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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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Just keep swimming: improving, slowly but surely

Liyi, Engineering, Class of 2024

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.

A squishy iced frog on an iced cake

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.”

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The Year of Adaptability

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1

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.

  1. Ensure your desk is clear
  2. Use earplugs
  3. Set phone to silent
  4. 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!

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