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.
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.
As midterm season approaches us once again, we can expect assignments, labs, and of course, tests to take over the next few weeks. But not to worry: in this blog, I’ll give you a few strategies that have always helped me get through midterm season. Although this midterm season might not look like those in past years, the advantage we have this term is having last semester under our belt. We’ve all been through one round of online-only tests and exams, wrestled with proctoring software, had to deal with distractions at home while trying to write a test, and so on. Taking a few moments to look back on last semester can help us make better decisions this time around. Think about what you could change this midterm season, and pick one small habit or strategy to try. Not sure what’s right for you? Here are four quick tips I’m using right now:
Interleaving: As a science student, interleaving worked wonders for me. By mixing up the topics I studied, I naturally made connections from one concept to another. This helped me to understand the course material rather than just relying on rote memorization. Most of my midterms were created such that I needed to connect two or three topics to be able to answer the questions—relying on just crunching through revision week-by-week wouldn’t have worked. As my studying technique resembled the requirements of my tests, I was able to answer questions confidently, efficiently, and to the best of my ability. You should try it too. Question both what you study and the order you study it in. Avoid long days looking at one topic only, or working week-by-week through the material when you’re reviewing. Mix it up!
Study groups: It can get frustrating when you constantly get stuck on a question or topic—and when we’re all online, sometimes there’s nobody to ask for help. At times last semester, it felt as though I was the only one who was struggling. Now I know that is far from the truth. After creating a study group with a few of my peers, I came to understand that many of us were stuck on similar topics. We helped each other throughout the semester in preparation for our midterms. I urge you to create a small study group of your peers, where all of you help each other become experts on course concepts! With remote learning, these study groups have played a huge role in preventing me and my peers from feeling isolated. If you’re stuck on who to ask, try looking for course-specific Facebook groups and posting to see if somebody would like to study with you.
Cue cards: I could honestly write a hundred-page essay on the effectiveness of cue cards. This has been my go-to studying technique for the past 5-6 years, and I have never looked back! Even the process of creating cue cards helps you get familiar with course content, and forces you to prioritize what’s most and least important (if you’re stuck, see write out a list of what your professor would think are the most important ideas in your course without looking at your notes). Testing yourself with cue cards is a form of active learning, as they require you to actively recall information—and, even better, by shuffling your deck, you’ll force yourself to do interleaving. Win-win! Try using an app like Quizlet to make your cards, since it will let you share cue card content with other students—helping each other revise for an exam together is a great way to find ways to connect socially and to make studying more fun!
Going for walks: Going on walks during the day was such a rejuvenating experience for me during midterm and finals season. Whenever I felt overwhelmed or mentally exhausted, I went on a walk with a friend or family member (socially distanced, of course!) around my neighbourhood for anywhere up to an hour. I got to catch up with other people, take a break from university, and also get in my physical activity for the day. I always felt refreshed and motivated to continue my studies when I returned home—indeed, the research says that the best kind of brain breaks are those that get you moving! While it was much easier to just pop on a sweater and head outside in October, I hope mother nature gives us some good weather for walks this month. If you’re stuck inside, why not try some yoga (like my fellow blogger Rahul) or a simple home workout. If you’re not sure how to get started, try booking a healthy lifestyle appointment with the staff at Wellness. They’ll help you, whatever your current fitness level, find ways to get healthy.
Turn off notifications. As I mentioned in my previous blogs, my goal this semester is to make my study periods as productive as possible. Since writing my last blog, I have tried to improve on this goal, but it has proven to be a very challenging target to achieve for someone whose attention span wouldn’t even make fly jealous! One day I feel like I am a productivity guru, but other days I need all the help I can get. With my favourite soccer team taking part in a major tournament and with the Toronto Raptors well into the NBA season, I seem to be refreshing my Instagram every few minutes to make sure I am not missing out on any new updates. With this in mind, my short-term goal is to avoid being tempted to check my phone repeatedly for updates. So far, turning off notifications from my ESPN app and Instagram has helped me improve my focus. Try turning off notifications from your favourite apps for the duration of midterm season!
I hope I’ve given you some motivation to accomplish your academic goals this midterm season. And as I’ve said, it’s just as important to take those breaks from studying—burning yourself out won’t help you get better. Stay safe and stay healthy Gaels!
Hello friends! How is your winter term coming along? I hope it is going well and that you’ve been finding a bit of time for self-care.
My last blog was the first blog of 2021. I wrote that before the winter term started. Since then, it has been absolute chaos. Juggling seven courses, club meetings, design projects, and other extracurriculars is a struggle and a half. I had to take time off from my job at the beginning of January (which I had planned to do so since September 2020) because I knew how hectic the month was going to be.
At times I wish was just sitting and relaxing as comfortably as this frog on a cake. But I’m just not there right now.
The reason these past couple of weeks have felt like pure chaos is the massive amount of content to learn for each course. There are hours of lectures, tutorials, quizzes, and labs, and since the fall term, I haven’t been to more than five Q&A sessions. It seems like no matter how productive I think I’m being, things just haven’t been working. It’s frustrating. Though, like always, we have to push back on the complaining and continue forward. Harsh as it is, I don’t want to waste time complaining about things I can actively change about ourselves. This week was where I did the thing I’ve always been scared to do. I gave myself a timetable.
I bet you’re thinking that I’m silly because I’m scared of numbers on a schedule that dictates what I’m supposed to do every hour, but it’s true. I’ve always disliked that specific method of planning since I was afraid of the guilt I’d succumb to if I never finished a task as I had planned to.
Since last week, the week I dove headfirst into the second semester without a schedule, felt too spontaneous, I wanted that to change. On Sunday at 2 AM, I wrote down my schedule for Monday. Miraculously, on Monday, I abided by my list and it felt great. I didn’t finish everything I had planned to do, but that was fine. It was still better than diving headfirst without a game plan. So now, each day, I can see the schedule that I should abide by, and then check off the things that I completed on my Notion. Finally facing my fear has been anticlimactic, but I still felt proud and satisfied.
In conjunction with my new schedule, I’ve also been using the app Flora, which I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, and a timekeeping app that grows a tree each time you put your phone down for a specific time. It has been useful to stay off my phone when I need to be productive. I also found that Santosh’s (another SASS blogger!) tip of leaving your phone behind your laptop has been extremely helpful. Since it’s out of sight, it’s also out of mind. Now I’m finding it easier to get started and to stay focused!
Another reason I’ve been feeling the heat of the second semester is the Ontario Engineering Competition, for which my friend and I qualified. We were tasked with making a twenty-minute presentation, full script, and abstract in three days. This wouldn’t have been terrible had the weekend been calm, but my partner (he’s an ambitious one) signed himself up for Hack the North the same weekend, and again, we had several quizzes, assignments, group reports, and lectures to finish. Neither of us knew how to write an abstract either (though you can check out this tutorial one of SASS’ staff made for a 3rd-year Physiology course for some abstract-writing tips). Just to ratchet up the nerves further, my partner’s internet kept cutting out. Eventually, we found our way and submitted the required documents at 11:57 PM, two minutes before the deadline. That night was the night I truly felt like a university kid, racing to complete everything I needed to do on a Sunday and barely getting any sleep the night before—but it’s not an experience I can recommend or that I want to repeat regularly.
Although my studying and school-life isn’t picture perfect, it is improving, slowly but surely. There are always things I might not finish (extra homework, readings, and practice problems), but I’m still going to try my best. I’m in school full-time. I guess it’s my job to do this, for me, the school, and my future. As Dory says, “Just keep swimming.”
Since my last blog post about living a healthy 2021, I’m happy to report that I have kept up with my commitments! I have been running and doing yoga regularly, and have even got started on another goal: to read one work of fiction for pleasure by the end of semester.
Since writing my last blog, I realized that I have a lot of presentations on my plate right now, so I’d like to give you some tips on making a great presentation—especially if yours is online or a group task.
I recently took PSYC 400—Applied Research in Higher Education. For one major assignment, our class was divided into groups; each group had to present an instructional strategy. We managed to apply what we were learning about ways to make students learn better to our own presentations—rarely is school so immediately beneficial! Here’s how my group went about planning our presentation:
Figure out what your audience wants to know
If you don’t have a predetermined structure for your presentation, what is it that you want the audience to remember from your presentation? Look at the learning goals from your syllabus or from your course modules and determine what your viewers are going to take away from your presentation—think about the big picture!
For my group’s PSYC 400 presentation on decolonizing the classroom, we wanted our classmates to know both why decolonizing the classroom is important to everybody and how we can go about achieving decolonization. We kept that at the top of our minds as we planned everything else.
Organization is key: break it up
There is nothing more dreadful than a presenter who presents a whole bunch of slides without any reference to the key ideas, important ideas, supporting data, and so on! If you already have an idea of what you want your audience to take away, delve deeper: what are some of the key ideas that can be turned into main slides? For my PSYC 400 presentation, there were four main ways of achieving decolonization in the classroom: by facilitating inclusivity in the classroom climate, curriculum, individuals’ indigeneity/identity, and assessments. We then broke our presentation down into these digestible sections, knowing that it would be easier for our classmates to understand our content, then started to build slides and content around those four key sections.
The last thing you want is to mash a presentation together and figure out who’s speaking what parts right at the last minute—so start on this early! Once you’ve figured out what you want your audience to take away, and linked your main ideas to this “big picture”, determine who is most comfortable presenting each part. This requires asking one another about the knowledge you already have, assessing what group members wants to learn more about, finding out what others are uncomfortable with, etc. Because there were four individuals in my group and four key ideas we wanted our audience to know about, we were able to take on an idea each and research it. When deciding who would take each idea, we considered both what we already knew and what we wanted to learn more about: the perfect balance of strong product and learning experience! SASS has lots of tools to help you plan your group projects in this way in our online resource.
The aesthetics of your presentation are essential when it comes to engaging your audience! Nobody wants to see slides with garish colour clashes or, on the other end of the spectrum, dull slides with no visual interest at all. In assigning roles, find out who is good with presentation design and give your input on what you want to see: incorporate animations, a colour palette, transitions, videos, images, icons, etc. but do not clutter your slides! In the past, I have used Canva because of its easy-to-use interface and the fact that the tool has SO MANY beautiful templates to choose from. I’ve also downloaded these templates into Microsoft PowerPoint presentations to add animations and transitions—making the best of both worlds (or tools, in this case)!
Here’s an example of one of my group’s slides, designed on Canva, that points out one of the key ideas we delivered. It’s visually interesting, but uses simple colours and just a few key words.
If using Zoom
Zoom is great for delivering online presentations, and all Queen’s students have access to a premium account using single sign-on (SSO) so make the most out of it! For engaging your audience,
Make sure you and your group members are the co-hosts. This will ensure you can do things like polls and breakout rooms, described below:
If you plan to pose a question, why not get some answers through a poll? These are engaging, and your audience is interested in seeing the results and what you make of them, but you have to prepare the poll in advance.
Breakout rooms. Don’t just put people into rooms and pose them with a single, general question. Give them a breakout room activity instead! Provide a series of questions and a worksheet (use Google Docs for collaborative writing) to document their engagement. To save time, you’ll need to decide how many rooms you want prior to the presentation.
Other useful tips
Please, please, please do not wing your presentation! You’d be surprised as to how many things you need to revise when you actually run through your presentation, especially with a group! Practice in advance, do a little planning, and share your
Know how to use Zoom. Do some practice as a group before the big day: try setting up a breakout room, running a poll, sharing your screen, and so on.
Content is not everything. Lots of content does not equate to more learning (in fact, probably less). Try not to overwhelm your audience by bombarding them with details (not that our professors would ever do that…). Keep your eyes on the prize: those big picture ideas you listed at the start of your planning process!
I hope you find this guide to presentations useful—let me know how you get on, and I’ll see you all soon!
Happy January! For many of us, January is a time for goal-setting and new year’s resolutions. Of course, this can’t be done without some reflection on the past year (which I did in my last blog) and on the nature of upcoming tasks.
As a PhD student, I have a newfound autonomy over my education, which has been both a blessing and a curse. For example, I have free rein in choosing my next topic of study. However, I carry more responsibility and must set my own objectives if I am to complete this degree in a timely manner. As such, long-term goal setting is a skill that all PhD students are expected to acquire. Right now, I have two main academic goals that (I hope!) are achievable in the next several months.
Choosing a Dissertation Topic
Even though I have spent the last several months familiarizing myself with the current literature in my area of study, I have yet to formulate a scientific question that I can test empirically (i.e., a dissertation topic). Right now, I am unsure of how large I must make the scope of my chosen topic—but I know that’s a normal experience for a graduate student. The topic must be broad enough to elicit 3-4 years’ worth of research, yet specific enough that 3-4 years’ worth of research will be sufficient to draw meaningful conclusions. It is easy to feel overwhelmed working within these constraints, so it’s important to have a step-by-step plan in place. It is much easier to face these sorts of seemingly insurmountable tasks when you break them down into a series of achievable goals:
For instance, the first step in narrowing down a topic is reading the literature and taking note of the topics I am interested in.
After organizing these topics into a list, I need to do a more specific literature search on each of those areas to see where the gaps in knowledge lie. Only then will I have a better understanding of what is missing from the current literature.
After this, I must decide which areas of research I find the most interesting.
Next, I will present this list of topics to my supervisor.
I am presently in the middle of step #1. I hope to be finished with this first step by the end of January and will keep you updated on my progress throughout the next few months!
Preparing for the Comprehensive Exam
Additionally, I will be writing my comprehensive exam in May or June of this year. The structure of this PhD exam varies across different disciplines, but usually entails both a written and oral component. In the cognitive neuroscience stream of psychology, we are given one month to write four 20-page papers (excluding references, if you were curious), and then we sit a three-hour oral defense centred around those papers. I expect this to be the most cognitively demanding month of my life. This exam is designed to push you to your limit. Preparation for this assessment can be difficult because you are not given your essay topics prior to the exam. Thus, the best way for me to prepare is to continue to review the current literature in my field. Luckily, I am well versed in the literature because I am trying to choose a dissertation topic even as I prep for comps.
As you can probably tell, goal setting will likely be a big theme for me this semester. It is easy to set goals, but the real test is in staying accountable to those goals, especially when they are self-appointed. With great power (i.e., freedom over my research) comes great responsibility! It is thus a good thing that I am a “planner” by nature. As such, I am looking forward to establishing the direction of my research project(s). If you have any big goals you want to tackle this year, I encourage you to try and create a step-by-step plan like mine. Hopefully, it will provide you with the same sense of satisfaction and motivation as it has me!
I hope you have settled into the semester and are having some fun learning new concepts! As a science student, it’s been fun to learn some coding skills in my statistics course this semester. It’s very easy to forget to have fun learning during a hectic semester, but finding the fun always makes learning more enjoyable for me! As Aristotle once said, “the greatest of all pleasures is the pleasure of learning”.
Unfortunately, the first week of the semester was anything but fun for me. It was as though a whole (never-ending) pile of work was thrown at me in a matter of days. I felt drained and demotivated. I did have a lot to do: a quiz, two assignments, and a lab report. However, I think the thought of having to do so much work was more mentally draining than the actual work itself.
I tried to overcome this feeling as I trudged through my work from Monday to Wednesday. But on Thursday, mental burnout hit me hard. I had a few more assignments to finish, so Thursday and Friday was spent finishing those off—but this burnout really prevented me from maximizing my study periods. My overall mood was down, and I felt exhausted just thinking about university.
Yes… this had all happened in the first week of the semester! I knew that pushing this negative feeling aside and continuing my work would not be sustainable. After all, the goal I set for myself in my last blog was to make sure I utilize my study periods to the best of my ability. Once I finished my last task for the week, I knew that I needed to take a break and rejuvenate myself. Therefore I took the entire first weekend of semester to enjoy some time off.
If you are also burnt out, here are some things that really helped me to relax and re-motivate myself:
Get a good night’s sleep
Watch my favorite show
I made some of my favourite foods (homemade panzerottis) and ate them as I watched Captain America: Civil War for the 10th time.
I finished off creating my to-do list for the following week to get me primed for week 2!
In a few quiet moments, I felt like I could be a little productive, so I took the chance to do some light work, creating flashcards or writing notes for about just a few minutes. By Sunday night I was motivated and rejuvenated to get back to my normal schedule, which set me up for success for week 2.
Throughout the week that followed, I decided to stop doing work after 10pm. Instead, I took an hour or two to relax before bed! While studying online it is easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of work, so it’s even more important to take those much needed breaks to help propel you through the semester.
I’ve also been trying to work on that goal I set for myself to make my study periods more productive. This was an addition to my general time management goal from last semester. I’ve tried to experiment with new methods to see what works for me—and what doesn’t—when it comes to making my study sessions productive. Here are my takeaways from my first two weeks:
Have a goal on what to finish for a certain study block
Have a home set-up that stops you needing to move much or continuously get up from your seat. Have that coffee and all your materials ready before you sit down!
Go into a study session without an idea of what you want to accomplish. Even a small, rough goal will help your focus.
Use the study time to decide what you want to accomplish. Do it in advance, either that morning or the evening before.
Keep any distractions within arm’s reach. Put that phone in a different room altogether.
I still have a way to go before I can reach my potential with this goal, but I feel as though I have made a few baby steps since the first day of the winter term!
I hope this blog has helped you understand that if you have a setback, making an effort to fix it can really help you make vital stridesforward! In this unprecedented academic year, we have faced so many hurdles that we need to appreciate the work that has been done!
Sarah, Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022
I’m not a fan of inspirational quotes. In all honesty, I find them tacky. Over the first quarantine in April, after my exams, I found myself staring at the ceiling, desperate for any inspiration in the unknown that was going to be my summer. No internship, exchange cancelled, summer courses looming, hoping for the chance to serve people coffee again (if I am one character from Friends, it’s Rachel. But only Rachel saying, “I’m getting coffee and it’s not even for me”). Exhausted, I combed through the depths of my laptop, going through archived notes, hoping to find some chink of light. I found this quote I wrote down from Little Women: “I am not afraid of storms for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” I broke my rule on inspirational quotes.
I have wanted to learn to sail for years. That comes as no secret to those who know me, and to those who have been following these posts (the ocean analogies had to come from somewhere!). That being said, I have no idea how to sail, as circumstance has limited my learning opportunities. Even though the task itself isn’t something, I’m ready to get going when I can—and I know that the belief in your ability to carry out the task is, as with all things, going to be vital. This belief is known as task self-efficacy.
Task self-efficacy is a theory drawn from health promotion, which aims to promote and enable healthy behaviours. The idea fits under the broader range of self-efficacy, defined as the belief we have in our ability to complete something. Self-efficacy is foundational. Scholars argue that it’s the believing in ourselves that kickstarts the behaviour change itself. That belief doesn’t always come from an instantaneous “aha” moment; it can take a lot of work to mold. This molding is achieved through tools called “behaviour change techniques” (BCTs). In theory, you can use BCTs to influence task self-efficacy and, in turn, affect behaviour outcome.
So, why the crash course in health behaviour change?
I’d argue that a lot of core concepts in health behaviour change are applicable to adapting to the online learning environment. Everyone has been through a crash course in online learning this semester. For better or for worse, the fall semester is over. The fall semester gives us a benchmark on how we did with this transition, what we need to do to improve or maintain our current learning strategies. We can think of online learning as the task that we’ve undertaken. I know at the beginning we all felt like we had no sense of self-efficacy when it came to online learning. But the task is done, and again, for better or for worse, we have a benchmark idea of our abilities. The point being, we did it. In and of itself, that shows we got through it, and we can do it again. I’d say that because we have this benchmark, we will be able to do better. Like how way back in first year, none of us knew what we were doing, but by third year, we have (mostly) figured it out. The same applies now. Your belief in yourself, and attempts to evaluate your progress and set new goals, will help you improve this semester.
On that note, I’ve taken 3 main lessons away from last semester.
(1) You need to take of yourself.
At Student Academic Success Services, we often discuss how there are a lot of things that influence academic performance in students. It’s why we emphasize getting good sleep, eating right, and exercise. Essentially, following the 24-Hour Movement Guidelines, published this year by the School of Kinesiology & Health Studies is a great roadmap for how to stay healthy. But the key to using those guidelines is the promise to yourself to take care of yourself. I’m not talking face masks, takeout, and binging Netflix (while those might help!). Not committing to taking care of your health and well-being is a sure way to have a miserable time at university, and to struggle with your academic work. I am irony embodied in this case: I’m a health student and blogger who hasn’t done this as effectively as I could have been with online learning. I’ve actively identified areas of my daily routines, both academic and non-academic, that need improvement to promote my overall well-being. Make some small commitment right now to improve your wellbeing. It could be a five-minute walk, making one healthy choice at your next mealtime, or going to bed just a few minutes earlier today. Even small changes will help.
(2) Stay in touch with professors and TAs.
I never used to go to office hours or talk to TAs. When content was confusing, or assignments unclear, I blamed myself for not being smart enough to figure it out on my own. Online school has made me come out of that bubble. It’s made me go to office hours (sometimes just for the sake of virtual human interaction) and ask questions. It’s made me get to know my professors a little bit more, deconstructing the “larger than life” academic persona my various high school teachers have burned into my memory as what to expect from professors. Profs are people too, who often want to see students asking questions, being curious and inquisitive (with a laugh or two in between as conversations go). Online assignment instructions can be confusing, and there isn’t shame in asking a TA or professor for clarification. Utilize your e-mail, OnQ discussion boards, office hours – don’t be afraid to just say, “I don’t get this,” and explain why. Your ego might be bruised asking for help, but your grades will not be.
As brilliant a student as I am (or maybe not…), I have difficulty prioritizing. I take a lot on because I have such a strong drive to make the most of my university experience. Thus, I work really long hours. I have a friend whose father is a professor. He often checks in with me and asks if I’m doing okay because I seem “very stressed.” There are times where I wish I had my planner on me to show him just how packed my days are. My reality is there are a lot of things in my day I cannot change. I have to work to support myself, I have to do classwork, I have to do well in said classes to keep my financial aid – there is every reason to be stressed and have a packed day. To combat this evident stress, I’ve begun thinking within the specific framework of this BCT called “Framing/Reframing”. This BCT calls on us to deliberately take on a new perspective of our behaviour to change the way we feel about the behaviour. So, instead of cursing my inability to say no, I frame my days with this sentence: “There are only 24 hours in a day, and I come first.” With this reframing, I adopt a mantra of “look at the work I have the privilege of doing”, instead of “I have so much to do.” The reality and busy nature of my days won’t change, but my attitude and behaviour can.
It’s okay not to know how to sail your ship. It’s the experience of figuring out the task itself, using transferable skills, and building confidence, that gives you enough strength to weather whatever academic storm comes at you. And with winter term over, I know collectively, we have the strength to do this again. Hopefully, for the better.
I hope all of you had a much-deserved break over the past two weeks. I know I used this time to catch up on all the lost sleep over the past four months. On a more serious note, the winter break gave me the chance to relax, enjoy time with my family, and reflect on my first remote semester. Fall 2020 was an unprecedented semester for everyone, but we all learned a great deal on how to achieve success while studying online. Here are a few things I noted about this past semester:
Some of the things that worked for me:
Creating a daily list of tasks helped me to keep a good work/life balance and was a source of motivation.
Taking breaks throughout the day. Simple things like going on walks, playing video games, and chatting with my friends and family relaxed me when university got a bit stressful.
Using the Pomodoro method to make sure I was focused during my studying periods: 25 minutes of studying without distractions is better than 1 hour of studying with Netflix in the background.
Joining Facebook group chats. Group chats are a great way to communicate with peers about the course content. In addition, you can meet new people and build study groups over the semester. If you’re stuck, search for the Class of 2024 group as a start.
Being active on discussion boards and going to office hours to fill in content gaps. Don’t wait until the exam period to ask your questions; go get help today!
Stay on top of your coursework throughout the semester so you can have more time to do the things you love to do. Even a little work every day—5 or 10 minutes to get you started—adds up over 12 weeks.
Some things that did not work for me:
Studying on my bed: this is a trap! It feels comfy, but it took me several instances to learn my lesson that the bed is created for a person to sleep and not to study.
Having my phone near me while I am studying this is another trap! Keep it out of your sight so you even forget that it is there.
Having Netflix or YouTube open on a different tab: yes, another trap! It’s all too easy to switch to the fun stuff while you’re working on a tough problem for class.
Another really helpful thing that I did early last semester was to thoroughly look at the syllabus and timeline of each of my classes. The syllabus is an amazing resource that provides the course content, grade breakdown, and required materials needed for the course. Taking a look at it will help you understand how to best allocate your time to maximize your grade. The timeline, meanwhile, gives you an overview of due dates and a general understanding of the work that must be completed each week. Exploring the timeline from one class and comparing it those from other classes can prevent unnecessary stress from building up when you have three large assignments due in the same week for multiple classes (true story, unfortunately). Overall, just looking at these two resources helped me have an idea of how the fall semester will unfold and to stay on track by getting to work on big tasks during quiet periods, while having a careful (but not too burdensome!) plan for busy weeks. I recommend doing this for the winter semester if you haven’t already!
You might remember that my goal for last semester was to manage my time effectively. It was a tough goal to accomplish but thankfully I felt as though I was able to achieve a good work/life balance by the end of the semester! This semester, I want to step it up a level by not only managing my time but also making sure that the time I allocate to certain things is spent dedicated to doing that specific task—and not aimlessly browsing social or watching TV in the background. I noticed that even when I was able to allocate my time well, I just wasn’t able to concentrate for long periods of time. Therefore, quality work hours is something that I am going to strive to achieve this semester. What goals have you set for yourself this semester?
Overall, I think we all learned something about how to (and also how NOT to) succeed in online university over the past four months. It’s very important to take everything we learned and create an ideal schedule for ourselves. I hope all our blogs have gotten you excited and prepared to start this semester off strong.
Good luck Gaels. Let’s conquer this semester together!
Back in high school, I remember being told by my chemistry teacher that university requires a huge amount of self-motivation and focus. Material would no longer be taught in “units” culminating in easily digestible tests to ensure we had a thorough understanding before the final exam. No one would be checking our attendance or homework. University would be all about self-directed learning. “Adapt or be left behind,” I remember her saying.
While I highly doubt this is what my chemistry teacher meant, it is clear to me that the theme of this school year has indeed been adaptability. In mere months, we have made the switch to an entirely online learning model. With lectures being “asynchronous” and office hours being “virtual,” my schedule last semester was the most flexible it had ever been. That change had some pretty major side effects. For example, it taught me how to structure my time. I have always been more productive on days with early-morning lectures, because afterwards I would head straight to the library. Getting an early start to the day has played a crucial role in maintaining my productivity, and without morning lectures to depend on, I knew I would have to motivate myself some other way. Thus, last semester I deliberately scheduled all of my commitments for the morning. Between volunteering and TAing, I had 9am commitments lined up Monday to Thursday. Thankfully, this tactic worked well. I seldom struggled to start schoolwork after my morning obligations. As such, I will continue to implement this strategy this semester.
The next obstacle I had to face as a by-product of the pandemic was learning how to work at home. This is something with which I, historically, have never had much success. For the last several years, any waking hours not spent in a lecture or lab, have been spent either in Douglas or Bracken libraries. People are generally surprised to hear that I struggle with productivity, I assume because I was always on campus. But make no mistake, my constant presence on campus was very much intentional. By doing so, I was compelled to stay focused on schoolwork. Before March 2020, I never used my apartment as a place to work. Thus, COVID-19 threw me for a loop. All of a sudden, I was being forced to operate exclusively from home. The first several weeks were painful. I have listed below some tips and tricks which helped make the transition to working at home easier. However, there was still a large adjustment period. In reality, working from home was something I just had to give myself time to get used to. In fact, I am still getting used to it today.
Ensure your desk is clear
Set phone to silent
Prepare your lunch the day before
The first three tips are pretty self-explanatory, so let’s skip to tip #4. At face value, it seems kind of silly to make a sandwich or portion out some leftovers and then throw them back in the fridge for lunch the next day, but hear me out. Normally, on campus, lunch was a very uneventful 30 – 45 minutes. I would stop whatever I was doing, pull out my lunch, mess around on my phone while I ate, and then get back to work. However, when I began to work from home, lunch became a 1.5 – 2 hour production. No longer did a simple sandwich suffice. In order to procrastinate, I would cook a hot meal. I quickly realized this was unsustainable during the work week. As such, I reverted back to making my lunch the night before, as if I was going to be spending all day on campus. I urge you to try this if you also find lunchtime to be a source of procrastination. While taking breaks throughout the day is important to maintain your productivity, when those breaks become the length of a cinematic feature (as mine did), you may be crossing into dangerous territory where breaks are now impeding your ability to work.
These were just some of the changes I had to make last semester in order to accommodate a new style of learning. Prioritizing school during a pandemic has been incredibly strange and more cognitively demanding than I could have imagined. Nevertheless, we are doing it. We are adapting! I will never underestimate my abilities to adapt ever again. You shouldn’t either!
Happy 2021! The winter break has been rejuvenating and very much needed. I sat around a lot, I slept a lot, I ate a lot. It was fantastic. Now, we are back to school and back to the grind. If you did not know, first-year engineers at Queen’s had quadmesters during the fall 2020 term. That meant we only had a maximum of four courses in a quadmester, but we were learning at an accelerated pace – each course lasted 6 weeks instead of 12. Now, for the winter term, our courses are back to normal. Our courses are 12 weeks long, but we have SEVEN courses now, which is a tremendous jump from four. The days leading up to the beginning of the winter term were spent planning how to tackle seven courses and stay organized to maximize productivity.
In a previous blog, I discussed struggling to find methods to stay organized. At the time, I had some agendas and a daily to-do list, but I never found my perfect way to organize. I think I’ve found it now. Recently I discovered Notion, an app you can customize to fit your scheduling needs. A digital creator, Ali Abdaal, created a YouTube video to show all the great aspects of Notion.
Currently, my Notion looks like this:
This page is extremely customizable; I got the template from Janice Studies. ‘Master Schedule’ shows all my big assignments and their dates, including midterms, assignments, etc. For each course under ‘Courses,’ there is a separate to-do list that is divided by weeks. This makes it simpler to see all the lectures I will need to watch and the quizzes/assignments to be completed for each week. Lastly, in ‘Weekly Schedule,’ I have all my reoccurring events listed so that I can remember what tutorials or Q&As I have that day. Of course, your Notion does not have to look like mine (I also promise I am not sponsored by Notion; I am just super happy to have found this organizational tool!).
In my most recent blog, I talked about two big things: trying to stay motivated without the goals from high schools and dealing with notes. Over winter break, I had a lot of time to think. In terms of trying to stay motivated without goals, I do have a goal now: to get some internships. For Module 3 of my Engineering Practice course, we had to interview a professional engineer. One of the requirements was to ask the engineer, “What are the skills desired by engineering employers?” When I asked my interviewee that question, I also asked, “How much do grades matter when applying for jobs? What about work experience, projects, and the likes?” We had a great discussion about why grades were important but weren’t the only thing that matter. I am going to work harder this semester and keep moving forward, hopefully boosting that GPA so I can show it off, but working on other projects too.
I think I’ve resolved some of my issues around dealing with notes too. I scrounged enough money to buy an Apple Pencil and the writing app GoodNotes, which helps to take notes or annotate PDFs. This means that I do not have to think about printing PDFs or organizing loose paper and notebooks. I linked GoodNotes with my OneDrive so that everything will be accessible on the cloud. I am ecstatic to start writing digitally, and I enjoy how much tidier my desk is because of it.
These next couple of weeks will be hectic: jumping from four courses to seven, getting familiar with writing digitally, and trying not to burn out too quickly. I hope I can get through it! Good luck, everyone, and again, happy 2021.