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 (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!


Twitter Fun

SotN Twitter Page

Image "SotN Twitter Page"

I have an RSS addiction. Unfortunately, it is not an addiction I’ll be able to quit anytime soon (Is there an RSS anonymous?) Everyday, I click to my trusty Google Reader and inhale the latest articles from websites such as Lifehacker, Hack College, Study Hacks, I will teach you to be rich, Bargainmoose, xkcd, and a dozen other more. Yes, I have rather eclectic interests (and apparently people like to hack things). Often I’ll come across articles that I think SotN readers would enjoy reading, but that I don’t have time to write indepth discussion of (like in an FYI).

Enter twitter. For the rest of this month, I will attempt to highlight one article each day from all these sources that SotN readers might find useful. They could pertain directly to university or just be interesting or fun to think about. I hope you enjoy reading them! As usual, I welcome discussion, so feel free to tweet me back with your opinions.

What are you waiting for? Check out my twitter here!

In a Summer Rut?

Beach Bucket

Image "beach bucket" courtesy of Flickr User c. bueno (Christian Bueno). Licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Ok, I admit it. I’m in a rut. I’ve started writing 3 posts in the last week and couldn’t get past the first few sentences. It’s not that I don’t have plenty of things to say but rather I can’t find the motivation to keep writing. Alas, since I’m less that peachy keen, here are some awesome ideas from other sites to kick of your summer.

If you’re taking summer classes, living in your parents’ basement, and are envious of your friends’ exciting summer plans, create a summer bucket list to alleviate your boredom and save your sanity. I’m really big on goals here at SotN. So list a few things you want to do and get to it! Speaking of bucket lists, if you’ve never seen the MTV show “The Buried Life” (I know, I know, MTV? Really? Really!), you should definitely check out an episode. While the show is quite entertaining all by itself, the idea behind it (make your dreams a reality *now* instead of later) is worth reiterating. You can watch almost all of the episodes online for free on MTV’s website.

If you’ve got your bucket list ready, but is just itching to do something a little different, unusual, or creative, but don’t really know where to start, learn to steal like an artist! This blog post by Austin Kleon is inspiration at its best – clear, direct, and unpretentious. What resonate most strongly with me is that you don’t have to completely know what you’re doing before you start. If you have an idea, let it germinate. Plan the best you can, generate new ideas by consolidating old ones, and fake it ’till you make it. You’ll be surprised by how much you and your idea grows in the process 🙂

So what are you waiting for?

Get out of your summer rut!

(And now on to your regularly schedule program… *cues frantic writing*)

FYI: Scaling, Scaling, Scaling…

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

3 ways of scaling grades

3 ways of scaling grades

From What is the Best Way to Scale Grades?

It happens. An exam question is not clear, or more challenging than intended. The exam is marked by an over-zealous TA. Or perhaps the students haven’t studied as hard as they should have.

As a result, the students’ grades are, in some sense, too low – they do not accurately convey the students’ level of ability or understanding of the material, or are lower than grades given to comparable students with similar levels of knowledge elsewhere in the university.

So the professor scales the grades.

As May rolls around and grades start rolling out, some students are laughing their rear ends off while others are crying tears of sorrow. Ok, so that was a little dramatic. Nonetheless, your grades might have surprised you (hopefully for the better). In this case, it might be because your professor scaled the marks. But exactly how do they do it? This article by Frances Woolley, a Carleton University Economics Professor, addresses 3 ways scaling could be done and what they mean for students. Enjoy!

As it happens, I hope your grades were what you predicted or higher in Exam Prep Day 1! Have a wonderful summer!

Exam Prep Day 7: How will you study?

Example of a Cheat Sheet

Example of a cheat sheet from a cell biology course I did - a lot of information can fit onto one letter size sheet! Copyright 2011 Scratches on the Notepad.

While planning is important, buckling down and actually working through the material is the only way to do well on an exam. Luckily, this process can be greatly streamline and made less painful by using good study techniques. Good study techniques tend to have the following characteristics:

1. They allow you to interact with the information. Be active, not passive.
2. They require you to approach what you learned from different angles, present information in different ways, or generate new content.
3. Result in you being able to explain concepts clearly and concisely.
4. Increase your confidence in your ability to achieve the mark that you want!

Put another way, good study techniques are not get quick rich schemes. They take time to implement properly. Start with techniques that play upon your strength and tweak them until they fit you and the course you are studying for. Do you have a friend who seems to breeze through their courses with little effort? That’s because they have found their “golden techniques” and are able to use them optimally. (“But my friends are geniuses!” you say. And maybe you’re right. Maybe they only need to see the material once to get it. But that – just seeing the material once – is their “golden technique” because it works for them. Some people need very basic techniques, others need some more ingenuity. Work with, not against yourself, and don’t use other people techniques indiscriminately!)

As final exams are coming rapidly there is no time to completely rework your study habits and techniques. Instead, pick one or two to try from the list below and incorporate them into what is already working well with your studies.

Ready? Set? Here we go!

Scratches on the Notepad’s Best Study Techniques:

1. Teach someone. I’m sure you’ve heard that the best way to learn is to teach someone else. Got a classmate who is somewhat lost? Help them! Part of a study group that discusses certain tough questions together? Participate actively! Got no one to talk to? Get an imaginary friend! Yes, you’ll look stupid while doing it, but when you’re trying to explain how to get from A to C and can’t, you’ll realize that you’re missing B. If you’re in a class with a terrible professor who made the topic much more complicated than it needs to be, pretend you are him or her and give mini-lectures to yourself. Better yet, record yourself and put the videos up on youtube to help everyone else. There is something incredibly cathartic (and “in your face”) when you can do the prof’s job better than he or she can, and it is a huge boost of confidence.

2. Make a cheat sheet. If you happen to be in a course in which you are allowed a cheat sheet into the exam, thank your lucky stars. Cheat sheets are incredibly useful not because they’ll provide you with answers on the exam (in fact, I’ve never looked at my cheat sheet for anything other than clarifying details or difficult formulae), but because the real learning occurs while you’re making it. To make a cheat sheet, you have to understand the material, evaluate its usefulness and importance, condense it down to its most important aspects, and then present it on your sheet clearly. All of this means the most crucial part of the course is drilled into your head multiple times. If you’re not allowed a cheat sheet, still make one. All the learning benefits are still there. Another similar option is the mini textbook method. I routinely use a process that is very similar to it. One caveat is this: DO NOT use someone else’s cheat sheet. That just plain doesn’t work because that sheet is specifically adapted for that other person (it may not even make any sense to you). You don’t think the way he or she does and looking at the end product is not nearly as useful as the effort expended to produce it.

3. Make a mind map or a concept chart. If you’re in a course with lots of information that connect with each other (however dubiously), a mind map or concept chart maybe the way to go. These two techniques are very similar and are ways to visualize connections between topics and concepts. It is also good for showing how to solve some problems (i.e. if yes, do this, if no, do that). Making mind maps/concept charts by hand is not difficult, but there is a plethora of mind mapping software as well. I particularly like xmind.

4. Make compare and contrast charts. In courses in which you are presented with several theories for one thing (e.g. theories on personality) or several systems that work together (e.g. cell organelles), try making charts showing their similarities and differences. This method is terrific because you actually have to understand how each individual component work by itself, then compare it with others. I love this method because it clarifies things greatly.

5. Make your own practice exams. Look at an old exam for how questions are worded, then write your own. Think like your professor. When you can write good (read challenging) exam questions and answer them well, you’ve got the material.

Here are some study techniques I know other people have used. They are here for illustrative purposes to show the diversity of techniques that work for different individuals.

– Taking detours on the way to class to work out problems in their heads.
– Always wearing ear plugs while studying.
– Write practice exams under exam conditions, but giving yourself only half or ¾ of the time.
– Doing questions on white boards.
– Writing jeopardy questions.
– Switch locations and studying activity frequently.
– Discussing questions while playing tennis/football.

Now on to the last step! Putting your best self forward.

Exam Prep Day 6: When will you study?

xkcd time management comic

Image "Time Management" courtesy of xkcd, licensed under CC Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License. Ah... the irony :D.

Having spent over 12 years in school, I’m sure you’ve heard over and over about how important time management is. Thus let’s jump right into a simple method for doing that.

First of all, make sure you know when and where your exams are. Write those times and locations down. Triple check. There is no point to studying your ass off only to miss your exam. Now highlight which exams are your top priorities and estimate how much more time you’ll have to spend on it compared to your other courses. It’s ok to think relatively for now.

Grab a calendar (see below for some options) and look for any major milestones in your studying “journey” for each course. Is there a specific time you need to write your practice final? How about a date by which you want to finish all of your problem sets? Mark those dates down. Also note the times you are obligated to do other things. This includes sleeping, eating, exercising, hanging out with friends and family, attending study groups/review sessions, and downtime to relax. There isn’t a whole lot of time left is there?

Now figure out how you’ll study in the time that you do have. If you’re organized and likes to know exactly what you’ll be doing and when, assign a specific time for each task. I find that a little cumbersome and prefer a more flexible approach. Instead of budget time for each task, I budget blocks of time (1 to 4 hours) for each subject. Then at the start of each block, I look at my to-do list and try to accomplish the most important tasks first. This has the added bonus of allowing me to assign more time for courses that are of higher priority.

Although breaks are important, it is easy to let them run overtime. If this is an issue, try using a timer. A good study to break ratio is 6:1 (e.g. study for 60 minutes, take a 10 minute break).

If you’re looking for a good scheduling system, here are some options:

1. Google Calendar for the electronically inclined.
2. Mozilla Sunbird for those who prefer a desktop program.
3. Gantt Chart for those with lots of things going on (I’ve never used on for studying, but you could give this one a whirl).
4. Old School Pencil-‘n-Paper Calendar/. I use the Dynamic Template from to create customized ones. The program is free, extremely easy to use, and definitely worth a try. This is my favourite method because it’s easy to use and incredibly portable.
5. Smartphone calendar apps.

Phew! We’re almost done. Only 2 more posts left in this series. The next post? Awesome study techniques.

Exam Prep Day 5: What tasks do you need to accomplish?

Now that you:
1) Know how well you are doing in your classes,
2) know what marks you are aiming for on the final,
3) figured out what you have to study, and
4) gathered resources together,

it’s time to make todo lists!

The steps below work for me, but definitely adapt it to suit your needs.

The first thing to do is grab a sheet of paper for each subject. Now write these headings (make sure you leave space between them): “Review”, “Concepts”, “Practice”, and “Sample Exams”.

“Review” consists of going over your notes and textbooks and learning (hopefully relearning) some of the topics. Things to put in this section are readings that you have to (re)do and notes you should read or rewrite.

“Concepts” include all the concepts you have yet to understand or is confused about. Go as detailed as you possibly can. This section should be dedicated to big, overarching concepts that are super important or small details that are tripping you up. If you find whole sections of topics confusing, slot that into the review section.

“Practice” consists of any practice questions, problem sets, assignments, homework, online quizzes, and the works. These are questions that you want to do before your final to solidify your learning of the material or to familiarize yourself with the exam format. You may have a few or tons of questions. If you have too many to do realistically, note down the most important ones and start from there. If you don’t have enough, make your own!

“Sample Exams” are the practice finals or (even better) old finals that you should write under exam conditions.

Your list will be constantly updated as you think of new tasks. Let it evolve. As you get nearer to exam time, it may be necessary to cut out some tasks because you don’t have the time to complete them. Use your best judgement and focus on those tasks that would give you the highest marks.

If you like using web applications, here are a few of my favourite minimalist online todo apps:

Google Tasks:
Tasko (Based on taskpaper):

Alrighty! Moving right along onto scheduling