The “Topic/Assertion/Why” model for writing thesis statements

My favourite teacher in high school was my Grade Nine English teacher, Mr. Moran.  Not only was Mr. Moran one of the funniest people I have ever met, he was also one of my most influential mentors in the craft of writing.  He taught me some of the most valuable and long-standing lessons in English language and literature that I have ever learned, and that I  still use as a third-year English major in university.

Mr. Moran was the first person to introduce the concept of a thesis statement to me.  The task of narrowing down the basic argument of a paper into a single sentence at first seemed like a daunting task, but Mr. Moran simplified the creation of a thesis into three easy steps.  He explained that the thesis sentence can be broken up into a topic, an assertion, and an explanation of why that topic and assertion are both valid and important.

The ‘topic, assertion, why’ model that I used to create theses in my grade nine 500 word assignments is the same model that I use to create theses in my third-year, 2,500 word assignments (although the eloquence of my sentences has hopefully somewhat improved).  I also use this model in my Peer Writing Assistant sessions because it simplifies the structure of a thesis—if a sentence cannot stand up to the ‘topic, assertion, why’ model, it is not an effective thesis.  This model stands the test of time for me because it is broadly applicable and it accounts for the nuances in language and style that I have developed over the years.  I have Mr. Moran to thank for breaking down the complexity of a thesis into a coherent format, and hopefully this contribution to my Peer Writing Assistant lessons will help new students feel more confident in constructing effective arguments.


Image of Thesis Statement word cloud courtesy of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivations 2.0 license.

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Deal me in

By Tanveen Rai, 3rd-year Biology/Psychology student

For a lot of students, this is a very busy time of the year. Midterms are underway and there is no end in sight as far as assignments go. Oh, but did I mention that final exams are also right around the corner? And my room is a mess! I still have a pile of dishes to do! Who’s going to do my laundry? I want to go to the gym too! At some point all your commitments and everyday chores get to be very overwhelming!

When this happens the best thing to do is just to take a step back from it all and do something fun — maybe just ten minutes, or maybe you need an hour. Take a break and then go back to your work with a re-focused attention span.

Know that things aren’t going to stay the way they are for long, and don’t forget you often have the power to change whatever it is you don’t like. Try to view setbacks as opportunities: how will you handle the problems that come up in life?

A French philosopher named Voltaire drives this point home when he says, “Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.”

A few strategies to better your game include:

  • Setting realistic goals

Most people tend to overestimate the amount of work they can actually get done in a set period of time. When planning what needs to be done give yourself leeway so that you are not constantly disappointed that what needed to be done but didn’t get done. It was not because you didn’t work hard enough; your goals were just not realistic!

  • Prioritizing your workload

This is very important because it allows you to visualize what actually needs to be done. The immediate concerns become apparent and less important tasks can be put off for some time.

  • Creating a weekly schedule or to do list

Planning your time using a weekly schedule or making a to do list are both great strategies to prevent you from getting behind. Everyone is different and if you prefer precisely mapping out your time a weekly schedule is great. However, some people are not able to predict how their days will go and what their mood will be like. A to do list is a much more flexible option. Also, make sure to include social events in addition to schoolwork when planning your time.

Overall, we need to learn to make the best of what we have. Learn more in our time management module.

Make a promise with me. I, insert name here, solemnly swear to avoid procrastination and instead stay motivated and power through the rest of the month! Don’t forget to take time out for yourself and have fun. Just remember it’s you that has all the power!

Feeling powerful yet?

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Maintaining motivation

By Grace McCabe, 3rd-year English major

Where has the time gone? I can’t believe we’re entering the final weeks of the school year! But before we can start counting down the days to freedom and fun (and hopefully some warm weather), there are essays to write, tests to take and exams to prepare for. I don’t know about you, but this is the time of year where I start to lose steam. With so many assignments due as the year wraps up, I find myself tired, overwhelmed and stressed out which in turn leads to a wee bit of procrastination. Okay, you caught me…A LOT of procrastination…

Often people try to wait for motivation or inspiration to spontaneously reach them — “I can’t work until I feel more motivated.” But there are actually ways to manufacture motivation (conveniently also the title of our online module on this topic)! It may take some work, but here are just three techniques that I use to maintain my motivation. Check out our module for more ideas.

1. Positive self-talk: Be kind to yourself. I can be my own worst critic and it’s easy to dwell on all the things that didn’t get done during the day rather than the things that did. Try to focus on the positives rather than the negatives and affirm this with phrases like, “I wrote a really good paragraph for my essay.” Positive self-talk motivates me to continue to do good work and gives me a renewed sense of confidence to go forward. Believe in yourself and believe that you can do it!

2. Set goals for yourself: Whether big or small, making goals for yourself is a great way to stay on track and stay motivated. Tell yourself that you’ll have a snack when you finish a chapter of readings (chocolate is my preference) or that you’ll go out for dinner with friends once you finish a big assignment. Earn the reward and find a feeling of joy at the end of each task. Remember that feeling and use it to motivate yourself to cross the finish line.

3. Create a motivational environment: I find that I work better in a setting of motivated individuals and people who are passionate about the work they are doing. Surround yourself with motivated people draw on them as a source of inspiration. In creating a motivational environment I am really selective about where I study and do my work. I prefer to work in a quiet section of the library where there are lots of other people studying rather than a coffee shop where people are socializing. Perhaps you have a playlist that you like to listen to while you study that has inspirational songs or gets you pumped up! Cultivate a feeling motivation for yourself and find an environment that works for you.

Photo courtesy of Richard Hurd under the Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license.

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Planning, planning, and more planning!

Have you ever had to travel somewhere last minute? It’s stressful. Really stressful. You have no time to think about what you’re going to need, so you end up wherever you’re going with only your left socks, more t-shirts than you’ll ever use, no charger cables or adapters for anything, and toothpaste but no toothbrush. That’s why planning is a good thing – you bring exactly what you need, without dragging around a whole bunch of junk you’re never going to use.

All metaphors aside, essay planning is, in my experience, the most underrated stage of the writing process. Not only does it give you time to think through your ideas a few times, to move arguments around to see what order makes the most sense, and to adjust your thesis as new ideas pop into your mind, but it also helps to ensure that you’re doing the right work. With the kind of workload most of us at university are dealing with, not to mention managing class with extra-curricular responsibilities and commitments like clubs and jobs, planning effectively is essential. If you plan your paper really well before you start writing anything, then you don’t waste time writing versions of your paper that weren’t going to work anyway.

Now, when I say, “planning,” I don’t mean just writing really vague things on a piece of paper you’re going to lose in ten minutes. I mean having a working thesis, and then outlining each of your arguments with a topic sentence, bullet points of your evidence (if you have page numbers, quotes, statistics, whatever you’re citing – put it down!), and a connection to that elusive “so what?” question of your thesis. If you have a really good outline, then writing the paper becomes a matter of filling in the blanks. Remember, the more time you put into your writing before you start the first sentence of your introduction, the faster (and usually better!) the writing goes.

P.S. If you’re looking for a good outline model, check out this handout offered by the Writing Centre: Creating Outlines

PWA Stacey

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Reading Week guilt

By Lucy Mackrell, 3rd-year Global Development major

As Reading week drew to a close, I was plagued by the feeling so common to students coming back to campus after the break – Guilt. I only got this much work done, I should have finished that essay, I should not have spent so many days “doing nothing” etc. Dwelling on this is such an easy trap to fall into, which in turn decreases your current productivity and needlessly adds to your stress levels. Here are four ways that I like to productively combat this feeling of guilt:

1. Express your gratitude. I know that personally I don’t stop and think about what happened during reading week that I am grateful for – I got to spend time with my best friend, I was able to sleep in, I had the time to exercise and I found a great new playlist. All of these things have enriched my life, maybe not my school work, but every now and then you have to stop and remind yourself that you are more than just your academics.

2. Focusing on what you can do NOW. Rather than focusing upon the point you wish you were at, take stock of everything that you have left to do. A great way to do this is making a full semester reading, assignment and general to-do list. Yes, it can be a tad overwhelming, but it also forces you to be organized for the rest of the term. Depending upon whether you like to have every minute of your day planned out, or whether you prefer to just have a loose idea of what needs to be accomplished, there is a type of organizer out there for you. Personally, I like having every minute planned; in my agenda I have a weekly set schedule with classes etc., a monthly calendar with due dates and special events, a reading list with all of the readings I need to do for each class all semester and then a weekly agenda, with room to include daily to-do lists and plans. From looking at all of these lists, I can plan out each day so I make the best use of my time and ensure that I get everything done!

3. Learn from the experience. Was there a specific reason that you didn’t get much work done? Finding this reason and using it to strategize on how to become more productive will help your study habits in the future. Whether you will use this new strategy next reading week, during exams or even in terms of balancing during the year, it is so important to understand your own learning style. If you would like to talk to someone about these specific strategies, come to Study Skills Coaching in Stauffer library every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in Rm. 143 in Stauffer Library!

4. Taking care of yourself has to be your first priority, especially taking time to re-charge after a stressful time. Going into reading week I was drained and exhausted, after taking the time to relax I feel so much better and ready to face the rest of the semester. Hopefully you do too!

Photo courtesy of Simon Cocks under Flickr Creative Commons license.

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Quick fixes for essays

I volunteer as a PWA (Peer Writing Assistant) at the Writing Centre, and, while I spend a lot of time helping students with their theses and paragraph structure, I also see a number of small mistakes that would be remarkably easy to fix. Of course, one small mistake shouldn’t really affect your final grade, but if it takes you only 5 minutes to fix a few things, why not?

1. Check your fonts. Most people don’t have Times New Roman set as their default font in Microsoft Word (or any other word processor), so they change from Cambria or Ariel when they open a new document. Should solve the problem, right? Not so much. When you go to set up your header with your last name and page number, you have to change the font up there. When you insert your footnotes, you have to change the font down there, too. Or just set Times New Roman to be your default. Up to you.

2.  Never have a lonely this. When you use the word this, it needs to be followed by a subject; ask yourself, this what? For example, if I write, “Students often submit their papers late, with poor grammar, and different fonts. This is one of the biggest problems in society today,” what is this? Is it the lateness, the grammar, the fonts or the combination of all three? It should read something along the lines of “This tardiness is one of the biggest problems in society today.” Besides being a general grammatical rule, avoiding the lonely this also reduces ambiguity in your essay and confusion in your reader, which is always a plus.

3.Comma which or that: choose one. You know when Microsoft Word gives you the green squiggle and wants you to choose between comma which and that?

Comma Which and That

Well, for once, you should listen to it. Basically, you use comma which for nonessential information (if it doesn’t really matter that the zoo’s downtown) and that for essential information (if it’s really important that the zoo’s downtown). I realize that the mechanics of this choice probably sound a little grammatically heavy, but, for the most part, it’s easy: just choose one. Comma which or that.

4. Contractions don’t belong in formal writing. I’m sure that most of you know this rule, so it’s more of a gentle reminder. Contractions don’t belong in formal writing. If you’re writing a blog then, by all means, contract away (I certainly do). If you’re writing an essay or a lab report or a book review or a comment sheet, maybe steer clear of the contractions. (And avoiding contractions will also up your word count, a perk that shouldn’t be ignored.)

Now, these rules might not be applicable in absolutely every situation, but they’re generally true. Good luck with your papers and, until next time, happy writing!


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Put the “Read” in “Reading Week”

Or, How to Actually Read on Reading Week

By Cristina Valeri, 3rd-year English major

By the time Reading Week rolls around in February, most of us are ready to do the exact opposite of reading–namely napping, snacking and watching whole seasons of TV shows on Netflix. What the university officials idealistically called ‘Reading Week’ is what we university students call ‘Much Needed Week Break. During the Busy Time of Second Semester’ where we do those exact things I mentioned before–napping, snacking and watching whole seasons of TV shows on Netflix.

Maybe we spend some time with our family and friends, too, if we feel like getting out of our pajamas.

However, sometimes we need to actually get some readings done on Reading Week. For this English major, that’s pretty much been the case every year. So here’s what I’ve learned when it comes to getting readings done–use your time wisely! Us Peer Learning Assistants love to tell students about ‘Found Time,’ which is basically those chunks of time in between classes or extra-curricular activities that you can use effectively to get work done. Well, Found Time works for Reading Week, too.

Here`s some examples of Found Time on Reading Week:

1. Bed-time: Try reading for ten or fifteen minutes before you go to bed. Keep a piece of paper and pen by your bedside to jot down some notes.

2. In the Morning: Once you wake up, instead of getting up and getting ready for the day right away, or just lying there pondering what you’re going to do that day, grab your book or textbook and get reading! Before bed and in the morning are usually quiet times in the house, making them ideal for focused reading.

3. Waiting for chronically late friends or family members to pick you up: Have dinner plans with friends at 7? Be ready for 6:30 and use the extra time to get some of those readings done.

4. Transition Time: Sometimes you have those odd transition moments between plans where you have nothing to do. While my first instinct usually tells me this isprime time to watch a thirty minute episode of The Mindy Project or Seinfeld, my GPA and grad school aspirations say I should probably pick up a book.

5. Carry a book around with you: Keep a textbook in your car or a novel in your bag–you never know when you might get a spare ten minutes.

6. MAKE TIME: This is perhaps the most important tip of all. Take time out of your busy schedule for some reading. Go to Starbucks, get a hipster drink and feel very scholarly as you actually accomplish some reading on Reading Week. The nice thing about Reading Week is that there is no class time, so choose to get ahead on that homework!

Now, we only get a week to get all this reading done so sometimes speed reading is necessary! Try reading entire phrases instead of each word individually. This is called “rapid reading” or “skimming,” as the reader extracts the gist of the message instead of individually reading each word (which can take longer). You should skim when you’re only trying to get a general idea of the subject or to get down the main points or argument.

Some people also find that using a pacer helps them read faster. You can use your finger as a guide or a ruler, anything that works for you! Pacers can help you stay focused on the page and also practice increasing your speed.

If you’re trying out these rapid reading techniques, or even if you’re not, it’s also important to question yourself about what you’ve read afterwards to make sure you understand the material. Another great way to double-check your understanding is to discuss the material with friends. I’m sure they would all be interested to hear exactly what happened in the five chapters of Great Expectations you just read or all three of Kepler`s laws of planetary motion.

(Disclaimer: As an English major, I have no idea what Kepler’s Laws are or if they are actually taught at Queen’s).

Learning Strategies has a lot more information on effective reading, common reading challenges, and taking notes. For more information, read our module on reading and note-making. You can also always book an appointment with one of our advisors or, if you’re in first or second year, drop by the volunteer-led Study Skills Coaching.

To sum up, Reading Week is a short but much-needed break from the hustle and bustle of the busy winter term. So go ahead and relax a little, spend time with family, catch up with friends and get up to date with those TV shows calling your name, because if you’re able to use your time wisely, you can accomplish all that and get some reading done.

Photo courtesy of Thalita Carvalho under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license.

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Frightening February: How to stay motivated as 2014 advances

By Alex Valeri, 3rd-year English student

It is officially February! The end of January usually signifies a couple of exciting things on the horizon such as Valentine’s Day (which basically just means binge chocolate eating), Reading Week (an opportunity to spend time with family, friends and your favourite textbooks) and finally, a lot less New Year’s Resolutioners in the gym and in your classes. For me, February is definitely the “burn out” month. Readings are starting to pile up, due dates on assignments are quickly approaching, and the winter is dragging on, depriving students of much-needed sun and Vitamin D. Reading Week can’t come soon enough.

With this busy month ahead, how do you stay motivated and keep working hard even when you feel like jumping on the next plane out of here—preferably to somewhere with a beach? The following is a list of ways to keep pushing through the February grind:

1)      Make new New Year’s Resolutions:  Don’t be afraid to adjust your January goals based on how things have been going the past month. For instance, maybe you need to put aside more time for readings or set a new goal that ensures you get you 7-9 hours of sleep if that’s something you haven’t been doing. However, don’t be daunted by some of your larger goals—it’s still early days! There’s lots of time in 2014 still left!

2)       Use a weekly schedule/day planner/ to do list: If you don’t already use an agenda, schedule or to do list and need help with focus or time management, then get in the habit of using one of these great options! Writing down what you need to do not only allows you to visualize the work ahead of you but also enables you to make the best use of your time. You can schedule in time for your readings, your assignments, your activities, etc. Plus, checking off things when you’re done feels amazing!

3)      Take breaks: It is essential to take breaks when you’re studying or working on that 15 page essay! Taking breaks not only functions as a reward for work done, but also gives you time to clear your head and time for the information to move into your long term memory. Use the 50/10 rule (50 minutes of studying with 10 minute breaks) or the 9-5 work day (only doing school work between the hours of 9-5 to maximize daylight hours) in order to ensure you are taking the appropriate amount of time off!

4)      Give yourself a reward: Cake from CoGro, watching an episode of The Bachelor, having a dance party to One Direction in your room—these are just some examples of ways to reward yourself when you’ve completed an assignment or aced that exam you were studying for.  Knowing you have a reward coming your way while studying provides extra motivation to push through and keep working. Then, when you finally achieve that reward, it makes you feel pretty proud of yourself!

5)      Listen to music or litter your room with inspirational quotes: This is one of my personal tips that has worked really well for me in the past. Sometimes when I am working on an essay or studying for an exam, it’s helpful to have little reminders that what I’m doing is worthwhile. Sticking post-its with motivational quotes all over my room or on my fridge helps keep me focused and inspired. Listening to a pump up song (for example Eminem’s Lose Yourself) before starting an essay helps me feel energized and excited to ‘lose myself’ in my work.  Classical music or music without lyrics can actually help with your memory, too. Try Songza’s playlists for studying!

Overall, don’t let February get you down! Each month is a blank slate, a chance for you to start fresh if maybe you have been slacking on your goals and not doing as well as you hoped. With summer around the corner, now is the time to figuratively pull up your socks and remain committed to your academic success. Staying motivated and continuing to work hard will pay off in the end and make you feel like you have really accomplished something in the New Year.

Photo courtesy of Jarek Zok under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license.

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A crisis of confidence

By Alanna Goodman, 4th-year Biology student

In one of my favourite movies, The Sound of Music, there is a scene in which the main character sings about confidence. “I have confidence in sunshine! I have confidence in rain… Besides which, you see, I have confidence in me!” She tries to bolster her confidence, after having experienced what I call a “crisis of confidence.” This is the story of my crisis of confidence.

Queen’s was not my first choice. It was my back-up. I was not accepted to the program at my first-choice school. I don’t think it would have bothered me too much, except that my friends from high school told me I wouldn’t get in. They told me my marks weren’t high enough and I wasn’t smart enough.

The sting of having proof that they might be right followed me to university. When I moved into residence, I hardly spoke to anyone because a voice in the back of my head said, “What if I sound stupid? Or what if they don’t think I’m good enough?”

But it didn’t just affect my meeting new people. It spilled into my academic life. I was afraid to speak to my professors or work in groups. Writing tests or midterms was another problem. I remember early on at university saying to myself, “What’s the use in trying? You’ll be bad at it anyway.”

Looking back at my university career, I can see the growth I have made here and the time it has taken for me to regain my confidence. I wish I could say that there was some specific trigger which helped me turn it around, but I think it was a combination of things. One of those things was interviewing to be a Peer Learning Assistant. I was interested in it but I never really believed I could get in. Receiving my acceptance email gave me a huge boost. Meeting and remaining friends with those who were supportive was also important. I will never forget the first friend I made here, who still makes me feel like I am the most wonderful person in the world. I also had to actively work at thinking positively about myself and looking at academic challenges as something I could do if I worked at it. And if I didn’t do well on something, I had to remember that it didn’t reflect my intelligence or mean that I couldn’t do better.

When you find yourself in a crisis of confidence it’s important to understand why you feel that way – it took me a while to realize the source of my lack of confidence. Once I understood what had caused it I was able to work on changing my mind set and attitude (positive self-talk). This allowed me to change my behaviour (such as acknowledging accomplishments big or small) and my situation (finding the courage to speak to professors and focus on working hard).

A crisis of confidence can strike at any time – often when we least expect it or want it to. This is why it’s important to celebrate all our little successes in life and to laugh or at least shrug off our failures and build on them. Don’t let a crisis of confidence hold you back.

For more strategies on regaining your confidence and coping with stress, check out our Stress and Coping Skills module.

Photo courtesy of Evil Erin under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license.

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The struggles of the chronically late

By Anonymous 4th-year Life Sci

Everyone has that friend who’s always late. They’re late for plans to hang out, they’re late to class, and sometimes they’re even late to exams!

You often see them looking frazzled as they rush across campus. At least 50% of the texts you get from them include the words “5-10 minutes late”, “so sorry” or “WAIT FOR ME I’M COMINGGGGG!”

I was that friend.

I realized that things needed to change. Being late isn’t just a choice that I make for myself. It sends the message to friends, professors, and event organizers that their time is less valuable than mine, that they should be the ones waiting for me.

Before I could stop being late, I had to figure out why I was late in the first place. I want to share with you the biggest obstacles I faced in my quest to be punctual and how I overcame those obstacles. Hopefully, you can use these strategies to help yourself or a friend overcome chronic tardiness.

1. Miscalculating total travel time

I like to time everything to the last minute; I don’t want to leave earlier than necessary to arrive at my destination. I know exactly how long it takes to walk from my house to a variety of locations on campus and downtown. For example, if it takes 7 minutes to walk from my house to BioSci, I will pack up to leave my house exactly 7 minutes before I am due to arrive. Despite my calculations, I was somehow always late.

I realized that the time it takes to walk between buildings is only part of the total time I need to allow for traveling from place to place. Total travel time actually includes:

  1. Packing: putting on coat, packing up books, saying goodbye to friends/housemates, getting out of the building (from some places in Stauffer, it takes almost 2 minutes to walk to the front doors!)
  2. Walking: moving yourself from one building to the next
  3. Finding: entering the building, finding your classroom, and choosing a seat

With this in mind, allow for 4 minutes to pack my things, 7 minutes to walk to BioSci, and 1 minute to get to my class. Now, if you ask me how long it takes to get to BioSci from my house, I always say 12 minutes. By simply reconsidering how I looked at timing, I am still able to feel like I’m leaving the house at the last possible moment without being late. It’s a win-win!

2. Forgetting about class, plans, or due dates

I used to accidentally miss class on an alarmingly regular basis because I would forget what time my class started, misread my schedule, or get caught up in an activity and lose track of time.

I needed to find someone – or something – to constantly remind me about upcoming events. The calendar function on my phone was the perfect solution! (Any sort of electronic calendar will work equally well, as long as you check it regularly). I made an event for each class and changed the settings so that the event repeated weekly. I added other events – like extracurriculars and significant due dates – as well. I programmed the calendar to alert me at an appropriate interval prior to the event (ex: 15 minutes before the start of class, 1 day before a meeting, or 1 week before due date). Sometimes I even had multiple alarms for the same event.

Having a reminder system in place gave me no excuse to forget about class or important commitments. I felt more organized and relaxed – I didn’t have to worry about keeping a mental to-do list or memorizing my class schedule.

The two strategies above were extremely helpful for me. Feel free to give them a try and hopefully they will work for you too!

For more information on keeping track of plans and sticking to them, try out our Time Management module. We offer a weekly schedule template — it’s easy to block in your half-hour commute to campus using this schedule! Alternatively, try monitoring how you actually spend your time using the Time Monitoring Form — maybe your mild addiction to Candy Crush is why you continually miss that Chemistry lecture. Hmmm…

Photo courtesy of Rob and Stephanie Levy under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License.

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