FYI: Lady Gaga Parody (Bad Project)

FYI is a weekly column dedicated to showcasing other resources available for students (and occasionally providing a bit of humour!).

Title: Bad Project: Lady Gaga Parody
Author: Hui Zheng lab at Baylor College of Medicine
Type of Resource: Youtube Video!

Comments: Who knew “Lady Gaga” was a grad student? 🙂 Although this video won’t help you with your midterms, it does provides good insight to grad school in a science-related field. How exaggerated is it? Not as exaggerated as you think! Enjoy!

If you have midterms coming up before reading break, good luck!


FYI: Writing to Better Grades

After some consideration, I have decided to update and rename the “Something Borrowed” feature. I made this decision because I found that the scope of “Something Borrowed” was too narrow. It didn’t include new research or subject-specific help (among other things), and “FYI”, the new feature replacing “Something Borrowed”, is an attempt to remedy that. It will showcase anything I think first year – and even upper year – university students would find helpful, and will run once a week like “Something Borrowed”.
Have a comment, a suggestion, or a resource you would like me to share? Send me an e-mail!


Title: Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom
Author: Gerardo Ramirez and Sian L. Beilock
Type of Resource: Report (Journal article)
Originally Published in: Science, Vol. 331 no. 6014 pp. 211-213, January 14, 2011


*Note: if your school does not have a subscription to Science, you may not have access to the full article. In that case, please contact me and I will send you a copy of it.*


Two laboratory and two randomized field experiments tested a psychological intervention designed to improve students’ scores on high-stakes exams and to increase our understanding of why pressure-filled exam situations undermine some students’ performance. We expected that sitting for an important exam leads to worries about the situation and its consequences that undermine test performance. We tested whether having students write down their thoughts about an upcoming test could improve test performance. The intervention, a brief expressive writing assignment that occurred immediately before taking an important test, significantly improved students’ exam scores, especially for students habitually anxious about test taking. Simply writing about one’s worries before a high-stakes exam can boost test scores.


Comments: Yes, there is a LOT of scientific mumbo jumbo in this journal article. However, the take home message is simple: doing 10 minutes of free writing about your exam anxieties could boost exam grades by as much as a letter grade. Although this is statistically true in a lab setting, it may or may not be true when it comes to real exams (does anyone else go to a school where there is barely any room to stand outside of the exam halls, let alone enough space to free write?). Nonetheless, this is an important article because it shows exam performance is NOT only about how intelligent you are and how much stuff you’ve memorized, but also about having the right conditions and mindset. No one else knows what these perfect conditions are except you, and it is crucial for you to take the time to figure them out. It could be always using the “right” pen, engaging in theatre warm ups, or reading Stephen King. Don’t worry about it being weird, do whatever you have to do to get into your “zone” so that you are psyched for those exams and can perform best.

Three Steps to Academic Bliss Step 1: Choosing the Right Courses

Fortune Teller

Image "Fortune_Teller_ 004" courtesy of Flickr User OrigamiNate, licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

There are 3 steps to academic bliss (a.k.a. improving grades):

Step 1: Chose the right courses

Step 2: Picking the right tools

Step 3: Fine-tune your techniques


Instead of covering all three steps in one very long article, I will do three shorter articles instead. So to start off… Step 1: choosing the right courses.


The most critical step to getting good grades is ensuring you are taking the right courses. A class that plays on your strengths makes getting good marks easier and more fun. Conversely, a class that is both boring and hard can wreck your term and GPA.

Determining which courses to take can be simple or complex. In general, there are three types of courses students take: required courses, interesting courses, and choice courses. Required courses are well… required, either for a degree/program or another course. Students take interesting courses because they like it (these are usually far and few in between), and choice courses include everything else. For example, psychology might be a choice course for a science student who must take a certain number of arts credits. Likewise, an anthropology student may have a choice between medical and cultural anthropology. In the grand scheme of course selection, we are really only concerned with choice courses. Students must take required courses and it’s fairly easy to decide whether to take an interesting course. These two types of courses combined set a “baseline” for your GPA. Choosing the right choice courses will boost your average above this.

Before I go any further, I want to state that I believe anyone can do well in a course, even if that course is in a discipline you don’t believe you are good at. Therefore, do not let a course with hard reputation deter you from taking it if you really want to. However, if you have no great interest in the course, there is nothing wrong with taking an easier course. When I use the word easy (or hard), it implies “easier for you because it plays upon your strength”. Easy and hard are personal, not absolute, gauges of a course’s difficulty.

So just how do you pick the right choice courses for you? Follow these easy steps:

1. Obtain your transcript (unofficial is fine) for all of your years at a post-secondary institution, especially those at your current school.

2. Look at your average for each term. Then note down all of the courses you achieved above average and below average for that grade reporting session.

3. In which courses were you obtaining the highest marks? It is entirely possible you are achieving the highest grades on all of your required courses. In that case, you are either in a major that is perfect for you or you are not using your choice courses to boost your grades as effectively as you can.

4. Look at your top 5 grades (top 2 if you are in first year) and think back to those courses. Did they require a lot of memorization? Lots of problem solving? Abstraction and big picture thinking? Creative interpretation? Essay writing? Formal reports? See if you can find a common thread or a characteristic that is common to most if not all of those courses.

5. Repeat step 4 for your bottom 5 grades.

Steps 4 and 5 should give you an idea of your strength and weaknesses. For example, I have obtained the highest grades on courses that required some understanding and then problem solving. I’m not as good at courses that are mostly memorization or courses with poorly defined course objectives. The more specific you are with your strength and weaknesses, the better.

6. Look deeper at the courses you did well in and think about the exams. Were the exams much more difficult or easier than the rest of the course? Did they feel really “tight” time-wise? Did the prof employ heavy scaling and did that benefit you? Did the course give you a good idea of how the exam was going to go (or was it completely out of the blue)? Are the midterms in class or at night? Are you a better exam taker if you write an exam during certain times?

As exams make up the most part of a course, step 6 should tell you which exam conditions best suit you. For example, I do best in exams with fairly comfortable and questions that are like those encountered during class. I’m not as good in exams that have unexpected questions and not enough time, or those that place emphasis on details (nerves!). If you are picking between a few equally appealing courses, knowing the exam conditions might help you eliminate a few choices. If possible, find courses with exam conditions that are favourable for you.

Step 5 will tell you what kind of courses you might want to try. If you are good at memorization, try something in biology, psychology, history, or the languages. If you’re a very abstract thinker, try some philosophy or higher level math or physics. If you like problem solving, stick to math, chemistry, or classical physics. If you excel at writing essays and papers, try English. Narrow down a list of courses that are good fits for you, not the other way around. Normally when studying, students fit their study strategies to the courses they are taking. That works well, however, isn’t it better to find ones that are perfect for you without extra effort?

Ultimately, the Golden rule of course selection is simple: play on your strength. The above steps present a systematic approach to figuring out what those strengths are and will hopefully help you pick courses that emphasize your strong suits.

Next Up: Picking the right tools…

Something Borrowed: 5 Ways to Avoid Panicking on a Hard Test

When I think of an idea for a blog post, I tend to google my topic to see what other people have said about it. Sometimes I find that no one else quite had my perspective, so I write about it. Other times, I find articles, blog posts, and even youtube videos that are so terrific I probably can’t do better. “Something Borrowed”, a weekly feature on this blog, aims to showcase those resources.

Title: Monday Master Class: Five Ways to Avoid Panicking on a Hard Test
Author: Cal Newport


The scenario is common. You sit down with your test, flip it open, start reading the first question, and then…panic. You have no idea how to answer it. Minutes pass. A cold sweat glistens. Eventually, you move on to the next question. But your brain, now buzzing with the electricity of nervous dread, cannot focus. The answer eludes you here as well. Suddenly a thought slips in from the periphery: “what if you left the whole test blank?” At first, it’s soft. Almost comical. But the insistence grows. As does your panic…

Comments: A couple of extra comments: 1) number 2 on the list, create a time budget, is something I am unable to do during exams because I worry I am wasting time figuring out if I am on time (yes, it’s quite the conundrum). I get around this by figuring out the number of points on the exam beforehand by asking the prof and creating a time budget before the exam. When this is not possible, I quickly divide the exam into quarters (about 15 minutes per quarter on a midterm and 30 minutes per quarter on a final). This keeps me roughly on track. 2) The importance of number 3 (change goal from letter grade to marks grab) depends on the course/exam. In courses with very exact answer and solutions (e.g. math, physics, biology), it is imperative that you hit every single point so that you can get maximum grades. However, in an exam with more holistic marking and abstract thinking (i.e. where there isn’t necessarily a “right” answer), make sure your central premises are sound with evidence to back them up and don’t sweat the nitty gritty details.

I am a huge fan of Cal Newport’s blog even though I don’t always agree with his philosophies. Look through his blog because it will get you thinking and revising your own study strategies even if his advices don’t work for you.

Something Borrowed: 10 Things you Wish your Professor Had Told You

When I think of an idea for a blog post, I tend to google my topic to see what other people have said about it. Sometimes I find that no one else quite had my perspective, so I write about it. Other times, I find articles, blog posts, and even youtube videos that are so terrific I probably can’t do better. "Something Borrowed", a new weekly feature on this blog, aims to showcase those resources.


Title: 10 Things Your College Professor Won’t Tell You
Authors: Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Hyman


Everyone is into transparency these days. You would think you would know all there is to know when you get a college syllabus filled with course rules, policies, learning objectives, grading procedures, even snow policy. Boy, would you be wrong. The important stuff is what the prof will never tell you. Here are 10 examples…

Comments: This article is written by U.S. professors, so they should know what they are doing. However, I would caution against trying number 7 too often (or at all). Although professors are generally kind, they probably won’t think it’s fair that you should get extensions simply because you asked for one. As well, some professors care whether you attend class or not, others don’t. Therefore, number 5 really depends on your prof.