5 Things to do Before Classes Start


Image "Prepare" courtesy of Flickr User Photo Monkey, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The start of the new school year is a hectic time for first year students. New environment. New people. New skills to learn and use. To make starting university a little bit more smoother, here are five things you can do now to get ready for classes.

1. Get your Student Card – ASAP

Long line-ups at the Carding Office is a unique but often unwanted experience. If you enjoy lining up for half an hour to get your photo taken by a tired and stressed out photographer and then waiting another 15 minutes for a tired and stressed out office worker to print out your card, then by all means wait until school starts. Otherwise, go now and get it done without line-ups and hassles. Ditto for library cards, bus passes, key cards, or any other paraphernalia you have to get.

2. Walk Around Campus and Locate Your Classrooms – 2 weeks before school starts

While walking around with a tour guide is a great way to learn some useful information (this place sells the best falafel on campus) and trivia (nuclear waste used to be stored in this building), taking a solo trek around campus is the best way to get a feel for the culture and pace of the school. While summer tends to be a bit more relaxed, the atmosphere really doesn’t change. This is also your chance to gawk like a tourist and still get away with it or pretend you’re not a first year student and see if you stick out like an Arts student in the Engineering building. Also take the opportunity to locate your classes and plan how you’ll get from one to the next within the allocated amount of time between classes. Do a “dress rehearsal” if your campus is large. You may get some help with this if your school has a good orientation program for new students.

3. Register for classes – ASAP

Registration times tend to vary in universities across Canada, so if you’ve already done this, great! If you haven’t, plan out your courses carefully before your actual registration time. Don’t make the same mistakes I did! If you don’t know what courses to take, ask a friend who’s a couple of years ahead. If you’re new to the area and don’t know anyone, walk into a cafe (one of the 10 billion Starbucks or Tim Horton’s) on campus during slow periods and chat with other students. This may sound a tad bit creepy, but explain that you’re a new student who doesn’t know anyone on campus and would like some course suggestions. Alternatively, e-mail you faculty or department and ask them what courses are popular with their students. You could also try asking if they could put you in touch with an older student or mentor.

4. Check out Ratemyprofessor.com and Google your Profs – Before or As Soon as You’ve Registered

Do this before you actually show up for class. While the ratings on ratemyprof are subjective, the comments can be really helpful. If 20 people mention that one prof cannot stand tardy students and give pop quizzes frequently, make sure you’re never late! Don’t use the comments as your sole source of information though and take them with a grain of salt (especially when they seem to contradict each other). Another way to get a feel for the professor is to Google them. Go to their research or teaching page analyse their tone. Unless someone else wrote that prof’s page, these pages often reveal the professors’ attitude towards teaching. Even armed with all this information, try to show up on class with an open and positive mind (especially for profs with extremely low ratings). As Harry Potter (and decades of research) clearly shows, prophesies tend to fulfil themselves. Expect the prof to be good and they just might be. Expect them to be bad and they most certainly will be.

5. Stock up on school supplies – 1 or 2 weeks before classes start

You will need a lot of paper. I mean, A LOT. Unlike high school, you’ll have to print most of your own course material, problem sets, and notes. Printing at school can get expensive, so buying a printer and stocking up on paper is a good idea. Shop before school starts (not in the first few weeks after it does), especially if the only place you can shop is the campus bookstore. It will be ridiculously crowded the first few weeks of classes as all students head there to buy course material and school supplies.

What about buying textbooks? I recommend buying second-hand whenever you can and buying after classes start if you can’t. Check out the textbook buying guide for additional tips.

Good luck with your preparations!


Lessons From Course Registration

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Image "Not Found" courtesy of Flickr User chiaraogan, Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Course registration was a couple of days ago for my year at my university. As my registration time was early, I parked my not-quite-awake self in front of the computer to monitor the number of open spots left. After ensuring no last minute changes were necessary and frantically clicking “refresh registration status”, my registration finally opened. I clicked “register all” and waited for the “all courses registered successfully” message to appear. It didn’t. One of my required courses just wouldn’t register. After re-clicking “register course” several times (it could have been a computer glitch…) I realized that the system didn’t think I had the first year pre-requisites for that course. This was when my “darn it! How could I have been so stupid” moment kicked in.

In first year, I did a “special” program with course codes that differed from the typical first year course codes. These “special” course codes are usually included in the pre-reqs alongside their equivalents, but not for this course. Furthermore, I assumed that like most courses, I could register first, then wait for humans to sort out the pre-reqs later. Unfortunately, this course doesn’t do that and just bars anyone without the listed pre-reqs from registering.

My “how could I have been so stupid moment” stemmed from the fact that I knew my “special” course codes weren’t listed as pre-reqs. However, I just assumed that I could register for this course first and wait for pre-req checks later. I would have realized this wasn’t the case if I had just done a test registration (yet another mistake). After a mini “aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!” moment, I e-mailed the course coordinator while watching the number of available seats in the course decrease. Fortunately, this was sorted out soon after and I made it into the course.

Although this issue was resolved quickly, it was a headache that could have been avoided easily. Here are some of the things I learned from this process:

1. Don’t be complacent! Remember to check pre-requisites carefully, e-mail the course coordinator/department if there is even a tiny concern, and do test registrations if possible. It’s better to be careful early than to realize too late that things are screwed up, especially if you’ve done something that’s not the norm. Be vigilant even if you’ve registered for courses before without trouble!

2. Don’t assume! This goes for more than course planning.

3. Learn from other people’s experiences. If I had asked the students in the year ahead of me (who did the same program I did in first year) about this course, they would have told me to e-mail the course coordinator first. On the flip-side, some sources are more reliable than others. When conflicting opinions arise, go to the official source.

4. Have a Plan B. Think briefly about what to do if something goes south (before it does!). Know where to find the contact information of people who could help, fix, or speed things up.

5. Take action and be patient. In my case, I ended up e-mailing the course coordinator and my first year program’s coordinator. I also asked people from previous years and my year whether they had any trouble registering for this course (a little too late, but better late than never). I didn’t have to contact so many people, but doing something made me feel less helpless as I waited. Try a few different routes to solve a problem without going overboard. If you’ve exhausted all options, calm down or move on to something that could keep you occupied.

Hopefully your course registration went/goes more smoothly than mine did!  (Comments? Write them below!)

FYI Five: Study Resources, E-mail Help, and the National Anthem

Life is much more mellow after a long weekend, no? Here are some interesting resources/news for your reading pleasure.

  • Kevin from schools.com (a US website advocating the importance of higher education) sent me this wonderful article about online resources to help students with their studies. Although these seem to be mostly US-based sites, Canadian students should also find their content useful. If you’re stuck having fun in summer school, also check out my article on summer school study tips.
  • I recently discovered Boomerang, a Firefox/Chrome plugin that allows scheduling emails to be sent out at a later time. I’m going gaga over this plugin because it is so incredibly useful. Most email clients organize emails by the date received from most recent to least recent. That means when most people check their emails as they get to work at 9 am in the morning, they’ll see a email sent at 4 am that morning before something sent at 4 pm the previous day. Boomerang allows one to compose a email at 4 pm and schedule it to be sent at 8:50 am the next morning, ensuring it is at the top of the recipient’s inbox. This is an awesome tool for dealing with profs (i.e. they always see your e-mail first) and even bosses (pretend you’re at work on time early). Of course, there are tons of other uses for this amazing plugin. Edit (July 23, 2011): Alas, it appears that boomerang will have a limit of 10 delayed-sent e-mail per month for free accounts starting soon. I am searching for alternatives (so if you know one, let me know!). 
  • Google recently made some waves with Google+, a social networking service similar but not identical to Facebook (though only time will tell whether it’ll have sticking power). Has anyone taken it for a spin? Does anyone have an invite they could send me…? It’s all in the name of research and product testing of course 😛 Edit (July 23, 2011): I now have Google+. Yay! If you would like an invite, let me know 🙂
  • There are many great programs for Canadians. Here are a list of little known ones. Of particular interest for university students are the NRC Student Employment Program and the Grant for Students with Dependents. Definitely check them out if you’re in need of money for school.
  • Although Canada Day has passed, the entertainment value of “O Canada” from the Rick Mercer’s “Talking to Americans” remain undiminished. Here’s to a good laugh.

Happy Independence Day to our neighbours below the 49th parallel!

School and the Academy – Some Thoughts on Math Education

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of sitting on the student panel at the “School and the Academy” conference on math education. In the 40-minute panel discussion, high school teachers, TAs, and professors posed some great questions about the transition from high school to university mathematics to us students. I really enjoyed the session and thought I would expand upon my answers a little more in this blog post. I don’t remember all of the questions, so if you would like another question answered, post it in the comments or e-mail me (this is not restricted to the people at the conference!). Unfortunately, I don’t have inputs from the other 3 members of the panel. Nonetheless, I hope my comments will provoke some interesting thoughts.


Q: Did high school math prepare you for university math? Why or why not?

A: Yes and no. There are really two types of preparedness – academic and mental. Being prepared academically entails having a good enough grasp on the fundamentals to handle the contents of university courses. Being prepared mentally involves adjusting to the university learning environment, orienting oneself on campus, redefining the role of teacher and student, and figuring out how to study. I was academically if not mentally prepared (though that was my own fault as I really dragged my feet). I think that a high school teacher can realistically prepare students academically, but not necessarily mentally. Mental preparation is really up to the students to do (though see below for some suggestions).

Q: What is the biggest difference between high school and university math? What’s the most challenging part of university math?

A: High school math is cookie cutter math. One learns a concept, follows the steps, and arrives at the answer. Everything is black and white. University math is a lot more conceptual and a lot less plug and chug. Someone in the room during the conference used an elephants analogy that I really liked, so here is my car analogy. In high school, students are presented with a blue Toyota, a purple Toyota, and a red Toyota. On an exam, they would be asked about one of the three, or if the teacher is daring, about a yellow or a green Toyota. In university, students are presented with Toyotas, Hondas, Volvos, and Fords. On an exam, they would be given a Mazda. Students would have to realize it’s a Japanese car, figure out which car they learned in class is most similar to it, and then solve the problem using the steps to learned (if they exist). As one gets into more difficult math, things either become a lot more specific (the different types of tires on one brand of a car) or a lot more abstract (throw in buses, trains, and boats).

In high school, it’s easy to recognize where one should start – it’s the how, the steps – that are truly challenging. In university, the steps are the easy part. It’s the starting – realizing that a Mazda is the most similar to one of the Japanese cars – that is most difficult.

Aside from seeing the connections to what is learned in class, students are also introduced to more concepts they haven’t seen before (Fermat’s Last Theorem, differential equations, matrices, graph theory, etc.) and that can be overwhelming. If possible, I would encourage grade 12 teachers to even just name some higher level math concepts in their classes along with some of the most famous questions in mathematics. Sure students would have no idea what they are, but when they are exposed to it in the future, they are better off than than their classmates (who would be going “huh??? What the heck is that? I’ve never even heard of it before”). That extra boost of confidence may encourage them and make math seem less daunting.

Q: What were some things that your high school teachers told you about university that were true, but that you didn’t believe?

A: So many things, here are some that I remember: (italics are my notes)

  • Getting into university is easier than staying there
  • No hand-holding:
    • No one cares if you show up to class and no one will chase after you for your homework
    • No spoon-feeding information and exams that require straight regurgitation
    • Mark grubbing won’t get you anywhere
  • Grades will drop 10 to 15% across the board, providing you don’t fail
  • Not all professors are created equal and not all are understandable. Professors are not paid to teach and some are absolutely terrible at it though there are some great professors. Professors probably won’t know your name.
  • Some courses are taught by TAs and not all TAs can teach. I’ve found that TAs are consistently better across the board than profs – I’ve yet to have a terrible TA but I’ve had some abysmal profs
  • Classes can be really large and it’s easy to feel like a number

Q: What more can high school teachers do to prepare their students? What about professors/TAs in university?

A: High school teachers could prepare students academically and maybe mentally. Teach the topics as thoroughly as possible and really hammer home the fundamentals (I believe the professor panel had some suggestions of what they would like incoming students to know). On the mental side, say some of the things from the answer to the question above. Students won’t believe you when you tell them that they have to take charge of their own education, but they will be able to orient themselves faster than other students once they do get to university. If possible, bring in a few recent graduates and have them tell the students these things. Students may take what their peers say more seriously. As for TAs and professors, I’m not sure. Aside from teaching to the best of your abilities, the rest is really up to the students. Perhaps you could stress that you’re always there to support them and that there are other resources available, such as academic coaching and tutoring, if they are not comfortable going to their profs.


I hope this post is somewhat helpful to the teachers and students reading it! If you have any more questions, please write them in the comments! Happy Canada Day!