How to succeed on university assignments

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Explore these resources to prepare effectively to succeed on individual and group assignments. Book an appointment with a Peer Success Coach for personalized support improving your approach to completing course assignments. Visit the Writing and Communications Centre for support with writing and presentation projects.

How to split large assignments into smaller steps

Use these resources to break large assignments into smaller, more manageable steps:

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Math problems: What to do when you're stuck

Math is about more than just getting the right answer; it's about making connections, communicating ideas and applying creativity.  You'll get stuck on some math problem at some point, but that doesn’t mean you’re not good at math; it’s part of the process! To keep going, even when it’s difficult, try some of the following tips. 

Difficulty: Not knowing where to start or getting confused about the first step.

This is often due to having too many places to start and having trouble choosing one.

Solution: Polya identified a four-step framework for developing an ability to solve problems.

  1. Understand the problem. Ask questions that can help you understand the problem:
  • What are the knowns and unknowns?
  • Can you draw a picture or diagram that might help you understand the problem?
  • Is there enough information to find a solution?
  1. Devise a plan. Find the connection between the known and the unknown. There are many strategies that can be used, including:
  • Guess and check
  • Look for a pattern
  • Make an orderly list of the knowns and unknowns
  • Draw a picture
  • Solve a simpler problem
  • Use symmetry to reduce the number of variables
  • Use a model to represent key mathematical relationships in a word problem
  • Consider special cases
  • Work backwards
  • Use direct reasoning
  • Be ingenious
  1. Carry out the plan. After selecting promising strategies, carry out your plan. Check each step of your solution by considering:
  • Is the step correct?
  • Can you prove that the step is correct?
  1. Look back. Examine the solution and reflect on what worked and what didn’t. This will help you predict what strategy to use to solve future problems. Some questions to consider when looking back at your solution:
  • Can you check the result? 
  • Can you check the argument?
  • Can you derive the solution differently? 
  • Can you use the result, or the method, for some other problem?

Difficulty: Not understanding what the question is actually asking.

Solution: Expand your mathematical understanding with the following strategies.

  1. Construct relationships: Relate mathematical concepts, operations, symbols to ideas or processes you already understand (i.e. make sense of new information based your previous knowledge and experience).
  2. Apply mathematical knowledge to extend your understanding: Organize and construct information visually, like on a hierarchical concept map, to identify the relationships among concepts and processes. Apply concepts or algorithms—flexibly, accurately and efficiently—to solve problems.
  3. Reflect on your experiences: Examine the relationship between your existing knowledge and the conditions of a problem situation.
  4. Articulate what you know: Communicate your knowledge verbally, in writing, through pictures, diagrams, or models. Make mathematical knowledge your own by adapting what you learn from instructors or peers to develop your own stance about the new concept or process.

Difficulty: Answering conceptually challenging questions.

Your intuition can differ from the formal concept definition that’s accepted by the mathematical community.

Solution: Ensure you have a complete understanding of fundamental concepts by:

  • Working on examples and problems that relate to the concept, in addition to learning the full theoretical definitions from a textbook and/or the instructor.
  • Identifying the obstacle(s) you’re facing, or asking questions about what you don’t understand to help discover the obstacle(s).

Difficulty: Solving non-routine problems where you need to use facts and procedures in unfamiliar ways.

Solving routine problems involve working with a known method or formula in exactly the same or very similar situations that you have experienced.

Solution: Use your analysis, synthesis, and creativity skills to:

  • Understand the conceptual basis for procedures and not just obtain factual and procedural knowledge.
    • Example scenario: Identify various contexts in which a definition, concept or formula appears.
  • Explain the processes used to arrive at solutions and not just memorize how to apply a set of procedures or perform standard mathematical operations.
    • Example scenario: Understand how to apply the limit concept and not just how to differentiate or integrate an equation.
  • Adopt an interleaving approach to solving problems by working on a mixture of problem types that cover concepts from different textbook sections. This allows you to learn not just how, but when, to use a specific problem-solving strategy.
    • Example scenario: In a study group with five students, each student picks a question from a different textbook section. The five questions are put together to make a test. Everyone tries to write the test and compares their answers to each other.
  • Understand concepts and their relationships to each other, and recognize concepts when they take different forms.
    • Example scenario: Understand the changes that occur in the graph of a function when a coefficient in the equation of the function is changed.
  • Think creatively to modify procedures or develop new solutions.
    • Example scenario: Be flexible in reacting to different situations. Practice thinking forward and backward, between and across concepts, to simplify and generalize concepts.

Difficulty: Knowing how to approach abstract problems by generalizing learned concepts.

Solution: Learn how to coordinate procedures and manipulate them as concepts by learning how to:

  • Coordinate two or more processes.
  • Reverse or undo a process.
  • Cope with singular cases (exceptional ones which seem not to follow the general pattern and require special treatment).
  • Use different representations of the same concept (e.g. graphical, numerical, symbolic).
  • Transfer between different representations and to use whichever is easier for a given task.

Looking for more tips for working through math assignments? Check out the Library's Math Assignment Planner.

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How to navigate group projects effectively

Group work can be an excellent opportunity for students to draw on their peers’ strengths and experiences. However, group work is often a new experience for students and can result in stressful situations. These tips can help students create a group that works together successfully.

Get organized

  1. Assign roles – See group roles below.
  2. Create a timeline – A timeline will make sure project work isn’t left until the last minute.
  3. Schedule meetings – Group meetings should be done in-person, but you can also use virtual technology such as Skype or other chat apps if needed.
  4. Create a communication plan – However you decide to organize communication, it’s important to set mutually agreed-upon ground rules for contribution. For example, if a group member misses a meeting, they’re expected to read and respond to notes taken at the meeting within 24 hours. Or, if a member consistently misses meetings or fails to communicate or to produce work, they won’t get credit for the project. That said, life happens. Put yourself in the shoes of your group members. Try to understand where they’re coming from and be as inclusive as possible.

Group roles

Assigning group roles and dividing up responsibilities are critical steps to working effectively as a group. The following list of roles and responsibilities isn’t exhaustive, but it can be a starting place for assigning roles that suit your group’s needs.

Draw on people’s strengths to identify roles, but don’t get saddled with the same task throughout the project. For example, one person can research one section of a project, write another section and review a third section.

Role Responsibilities
  • Leads discussion with open-ended questions
  • Encourages all group members
  • Facilitates brainstorming by summarizing and clarifying group comments
  • Helps guide conversation and focuses on positive statements
  • Checks for consensus or questions from group members
  • Schedules meetings
  • Keeps the project on track
  • Thinks about the “big picture”
  • Ensures meetings follow a timeline or agenda
  • Takes notes at meetings and sends them to everyone after meetings
  • Edits completed work
  • Compiles different sections of reports or presentations from group members to create flow and consistency
  • Researches topics for the project
  • Presents information to the group
  • Provides group members with sources and information
  • Writes the project/report/presentation
  • Responsible for following a timeline, so the editor has time to review and compile information
Troubleshooter / Brainstormer
  • Considers positives and negatives of ideas presented by the group
  • Thinks about possible solutions to problems
  • Critiques project based on assignment expectations/rubric to ensure success
  • Works with group members to compile and create the presentation
  • Presents information to the class

Common group work challenges and solutions

Challenge Details Solutions
Scheduling conflicts
  • Creates roadblocks to getting started or continuing with projects
  • Feels frustrating for group members who feel that others aren’t compromising and taking other’s situations into consideration
  • Try to be understanding of others’ schedules and responsibilities, which may be different from your own
  • Consider using virtual meeting spaces, such as messenger apps, Skype or email to communicate
  • Take turns picking the venue and time of the meeting
Group conflict
  • Group conflict is natural and often necessary for effective group work
  • Sometimes it may escalate and make it difficult for members to focus on the project
  • Don’t let personal feelings impact your work in the group. Focus on the work you have to accomplish
  • Try to find common ground between two ideas to reach reconciliation
  • Address conflicts directly and respectfully
Uneven contribution
  • Some group members don’t or aren’t perceived to be contributing to the group project
  • Creates tension in the group
  • Feels unfair to group members
  • Set clear guidelines and work expectations at the beginning of the group project
  • Assign roles and responsibilities so that each person will contribute equally
  • Speak directly, but respectfully, to the person who isn’t completing their work
Conflicting expectations
  • Some group members may strive for perfection, while others simply want to pass
  • Some people begin projects in advance, while others procrastinate
  • Creates tension because the group isn’t working toward the same goal
  • Early communication is key to ensure everyone agrees on common goals
  • Keep goals realistic and understand that your actions affect other group members
  • Create a timeline so the group can keep to an agreed-upon plan for completing the project
Getting stuck
  • Hitting a mental roadblock
  • Can be discouraging and lead to procrastination and avoidance
  • Review the assignment expectations and goals
  • Have a brainstorming session where ideas are discussed. Create a mind map to link common ideas and trains of thought
  • Seek help from your professor if you remain stuck
  • Some group members agree with others to avoid conflict
  • Stifles creativity and constructive evaluation of alternative ideas
  • Think critically about ideas presented, offer and assess alternatives, and embrace diverse opinions from group members
  • Work through projects analytically using the groups’ combined knowledge and experience

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Manage social media distractions while you study

Are you spending too much time texting or using social media? Use the tips below to take back control so you can focus and stay on top your assignments.

Keep a time log for a week

  1. For just one week, note the start and end times of all your study sessions, and the start and end times of each time you look at social media.
    1. A quick glance at social media – even a second – is considered a break. You have to switch your attention away from learning to check your phone.
  2. At the end of the week, total the amount of hours spent studying compared to hours spent on diversions. You might be shocked by how much you’re switching your attention! 

    Out of sight, out of mind

    • Keep your computer and phone turned off and out of sight while you study. It’s much easier to get distracted when your phone and computer are giving you auditory and visual reminders that a friend is trying to reach you.
    • If possible, turn your computer and phone completely off to concentrate for longer periods of time. 

    Temporarily deactivate your social media accounts

    There are free applications you can use to temporarily block your favourite social media sites, addictive websites, online games or your internet access. Once started, deleting the application or restarting your computer won’t get you back in. You must wait for the timer to run out. Use one to concentrate while you work on your computer. Imagine how quickly you could get through your work without those distractions.

    Focus on the future

    • When you start to lose concentration, think about how your hard work now will benefit you in the short and long-term future.
    • How will studying right now affect your future goals? It will help you get the grades you need to pass the class, the knowledge you need for the next term, your degree, the next phase of your education and your ideal career and lifestyle.
    • Remind yourself regularly how your hard work will benefit you.

    Reward yourself

    • Make looking at social media or checking your phone a reward after 25 minutes of focused work. You can use an online Pomodoro Timer to keep track of your time and remember to take short breaks.
    • Avoid leaving browser tabs open on social networking sites if you’re studying at your computer.
    • Set clear boundaries between study time and connecting with friends.

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