Routines help to smooth the transition into the test-taking process. For example, do some grounding exercises before you begin, do a brain dump before you start answering questions, or start with the questions you know, to warm up and build confidence.
  • Make sure you have some water to drink and maybe some gum or a candy.
  • Check out some strategies for taking different types of exams.

After the test

Overcoming test anxiety involves building a skill set and forming new habits and routines—this effort takes time and practice! Remember, you’re focusing on micro-changes.

Taking time to reflect after the test will help you build your skills. Then make a plan for next time.

Reflect on…

  • what went well (improvements in your thinking, your breathing, your ability to engage with the test material, your memory, etc.)
  • what you learned about how you experience test anxiety
  • what you might like to focus on improving the next time you write a test. Do you need to do some problem solving? Get help from a professor? Change your approach?

Reward yourself! Give yourself a tangible reward after a test to celebrate.

Next: grounding exercises for when anxiety takes hold.

When anxiety takes hold

When you’re preparing for or writing a test and anxiety takes hold, you can try some grounding exercises. Grounding techniques can help you regain your mental focus when you are experiencing an intense emotional state. They won’t eliminate anxiety—they are strategies to help you tolerate the discomfort. By engaging your senses, you divert your mind away from anxious or stressful thoughts and into the moment.

You can do all of these exercises in an exam, without disturbing others or calling attention to yourself. Practice them in advance so you know how to do them.

You can try...

  • squeezing lemons. Place your hands by your side or in your lap. Imagine you are holding a lemon in each hand. Squeeze your fists tight for 30 seconds. Direct your excess energy/tension into your hands and notice your muscles tightening. Now drop the lemons and feel the tension release as your muscles relax.
  • the 5-4-3-2-1 game. Name 5 things you can see in the room, 4 things you can feel (chair on my back, cold hands, etc), 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell (or 2 things you like the smell of), and 1 taste in your mouth and then state 1 good thing about yourself.
  • finger breathing. Spread the fingers of one hand out like a star, palm facing up. Take the index finger of the other hand and place it at the base of your thumb on the open hand. Inhale as you move your finger from the base of your thumb to the tip. Pause. Exhale as you bring your finger down the other side of your thumb. Pause. Inhale again as your finger moves to the tip of your finger. Repeat until you have done traced all your fingers. Repeat.
  • chair body scan: Sit comfortably with your hands in your lap. Lower your gaze or close your eyes. Direct your attention to your feet on the floor. Now move your attention to your body resting in your chair. Let the chair take the weight of your body. Notice your back in contact with the back of the chair. Let your shoulder relax. Let the muscles around your mouth relax, around your eyes, your forehead. Relax your tongue.
  • rhythmic breathing. Here are some options:
    • inhaling for a count of 4, holding for 7, exhaling for 8; or
    • inhaling for 4, exhaling for 8; or
    • belly breathing (also called calm breathing).
  • supportive self-talk and affirmations. For example, “I’m getting excited to take on this challenge,” “A little stress is going to help me do well on this test,” “This test is not a measure of my worth as a person. It’s one tiny point on my academic path,” and “I can do this. I studied well. I know my stuff.”

Finally, because overcoming anxiety is a process, it’s important to take care of yourself on a day to day basis—not just when you have a test coming up. Build in strategies for regular stress management and self-care (e.g., quality sleep, healthy habits, reducing coffee intake, spending time with friends and family).

Resources

How tos and apps

Strategies

More information

On-campus resources

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Graduate writing

Writing, thinking and talking are related, iterative processes. Give yourself time and space for all three. They can help you clarify and develop your ideas, think of creative insights and get feedback.

Expect the writing to go smoothly sometimes, and badly or not at all at other times. This inconsistency is normal; don’t let it discourage you, but if you are stuck, get help from your supervisor, supportive colleagues or a writing consultant at SASS. You may also like to review our resource on how to write more.

Academic writing isn’t linear. It involves an uneven, iterative process of becoming curious about a research question, talking about it with friends or colleagues, researching to learn more, writing to develop more questions and insights, researching more, thinking more, talking more, and writing more.

Organizing and managing your graduate workManaging obstacles to writingGetting back on track

Organizing and managing your graduate work

Researching and writing a dissertation is a large, complex project to manage. In the years you spend on it, you must manage time, resources, data, and yourself—often with little structure or accountability—and maintain working relationships with others on whom you depend.

This process usually involves:

  • setting short-term and long-term goals with deadlines
  • monitoring your progress, and adjusting goals, resources, etc. as needed
  • anticipating setbacks
  • delegating appropriate tasks, if it’s possible and a good use of time
  • communicating effectively and regularly with your supervisor and others.

Your research and thesis or dissertation might be the first time you have managed a project of this scale and of such a high level of personal and professional importance—and you might feel unprepared. Many graduate students book learning and writing appointments at SASS to help themselves manage their work effectively. In addition, you may like to review these resources:

Tools and resources for planning your research and writing

Managing obstacles to writing

In addition to the complex, demanding nature of writing itself, writers also face a variety of obstacles to giving it their full attention. Some common ones for graduate students include:

  • time and effort required to support relationships with family and friends
  • demands of paid work, other involvements
  • need to build professional portfolio (papers, conferences, committees, etc.)
  • distractions (noise, social media, etc.)
  • technical issues (computer meltdown, etc.)
  • physical state (hunger, fatigue, illness, etc.)
  • distracting thoughts or feelings, etc.

Some of these “obstacles” are actually important, enjoyable aspects of a whole life, sustain students through challenging times, or contribute to professional or personal wellbeing and development; other obstacles distract from the writing process without offering anything positive in return. In either case, it’s helpful to manage these obstacles, finding a balance that will help you protect your writing time. Here are some strategies you might try:

  • Do what you can to manage family and social commitments. For example:
    • Recruit the support of your friends and family—ask them to help you by respecting your work time and by reminding you to take breaks sometimes.
    • Schedule time with family and friends, and keep your commitments. Tell your friends and family that you can be available to them during certain hours, but will be unavailable (except for emergencies) during other hours of the day.
    • Anticipate important upcoming events; be prepared to alter your routine. Include unscheduled time in your week for flexibility.
  • Determine how much time you have available for teaching or professional activities and develop a routine that adds those things to your day without sacrificing your writing or research time. Set boundaries; there are only 168 hours in a week.
  • Manage your technology.
    • Mute your cellphone during working hours.
    • Set rules about when or where or how you can use the internet.
    • Use internet blocking software to put a hold on social network sites during working hours.
    • Separate your academic work from your personal life by using two browsers.
    • Ensure your work is regularly backed up.
  • Create or find a comfortable writing space that offers minimal distractions and includes all the things you need (reference materials, computer, paper, pens / pencils, etc.).
  • Pay attention to when you’re working well. Do you focus best with some background noise, or in total quiet? In the early morning, or later in the day? Work with your preferences.
  • Identify your biggest time-wasters or distractions and have a realistic plan to deal with them. Prioritize the demands on your time, for example by using Covey’s time management matrix.
  • Recognize your personal signs of distress or disengagement. Writing, research and data analysis can be isolating and lonely. Many graduate students doubt their skills and the value of their work at this stage. Speak with someone—a counsellor, your supervisor, a friend—for encouragement or advice.
  • Make a plan for things you don’t have control over, including illness, family issues, unexpected requests from your supervisor, etc. For example, can you schedule some weekly time that has no tasks assigned to it, just in case? Is some of your work portable, in case you need to travel or work away from your home or office?

When writers get stuck: Getting back on track

Feeling stuck? Most graduate students face times in their work that feel unproductive.  These times may indeed be unproductive, but they can also be a sign of the invisible work of scholarship, such as creative or analytical thinking. Know yourself well enough to tell the difference, but consider that graduate students are often unnecessarily and undeservedly self-critical, resulting in a negative emotional state that can interfere with progress.

Challenges to staying on track

Many factors can contribute to a feeling of being stuck:

  • Competing demands and roles that take time away from writing and research. Graduate students are not just students in demanding programs; they are also family members, caregivers, employees, friends, members of research or professional groups, teachers, practicum supervisors or TAs or lab assistants, emerging professionals giving conference presentations and writing papers, community volunteers, and more.
  • Negative emotional states about oneself or the work, such as isolation, disinterest, frustration, lack of confidence, incapacitating self-doubt, feelings of unworthiness, etc.
  • Unclear direction or uncertainty about next steps.
  • Incomplete understanding of the material.
  • An unhelpful writing process.

Strategies for getting back on track

Set reasonable expectations of yourself

  • Understand the expectations of your program and supervisor, and the terms of teaching employment, so that you can make good choices regarding your time and activities.
  • Assess your personal standards of the quality and quantity of your work, and adjust your efforts accordingly. If you expect more from yourself than you do from others, consider the impact of this attitude on your work and your wellbeing.
  • If you are unsure whether you are meeting the academic standards for your research area and graduate degree, compare your work to published theses or dissertations in your field, and ask your supervisor for specific feedback on the quality of both your work and your writing. The writing consultants at SASS can help too.
  • Set short- and long-term goals based on what you wish to accomplish and what you wish to experience. These goals could include academic and personal goals.
  • Identify small concrete actions that will help you meet your goals or overcome barriers to your goals.
  • Assess the demands on your time to create realistic expectations of what you can accomplish. Mental fatigue interferes with productive thinking and writing, and quiet time enables creative problem-solving. Breaks from work are healthy and productive!
  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Consider this very practical set of suggestions from the University of Melbourne for graduate students who are trying to meet the requirement of “originality” in their work; these suggestions are also helpful for those struggling with academic impostor syndrome, those having difficulty seeing the value of their work or identifying the heart of a thesis, and those who don’t feel clear about academic expectations.

Give yourself some structure

  • Make a weekly schedule based on 1-hour blocks if you have multiple daily commitments, or 3-hour blocks if you have a lot of unstructured time.
  • Learn how to write more.
  • Do the hardest work during your peak concentration time; leave other tasks for less alert times.

Practice self-care

  • Use campus resources to maintain your emotional, mental and physical health. Talk to someone about your situation, feelings and possible course of action. Distress will have a negative effect on your ability to write and think creatively.
  • Support your health by giving yourself 7-8 hours of sleep each night, regular nutritious meals, exercise, and time for relaxation and fun. You are a “human being,” not a “human doing”!

Get some perspective

Consider where you are in your writing, so you can respond appropriately to get back on track.

  • Review your past work to re-orient yourself to your original research question or revised focus. Ask a question to direct your thinking.
  • Re-establish your work routine OR take a day or two off to refresh yourself.
  • Talk to a colleague to get a different point of view on your work.
  • Accept discomfort as temporary, knowing it will pass.

Let stuckness motivate you to persist

Students often hit what seem like stumbling blocks in the research-learn-write cycle, where they feel as though they can’t progress because they don’t yet understand something, or aren’t sure what they want to say, or how to say it, or how it fits in with their broad structure. These threshold points are uncomfortable, but often a good sign of an imminent breakthrough. Don’t give up!

threshold points

Engaging in an effective writing process (talking, thinking, writing) will help you deepen your understanding and resolve methodological or conceptual issues. Booking a writing appointment or talking to your supervisor or other colleagues can be very helpful in this process.

Try keeping a journal or file of your thoughts. At the end of a work period of reading, data analysis or writing, articulate a question or a statement that reflects something you are unsure of or wish to think more about, and write this in a journal or file. Then stop work for the time being.

As you go about the rest of your day or night, your mind will unconsciously process this topic. When you return to work, come back to what the problem, and write down your current thoughts about it.

This file will be an ongoing description of the development of your thinking on a topic, which you can use to remind yourself of your path, direction and growth, and as a focus of discussion with your supervisor or a research or writing group.

Improve your current knowledge base

If you are stalled in your writing because you lack understanding of part of your subject matter:

  1. Use a mind map to outline material on your topic, to create a hierarchy of information or concepts based on key topics, sub-topics, sub-sub-topics, etc. Think of the map as being like a table of contents, rather than a detailed summary.
  2. Based on the mind map, identify gaps in your knowledge or research, and decide which gaps ought to be filled and which gaps might not matter for this particular project.
  3. Make practical decisions about the scope of your project, and identify any additional learning that you need to do. It can be very helpful to discuss your choices with your supervisor or experienced colleagues at this point.
  4. Develop your understanding of key material, as you need to. Speak to your supervisor for direction if you need it.

Re-engage with your work or writing

 

 

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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

Course:                                                               

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

Instructions:

  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?

Instructions

  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.

 Example:

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)

x
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
Self-test
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
Review
Prepare Self-test
1st section
2nd section
3rd section
10 minutes
20 minutes
2 hours
20 minutes
Day 4 Review
Review
Review
Prepare
Self-test
1st section
2nd section
3rd section
4th section
5 minutes
10 minutes
20 minutes
2 hours
20 minutes
Day 5 Review
Review
Review
Review
Self-test
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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