Quickie: 5 Things to do this Summer

It is finally feeling like summer! I know most of the country has been experiencing heat waves and forest fires, but where I live has just begun to heat up – yay!

Sunflowers

If you’re heading to post secondary education in the fall, this is your last “huzzah” summer before you have to worry about jobs, tuition, and even summer school (unless you have lots of money and/or are really good at school and so don’t have to worry about these trivial things). So… what to do with your last few precious months of freedom? Consider these suggestions.

  1. Travel. I know it’s a terribly cliché suggestion, but most people don’t travel a lot during university. And that is probably because of the afore mentioned jobs, tuition, and summer school. So if there is somewhere you really want to go… go now, or hold your peace for another four years.
  2. Do something fun. Maybe travelling isn’t your thing, or you are stuck flipping burgers at McDonalds have to be in town for whatever reason. Don’t despair and take the time to fully relax. Don’t worry too much about university and don’t try to pre-study the material. Clear your head, do something different, and recharge for the school year.
  3. Try something new. ‘Nuff said.
  4. Crash a class. If you are near a university or college, even if it’s not the one you’ll be attending in the fall, consider attending a couple of classes. Look up their class schedule on-line and find an introductory class into something you’re interested in. I know I said above to not worry too much about school, but if you’re curious about what a university class is like, go check it out. Do not show up to every class and frantically take notes. Rather, observe. See how the prof teaches and how the students learn. Note how different the class is from a high school class and how easy it is to lose track of what is going on (yes, you’ll be lost because you probably don’t have enough background knowledge, but notice how many other students seem confused)! Don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed – you’re already leagues ahead of your classmates who have no idea what’s coming (unless of course, they read this blog :P).
  5. Get your finances in order. This is the inner economics geek in me speaking, but how will you pay for university? Who’s paying for tuition? Living expenses? Travelling costs? Figure out the deadlines for student loans, scholarships, and bursary applications. If you are applying for loans, know the terms! If you get approved for a large amount of money, don’t feel pressured to spend it all. You will have to pay it back (you’d be surprised at how many students don’t figure this part out until they’ve already spent the money). If you don’t think debt will be a problem (and if your family/trust fund isn’t going to bankroll everything), check out this article in the Globe and Mail. The average Canadian student will come out of university with $15,000 (Quebec) to $35,000 (Nova Scotia and Newfoundland) in debt. That’s a lot of money and it is absolutely worth your time to figure out how you can minimize it. If there is interest, I will do an article on money management in the future (let me know in the comments).

If you still have time, check out some more things to do before classes start and read some of these other blog posts to prepare for your upcoming academic journey.

Happy belated Canada Day and Independence Day!

Quickie: The Toilet List

Shit happens. Ever bombed or missed an exam? Failed a course? Left your assignment at home? Got dumped? Got rejected for a job? Missed course registration? Waited five hours in the rain for your favourite band, only to have them cancel at the last minute?

Yeah.

And it’s not just the big stuff either. If the weather is terrible, you have a tiny cold, and you meet a nasty person at volunteering or on the job, the day can feel pretty crappy.

I was having a string of bad days, and after wallowing for a bit (though thankfully not as dramatically as these Adele fans on Saturday Night Live), I decided to create a Toilet List (TL).

What is the TL?

It’s like a bucket list, but instead of putting down things you want to do before you die, you put down all the shit that has happened in your life lately. The TL can be super simple, with just one column listing everything crappy in your life lately. However, if you’re a bit more optimistic, add an additional column and write down one thing that is going well for one thing that isn’t. If you’re a go-getter, add a column for things you could do to make things a little less shitty or to brainstorm alternatives.

If you’re a bit literal, you could always write your list on a paper towel or toilet paper and actually flush your TL down the toilet. There is something very cathartic about that!

The TL is a way of getting things off your chest. To stop letting things from weigh you down. It’s a place to put the shit that happened so that you could move on. (Of course, talk to a friend or a professional if you haven’t been feeling good for a while or have a history of depression.)

Shit happens, but that’s not the end of the world. You could always flush it down the toilet.

Email Management for Students

Gmail - Inbox (10 000)

"Gmail - Inbox 10000" Courtesy of Flickr user paperjam. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Dear New First Year Students: be prepared for war with your email inbox throughout your university/college career! The influx of school/course/club announcements, work-related emails, and SMA (Save My Ass) messages from classmates can be dizzying. Sometimes staying organized seem to be an illusion, and while there are many email organization systems on the internet not all are suitable for students. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way. Here is an email management system that works for me. I hope it can help you on your quest to staying organized.

First a note on my e-mail habits:

  • I use Gmail* and receive 2 – 20 emails a day
  • I strongly dislike having unread e-mails in my inbox
  • I receive school, work, and communication from close friends in this e-mail. As well, my “official” school email is forwarded to this account
  • I do not receive facebook emails, twitter updates, product promos and other crap in this e-mail (that’s taken care of through a “crappy stuff” e-mail)
  • SotN-related email doesn’t get forward into this account, but I use the same system on my SotN inbox

* This system can be implemented for Hotmail/MSN/Window’s Live/Yahoo!/Your official school e-mail, but Gmail has the best set of tools for organizing and managing the email inbox.

Most importantly…

  • Messages must be easily locatable
  • Messages not immediately useful is filed out of the way
  • Emails requiring reply are answered as soon as possible
  • Documents for course work are stored for record unless they exceed 50 MB in size

The Basic Elements are…

1. Labels and Priority Inbox

Gmail labels are awesome because they allow one message to have multiple affiliations. They are also the cornerstone of this management system. The labels I use include “university”, “work”, “miscellaneous”, and “awaiting decision” as well as the inbuilt “important” and “starred” functionality. Each incoming message is tagged with at least one label. Furthermore, I use Priority Inbox with 4 levels: “important and unread“, “all starred“, “all awaiting decision“, and “everything else“.

2. Filters

All incoming e-mail forwarded from my “official” school e-mail has “university” as a label. Those from my boss and coworkers are labeled “work”. E-mail with certain words in its title – such as the name of a school club – is tagged with the name of the club, and so on. When set up properly, filters minimize the amount of time spent manually filing e-mails, so its worth the time investment.

3. Keyboard shortcuts

Enabling this (in Gmail settings) greatly speeds up the email filing process. Press “l” for labels, “j” for the next email, “e” for archive, etc. Don’t know what shortcuts to use? just press “?” (question mark) for a full list right on your screen. If you’re new to keyboard shortcuts, this might take some getting use to. Accidentally pressing a key in Gmail can result in unwanted archivals, deletions, and mutes, so be careful.

4. Gmail Labs

Labs are amazing! My favourites are:

  • Signature Tweaks – a must as it puts the signature above any quoted text when replying to or forwarding a message (this is a lot more logical than the other way around so I don’t know why this isn’t the default…)
  • Undo Send – a must for anyone who’s trigger happy with the send button
  • Inbox Preview – shows a preview of the inbox while Gmail is loading and is useful for slower computers or turtle-speed internet connections
  • Refresh POP Accounts – useful for checking POP accounts (e.g. that “official” school email forwarding into Gmail) without going into email settings.
  • Some other useful labs: Filter Import/Export, Google Calendar Gadget, Send & Archive, Title Tweak, Preview Pane (New!), and Unread Message Icon.

Yeah… I really do love labs 🙂

So how does this all work together?

When I open my inbox, I first check to see if any messages can be deleted. These include random chain letters from friends, ads from websites I shop at, and the occasional junk email. If there is an email I have been waiting for, I open that first. If nothing jumps out, I open the first message in the “important and unread” section of the inbox and skim through it. If it’s some sort of announcement or something not requiring a reply (e.g. notice about homework from prof), I’ll make sure it’s labeled correctly and archive it. If it is something that requires a quick reply, I reply, ensure the labels are correct, and then archive it. If I’m in a hurry or the email entails doing something I’m not sure about yet, I ensure the labels are correct on that e-mail, add the “awaiting decision” label, and archive it. If it’s something really important and I know I’ll have to look at it again soon (e.g. exam location announcements), I ensure the labels are correct, star it, and archive it. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Once there are no more new messages, there should be no messages in the “important and unread” and “everything else” sections of the inbox (as archiving a message removes it from the inbox). Everything important has a star and shows up prominently near the top. Everything about which I have to make a decision has an “awaiting decision” label and shows up just below the starred messages.

After going through the new messages, I take a quick look at the starred messages. I note anything important coming up and remove stars from things that are no longer important. Then I move on to “awaiting decision” to see if I could make any decisions or reply to any emails. If I can, I do whatever’s necessary, then remove the “awaiting decision” label.

Whenever I need something, I usually use the search function, so you might ask: why bother applying labels if you’re going to search for something anyway? Let’s take the example of my coworker Bob and my professor Bob. If I want a message from my professor, I can limit the search to the “university” label. If I want a message from my coworker Bob, I can limit it to “work”. This is especially helpful when I try to search for something ambiguous like “report”, “deadline” or “meeting”.

As I don’t receive too many messages a day and I check my e-mail just about every day, this system works well and I rarely feel overwhelmed. However, I know this system isn’t for everyone (200 new incoming messages anyone…?) For more email management tips, check out this comprehensive source for some ideas. There are some great tips herehere, and here for Gmail users, and if you don’t use Gmail, switch to it! (but some general tips are here and here for those of you still dragging your feet).

How do you organize your e-mail? Do you use another tool I’ve missed? Share 🙂

5 Things to do Before Classes Start

Prepare

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

Funny Error Message

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!)

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!

FYI: Citation Blues? Try Zotero!

FYI is a weekly column dedicated to presenting resources and other topics of interest to students.

Title: Zotero
Author: Center for History and New Media
Type of Resource: Firefox/Browser Plugin

Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources. It lives right where you do your work—in the web browser itself.

Link: http://www.zotero.org

Comments: Have you ever written a research paper only to realize you spent almost as much time on the citations as the paper itself? Have you ever tried to decipher your own handwriting about a source only to realize it’s utterly incomprehensible? Have you ever started to compile a “work cited” page the night before a paper is due, only to find that you didn’t have a crucial piece of bibliographical information? Fear no more, Zotero, a handy dandy Firefox Plugin, can solve these problems and more.

Functionally, Zotero is a bibliography maker (like EndNote) on crack. It stores and organizes your sources and generate bibliographies in various formats. It is also capable of “grabbing” bibliographic data directly from the pages you are viewing along with a searchable screenshot (so you can easily find where each piece of information came from). This is especially good with some article databases like Ebsco. Other functions include inserting citations in Word or Open Office, syncing across multiple computers, and sharing “libraries” of sources. One caveat is that it only works for Firefox, though a standalone version designed to work with other browsers is in the works.

I have used Zotero extensively both in and out of school, and I believe it is a vital part of any student or researcher’s tool-kit. And with its highly affordable price tag (free!) there is no reason not to take it for a spin!

(Click here if you need help getting started.)