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Peer Blog: How I Chose My Major

Rahul, Psychology, Class of 2021

Dear First Year,

Since my last blog post on Adam Grant’s Think Again, and since my fourth and last year is ending, I’ve been reflecting on how I got to where I am right now. It all started with deciding to major in psychology. However, making hitting on a major was no easy feat! You might already know what you want to major in. But others (and perhaps this is you) might feel clueless. It’s important to check in with Academic Advising to see how and whether you can enrol in a given major, but I thought it would be helpful to share my journey towards psychology. The main lesson? Choosing what’s interesting to you will help you study better and more effectively: if you’re stuck in a rut, knowing that your major is leading somewhere is a great boost to your studies!

Illustration of profile of head between two doors

Meeting a Struggle 

I applied to Queen’s with med school in mind. Like many pre-meds in my cohort, I believed tht majoring in Life Sciences was the only way to go. I took PSYC 100 as an elective because it would help in completing a Life Sciences degree. At first, I struggled to accept that psychology was more interesting than calculus, biology, physics, and chemistry. Coming from an East Indian background, I had generally been encouraged to pursue the “hard sciences” and discouraged from “soft” sciences like psychology. Many from my community are encouraged to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Under the influence of these sociocultural norms and expectations, I figured that life sciences would be my only path towards becoming a doctor. On top of these sociocultural expectations, my first-year peers were set on majoring in “hard sciences”; none were looking to major in psychology. For a long time, I thought, “I’ll already have a community in Life Sciences, and that’s something I really like…so why be alone in Psychology?” Little did I know that I would find a fantastic community in psychology too!

Illustration with head and microscope, arrow positioned between the two

Navigating the Struggle 

I decided that sociocultural and peer influences were not going to hold sway over my decisions.  I wanted to decide on my behalf, to be proactive rather than reactive. I attended a couple of events held by the Psychology Department Students’ Council on majoring in psychology and about different upper-year courses in the program. I attended parallel events held by the Department of Life Sciences. I reached out to the undergraduate program advisor in the psychology department, to students majoring in the discipline, and explored the different upper-year courses on offer. Finally, I looked through Career Services’ amazing Major Maps to discover the employment opportunities I’d have on graduation.

These sources provided me with lots of information, but I had to actively seek them out. If you find yourself in my position, you will likely have to take the same initiative. If you’re not sure where to start, reach out to Academic Advising and the departments in question to see what advice they have.

Line drawing of icons: an "i" in a circle, a page of text, a body in front of a projector, and two heads in conversation

My Decision

I finally decided to major in Psychology. I didn’t declare a minor, as I only wanted to make one decision at a time. Even now, as I near the end of my fourth and final year of undergrad, I don’t have a minor. I’m happy with that! If you find yourself thinking about whether you should minor in something, just know that you can enroll in courses that lead to various certificates, that you can always declare your minor later on, and that there’s no rush to make a decision. Keep experimenting, trying new courses, learning new things, and you’ll be a healthier, happier, and smarter student!

Conclusion

Declaring a major is stressful. It’s one of the decisions you can’t really delay at the end of your first year. You will need to get as much information as you can to make an informed decision, so seek that information out and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Know that if you don’t end up liking your major down the road, you are not alone—each of us has our own timelines. Whatever you do, though, try not to let others dictate your decision: if you’re enjoying your major, you’ll be more motivated and more likely to succeed. Whatever you do choose, I wish you the best of luck!

Sincerely,

Rahul

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Peer Blog: How to Get Involved: Clubs, Community, and Connections

Santosh, Life Sciences, Class of 2023

Hello Gaels!

It is officially spring and that means we are one step closer to summer vacation. With only a few weeks left of the semester, you might start thinking about your next year at Queen’s. Extracurriculars can be a great way to find community, study buddies, and social contacts—all of which will probably boost your academic performance! Even if you weren’t too involved in clubs and societies this year, it’s not too late. It might surprise you, but now’s not too early, either! I’ve been in plenty of clubs and societies already, so here’s my experience.

At Queen’s, there are an amazing array of clubs that you can join, ranging from soccer intramurals to chess clubs to musical bands! The Queen’s AMS website has a comprehensive list of the clubs on offer. If you are unsure about what you want to do next year in terms of extracurriculars, this website is a really helpful starting point. If you want more information about certain clubs, most have social media pages: have a look for events they’re running or have run, and don’t be afraid to chat with the club executive through DMs or email to ask them how you can get involved or even if you can help organize activities this summer or next year.

During first year, many of my friends and I believed that clubs were mostly for older students who know the university much better. But I soon came to realize that was far from the truth. Many clubs are actively looking for first and second-year students to join. For example, I am currently the president of Queen’s One for the World, a club that educates people on the power of charitable donations. I always enjoy having first and second students join the team because they bring such a great presence to our team and to the events we hold throughout the year. I also chatted about this topic with John Le, the president of Queen’s University Minecraft Club. John explains that their club, like many others, is “always recruiting first year [students]” and that their involvement in the club is appreciated.

If you want to help run a club, many clubs hire executives—leaders—in spring, and many have specific positions available to first and second-year students only (in fact, two of the Minecraft’s Clubs leaders this year are actually first years). If you’re looking for a leadership opportunity, start looking now. The best places to find these opportunities are Facebook group chats and social media pages for specific clubs. The application process usually consists of an application form that contains a few questions which help the club executives see if you might be a good fit for the team. Most clubs have interviews for executive positions.

Remember, though, that most clubs have unlimited spots for general members—if you try for an exec position but don’t make it (yet!), don’t be disappointed if you don’t get selected initially, as you’ll still be able to participate in all the activities offered by the club. I was a general member during my first year at Queens’s Chapter of MSF, which helped me earn a position on the executive team the following year. Keep a look-out on social media to see if a club you are interested in is hiring positions for next year.

Throughout this blog, I’ve drawn your attention to how important it is to make connections and find communities that welcome you. School isn’t just about studying and grades; you need a great support network to study with, urge you on, and help you when you hit a bump in the academic road. I urge you all to be proactive and take advantage of all the amazing clubs and teams Queen’s university has to offer. No matter what year you might be in, don’t hesitate to be a part of the Queen’s community. Clubs are more than just organizing events or conferences. They’re also about the new friendships you create and the knowledge you gain from the experience.

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Peer Blog: Smooth Sailing – Finally?

Sarah, Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022

My housemate and I recently had an interesting conversation about how we feel as upper-year students. We’re third- and fourth-year students in wildly different programs (shout out to Computer Science majors: I have no idea what you all do, but I’m endlessly entertained by stories from my computer science housemate). In spite of all the challenges of this year, neither of us feels like school is a “dumpster fire” right now. But reflecting on this, we weren’t sure why at first. The content is certainly not getting any easier. At times, it isn’t even enjoyable. So it’s time to figure out why we both feel like we’re navigating calmer waters right now (if you’ve been following my blog, you know I love a sailing metaphor!).

But, before we get too into this, I’ll share a secret about myself. It’s not quite Gossip Girl worthy gossip, but it’ll help you understand my rough experience of sailing the academic sea. I came to Queen’s in 2016, intending to graduate as part of the Class of 2020. I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I was in a mixture of courses I found interesting: politics, French, film, and psychology. To the profs’ credit, the content was always interesting. But I didn’t fit in or feel good. I was living in residence, incredibly homesick, anxious, and procrastinating. I didn’t feel good enough because I didn’t know what I wanted to study or what was happening at university. It didn’t get better. After talking to my friends, family, residence don, and professors, I just felt like it wasn’t the right time for me to be at university. So I left Queen’s.

Many others find first-year to be rough sailing. Even when I came back in 2018, after getting some of what I like to call “life experience”, I still struggled. My comp sci housemate also struggled in first year, so we mutually pondered how far we had come: what are we doing right now, as upper-year students?

All of our ideas came down to self-efficacy, which I touched on in a previous blog. Self-efficacy is, in short, the belief you have in yourself to do something. Here’s how we’ve motivated ourselves to be self-efficacious in our academic and non-academic lives:

  1. We joined clubs

In first year (both times), I wouldn’t say I had any great belief in my ability to succeed academically. Thankfully, I joined a Queen’s club as a peer educator, which helped me develop my self-efficacy. I didn’t feel like I had a clue what I was doing in my courses, but being amongst like-minded peers in a club that I felt passionate about was what I needed to set myself up for success in my second semester. It continues to, even while I’m only connecting with clubs virtually. If you have been feeling like you want to get involved, I highly suggest it. Plenty of Queen’s clubs advertise throughout the school year and hiring often begins in both the winter and subsequent fall terms. Take a risk, join something you’ve had your eye on. It might be the things that makes your Queen’s experience even better! If you’re not sure where to start, chat to the folks at the Peer Support Centre: they’ll be able to hook you up!

2. Figure out “balance”

If you ask both of us as upper year students how we balance our time, we’d probably laugh and shrug. In our minds, we don’t recognize the change as radical. It’s been a slow process figuring out balance. We both reminisced with slight jealousy about the people we knew on our respective residence floors who appeared to have “balance” right out of the gate.

I personally didn’t figure out balance until a few weeks ago. My housemate figured it out after coming back from exchange in Finland last year. If you had to ask us what helped us feel like we had a grip on things, we would both say it was our ability to say no and prioritize. At the end of the day, balance looks different for everyone—so don’t buy into any myths about what “successful” Queen’s students do. For example, I like to prioritize at least one or two courses each day, a lunchtime walks, and I almost exclusively take my Zoom calls in the morning. My housemate likes to prioritize waking up early for a morning coffee, working 7:30-4 on school, and playing guitar at night. While I cannot do 7:30-4 because it doesn’t work with my balance, hear about how it works for my housemate doesn’t interfere with my belief that I personally best engage in my schoolwork in 25-minute repeated blocks with many, many breaks in between.

3. Reflect on your progress

Think about how, for many of us, the place we are at right now is the place we two years ago would have given anything to be at. In other words, take time to reflect on what you’re grateful your university experience has brought you. In times where I’m bogged down in epidemiology formulas and health policy readings, my brain drifts slightly. I often think back to how I started in first year. I often gave up on tedious or long readings because I would great frustrated over how much there was to understand. Looking back, I give myself a pat on the back: I’ve come a long way by experimenting with what works for me. A sentiment of “go you!” has been at the core of the intrinsic motivation that has gotten me through many formulas, discussion posts and readings. My self-talk, as opposed to being overly critical, has shifted to sounding like a very supportive friend.

It took a long time—almost four years—since my first go at academia to get here. Yet here I am, not too far from graduation. While there are many challenges ahead even in this semester, and there are many things to do, there’s still time to make this semester sail smoothly. Reflect on what’s going well, give yourself some positive self-talk and, if you need to do, sail your own path: what works for everybody else may not work for you.

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Peer Blog: Lessons from Adam Grant’s “Think Again”

Cover of Adam Grant's book hink Again shows a match with a flame made of blue water

Rahul, Psychology, Class of 2021

Hello everyone! Since writing my last blog post on decolonizing the classroom—and thanks to Reading Week—I’ve found time to look over a handful of books on learning. Adam Grant’s Think Again taught me some lessons on intellectual humility, an important trait that I aim to develop more in the coming weeks and months.

Here are three of Grant’s key messages. I’m going to think about how to apply them to my own life and studies; why don’t you do the same and share the details of your plans on SASS’s social media feeds?

  1. Seek out information that challenges your views

“You can fight confirmation bias, burst filter bubbles, and escape echo chambers by actively engaging with ideas that challenge your assumptions. An easy place to start is to follow people who make you think—even if you usually disagree with what they think.”

Information that aligns with our views is comforting. We are more likely to be invested in it, but simultaneously, we risk getting stuck in a path resistant to corrections. If and when you find yourself arguing for a certain view (e.g., in an essay or research paper), consider finding counter examples or works that go against the argument you support.

When you start forming an opinion, resist the temptation to preach your own view. Otherwise, you might fall prey to confirmation bias—a shortcut in our thinking that describes our tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms our prior beliefs or values. Instead, think like a scientist. Assume your argument is a hunch that is testable and fallible in certain circumstances. Once you view the counterarguments, you can better convey your ideas and thoughts into something more complex and richer. Exploring the opposite of what you already think might help you prove your initial argument!

Infographic showing head and two doors

2. Remember that less is often more

“If you pile on too many different reasons to support your case, it can make your audiences defensive—and cause them to reject your entire argument based on its least compelling points. Instead of diluting your argument, lead with a few of your strongest points.”

If you have an essay, presentation, assignment, or especially a research paper where you are trying to prove a main point, it’s probably in your favour to support your view with strong, thorough examples rather than multiple, weak examples. Quality will almost always trump quantity. If you find yourself rambling when you speak during a presentation or interview, sometimes overloading the audience can hinder your performance.  Adam Grant explains that when you’re negotiating or debating with another party, the more compelling argument comes from the one that tells a story with their examples; and a good story is full of details that draws us in: although academic writing isn’t usually the same as storytelling, the same applies in your papers.

Infographic showing person reading from notebook

3. Don’t shy away from constructive conflict.

“Disagreements don’t have to be disagreeable. Although relationship conflict is usually counterproductive, task conflict can help you think again. Try framing disagreement as a debate: people are more likely to approach it intellectually and less likely to take it personally”

Grant explains that it’s better to address conflict or disagreement early on in any work process. We can easily apply this rule when working on group projects! Don’t let problems build up and then react to them days before the project’s deadline. Even if you don’t know what those concerns may be, spend time with your group to figure out potential roadblocks. Everyone probably knows more than you about something, so find ways to boost your peers’ involvement and value their ideas and contributions. When trying to engage in constructive conflict yourself, ask several how questions to target the situation and not the people involved: how can we work together to resolve this? How can we find the best people for this task? How can we find the best and most efficient solution? How can we ensure we don’t needlessly argue?

Finding and responding to potential conflicts and blockages early on can be tough and frustrating, but it’s progress. Embrace it. Needless to say, learning is never perfectly linear; sometimes we have to persist through challenges to reach new heights. 

There are many more lessons you could take away from Grant’s Think Again. I encourage you to check out the book to learn more about how rethinking can improve your academic life!

Infographc shows two heads with speech bubbles against a big blue tick

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Peer Blog: Tips for Online TAing Success!

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1

Happy March everyone! At the beginning of the fall semester, a whopping six months ago, I remember feeling some apprehension about how my TAing experiences would be affected by the pandemic. I even mentioned it in my very first SASS blog. The most fulfilling aspect of TAing for me comes from the interactions with the students, especially during labs and tutorials. Luckily, I had only ever TAed courses with labs or tutorials before this year.

Moving to an entirely virtual learning environment has meant the demise of these interactive course components. The labs have been cut out of both psychology courses I’ve taught this year. In their place, I’ve been asked to run office hours and post a few lab videos here and there. While my experience as a TA has been different this year, my goal has still focused on the quality of teaching: I have tried to ensure the students are provided with the same opportunities as if we were in a classroom together.

Here is how I do it. Maybe you can try some of these tips too!

  1. Be proactive

Most TAs are also full-time students with jam-packed schedules. That means it’s easy for us to accidentally overlook tasks that may not directly apply to our own research or coursework, including their TA duties. But I implore other graduate students to fight this urge! Whenever I am preparing to TA a course, I go through the syllabus with a fine-tooth comb and add the dates of any quizzes, assignments, and tests to my personal calendar. That way, I can keep track of students’ progress and know what sort of emails will be collecting in my inbox.

If I am tasked with introducing a new assignment, I will often pre-emptively complete the assignment myself so that I have a good understanding of the types of concerns the students might have.  

Finally, I make an effort to keep in touch with my co-TAs (when I have them) throughout the term and especially before I begin marking an assignment or test. Maintaining consistency in grading is crucial, so before big marking tasks, I always check in with my fellow TAs to discuss any ambiguities in the grading scheme. This way, we reduce the potential for discrepancies in grading across students. Try these three tips and you will, hopefully, find yourself ahead of the game rather than constantly playing “catch-up.”

Luckily, the skills Kate has learned as a TA also make her a good bread-making instructor!
  1. Be approachable

Conveying approachability has been a tricky thing to master in this new, online world. With everyone so far apart, the chances of face-to-face interactions are minimal. As such, I have employed every trick in my book to engage with the students and present myself as an ally and educational resource.

I have been tracking my emails with vigour. No student email is ever left unread or unacknowledged. Typically, I respond to the students’ emails within 2 hours of receipt. One of my personal pet peeves as a student is when a TA does not respond. To me, it sends the message that the TA is either uninterested in helping or simply does not know the answer. I never want students to think the former, so I always hit the “reply” button. Secondly, I strive to keep an open mind when I am introduced to new perspectives. For example, every so often, a student will approach me to ask why they did not get full marks for a question on an assignment/ test.  In these situations, rather than just reciting the rubric and dismissing their concerns, I invite them to explain their perspective. Students often introduce me to a new perspective I had not considered. I’ll happily concede the marks when students explain their perspective and fair reasoning! The key here is to avoid getting defensive—and to learn more about other Queen’s community members by reading more about their needs (start by reading my fellow blogger Rahul’s take on decolonising the classroom). We all make mistakes: I know it. Students know it. We all know it. Handling these situations with grace and humility reaffirms the students’ trust in me as a mentor.

Of course, even with these tips, there are bound to be a few hiccups throughout the term anyway. Try as I might, I know it is impossible to predict or prevent every debacle. However, I also know that by taking these measures, I mitigate my potential for error as well as simultaneously enhance the learning environment of the students. As long as I am an educator, I will continue to put the students’ needs first and create an interactive space where they can feel confident asking questions and striving for success.

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Peer Blog: Dwelling on the Positive

Santosh, Life Sciences, Class of 2023           

Hello Gaels!

I hope all of you are continuing to have a productive, enjoyable, and amazing winter semester. With the end of the year in sight, my to-do list keeps on growing by the day. My friends in other programs are all in a similar situation. Now more than ever, you need to get a handle on the thousands of tasks: creating a comprehensive list of all the tests and assignments due over the next few weeks can help you avoid pulling an all-nighter for an assignment you forgot until the day before. Even better, crossing off an item on a to-do list just feels so good!

Online studying is changing the feel of my workload this year. I feel like I’m in a never-ending cycle of days in front of a monitor. Sometimes I don’t even leave my home for a couple of days. I not only find this lifestyle inefficient (as I constantly keep taking “breaks” to watch Netflix), but also draining. No one wants to sit in front of an online textbook for 8 hours a day for a week straight. If you can, try to take your work offline by listening to lectures while you take a socially distanced walk, printing papers to read outdoors, or just get outside for a quick break!

Cat wobbles on balance board
Balance might not be easy, but it’s vital!

Around this time of year we are also getting a lot of grades back. When you get a mark, yourself if this what you hoped to receive at the beginning of the semester. If it is, great job and continue what you are doing! If not, try not to dwell on the bad news. Take a glance at how you approached specific assessments and ask yourself why these methods didn’t work out so well. If you’re stuck, go to office hours: they are a fast and effective way to answer questions.

As I have mentioned many times before, my goal for the semester is to make my study sessions more effective. Last semester, I was easily distracted by my phone, Netflix, YouTube, and a million other things. I even remember being distracted by watching the first snowfall of the season. Since my last blog, one method above all has helped me to make the most of my study sessions: writing the tasks I would like to finish during my study period before I start. I write a list of things on a sticky note and I place it on the wall behind my desk. Whenever I feel distracted or feel like giving up, I see the goal I set for myself and feel motivated. I try to keep my goals attainable so that I have a realistic chance of finishing them. The last thing I would want is to write five long tasks to end up only finishing one of them, which would defeat the purpose. Check out Liyi’s new blog post for more ideas on dealing with distraction—she has a whole 5-step plan worked out!

As we embark on the second half of the semester, I feel as though I have finally found my groove and I am motivated to finish the semester off strong. I think finding that work/life balance has helped me stay positive. Remember you can always ask your professors, peers, or Queen’s staff if you need some support as the year draws to a close. If you need help with specific skills like writing a lab report or essay, follow the SASS Instagram page for reminders of new seminars about university tips and tricks!

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Peer Blog: 5 Steps to Self-Discipline in Difficult Times

Liyi, Engineering, Class of 2024

Hi Gael friends, I’m back!

Between my last blog post and this one, I have had lots to do: midterms, assignments, and the like. I want to acknowledge how tough midterms and tests are, even though the majority of mine have been open-book or take-home assignments. University? Yeah. This is hard. And it’s not just midterms. Yesterday, I had a 2.5-hour meeting, and the entire time I spent it wondering what else I could be doing. It was one of those meetings where your presence is appreciated but you don’t really have to talk much. Even though I could have muted the call and focused on coursework, my FOMO (a double-edged sword) prevented me from doing that. So I just felt like I lost a whole afternoon. Then today I had a 4-hour phone call that needed me to be hands-on and attentive the whole time. My ears and body ached after that one.

The point is that I want to comfort you, my fellow students: if you’re struggling, I am too. Yes, we ARE going to try our best to push through, but sometimes we need to take a step back and re-evaluate. So, take your time to relax and recharge, and then muster up the courage to keep going. We’re all probably struggling with something different, and hopefully these SASS blogs have been helpful to you.

In spite of the struggle, I’m still trying to find ways to be a better student and a better person. I’m working on self-discipline right now.

I recently listened to Rob Dial’s podcast “The 5 Steps to Be More Self-Disciplined.” In the recording, Rob discusses his own journey toward self-discipline. He has some useful tips, so if you don’t have time to listen, check out my edited version below.

Self-discipline is hard. It doesn’t happen overnight: just like going to the gym for just one day won’t help you achieve the results you want. It’s a matter of persistence and imperfections—and of staying motivated in the face of mistakes or failures.

Discipline is not about being a productivity machine. It’s about winning more than you lose; finishing more times than giving up. Here’s how Rob Dial recommends you tip the balance in your favour:

  1. Work on finishing small tasks. Completing small tasks allows us to believe we can do the big tasks. For example, when you finish eating, you complete the “task” of eating by cleaning the plate or rinsing the plate and putting it in the dishwasher. Building daily discipline by doing the small things makes it much easier to do the heavy lifting when it really matters. If you’re stuck with demotivation and lack of discipline, try focusing on 2-3 small tasks you can achieve every day, day in, day out. Build up from there, even if seems like a long way to getting everything done.
  2. The second tip is to plan. That’s it! Just plan your schedule, your goals, etc. This reminds me of when I talked about my fear of timetables, which, in hindsight, was just planning out my day so I didn’t get distracted by other things. If the plan is right in front of you, then all we have to do is show up. All we’re trying to do is to remove the resistance and make what we don’t want to do as easy as possible. If all we have to do is show up, then we can focus easier. If you’re not a planner, start with a small routine: one part of the day, or just a few minutes a day, when come what may you’ll show up. Even 5 or 10 minutes is a good start.
  3. Removing distractions and altering our environment helps us be more disciplined. I strongly believe in “out of sight, out of mind.” A lot of our environmental difficulties revolve around tech. In another blog post, Kate talked about turning off all her notifications from 8 AM to 8:30 AM and deleting the messages bar from her MacBook. I have and love a Chrome Extension called “DF Tube” for distraction-free YouTube viewing, as I’ve noticed I spend way too much time scrolling through YouTube even if there isn’t any new content I like. Spend some time looking for apps, widgets, and plug-ins that will help you too. Our environment includes our peers and friends too. Surround yourself by people who support you and help you become a better person. All we’re trying to do is to create an environment to us in building our discipline. Choosing even 1 or 2 simple ways to improve your environment will help your self-discipline.
  4. Our journey to self-discipline is about progress, not perfection. I don’t think anything has been drilled in us as much as, “You don’t need to be perfect, but we can learn from our mistakes.” We can constantly improve from our failures and mistakes by making adjustments. We can’t be too hard on ourselves. We know that life isn’t perfect, so we can keep taking steps forward instead of dwelling on difficulties. Spend time each week reflecting on things that went well and setting a small goal to work on next week. You’ll get better over time!
  5. The last tip is to reward yourself. Building discipline is tough, and we will only burn out if we don’t take breaks and give ourselves rewards Setting up small rewards gets us excited to do what we need to do. It could be as simple as checking off a task on a to-do list, getting some chocolate, or watching a YouTube video. In your self-discipline planning, decide on what rewards you’ll give yourself—but don’t cheat by rewarding yourself before you’re finished!

Rob underlines the importance of setting up our life to have free time and rewards. Having free time allows us to focus on the intense work periods. In the grand scheme of things, we are all reaching for a goal in life, and we deserve rewards for working hard and getting through the times where we struggle. Try a few simple things and, before you know it, they’ll be snowballing and carrying you on toward greater self-discipline—even if this difficult period of a difficult year!

Stay happy and restful, Gaels! We’re almost at the finish line.

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Peer blog: Decolonizing the classroom: What can you do?

Rahul Patel (he/him), Sarah Cho (she/her), Joseph Oladimeji (he/him), and Grace Okusanya (she/her)

Hello everyone; Rahul here! Since my last blog post on delivering a stellar presentation, I reconnected with my group members from a course where we delivered a presentation on decolonizing the classroom.

It should be no surprise that there is a growing need for instructors and students alike to facilitate building inclusive spaces at Queen’s. The QTBIPOC (Queer/Trans/Black/Indigenous/People of Colour) student community has faced ongoing discrimination. Since our first day at Queen’s, my group members and have experienced this discrimination. In our presentation, our aim was to bring awareness to our experience of discrimination in the classroom, and to explain what we think instructors and students can do to build a more inclusive educational community at Queen’s and beyond.

Now we want to share some of these ideas on this blog.

***

Have you ever felt that the methods an instructor used for assessing your learning didn’t fit who you were and the way you experience the world? Was the assessment style an inaccurate way to test your knowledge? Did your instructor give you another chance to show them that you “know”? 

That feeling of injustice is a common experience for many QTBIPOC students. Many of us have been forced throughout our education in Canada to follow a Eurocentric culture of learning. Some of us are lucky enough to learn the system before enrolling at Queen’s, but others have to learn the “rules” as they go. We shouldn’t have to do this, and institutions and community members should recognize the emotional and scholarly labour that goes into the process.

Here are three ways that, whether you’re a student or an instructor, you can engage in a process of decolonizing the classroom.

1. Belongingness

Courses at Queen’s that actively embrace other ways of knowing are few and far between (Indigenous ways of knowing, for example, are often based on oral expression of knowledge). Eurocentric assessments and class discussions can reproduce gender, socioeconomic, ethnic, or other cultural stereotypes.

You, as students, have a unique opportunity to find ways to bring misrepresented/neglected peoples and ways of knowing to the surface; by doing so you will bring forth justice for those whom western institutions typically marginalize. Ask yourself: can you include other ways of knowing in your assignments, presentations, and contributions to class? Can you draw attention to a positive example of knowledge from a non-European culture in your work?

By doing so, you will be showing that white, western people and knowledge should not be the norm. This might not work for every course or in every assignment, but where the opportunity exists, seize it—and if you’re not sure where to start, why not broach the conversation with your professor at office hours.

2. Engagement.

Even the experience of being in class can be a shock to some students. For example, learning the western scientific method asks some students to adapt their approach to the world to the demands of a different culture. Western students, however, are rarely asked to cross such cultural boundaries in return, leaving the marginalized feeling like their traditions, views, and approaches are irrelevant. We need to make it clear that such differences are natural and are valued, that students can be themselves, and that diverse students allow us to integrate unique knowledge, understandings, and perspectives that only they share.

We—students and instructors alike—can help this process of engagement by paying attention to our interactions with QTBIPOC classmates. Are we welcoming? Are we respectful of all opinions? Do we encourage connection and participation? Most importantly, do we value the contributions of QTBIPOC students? Next time you’re writing a discussion board response, speaking in class, or giving a presentation, ask yourself if you can express yourself in ways that recognize diversity of thought and behaviour—and prompt others to do the same. If you’re looking for a way to start, try working towards the intercultural awareness certificate jointly offered by QUIC and the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre.

3. Self-awareness

You might be privileged enough to have role models—people who look, feel, and think like you—in your faculty or discipline. Remind yourself that not everyone looks or thinks like you, and that not everyone may have a role model in your textbook or reading list. If you do feel represented, you can still ask, “What has been misrepresented and neglected in the past? Who has been relegated to the sidelines?”

Reflect on your current and past experiences: how can you facilitate an inclusive climate that increases self-awareness? Are people like you and ideas similar to your forms of knowing dominant in the classroom? If so, can you add to class discussions by sharing materials from beyond the traditional canon? Or showing how people from your background might perceive materials? You might start to think more deeply about your background and about representation in the university by taking some training in awareness, EDII, anti-oppression, and anti-racism.

In conclusion

We all have a role to play in decolonizing the classroom. Instructors, and institutions, have the weight of responsibility, but everybody can help seek epistemological justice for those who were voiceless in the past. Highlighting the invisible work that QTBIPOC communities have done and continue to do is essential. Remember that the goal is not to know everything. What’s more important is making sure that education is a system that encompasses and welcomes students’ lived experiences and ways of encountering the world.

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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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Peer blog: Exploring extracurriculars: The academic boost you need

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1 

Happy February everyone! For students, this month marks the beginning of the second wave of midterms and assignments (the first wave being in October). I am sure many of you are preoccupied with planning and studying and brainstorming for those imminent assessments. In light of this, I have decided to take this blog in a slightly different direction and focus on something other than schoolwork. One could call it “academically adjacent.” While I do, in fact, spend the majority of my time engaged in research, coursework, and TAing, there is another whole facet of my academic life that I have yet to touch on: extracurriculars and volunteering. I am always interested to hear about the types of hobbies and interests of other students, and I have found that a large part of my own “university experience” has been built upon participation in these supplemental activities.

Kate’s seven years with the Queen’s Recreational Figure Skating Club don’t seem to have paid off.

Let’s start at the beginning. In my very first year of university, I remember feeling a strong desire to get involved. At the same time, however, I was completely overwhelmed with coursework, so I knew I could not throw myself into as many extracurriculars as in high school. As such, I limited myself to just one extracurricular activity: the Queen’s Recreational Figure Skating Club. I am still a part of this club (7 years strong!) and, over the years, it has been the source of some great friendships. I have seen 5 presidents come and go and countless members graduate. Needless to say, I am the longest active member of the club. Looking back, I think joining the team was one of the smartest academic decisions I’ve ever made.

It reinforced the value of getting involved in activities outside of school. As a student, it is easy to develop tunnel vision and forget the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance. However, being a part of the skating club gave me an outlet during which I could give 100% of myself to something other than the next presentation, assignment, or quiz. If you have always been interested in joining a certain club or committee, but have just never gotten around to doing so, this is your sign! School is meant to expand your horizons beyond just the classroom. You will never know what you are missing out on unless you take the plunge. Here is a link to all of the clubs Queen’s has to offer. I hope it is as rewarding for you as it has been for me!

While engaging in these types of activities may allow you to hone an existing passion, it is also a great way to explore new interests and develop new skills. Volunteering as a peer writing assistant (PWA) at Queen’s Student Academic Success Services gave me the opportunity to do the latter. As a PWA, my role is to help first- and second-year undergraduate students improve their writing skills (see here for more information). Before joining the team, I had no experience as a tutor or mentor, thus, when I came across the advert to be a PWA, I was nervous to apply. “Who am I,” I thought, “to give writing advice to others?” This was totally new and I was unsure if I would be any good at it. I do not consider myself a spontaneous person. I am a planner through and through. Yet, I am so glad that I went outside my comfort zone to become a PWA because I have found a whole new passion for helping/ mentoring students. I have now been volunteering as a PWA for four years and counting. Needless to say, I really enjoy the work!

Guess what? SASS is currently hiring for a range of volunteer positions coaching and teaching other students in writing and academic skills. The deadline for applications is March 7, and you can read more about all our programs and how to apply here.

I know first-hand that school can be extremely overwhelming at times, and every now and then you simply need to take a break. As such, it is important that you find activities outside of school that interest you, whether it be a sports club or the debate team or something else entirely. I have learned over the years that maintaining a well-balanced lifestyle is very similar to maintaining a well-balanced diet: it takes a bit of commitment and lot of variety to achieve that fully satisfactory feeling. Never be afraid to try something new because you never know when you might just stumble upon a new passion.

See you soon!

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