2012 in Review

Scratches on the Notepad has seen tremendous growth this past year. This blog has been read almost 22,000 times in 2012, or over 60 times per day!

Month by Month Readership 2012

These are the top 5 most read articles this past year (number of views in brackets) – you might want to check them out:

  1. Constructing the Perfect Cheat Sheet: Part 1 (5272)
  2. Your First Day (Of University) (5209)
  3. What if you miss an exam? (1443)
  4. Constructing the Perfect Cheat Sheet: Part 2 (988)
  5. Reader Questions: What do I do if I failed an exam? (870)

So readers are concerned with cheating, missing, and failing exams… while being anxious about their first day of school.

Of course, trends are seasonal. In September, Your First Day and The good, the Bad, and the Ugly are popular. While in December and April, people are more concerned with cheating, missing, or failing exams. Of course, if you are concerned about these things, I suggest also checking out Making the Most of Review Sessions and Exam Viewings. For next time. And while you’re at it, you might want to know your enemy how people mark exams.

Readers by Country 2012

Most readers are from the United States, Canada, or the UK, but in total, readers from 133 countries read something on SotN. Oh, the day where my blog’s been to more places than I ever will…

Of course, we wouldn’t have nearly as many readers if not for people sharing my articles on twitter and Facebook (so please keep doing so!). Also people came here from math.ubc.ca and calnewport.com (both of which are wonderful resources, although the former is probably only useful if you’re in math at UBC).

So THANK YOU dear readers from the bottom of my heart. SotN would not be the same without you. I hope you have an amazing 2013 and please visit often!

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Feeling Overwhelmed…?

Flying Leaves

Image “Falling Leaves” courtesy of stock.xchng user Mattox.

It’s late September. The leaves are turning yellow, the days are getting shorter, and… you are lost in your classes. You start to slip behind in one. No big deal, you’ll catch up on the weekends. Of course, hanging out with friends, playing video games, or getting drunk at frat parties are much more interesting than studying. And so you don’t catch up. Then more assignments start popping up. You procrastinate more because you’re behind and slip even further behind. That affect another class, and then another, and then another. And before you realize it, your prof starts to speak Martian. And soon, too soon, your first round of midterms are here.

While you can always dream about making the perfect cheat sheet or trying to do damage control after failing a midterm, your time might be better spent studying now. But how? How do you catch up if you are way behind in your classes?

Step 1: Start somewhere.

Choose a class to start with. It might be your most important course. It could be the one you’re most behind in. It could be the one you’re least behind in so you can quickly catch up and move on to classes you’re more behind on.

Step 2: Figure out why you’re behind.

Have you fallen so far behind that lectures no longer seem to make any sense? Does the prof have an accent you can’t understand? Is there another reason the lectures aren’t making sense? Is there a huge disconnect between what’s covered and practice problems at home? Do you always have trouble completing the assignments because they are too hard? Is there so much material you don’t know what to focus on?

List the top few reasons you think you’re behind in a course, then:

Step 3: Fix it.

Need to go over the material? Use an effective study technique and get through it. If your prof has an accent or you just have trouble understanding him or her the first time around, ask your prof if you can record the lectures. If the assignments seem to have nothing to do with the lectures, talk to your prof – there may be a connection you’re missing. Need help with the assignments? Go to office hours or form study groups. Don’t know what to focus on? Look for learning outcomes detailing exactly what you have to know or make it yourself.

Whatever the problem is, find one or more solutions and try them. 

Step 4: Reiterate

If your solution in 3 doesn’t work, don’t give up! Try another way to solve the problem. All caught up in one course? Repeat steps 1 through 3 for another course.

Step 5: There is no way to get around actually studying.

No, there is no magic bullet. And if you’re looking for an instant fix… well, please tell me when you find it. Because I would love to know! For now, nothing beats taking the time to actively learn and understand the course material. However, you can learn to be more efficient at learning. Really work on figuring out what study techniques work the best for you and how to minimize the amount you need to spend on a topic to understand or master it. In other words, judge how well you’re doing based on your progress and accomplishments, not by how much time you spend! In other words, don’t pseudo-study!

Quickie: It’s not about going to class…

I’m sorry for not blogging for such a long time! I went on an amazing trip to Europe, and with the planning, going, and recovering (because of course I needed a vacation to recover from that vacation), I had some trouble getting back to the groove of things.

BUT… autumn is here again and with it comes school. If you’re in first year, you’re probably a little overwhelmed by everything right around… now.

I still vividly remember my first year. I was anxious about academics and asked students in upper years for advice. Of course, everybody told me to go to class. So I went to every single class.

And did the 24 Hours crossword.

And checked my email.

And did homework for the class after.

And doodled.

And distracted my neighbours by chatting with them.

And got quite a few evil eyes from a certain prof because I was in the second row.

Image “/doh” courtesy of flickr user striatic. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

You want to guess how I did in that class?

So “go to class” implies going class and learning actively. That means trying to follow the professor’s train of thought, attempting example questions posed, and asking questions when you don’t understand something. You may have to pre-read and will most certainly have to review the material after.

It’s not just about going to class, it’s about paying attention!

So next time you go to class, look around the lecture hall when the prof is talking and note how many people are not paying attention. You’ll be amazed. Or maybe you’ll just be one of them.

‘Nuff said.

If your professor gives you the wrong grade…

After my last round of exams, I logged on to my school’s online portal to check my grades. There, buried among the other grades, was an F. I stared at the screen in stunned disbelief for a good 30 seconds. Sure, I’ve failed smaller quizzes/tests/exams and assignments before, but not a full course. AND this course was a pre-req, so failing it would have set me back at least a year. This was also surprising because although I wasn’t doing spectacularly before the exam, I wasn’t close to failing either.

As these thoughts went through my head, I started panicking. After a few minutes in which my mood did one of these:

Mood over Time

I calmed down a little and tried to calculate what I would have had to get on the final exam to get that F. That turned out to be 0%. The professor hadn’t counted my final exam grade at all.

At this point I had no idea what to do. Classes were over, so it wasn’t like I could just see prof after class. The mark was submitted to the university and posted on the online student portal, which meant it was official for the time being. After a few false starts, it got sorted out. This was, however, quite a stressful situation.

So if your professor messes up your grade (or something else), try these steps:

1. Take a deep breath. Trying to get a professor to listen to you while you’re panicking just doesn’t work that well.

2. Get in contact with the professor. Call if possible. Otherwise, e-mail. Always follow good e-mail etiquette (which is also good phone etiquette). Tell them who you are and what the problem is. Do not accuse them of anything or put them on the defensive. If this grade is for an assignment or a midterm, wait to hear back from them (do not proceed as that would be overkill). If this is a final exam grade or a final grade, wait at least a day before you do anything else.

3. If you haven’t heard back from your professor, call or e-mail them again. Don’t pester them repeatedly by calling every 10 minutes though!

4. If you still don’t hear back from your professor, get in touch with the department which administers the course. Call the department secretary (you can probably find this information online) and ask him or her for advice. Explain why it’s important that you get this sorted out quickly and ask them to advocate or follow up on your behalf. In my case, the department secretary was really helpful and probably gave the professor a nudge. He then got back to me and the new grade was up and online in about a week.

5. If the department secretary is not helpful or you still haven’t heard back from the prof after three days, try to get in touch with the department head. This is going over the professor’s head, so make sure you give the professor a reasonable amount of time (at least 3 days) to respond. Otherwise, the department head will likely tell you to wait.

6. If you still haven’t found a solution (which is unlikely), get in touch with your faculty’s advising office. Speak to an advisor. He or she will then likely then follow up on your behalf. This time is really busy for the advising office, so going to them first without consulting the department won’t get you anywhere.

7. After you receive confirmation that people are taking care of it, sit back and wait. Depending on the situation and the amount of paperwork, it could take a few weeks for the change to be reflected in your student portal online.

Remember to always be polite and patient or you risk alienating potential allies. Start with the prof and work your way up.

*Pssstttt* Don’t forget to subscribe to SotN in the sidebar!

 

Review Sessions Anyone?

Review sessions from profs or TAs are useful for revisiting tough topics, obtaining answers to difficult questions, getting a feel for what the profs or TAs consider important, and gauging how well you’re prepping for a particular exam. So you’d think that everyone would attend and pay attention at these sessions… right?

Nope. Yes, lots of people come to review sessions, but then spend the entire time on Facebook, twitter, or 9gag. Others don’t look at the board or take any notes, and some don’t even come with a pencil or pen! If you’re one of those people, you might be thinking “oh, but I’m still there and listening, so it’s all good”.

Sure… Maybe (and that’s a pretty big maybe) you’re paying attention, and perhaps being there at the review session is helping you more than sitting at home. BUT you could get so, so, so much more out of a review session by doing the following:

1. Come prepared (or at least know what you don’t know).

Did the prof or TA give out problem set or sample exams before hand? Were there problem set questions that you were stuck on? Are there topics you really didn’t understand from lectures? Are you uncertain about whether a topic will be covered on the exam? Figure these things out before the review session. If you’re pressed for time, at least skim your notes or textbook and figure out which areas you’re weakest at. What are you most confused about? What’s most important? Prioritize so you know what you need help with the most.

2. Ask questions or steer the conversation. 

There are always moments during a review session when the prof or TA asks for questions… and nobody says a word. Don’t be shy! Jump in, ask your questions and clear up your confusions. If you don’t, someone else will, and there is no guarantee that their questions will be the same as yours. Do not hesitate to steer the conversation towards areas you need help with, especially if no one else is asking questions.

3. There are stupid questions… but you should ask them anyway. 

Sometimes 5 other people have the same question as you and are too afraid to ask. Other times, your question might be so bizarre that the prof or TA looks at you like you have 5 heads. Ok, so maybe that’s just me. Even so, getting the answers to these questions saves me bucket-load of time later on. So don’t be afraid to ask questions that are a little bit out there or that seem stupid. You might look silly at the review session, but when you ace that section on the exam, no one (not even yourself) will remember your embarrassment.

4. Use your brain.

Take notes, ask questions, highlight areas you still need to work on, or write down any hints the profs or TAs give. Actually try to understand the explanations and and solutions, not just copy them down. Ask for clarification when you need them and mark down any explanations you find confusing. If you’re shy about asking questions and just can’t bring yourself to do it, at least pay attention to what the profs or TAs say or do. The people on Facebook, twitter, 9gag, etc. aren’t using their brains. People who blindly copy down solutions have to spend time later trying to understand what they wrote. Time is precious, so get your brain into high gear, understand things then and there, don’t procrastinate.

5. Pay attention to hints!

Some review sessions are basically question and answer periods. Other times the profs or TAs will throw mini-lectures in. Pay attention to the little hints they are prone to give out while delivering these lectures or when answering questions. If they emphasize something over and over, make a note of it. If your prof keeps saying how he does not believe in the lipid hypothesis, he’s probably going to ask for evidence against that hypothesis. If the prof presents review questions, look at what kind of questions they chose. If they say “don’t worry about it”… don’t worry about it. If there are many questions on the Stanford Prison Experiment, you can bet your rear end that’s going to be on the exam, possibly multiple times.

6. Don’t get too happy or too freaked out.  

After a review session, you may feel ready to take on the world… or you might feel that you’re going to fail. Those feelings are not to be trusted. At a review session, the prof may answer questions about a very narrow range of topics or focus on the toughest areas. The things that he or she covers may not be entirely representative of the actual exam (especially the distribution and weighing of concepts and questions). Breathe, go back to your learning outcomes and your class notes, and refocus. If there are some important topics that weren’t covered in the review session, make sure you brush up on those. Don’t focus your studying entirely on the review session or you might be blindsided on the actual exam. Of course, if you feel like you’re going to fail, that’s always a good kick in the butt to work harder.

The take home message? Pay attention. Get answers to your most pressing questions, note all the hints the prof throws out, and figure out what else you have to cover to be fully ready for the exam.

Good luck on the rest of your exams! Summer IS right around the corner.

Quickie: Making the Most of Extra Time on an Exam

One question I get a lot goes something like this:

I finish an exam with 5 or 10 minutes left. I’m really tired and don’t have the energy or time to check the entire thing over, so what could I do in these few minutes?

Before you get to this stage, on your first run through the questions, annotate your exam. Put these symbols besides each question.

: for questions you have no idea how to do.
+: for questions you aren’t sure about or that are tricky.
nothing: for questions you are fairly confident about.

When you only have a few minutes left, go back and try the “-” questions first. Always try to write something, even it’s just the questions rewritten as an equation, a equation that has something to do with that question, or a relevant key word, time period, or person. You might luck out and get some partial marks.

While you might get a few extra marks, “-” questions are pretty much hopeless at this point because you don’t actually know the answer (and there may not be enough time to come up with one). Spending a lot more time on these questions won’t raise your grades a whole lot. On the other hand, the questions you left unlabeled are thing’s you’re pretty comfortable with already and there isn’t a whole lot you can gain from revisiting these questions. Thus the “+” questions are the most important questions you can revisit. Really dissect these questions, try to figure out why they’re hard or tricky, and get as many marks as you can. The reason this might work well is because you might be very close to the right answer. Giving it some more thought may allow you to get the full (or most) marks.

If you still have time or energy left over, look through the unlabeled questions and see if you can get a few more points here or there.

Of course, this technique works better with certain question types and marking schemes. It works best with things like multiple choice (where taking those few extra minutes to really dissect a question may get you to the right answer) and tests with benevolent markers (who’ll gladly give you the few marks). It might not work so well for results-centric and nit-picky markers, but nonetheless, if you’ve only got a few minutes, give this technique a try.

Happy Easter!

End of Term Reminders

Ahhh! It’s almost April! It’s hard to believe with the crappy weather, but as year comes to a close, here are some things to keep in mind as you head into the (very stressful) exam period:

  • Quadruple check your exam schedule. Be paranoid. A couple of years ago, I had a biology exam on a Tuesday. But for some strange reason, I thought it was on Wednesday. Luckily, I was being paranoid and checked the schedule on Monday night. If I hadn’t, I would have missed my exam. So yeah… check the schedule (multiple times), just in case.
  • Don’t forget any last minute assignments. It’s easy to get caught up in the parties and the fun stuff right now, but don’t forget those last minute homework assignments, reports, or papers that are usually worth a good chunk of marks.
  • You can do it! You can ace that exam/course, even if you didn’t do some well on the midterm. Have confidence in yourself, figure out why you weren’t doing right, change your approach, and keep on trying. You’ll be surprised at how successful you can be.
  • De-stress or take a day off! It’s been a looooong year. So take some time off, relax, and de-stress. This is especially crucial if you feel ready to burn out!
  • Save the major partying for later. Although you should take some time off, now is not the time to get drunk everyday for a week. Sure, go out for a drink or two if it helps you relax, but don’t kill all of your brain cells now, ‘k?
  • Get (somewhat) organized. 
  • Find some balance. Exams are stressful and it’s decidedly unhealthy to be solely focused on that one thing for the entire 1 – 2 weeks you’ll be studying for/writing exams. This doesn’t mean you have to keep doing everything or carry a full social calendar, but it does mean finding something that you can turn to to relax when you’re tired or stressed out. Whether it’s meditation or getting together with friends, find something that works.
  • Remove distractions. Yes, it’s important to maintain some balance during the exam season. But remove any major distractions that are huge time sinks. Yes, that means you have to stop playing WoW, LoL, and Pokemon (or whatever your vices are).
  • Get a life-line. During exams, your entire world revolves around whatever you’re studying. Sometimes it’s easy to lose perspective and get really stressed out. Find a family member or a friend who could calm you down or present a new perspective. This will keep you sane.
  • Take care of yourself! You can’t ace an exam nearly as easily if you’re sick or if you’re desperately trying to stay awake. Eat well, get enough sleep (NOT at the library), and exercise a little. Your body and brain will thank you.
  • If you’re feeling lost about how to study, check out the exam prep series. Also check out some things you should not be doing this exam season.

New posts on SotN will probably be far and few in between in April. Hey, I’ve exams to not fail ace too! Good luck!