Tips for a successful term and university career

University can be overwhelming; here are a few tips to help make things easier for you!

Get Organized

1. Plan ahead

Remember those “syllabuses” that your professors mentioned on the first day of classes? Perhaps you looked at them once or printed them out and they are crumpled at the bottom of your bag… If you haven’t already, dig them up and be sure to get acquainted with your syllabuses! Syllabi? Whatever you choose to call them, they are your maps to a well-organized semester.

Dog against a blue backdrop asks itself "Is our syllabus online?"

What I have personally found helpful is writing down all the assignment due dates for the semester in an agenda (there may still be some free planners at the SLC). Writing all the due dates for four months may seem like an arduous, time-consuming task, but this advanced planning will be helpful for you in the long run! If it feels overwhelming to include due dates for textbook readings, try adding in your weekly readings the week before they should be completed. Doing this will help you stay on top of your work and will help avoid surprises, such as realizing that you have a huge project due tomorrow or are supposed to have read a book in preparation for the day’s lecture!

2. Go to all of your classes

You have already paid; you may as well go to your classes! Not to mention the fact that you will learn a lot and meet new people! Being organized and working your classes into your schedule may alleviate stress since you will have a much better understanding of class concepts and expectations. Almost everything I have learned in lectures, I have been able to apply in my courses or my life. If I haven’t been able to directly apply what I have learned, I can at least find value in it. Going to classes will help with your short-term goals, like getting higher grades. However, it will also help with goals that are more long-term, such as thinking critically and analyzing situations from multiple angles.

3. Find your study space

It will be helpful if you have a space that you associate with work. I find that it’s important that I don’t use my study space for things like watching Netflix and have another space that I associate with relaxation time. This helps me know that if I am at my desk, I will be doing work and encourages me not to distract myself. I also find it helpful to schedule in a particular time each day for using my study space. For myself, this is usually around 7-10 pm, but another time may be more conducive to your learning. Everyone’s study needs and spaces may be different. You may find you work better in an organized space; you may find you thrive in disorder. Personally, I find it extremely helpful to have one devoted workspace where I go to study; however, "cognitive scientists are finding that varying your environment while trying to learn helps you retain knowledge" (Purdy). I suggest keeping this research in mind, as well as finding what and WHERE works for you :)

Organized study space including desk, laptop, calendar, and books

Keep goals in mind

If you have taken a Professional Development (PD) course, you have probably heard about setting “SMART” goals. Remember to use the helpful SMART acronym for goal setting. 

If you are feeling bogged down, try to look at the bigger picture! For instance, try reminding yourself why you are in your program and what long-term goals of yours it will ultimately help you to achieve! I find that this can help give more meaning to my assignments.

Cartoon hockey gif depicting a player scoring a goal

As with sports, the small, calculated actions and choices that you make are what will lead to you “scoring,” or rather, achieving your goals!

Write things out and doodle

Do you take notes, but still have trouble remembering course content when it comes to exams? Try writing your notes out by hand instead of typing them out on your laptop! Studies have shown this to be more effective!

Looking to draw, but find you don’t have enough time? Lucky for you; research has also demonstrated the benefits of doodling while you listen to lectures: “In a […] new study, […] published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, psychologist Jackie Andrade of the University of Plymouth in southern England showed that doodlers actually remember more than nondoodlers” (Cloud).

Harness the power of speech

New research from the University of Waterloo has shown the power of reading your notes out loud. You may feel embarrassed reading your notes out loud, but it will help you to remember. Since your roommates may hear you anyway, you could consider explaining class concepts and ideas to them. Teaching is an effective way to learn and you would be vocalizing your ideas at the same time!

Practice self-compassion

Try your best and go easy on yourself when things don’t go as well as you would like. When you experience setbacks, try to use them as learning experiences. When you receive a bad grade, it can feel devastating, but try to see the bigger picture; you are more than a grade! You can also use resources like the Writing and Communication Centre and the Student Success Office if you need help! When I feel overwhelmed, I try to focus on something that is both a priority and a small task that I can accomplish. Instead of beating myself up for not getting everything done, I try to congratulate myself for what I was able to do. I also find it personally helpful to have a checklist, to be in an organized space, and to listen to guided meditations, especially those by Tara Brach. Find the acts of self-compassion that work for you. This may involve giving yourself breaks, asking for help, or any other act of self-compassion that works for you.

Find balance

To succeed, it is important to study, but also to practice self-care including building a support network, eating well- balanced meals, and sleeping well. Use your schedule to work in time for studying, socializing, sleeping, stretching, and snacking (remember these 5 Ss). The book “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” suggests keeping track of the things that help you to feel energized and engaged (Burnett and Evans). Try this energy-engagement map worksheet to keep track of your patterns. Once you are able to recognize these things, be sure to work them into your schedule.

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