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Peer blog: What do academics and the ocean have in common?

Sarah, Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022

Everyone who knows me knows I have an ocean obsession.

It started when I was 16 and out in British Columbia for the first time; the ferry to Victoria was a formative experience in my youth (“youth”, I say at the old age of 21). One of my favourite memories is being with friends, trying to time our jumps into the ocean with massive wave breaks. We’d rush the wave just as it started to recede, before the next wave broke. There would be times where we would get it right, slipping underneath a wave and swimming out into the ocean. Other times, we would get knocked down, kicking up to the surface and spitting out salt water.

 I can’t think of a better metaphor for university life. University can be a wild time. Balancing an education, extracurriculars, friendships, living independently, working part-time to support financing said education—all while getting a decent amount of sleep, staying active, eating well, and in the background, handling a pandemic. Definitely reminds me of getting my legs knocked out from under me by a wave I made the mistake of underestimating.

As many times as I’ve been knocked down by waves, however, I still love the ocean. And I still love being in school.

It’s midterm season. A combination of exams, assignments, caffeine, extra snacks (and sparkling water), and the anticipation of the first round of grades coming in. The stress is real. It feels like there is so much to do, and not enough hours in the day, exacerbated by an abyssopelagic zone of online content to work through.

So, what’s the best way to prepare for rushing the oncoming wave? I have a couple tricks that might work well for you:

  1. Figuring out organization as soon as possible is helpful. In my last entry, I mentioned my planner and a paper matrix. Paired with a visit to review course timelines on onQ at the beginning of every week to make sure I’m not missing anything, those things are working very well for me! Midterms might be fast approaching, but it’s not too late to start to find ways to keep on top of each week’s work, even if it’s with a simple weekly to-do list based on your course timeline (and if you really want to get ahead, look at SASS’s Assignment Planner!).
  2. Making time to talk to the people that remind me there is more than school. As much as I love my major and all things health, there are moments where I am apathetic and miserable due to the mounting pressures of deadlines and delivering high-quality material. So I make an effort to call my friends in my program to have a combined laugh/yell over all the work we have going on. Things are sometimes tough, but being able to laugh with friends over a Zoom call is a great help. This week, try reaching out to a friend, family member, mentor, or even a staff member from QUIC, SASS, Wellness, Four Directions, or another service on campus.
  3. Remembering the bigger picture. Third year is a lot. I seem to always have the grade thresholds for upper-year courses in my given graduate programs of interest in the back of my mind. Getting a high GPA in order to even be considered is daunting. But then, in the midst of panic, I remind myself that if I’m only doing schoolwork to achieve a certain GPA, that’s rough—and kind of sad. Learning at university is so much more than the GPA on your transcript. Think about what you really hope to achieve at Queen’s and whether it goes beyond those GPA numbers.
  4. When courses are a lot, remember the things that got you started in the first place. Super last minute, I got placed into a research internship course. If you were to ask me what my official role is, I think the best description is “sea sponge”: to absorb as much information as possible as to see how research actually works. Hopefully, this will set me up for a thesis in my fourth year. This is the thing I knew I had been working on when I was in second year, and it feels and looks very different than I anticipated. Here’s the funny thing about theses and projects at university: we all know what they are; a big and looming culminating fourth-year project. But, the consensus I have from peers in various programs is again, we know they exist, but none know how to approach doing one. So, my mission right now is to be a sea sponge—to take things as they come and learn what I can to prep for the future. That thought gets me going, and I am so excited to see what research is going to look like for me. It puts a smile on my face the way not most courses do. More to come on this development!

When things feel overwhelming and I feel like I can’t catch the wave break, I remember these tricks. Suddenly, ocean waves don’t seem so intimidating and I’m reminded why I love the ocean—and, even when it’s busy, university.

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Peer blog: 4 tips for getting organized and staying focused

Santosh, Life Sciences, Class of 2023SASS Peer: Santash

Hi everyone! I hope all of you had a nice transition into the academic year. If it were anything like mine, you would have had a very eventful one and a half weeks to say the least. From purchasing all my required materials to attending introductory Zoom sessions, I am slowly adapting to the new learning environment. Based on my experiences in my previous years at Queen’s, and the first week of courses this year, here are my top tips for getting started as assignment deadlines start to approach:

  1. First, if you have not done so, take a close look at your syllabus for each course: it is one of the most important documents that you will come across. It not only gives you a thorough outline of the course and its content, but it indicates the required reading/study material, and every assessment and how much it is worth. The syllabus will give you a very good understanding of what to expect over the next four months, so if you use it to prepare a timetable and calendar for yourself, you won’t be shocked when you realize that a course consists of weekly quizzes, or three midterms in the span of a single month. Next on the must-check list is your course timeline on onQ, which reminds you of what content you are expected to finish and which assessments are due each week. With remote learning, staying on top of all your course content is half the battle itself, so following the timeline is an amazing way to track your progress. A quick glance at the timeline before you start your work each day will only take a minute, but it can potentially save you a lot of time from cramming, or even worse, regretting a missed assessment.

  2. Creating a daily schedule based on your syllabus and course timelines can go a long way to staying on track. A schedule also helps maintain my focus because I know exactly what needs to be done and when I’ll do it—and that’s going to be challenging when we’re all studying remotely. A pro tip is to create times for breaks, snacks, meals, and downtime, which will help you maintain a clear mind. Try and stick to your schedule, but do not be hard on yourself if a task or two is incomplete by the end of the day. Especially at the beginning of the semester, it might be hard to gauge the time a task might take, so don’t rush to complete your list: the quality of your understanding is much more important than the quantity of the tasks you finish.

  3. In my last blog, I mentioned that a goal of mine this semester is to work on my time management skills, and remote education has put this to the test. Over the past one and a half weeks, there have been quite a few moments where I opened Netflix to watch an episode of Friends, searched for the “perfect” song to listen to on Spotify for a few minutes, or browsed through social media. However, these occurrences have been decreasing as each day passes thanks to a new technique I found to reduce my phone usage during my study periods: I simply place my phone behind my laptop so that it is blocked from my point of view. This has helped me immensely because I can now work on my courses without needing to fight the urge to check my latest notification. Even though there is still a long way to go, I can safely say that I am gradually working towards my goal for the semester. I hope that you are inching closer to achieving your goals as well!

  4. This semester might feel much more isolated than previous semesters. That might take a toll on your motivation as the semester progresses, but even simple online can help you stay on task. For example, I just used the SASS online Assignment Planner to help me finish a discussion post for my Global and Population Health course. The Assignment Planner gives you a simple, step-by-step schedule for completing any assignment. It was wonderful to follow the planner and finish my assignment without cramming. If you’re getting started on papers or reports right now, check it out!

Take advantage of all the help that is at your disposal and make this semester a positive first experience at Queen’s, or your most successful one yet. Best of luck and see you next time!

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Peer blog: Scheduling, focus, and fun!

Liyi, Engineering, Class of 2024

Welcome back, everyone! It has been a wild ride since the first day of university, but I’ve been enjoying myself. School is providing me with the drive, motivation, and strong sense of purpose that I lacked during the summer.

Some notable things have happened from my last blog until now. I gained two new Queen’s items for my clothing collection: a crewneck and the famed rugby jersey! Additionally, I am ecstatic to have joined the Queen’s Hyperloop Design Team. Finding ways to bond with the campus community has helped.

Nonetheless, being in engineering as a first year while attending Queen’s Zoomiversity has been a bit of a struggle. This semester I have calculus, chemistry, and engineering design and labs. Keeping up with the course load has fueled me into buying cold brew from the local grocery store (to drink as a reward for my hard work, not for the caffeine). So if you feel that the first two weeks have been tough too, don’t worry: I am right there with you.

Finding myself busy with my schoolwork, a new club, and work outside of school, I tried to find a planning strategy that worked for me:

  • Currently, I have a paper agenda to track big and regular events like synchronous classes and my work schedule.
  • I also linked my Google Calendar to onQ, so that it lists events, and test and submission dates. That means I can always quickly refer to what’s coming in the days and weeks ahead, and my phone can remind me a few days in advance of deadlines.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, every day I make my own checklist of what to do that day on a plain sheet of paper. I just use a plain piece of paper; it doesn’t have to be anything pretty or cost $30 from a fancy stationery store!

I’m trying out different approaches to managing my time. I don’t like a set schedule with every hour planned out by course/task, so I’m just trying to set times to start and stop working. In those blocks, I can choose to work on whichever task I feel would be most suited to my mood. Using my daily to-do list is helping me stay on track, even though I don’t have my day planned out in infinite detail. This works for me, but it may not work for everyone else. I think the most significant thing in the first few weeks of school is to learn about yourself and learn how you like to work the most effectively. You will carry these skills with you forever.

Staying on task can still be tough. During video lectures, I find myself sending messages to friends. I find this eerily similar to whispering to a friend in class—except this time, there is no teacher to tell us to stop talking and to listen!

As a result, I tried setting a timer to help me focus on work for a few minutes. I did not look at my phone until the timer finished. That was it. I am telling you, it worked. It worked like a charm, and it seemed too good to be true. I highly recommend it. If the standard timer app is too boring for you, I have got you covered! Try an app called Flora. Each time you start the timer, the app grows a tree. If you end the timer before it goes off, the tree is destroyed. That gives you the incentive to keep working so your tree grows to be happy and healthy. It is a brilliant app for people to stay on track to grow a virtual forest.

Remember that in the first few weeks of school it is beneficial to learn about yourself and learn how you like to work the most effectively. And there are plenty of apps like Flora to make focusing more fun!

I cannot wait to see what the next couple of weeks have in store for us. Let’s pull through together, Gaels!

Liyi's Tools for Organization

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Peer blog: “How am I already behind?”

Sarah, Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022

This is the question I’m asking myself after the first week of the fall term. In my last post I mentioned I was a somewhat reformed “master procrastinator.” Now I think my lack of organizational skills are now contributing to falling behind in school and don’t help an inner feeling that I’m always lacking something. My organization has always been minimal. Armed with a journal and planner, I got through on-campus classes perfectly well in second year. However, online classes are a whole new ball game.

Matrix for organizing work

Currently, I’m trying to work with a paper matrix. I divide a large poster paper into 5 slots, one for each class. Then, at the beginning of the week, I write every assignment, reading, lecture—literally everything for this week—onto its own Post-It. Then, I arrange them by what is most pressing for the week. That gives me a simple visual to-do list. At the end of the week, when I’m finished, the notes go into a pile of miscellaneous paper to be recycled. This approach is a work in progress, and I feel a little like the Post-Its are just band-aids covering my disorganization. I’ll let you know how this system’s working out and how I develop it in my next post!

That isn’t my only time management issue right now. I find taking breaks with online school more difficult than I imagined. My eyes hurt from staring at a screen for many hours in the day, and my back aches from sitting in a chair for so long. There are at least two mugs from my coffee and tea rotation on my desk, sitting alongside the empty Perrier can that has now called my study space home for a few days.

Sarah's study spaceWatching Netflix is no longer really something I look forward to; I feel such animosity towards my screen. The constant pouring in of information, both audio and visual, is so much I can no longer really engage with the shows that helped me turn my brain off, as I have begun associating my laptop with online school. But I’m learning from mistakes and trying to take regular, different breaks. I’ll keep you updated on which strategies are working best for me over the next few weeks.

Tackling these organization and focus problems can be hard; and I find my confidence affected. I knew this would be a problem for me going into September. Even before the pandemic, I was incredibly hard on myself. I am highly self-critical, and known to be up late at night working away on a problem and trying to battle my problems with self-deprecating humour rather than following a healthier approach.

To help me out and avoid a spiral, I mind-mapped how I want my third year to look. I wrote down my goals, hopes and ambitions for the year, and keep the finished map visible in my study space. Reminding myself that there is an unprecedented global pandemic helps me to not be so hard on myself.

I am finding that this year it’s the little things that count, in spite of the mounting frustrations, screen animosity, and general “up in the air-ness” emotions I have been feeling. Queen’s Student Wellness Services has a great strategy to find positive emotions in difficult times. It’s simple: you write 3-5 things that you’re proud you did or that you are grateful for on a particular day. I’m changing the strategy up to describe 3-5 things I am proud of from the first two weeks of online classes and a unique third year in Kingston:

  1. Showed up and met my professors, formally introducing myself.
  2. Tried a few new ways to practice procrastination management and organizational skills.
  3. Was able to do 30 consecutive push-ups for the first time (ever!).
  4. Cut my Netflix usage down to about an hour and a half per day.
  5. Cooked myself a real meal last night.

So, I’ll leave you with this technique: what are 3-5 things you are proud of since starting school this year?

Good luck—see you again soon!

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Peer blog: Embracing change in a new, virtual world and a new PhD program

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1

Happy September everyone! At the beginning of the month I successfully defended my Master’s thesis and am now officially beginning my PhD! Last time, I spoke of my enthusiasm to begin my research proposal, but my supervisor has put a hold on that for now. We have agreed that oxytocin, a hormone related to social bonding, will continue to be a main focus. I am genuinely excited about this because it was my favourite aspect of my research project. There’s some work to do before I can start my formal proposal.

My supervisor suggested I use the next few weeks and months to really flesh out my understanding of the oxytocin system in the brain. Thus for the fall semester I will be in the “gathering information” stage of the writing process. During my Master’s, I was much more focused on the neural circuitry of oxytocin rather than its neuropharmacology. As such, my supervisor and I believe the next logical step is to learn more about the latter. This may sound quite nuanced, but I promise you that behavioural neuroscientists are a distinct breed from neuropharmacologists! That being said, I am excited to round out my knowledge of oxytocin as it will hopefully give me some ideas about what I could do for my first set of experiments. Since I’m in this information-gathering phase, I’m embarking on a lot of reading and notetaking. There’s a lot to read through, but the APA has some great advice on tackling a huge reading list.

I don’t have too much coursework right now: “Biological Bases of Behaviour” is the only course I am enrolled in this term. Being registered in only one course definitely has its advantages:

  1. I only have to worry about one set of course deadlines,
  2. I have lots of time to dedicate to my research and scholarship applications, and
  3. I am engaging in more volunteering opportunities to offset the surge in free time.

But there are some disadvantages too. I am concerned that all of this free time will cause my focus and concentration to suffer and, I will thus get distracted and procrastinate like never before. Luckily, the SASS Academic Resources page has tips on how to prevent these things from happening—and SASS has teamed up with the School of Graduate Studies for a workshop on 23 September on time management just for grad students (register here).

I’m also trying three things to improve my focus by altering my working environment. One permanent change I made a few years ago was muting all of my notifications on my laptop in between the hours of 8:00 AM and 8:30 PM. This time range may seem a little extreme, but it drastically decreased the number of distractions I was being presented with every day. Another small change I plan on making is to remove the “Messages” icon from my taskbar on my laptop. Without seeing the icon, I believe this will curb my tendency to mindlessly check my text messages. The third change is something that I used to implement (and found very useful), but I have since let it fade from practice. I used to keep a small notebook on my desk and whenever I thought of something off-task, I took a few seconds to write it down. It could be anything: a chore I had been meaning to do, an email I wanted to send, something I wanted to look up, etc. and instead of breaking my concentration to do said task, I would write it down. Then, during a break, I would address all the things I had written down. I remember this practice being very effective when working from home because it is all too easy to stand up and start to do something else when in the comfort of one’s own living quarters. However, now that most, if not all, of us graduate students are working from home, I highly recommend making some changes to make your environment as work-friendly as possible.

All in all, I have had a very productive September thus far: I passed my Master’s defense, I got assigned fantastic courses to TA, I have some interesting assignments to work on (more on that next time!), and I am going to introduce some new techniques to help keep my productivity high as I work from home. As we begin a new school year, I hope this transition to a “new, virtual normal” goes smoothly for everyone. Although we have had to make some pretty large adjustments in order to continue our programs, just remember that change itself is not the beast. The beast is in how we choose to handle the change (hopefully with a smile and a “heck, yeah!”)

That’s all for now, folks!

SASS Peer: Kate

Kate with her Queen’s acceptance letter for the Psychology PhD program!

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Introducing SASS’s peer blogging team!

This year, SASS has a team of student bloggers who’ll be writing about their experiences of studying remotely every few weeks. In today’s post, our four bloggers introduce themselves, discuss what they’re excited to work on this year, and provide words of wisdom for everyone from first years to PhD students. Check back again in a few weeks to hear how Liyi, Santosh, Sarah and Kate are progressing!

Liyi (Engineering, Class of 2024)

Hi everyone! My name is Liyi and I am entering my first year of Engineering at Queen’s. I come from Guelph in southern Ontario. I love to bake cupcakes and cookies and to drink coffee (although I’m worried about getting hooked on caffeine!), and I am looking forward to playing recreational volleyball at Queen’s, as I have played competitively for several years.

I’ll be here with you over the next few months, ready to take the first step into the next chapter of our lives with you as we figure out online university. In this blog, I will share my thoughts and experiences with the intention of helping us all study better together.

This semester there are lots of things I am excited about. I bought my first Queen’s sweater online the other day. This piece of clothing somehow marked the first real thought that “I’m a Queen’s student now.” It felt wonderful, and I know I share that thought with so many others. I am looking forward (hopefully!) to seeing everyone on campus in the cold Kingston weather in January.

Academically, I want to improve my essay and lab writing. At high school, I struggled with learning how to study and work effectively in a way that was best for me. In high school I wrote 4,000 words of an essay before scrapping it and trying to start again after following some bad advice. At Queen’s, I plan to follow my gut, seek support from professors and other people on campus (like SASS!), and write using methods that suit me. My fingers are crossed that it works out, but there’s a lot to learn.

I am thrilled that I can share my thoughts using this medium as I am passionate about helping others. I want to share all the tricks I learn along the way to ensure that we are all successful. For all the first years coming in, I hope you are looking forward to university as much as I am!

 

Santosh (Life Sciences, Class of 2023)

Hi, my name is Santosh and I am a second-year Life Sciences student here at Queen’s! I live in Ajax, which is a town located about half an hour from Toronto. When I am not submerged in the books, you can usually find me on the soccer pitch trying to bring out my inner Messi (which I have yet to find) or jamming on my guitar to the latest songs. I am a huge Toronto Raptors fan, so whenever it is game time, you’ll see me supporting the team!

University is an important time to explore options. The first weeks at university can be a drastic change from the environment we grew accustomed to, both academically and non-academically, in high school. This was one of the things I struggled with during my first few months. Leaving my family and friends took a toll on me—and my academics. I joined clubs and played intramurals to integrate myself into the Queen’s community.

Getting over that initial homesickness also helped me refocus on my courses. It is so important to stay on top of all the work, because it can pile up in no time. Throughout first year, I also had a chance to find out which study methods worked, which has shaped the way I learn for the better. This year I look forward to working on my time management skills because that is something I have always struggled with. I know remote learning, which needs new time management skills, is going to be a perfect challenge for me. I hope you’ll follow me on this journey as I try to master my time management skills!

As we inch closer to the beginning of another academic year, I would like to welcome all first-year students and welcome back upper-year students to Queen’s. Even if you are a thousand miles away from campus, we are all connected by the university. I wish you all the best this year and, even with remote education, I hope you take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that Queen’s has to offer.

 

Sarah (Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022)

Hey everyone! My name is Sarah and I am in my third year of Health Studies & Environmental Studies. I am from Kingston, but I opted to stay in the city for my undergraduate. In my spare time, I can be found running, kickboxing, or watching documentaries about the ocean. My next big challenge is learning to sail—ever since I saw Mamma Mia, I told myself I would do so.

My experience at Queen’s has been an academic rollercoaster. The biggest struggle I had in first year was time management. I mastered the “art” of procrastination, defined as a cycle of extreme stress, anxiety, and mediocre grades. Come second year, I was determined to fix this. Going into my third year, I now have a better grip on my procrastination. I understand what triggers it and how to work around it. I am not perfect, but compared to who I was in first year, I’ve come miles. This makes me confident going into third year. I have nowhere to go but up!

Despite everything happening in the world, I am genuinely excited for some of the courses I have coming up this year. Extrapolating from my love for health and geography, I am taking GPHY 243: Geographic Information Systems and GPHY 227: Cities, Geography & Urban Life. So, this semester, I’m excited to keep challenging myself academically by taking electives of interest, actively work to unlearn my procrastination habits, and keep the motivation going.

If you had asked me what my third year would have looked like, I would have said I would be on exchange to Australia, doing a placement, or finally be learning to sail. Due to the pandemic, and like everyone else, I have had to revise my plans for 2020-21. At times, it is so hard to be positive, but I refuse to let a global pandemic take away any of my Queen’s experience!

To my fellow on-campus students, we were lucky to establish relationships with our peers, faculties, and programs on campus through our first, second, and third years. These do not vanish because a pandemic has robbed us of our physical proximity and (some of) our plans for our time at Queen’s. As my friend Logan once said, “It’s not the geography that matters. It’s our connections that make us close.” To the incoming Class of 2024, this same saying applies to you, although it may be a while until we are all on campus together again. This is still our time. We’ve got this.

 

Kate (PhD Psychology, Year 1)

Hi there! My name is Kate and I am beginning my PhD in psychology here at Queen’s University. I took my undergraduate and MSc degrees at Queen’s too, so I’ve been here a while! I grew up in Sudbury, ON and am a lifelong figure skating enthusiast. I skated competitively throughout elementary and high school and have been a part of the Queen’s recreational figure skating club for the last six years.

As I gear up for my seventh September at Queen’s, I am preparing for my upcoming Master’s defense. I spent most of the winter and spring writing my thesis and am now in the process of practicing my presentation and refreshing myself on the literature. The discussion section alone took most of May and June to develop and refine. The toughest lesson throughout the writing process was learning how to be concise. Quantity did not equal quality. As I wrote my discussion, I quickly realized that I could not possibly cover the entirety of my field in ~15 pages. Thus, with each revision, I became more skilled at filtering out the “fluff” to make sure my point remained crystal clear throughout my writing.

With defense preparations taking up most of my time and energy, it is a little difficult to focus on what’s to come for the fall semester. That said, I am most excited to 1) begin my research proposal and 2) find out what courses I will be TAing. At the moment, I am unsure about the direction I want to take my research in, but I am thrilled to be continuing with my MSc supervisor.  Additionally, I have only ever chosen to TA courses with tutorial or laboratory components because, in my opinion, the best part of the job is interacting with the students. I am curious to see how I will adapt my TAing style to fit with this transition to fully online coursework.

For all the graduate students who are eagerly waiting to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with their lab bench or office, I hear you and I am with you! Despite the changes to course delivery and campus life, I fully intend on getting the absolute most out of this academic year and I hope you do the same (in a safe and socially distanced manner, of course). I’m looking forward to writing more in the coming weeks about my experiences studying in this new environment and sharing my advice about how to write and learn more effectively!

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Memorize faster, better and easier with online tools

Rahul, Psychology, Class of 2022

In my second year during the Winter term, I decided that I wanted to learn a bit of a new language and so I enrolled in Introductory Spanish (SPAN 111). I’m a psychology major, so learning a language required a whole new approach to studying! On the second day of class, I remember the professor encouraging us to repeat the English alphabet in Spanish, one of the foundational components of learning Spanish. This would establish a base for learning how to spell, write, and read new terms.

When it came to Week 2, I had already been introduced to more than a hundred terms and phrases. I already felt overwhelmed, and couldn’t remember material from the morning by the evening. By the end of the term, I would need to pull several hundred terms and phrases from my head and either write down or vocalize them in a comprehensible, grammatically sound form. I needed to memorize a vast amount of material. How could I possibly know where to start when it came to studying?!

What better resource to call upon than the one I had discovered in my first year at Queen’s? This resource has saved me time and time again with most of my psychology courses and others that have required significant memorization of definitions, basic concepts, and facts. This is Quizlet, a free website that provides a valuable set of learning tools for students.

Quizlet’s main feature for students is creating flashcards. Flashcards are typically best for learning definitions, terms, basic concepts, and facts for multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, true/false, and definition/term question types. Quizlet’s flashcard feature is beloved by Queen’s students from every faculty, so try it for memorizing information!

Quizlet’s features

Flashcards – This feature presents you with one side of a flashcard. After you answer the prompt, the flashcard will flip over so that you see if you were correct. If it’s crunch time and I need to study something quickly, I can go through flashcards I add to Quizlet throughout the semester. If I don’t know the answer to the backside of a flashcard, I can star the card, indicating that I need to go back to it. Once I go through all of my flashcards, I go back through the starred cards. To ensure that I’m not simply “recognizing” these starred cards because of the order that they were initially presented in, Quizlet allows you to shuffle your flashcards. After doing this, I would go through the starred cards again.

Learn Mode – This feature allows you to progress from basic recognition to mastery and complete memorization. It’s a smart way of studying material because you can set study reminders with it, thereby prompting you to learn bit by bit until the day of your assessment. What’s unique about this feature is that you get encouraging messages as you study!

Write Mode – This feature allows you to write a term next to its definition and vice versa. Great for when you have to memorize and recall key definitions for an in-class assignment or a quiz.

Spell Mode – This feature provides you with a verbal iteration of the terms you need to study. Then, you spell the term that you hear. Very useful if you’re in language or science courses with long or unfamiliar words that require precise spelling to get full marks!

Test Mode – This feature is neat because you can select what question types you want to be tested on. If the course you are taking has an exam that consists mostly of multiple choice, you can select this option in test mode so that all your questions are in a multiple choice format. You can also select and combine other question types such as true/false, term/definition, matching, and written.

Games – Quizlet can make studying fun! Try the Matching game to quickly recognize terms and their definitions or the Gravity game to the same in a fast-paced setting. There’s nothing like a bit of studying that feels like fun. Just don’t overdo the gaming – you still have to use more effective, traditional study methods too.

In reading this, you might object that “making flashcards takes so long, and I don’t have that kind of time!” Don’t fret. Using Quizlet’s search option you’ll be able to find many pre-made flashcard sets to use for your courses. So, instead of writing a ton of terms and their definitions, you might just be able to save yourself by being able to access these from other users, and for free. Just be careful that the definitions in anything you find online are actually correct – who’s to say the student that made them was as diligent as you? – and that the terms and definitions you use for a course haven’t changed in the time since your downloaded quiz was made.

Is Quizlet for everyone?

No, it isn’t. Quizlet is especially advantageous for courses that genuinely do require a lot of memorization. Almost every course at Queen’s requires you to apply and use information – memorizing is only the start. In Spanish, for example, I still had to be able to conjugate verbs, put together whole sentences and paragraphs, and speak and listen. Being able to cite lengthy lists of vocabulary wouldn’t have got me far enough to do well in the course. That’s why I left plenty of time for other study techniques in my schedule. Nonetheless, memorization is a basic component of most courses, and Quizlet can help you get on the right track to memorizing what you need to know quickly and reliably, all on one platform that can be accessed online.

Resources

Quizlet: https://quizlet.com

How Students Study Using Quizlet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpN02iFQQk0

Advanced Tips for Using Quizlet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4TcCDiRdPY

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Transitioning from undergraduate to graduate writing: what’s different?

Francesca, MA Classics, Class of 2020

When I started my MA degree in Classics in September 2018 I fancied myself a decent academic writer. Not an outstanding one sure, but hey, I had gotten in to grad school and received research funding so surely I couldn’t be that bad. I assumed that I could continue on writing the same way I had during my undergrad with little issue.  I was incredibly, immensely wrong. But don’t worry: I got a lot better, so you can too!

When I started grad school I was unaware of how insufficient my poor habits from undergrad would be. I had largely done well on my undergraduate papers, but I often wrote them last minute –  a week at most before the deadline, more often the day before – with very little pre-planning and even less (read: zero) editing. My first draft was almost always my only draft. Worse, most of my essays were a bunch of facts and theories loosely connected by my own analysis. I might have made a vague sort of argument, but I wasn’t saying anything substantial in any of my essays.

Still, I thought I was doing swell in the early months of my MA. It wasn’t until I started having to write longer papers for some of my graduate seminars that I began to struggle. As you might guess, time management was a big issue for me – it still is – but my biggest issue in graduate writing was trying to find my own voice among thousands of others in academia. My papers were still relying far too heavily on the theories and opinions of other academics strung together by my own paltry attempts at a new argument. I even had a professor comment that, despite how well-researched it was, he’d “have liked to have heard more of my voice” in my paper.

This issue of a “lack of voice” began to worsen as I moved on from my coursework into researching and writing my MA thesis. I had to “re-learn” how to write for academia, which involved shifting my foundations. Ultimately this meant acknowledging that graduate writing – whether for coursework, a major research project, or a thesis – requires creating your own content. This in turn involved changing my approach toward several aspects of my writing process:

  1. Why am I writing? 

Before we even address what changes about your writing at a graduate level, we must consider the goals of academic writing at this level.  Look at the critical thinking pyramid below, which is drawn from Harold Bloom’s research on learning, and consider how you engaged with your sources during undergrad. It’s likely that the majority of your undergraduate papers hovered around the analyze, apply, or evaluate levels. However, for graduate writing, especially in research-focused programs, the majority of your writing is expected to be at the “create” level. In graduate school you’re not simply reading a lot of theorists and re-hashing old arguments. You’re (somehow) generating new ideas and creating new content.

You’re not simply putting a “new spin” on old arguments, but, depending on your discipline, you’ll be collecting and analyzing brand new data, or creating new arguments and theories based on pre-existing information.  Regardless, the emphasis at the graduate level is original creation.

If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome – you’re not sure you’ll be able to “create” at all, or where to start doing it – check out these tips from the University of Melbourne. They include a great checklist for evaluating the originality of your work.

  1. Who am I writing for?

At the undergraduate level we mainly write our papers for our profs and TAs. We’re explicitly writing for a grade – generally you know what the prof wants, and you try to do that to get an A. The intended audience for your grad work is different.  At this level your main focus should be writing to contribute to the wider academic discussion in your field. While your profs – your supervisor, your committee – will still be the primary readers of your work, you’re not writing for them as a budding academic. In some cases, particularly for the Master’s thesis or PhD dissertation, your writing may even be published with the explicit intent of reaching a much wider audience in your field. That means we need to take time to explore an analytical, creative process before we can write, and we need to consider the needs of different audiences.

Writing for a wider audience goes hand in hand with my next piece of advice:

  1. What’s expected in my discipline?

Discipline specific expectations become more important at the graduate level. This impacts your writing style.  Each field has specific conventions surrounding issues like methodology, defining terms, citation methods, and specific structures, linguistic features, and so on.

For example, in my own research I am broadly discussing Augustine’s criticisms of the theater and the role of art in his own philosophy – but how am I defining ‘art’? What works of his am I including? What works am I excluding? We must be aware of these considerations in graduate writing because answering these questions will help ‘justify’ the decisions you make in your own research and argumentation process. If you don’t show you’re considering these evaluative and guiding questions, you’ll be short changing your reader!  Graduate writing, regardless of discipline, is subject to more scrutiny than undergraduate and it is important to be able to defend your ideas and the methods by which you reached those ideas to your supervisor (and your future academic audience).

If you’re unsure, discussing it with your supervisor or graduate coordinator is the best way to learn about discipline specific requirements, but meeting with the Student Academic Success Services Writing Consultants is another great option! You can start on your own by looking at current articles in your field and using this worksheet to analyse the expectations of your discipline and find forms, phrases and structures that will impress your reader.

  1. How will I change my process?

By now I hope it’s clear that graduate level writing involves many more complexities than undergraduate writing. That will have a practical effect on your writing process.  For me this meant developing better time management skills; the graduate writing process involves a lot more planning and editing than I was used to. I couldn’t write my papers in a week, let alone the night before.  To tackle a project as large as my MA thesis I needed months, not days, to research, draft, edit, research some more, all before even submitting the initial draft to my supervisor.

There are several useful tips for improving your writing process as a graduate student:

  • Use a thesis manager to plan and organize your time before you start writing. It helps to break down an intimidating project like a thesis into manageable sections and also provides guidelines about how much time should be spent on each step.
  • Develop and implement a writing habit takes a few weeks but is a realistic way to manage your time when working on a large-scale writing project. Incorporating time to think and sleep into your daily writing goal is crucial.
  • Set realistic short and long term goals – it’ll give you a sense of achievement when finished and provide motivation to continue on!
  • Regardless of discipline, you’ll be dealing with large amounts of information at the graduate level so finding a data management tool that works for you is a must (my preferred organizational tool is Evernote!)
  • Make use of books like Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day or The Craft of Research (both available via the Queen’s Library). These resources were written by people who have been through graduate school with the explicit intent of providing practical advice to those currently in grad school.
  • General resources like the SASS website and the Thesis Whisperer are great for when you know you need help but aren’t necessarily sure with what.

No matter where you are in your graduate career, writing can be an intimidating process, but it doesn’t have to be. Keeping in mind your audience and reason for writing and making use of the resources provided can turn it into a manageable, if not enjoyable, process. See you in the library!

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A minimalist’s approach to effective learning

 Zier Zhou, 4th year Life Sciences student

Minimalism isn’t just limited to the world of modern art and interior design. It’s a lifestyle that can be exercised in many aspects of our busy lives. As university students, our days are spent hurrying from libraries to lecture halls, consuming as much knowledge we possibly can. Here are some techniques related to time management, note-taking, and concentration to keep us steady on our feet as we embark on our winter semester.

Making time

I used to think that how long I’d spend studying would positively correlate to the grades I’d receive, but I now realize that time is not necessarily the determining factor in academic success. I’ve found it helpful to change the way I think about time and let go of the idea that I don’t have enough or need more of it. This requires setting priorities straight by accepting the fact that energy is limited and creating realistic goals that are within reach.

For those who’ve taken chemistry, you’re probably familiar with the ideal gas law where gas expands to fit the volume allotted. Similarly, Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. This idea was especially relevant when I had long gaps of time between my exams in the spring. It didn’t exactly matter whether I had four or five days leading up to my pharmacology final, because I would still study on every day I was given and end up cramming the most information on the last one.

Understanding this law encourages you to be aware of the time we spend on various tasks and construct a reasonable schedule so that you don’t act against your efforts by adding excessive stress and complexity to your work. It’s worthwhile to use your newfound time to get involved outside of academics and engage in extra-curricular activities that spark your interest. Challenge yourself by staying occupied so that you can’t afford to procrastinate, which would only leave you with a longer list of things to do for tomorrow.

Taking notes

There’s a constant debate on whether it’s better to type notes on your laptop or write them down using pen and paper. After observing others around me and trying both methods myself, I’ve decided that there are many points for and against each, and the decision ultimately depends on the individual. Since I’d rather avoid carrying bulky binders and scattered papers everywhere, I like to type my lecture notes on OneNote, which organizes my notebooks and allows me to easily switch from one to another in two clicks of a button.

When it comes to reviewing notes, repetition is key. I usually go over the material in multiple ways, whether that’s reading out loud or highlighting important concepts, at least three times before a test. Sometimes I write them by hand because it takes longer, which means I’d spend more time thinking about the ideas I’m putting down. But instead of replicating the same words, condense your original notes so that they include only the most significant information. Use bullet points and abbreviations whenever possible to make your notes concise and simple to read. Make mnemonics or creative connections to your own life, which can also help immensely for memorization-heavy topics.

Keep in mind that taking a minimalistic approach is certainly not about learning as little as possible. It’s about spending less effort on trivial tasks and instead concentrating on taking notes from the most important resources, often provided or emphasized by your professor. Charts, diagrams, and mind maps are great way for summarizing course material. That being said, it’s not always enough to solely grasp the main ideas, particularly if you’re aiming for the highest marks. Be curious about the complete story as well as careful in covering its details.

Finding focus

The first step to finding focus is staying organized. It’s incredibly useful to keep a planner that contains your monthly calendars and daily to-do lists for sticking to some sort of routine. That way, you won’t have to repeatedly wonder about what to do next. Before you begin studying, clear your workspace from any clutter and disconnect from any distractions, including your phone and any social media networks. Also avoid multitasking, which has been consistently demonstrated to lower our productivity and quality of work as we switch back and forth between tasks.

It’s no secret that the learning process becomes much easier and more enjoyable when we’re interested in the subject, so try to approach every course with an optimistic attitude. For instance, anatomy was not my favourite course during third year. I found that a large part of the course consisted of rote memorization, and the lab exams were also quite challenging. However, I convinced myself that it would be cool to understand the human skeletal structure and trace its network of blood vessels. Reminding myself of the reasons I was studying in the first place helped motivate me to keep going.

At the same time, you don’t need (or want) to work non-stop. It’s best to break down your large goals into smaller ones, not only so that they appear to be less daunting but because it’s more effective. The Pomodoro technique enhances concentration by recognizing that our attention spans are short and cleverly using this limit to our advantage. Spend the breaks in between your study sessions however you like, whether it’s making a cup of coffee or taking a walk in the woods. If you’re feeling adventurous, experiment with meditation and yoga, as these activities are also known to widely improve one’s focus.

Final note

From my perspective, taking a minimalistic approach to learning means being mindful of how we control our time, apply our methods, and gather our focus while we work. This allows us to channel our energy into the work that will yield optimal results and realize greater freedom in pursuing other meaningful activities in life besides studying. Good luck!

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Writing lab reports: A TA’s perspective (Part 2)

Results, Methods, Discussion

Brigitte, PhD Candidate in Biology

Brigitte is a Queen’s graduate and now a senior student in the university’s PhD Biology program, and has TAd and taught several courses at Queen’s. This is the second of a two-part blog series looking back on her experiences writing lab reports as a first year and offering some advice, from a TA’s perspective, on how she should have been writing back when she started!

Results and Methods are your foundation.

In my first year, I neglected the Results and Methods: they were simple, in a given standardized format, and required little real effort. If you follow the formatting requirements in the lab manual and use specific language (e.g. “250 mL of water was boiled” instead of “some water was boiled”), you will likely get full marks as I did in my early reports. However, by the end of my undergraduate career, the Results section on lab reports went from 100 words to 1000 words (not including my 4th year thesis). Developing and practicing good skills early on is vital to later success.

My mistake was underestimating the importance of the Results in other sections of the report. The points you make in the Discussion and background you include in the Introduction heavily rely on the hypothesis, how you’ve tested the hypothesis, and what you’ve found. Most of this information should be outlined in your Methods and Results. It’s also important to emphasize the experimental results without interpreting them in the Results section – the Results section is the most impartial, objective component of your report. Save your interpretations for the Discussion, where you can fully place your Results in the context of previous literature.

There also tends to be a bias against negative (or statistically non-significant) results in the scientific publishing world. It’s important to remember that the reason a certain phenomenon didn’t behave as expected can be just as interesting as why something did occur and isn’t necessarily the fault of methodological errors. Non-significant results are not always scientifically insignificant. I was discouraged by insignificant results in my first and 2nd year. It was challenging to write a Discussion where you need to integrate literature that disagrees with your findings (which is where your experimental errors can easily be integrated with most discrepancies). Remember that research is an iterative process. When writing your lab report, it’s important to keep an open mind to consider both your hypothesis and the null hypothesis. You could say that your Results are “innocent until proven guilty” – the null is true until shown (never “proven”) otherwise. After collecting the data, it is your job to act as the jury, deciding whether there is sufficient evidence and precedence (from the literature) to make strong conclusions from your Results. If not, be sure to explain why there are concerns and where the Methods could be improved.

A Discussion should integrate, not regurgitate, your Results.

The Discussion section is often worth the most marks and is where most marks are lost. Two of the most common mistakes (which I also made!): too much background (move it to the Introduction), and word-for-word reiteration of the Results. The Discussion should incorporate the Results with both your explanation of the phenomenon and the information you’ve gathered from the literature. Do not simply copy your results into your Discussion: add context and try to answer the question(s) you posed in the Introduction.

A general format: state whether your results support your hypothesis/idea, discuss 2-3 pieces of relevant literature, then discuss if the literature agrees with your hypothesis (or whether there are new questions for future studies to address). Remember to have a thesis statement at the end of your first Discussion paragraph. The thesis statement needs to set up the rest of your Discussion, just like an essay – here, I’ve made three distinct points that I discussed in the body/analysis paragraphs: “Heterozygosity may be affected by the stocking program, natural and artificial selection, and interspecific competition.”

My proofreading and editing tips

You should strive to have a day to edit your report before handing it in. It can be difficult to manage your time at university: taking care of yourself, managing multiple assignments, and studying can be challenging to juggle. Part of first year is learning what strategies will or won’t work for you. SASS has a number of strategies you could use to improve your time management such as making a to-do list, preventing procrastination, prioritizing your tasks, and using short- and long-term calendars to plan your time efficiently.

Personally, I’m one of those annoyingly organized students which has only progressed since I started graduate school. I have colour-coded weekly, monthly, and term schedules and goals. I use Gantt charts to plan the projects, tasks, and deadlines associated with my thesis. I write all of my tasks on a whiteboard and faithfully prioritize them every morning. I started assignments the evening they were assigned (because I knew I wouldn’t start them until the night before if I set them aside right away).

Not that any of my planning helped my grades in first year. I struggled with starting assignments, despite scheduling and setting definite, realistic goals. Later, I learned that using a Pomodoro timer helped me start assignments – it’s also the strategy I used to write my MSc. I force myself to work, undistracted, for 10 or 20 minutes (or however much time I had between classes) towards one goal. Read one paper. Write one paragraph or one sentence. Write the figure caption. Breaking the assignment into smaller chunks made it less daunting and much easier (for me) than staring at a blank page for an hour (or three hours) trying to write an entire Introduction. Writing freely or brainstorming allowed me to get my ideas on paper instead of focusing on writing the “perfect” sentence or paragraph. In the first week of every course I’ve ever TAd, I start class with one of my favourite (slightly altered) quotes, currently attributed to Earnest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is trash.” Sometimes, finished is better than perfect – especially if you can leave some time to edit your work.

When you’re proofreading your report, try to ask yourself some of the questions that TAs ask when we read your reports. Check if you could add any extra detail to improve your writing.

 

Report section When writing, ask yourself if you’ve answered these questions:
Title Could this be more concise?
Abstract Are the purpose, brief methodology, main results, and major conclusion(s) included?

Could this be more concise?

Introduction Why am I doing this experiment?

What is the purpose of the experiment?

If I were to explain this to a friend that missed class, what background would they need to understand this experiment?

What theory or concept is this experiment exploring?

Methods Is there enough detail for someone else to replicate my experiment?

Do the methods adequately address my hypothesis?

Is the control treatment appropriate?

 

Results Have I followed the format?

Did I appropriately test my hypothesis?

Are there any significant differences between experimental treatment groups?

Discussion What happened and why?

Do I have adequate support from the literature to make this argument?

Did I link my findings to the main concept/purpose if this assignment? Are my results consistent with the literature?

How are my results similar or different to other studies?

Was my hypothesis supported? Were my findings statistically significant?

What could be done differently in the future?

 

A concluding thought

Long story short, first year can be difficult but doesn’t define the rest of your career if you work with the knowledge and feedback you receive. If you do your best, put in the work, and use the resources available to you, your next term or course can be better than you think it will be now. As a TA, I’m always incredibly proud of those students that struggle for the first few weeks but work hard to improve their grades by the end of the term – most of us do notice!

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