Happy Holidays!

I am so sorry for not posting as frequently this past term! I switched academic programs and has been adjusting pretty much this entire term. I promise to post more next year (since the world didn’t end and all ;P)!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah & Happy Holidays! I hope you have an amazing vacation and and an even better 2013 🙂

Christmas Tree

How to Make the Most of an Exam Viewing


Image "OMG!" courtesy of Flickr user Nicolas Hesson (CC BY-NC 2.0).

You’ve survived the exams! In fact, you feel really good about them, even about that one that everyone else thought was killer. Some time later, you get your results back and *gasp* that exam that you thought you did well on? You didn’t. In fact, your grade is so abysmal that you are starting to wonder if you got someone else’s grade (or the prof/TA mistakenly took away 30%). What do you do? Why you go and look at the exam of course.

While exam viewings are terrific opportunities to improve your grades (both on the exam and for the future), few people use them to their full advantage. So how can you make the most of an exam viewing?

First, recognize the goals to any exam viewing. You want to:

  1. Make sure there are no mistakes in the tallying and recording of the marks.
  2. Figure out why you lost your marks and where you made your mistakes.
  3. Obtain some additional marks.


The first goal is easy to achieve. Go through the exam, look at all of the marks, and make sure they add up to what you and the prof has on record. This is objective because you are NOT to look at how any of the questions are marked or try to dispute the marking (that’s step 3). Simply make sure that there wasn’t an adding or transcribing error somewhere.

After that, move on to goal 2. Go through the entire exam and try to figure out what you did wrong and why you lost marks. At this point, assume the professor or TA (or whomever marked the exam) marked perfectly and that there were no errors with the exam, the marking, or the answer key. Ask yourself:

  • Did you get the concept(s) wrong? Are there any gaps in your understanding or knowledge?
  • Did you read the question wrong? Did you go off topic? Did you answer the question that was actually asked?
  • Did you interpret the question correctly? Did you think it was asking something else?
  • Did you make any calculation, copying, or other clerical errors?
  • Where there any other problems? For example, were you so nervous you over-complicated or oversimplified the problems?


Knowing what went wrong is crucial. If your course is a full year course (or the exam is a midterm), you’ll need to know what you got wrong so you don’t make the same mistakes on the next exam. This is more important if you made conceptual errors. Even if the course is not a full year course, you may take similar courses in the future or this course may be a pre-requisite for a harder course. Moreover, this is a great chance to figure out if you make any systematic errors. That is, are you always misreading or misinterpreting questions? Do you make lots of silly errors that cost marks? If you do, it may be time to change your exam writing strategies to minimize these errors. I’ve found that the types of systematic errors I made in university weren’t the types I made in high school. Therefore if this is your first set of final exams, it would behoove you to pay attention.

If you don’t understand how you did something wrong or you don’t understand a question, ask your prof to explain it. He or she will be glad to as long as you do not act like it’s their fault you got the question wrong (yes, people actually do that).

After going through all the questions you got wrong and understanding the right answers, you may disagree with some of the marking. In that case, you may wish to ask for some extra marks or submit your exam for re-marking. This is be appropriate if:

  • You got the question right (or a part of the question right) and it was marked wrong.
  • You are on a borderline mark – for example, between pass/fail or C/B. Do NOT ask for extra marks if you have 98% unless you’re absolutely sure that the question was marked wrong. Otherwise you will be wasting their time and you will look like an obsessive mark grubber.


So how should you ask for extra marks?

  1. Talk to your professor and show them the question(s) in dispute. Indicate that you understand the marking scheme and why it was marked the wrong.
  2. Explain why you think you should get more marks. If you think the marking was too harsh, give a solid reason as to why you should get more. Your excuse should not be “well, I just should”.
  3. If the error was with how you interpreted the question (this is NOT for if you have read the question wrong), explain how and why you interpreted it the way you did. Explain your rationale, especially if the question was somewhat ambiguous. If possible, indicate where you did some scratch work that demonstrated your (somewhat correct) thinking.


You want to appear confident and show that you’ve thought through the questions and the marking. However, coming on too strong will cause your professor or TA to go on the defensive and make them less likely to give extra marks. I believe that most professors and TA’s want their students to do well and would be willing to give extra marks if it can justified (especially if the class average is low). Thus, do the justification for them! As well, while you may be very upset and emotional over the low grade, don’t act it. Avoid hysterics and anger. Attacking them, the exam, or the way the exam is marked will more than annoy them. As well, avoid the pity party and the sympathy card. Also avoid the “I have to get this grade or I will be…” argument. Your prof has heard it all and will think that you’re desperate. Worse yet, they’ll think you’re trying to play them (and no one likes getting played). Be calm, logical, sincere, and above all, don’t put them on the defensive!

As well, if you will be asking for extra marks, pick your “battles” carefully. Focus on the questions where you are most likely to receive the extra marks. This keeps you credible. Asking for extra mark for every question will annoy your prof or TA and also make you look like an obsessive mark grubber. Profs do not like obsessive mark grubbers (who does?) and will not want to help you.

Have a good exam viewing (though I suppose it would be best if you never actually have to use these tips :)) and happy 2012!

You are not stupid, you are awesome.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve written a poem outside of high school English. Nonetheless, I am in a poetic mood today and this poem summarizes my attitude about university (and should prove entertaining if nothing else). If you’re on this blog because of my recent Science One presentation, I will have the PowerPoint slides and handout from the it available soon. 

You are not stupid,
You are not dumb.
You are not less intelligent,
Than anyone else. Really, it’s true.

This is first year,
And everyone struggles,
Your really smart friends,
Are working their butts off too.

Chemistry, math, biology, and French,
Physics, economics, poli sci, and English,
App Sci, forestry, F & H, and philosophy,
Will be be challenging at the beginning.

Hang in there,
And don’t doubt yourself.
This is where you’re supposed to be,
You are capable!

To overcome the learning curve,
And to learn more efficiently,
Discover and use excellent study skills,
And brush up on your time management too.

Learning and getting good grades aren’t easy,
And there are potholes in your way.
You may feel dumb ocassionally as you progress,
But that’s ok – soon you’ll be well on your way.

It might take a while,
To get to where you want to be academically,
But fret not and you will get there.
As long as you keep believing and trying.

This is university,
Where learning occurs,
Both from within the classroom,
And outside in the “real world”.

University is what you make of it,
And no one will hold your hands.
It is up to you,
To discover your passions and dreams.

Take advantage of opportunities,
That will fly your way.
Stretch your wings,
And turn your dreams into reality.

You are not alone,
And there many people who can help you on your journey.
Whether you want to learn how to learn or grow personally,
Reach out! Be proactive! Find resources!

Your education is more than a piece of paper,
And while your studies are important,
Don’t neglect balance and personal well-being.
And be wary of the insidious “burning out” bug!

And while this poem,
May not always rhyme,
Its intentions are sincere,
And its logic mostly sound.

All the best for the future.
You will be successful, have no doubt.
You are not stupid or dumb.
You are awesome.

Have a great weekend and Remembrance Day. 

Nerdy Humour

Since everyone’s probably stressed out due to midterms this week, here are some nerdy and funny videos for your entertainment. Have a break, have a nerdy video!

31 Jokes for Nerds:


Science Jokes:


I will Derive (Parody of I will Survive):


PCR Song:


50 Doctor Jokes:


It seems that most funny and nerdy jokes are sciency… but if anyone knows any other good jokes pertaining to arts, business, engineering, etc., do share!

Ok, now back to studying.

The Mental Battle


Image "Overwhelmed" courtesy of flickr user Walt Stoneburner, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Feeling overwhelmed by university is normal. Everything is new and adjusting takes time. Unfortunately, the adjustment process isn’t always (never?) smooth and may be littered with missed assignments, forgotten deadlines, bombed exams, and crappy essays. Every student is different, and some adjust faster than others. Contrary to popular belief, poor academics is not the reason why people don’t do well in university – adjusting mentally to the fundamental differences between university and high school is. Poor grades is often a symptom, not a cause.

So what can you do? Keep the following things in mind:

1) Most people also feel overwhelmed.

Yes, some students adapt to university like fish to water, but most students adapt to university like dog to water (initially disoriented, but gradually getting use to it and even liking it). You’re not the only one, so don’t be shy and talk to other students about your questions and concerns. Ask others how they deal. If possible, find a few friends a couple of years ahead and ask them how they lived through it all (talk to the survivors!). Ask for advice, guidance, and maybe even mentorship. In fact, some schools offer mentorship programs for new students, so take advantage of them. Use the wisdom of people who’ve “been there, done that”.

University is NOT high school and you cannot think of it in the same way! <– This is possible the most important sentence of the entire post, so I’ll repeat it: University is NOT high school and you cannot think of it in the same way!

2) Professors are professors, NOT teachers.

University professors are generally hired for their ability to do research as opposed to for their ability to teach (in fact, more than one professor/instructor have told me that they were only asked to provide a short teaching statement, and nothing else teaching-related, before being hired).

Thus professors, brilliant people that they are, don’t always understand or appreciate undergraduate students. Some of them hate teaching, but have to. Others just can’t seem to connect with the students. Yet others can’t seem to present the topic in a coherent manner. Some are monotonous, others have an accents, and a few speak too softly. Even worse, some profs simply don’t understand why you don’t understand the perfectly understandable topic they just presented to you. Yeah. I got that too. Add that to the fact that university classes proceed at 3 to 5 times the speed of a high school class and most of the learning is supposed to occur outside of lecture time, and it’s no surprise students feel in over their heads.  What can you do? Realize that:

3) It’s all about you.

No, the universe does not revolve around you, but your academic success does. In high school, it was all about the teacher. He or she wrote out careful notes on the overhead, taught you the 20 types of questions that are likely to show up on an exam, chased you down for homework, and talked with you when your grades are suffering. The teacher was expected to teach at a certain level and model tests after practice questions. The teacher held your hand and made sure you didn’t fall.

That won’t happen in university. Profs won’t write out nice concise notes, teach you every possible application of a theory, chase you down for anything, or worry about your grades. Profs won’t hold your hand and he or she won’t be there to catch you when you screw up.

What’s especially unnerving is that while professors may do their best to teach you, they probably don’t have time to teach you everything on the curriculum and they certainly won’t show you each permutation of a type of problem. I remember mentally blaming my professor the first time I did terribly on an exam. I thought “well, it’s all the prof’s fault because he didn’t teach us everything”. BUT that’s just it – in university, it is not your professor’s job to teach you everything. It is your job to learn everything – the professor is merely there to help. 

This is why studying outside of class hours is so crucial. Typically, the ratio of out-of-class to in-class time spent on a course is:

Easy course – 2:1
Medium course – 3:1
Hard course – 4:1

Yes, that’s 2-4 hours of outside time for each hour of in-class time!

Profs won’t care about you if you don’t make a conscious effort to help yourself. A high school teacher is like a shepherd – he or she kept the herd together and every sheep safe. On the other hand, a university professor is more like a train conductor. He or she will open the door and help you on the train, but his or her main aim is to keeps the train on schedule for the majority of travelers. In high school it’s about making sure no one fails. In university, it’s about making sure most people succeed.

The onus is on YOU. You have to make sure you find your seat on that train. You have to ask for help if you need it. You have to find ways to get back on if you miss it. No one else will do it for you.

4) So what if he/she is smarter than you?

We all know someone like him/her (or is him/her!). The keener at the front of the class. The one with an answer to every question. The Hermione. He or she understands a topic intuitively and has flawless recall. Being the professor’s favourite, a high A in the course seems guaranteed.

So what? Your classmate’s smart. What does that have to do with you? The answer is really “nothing”, but no one likes the keener. Why? Because he or she makes others feel inadequate. Not smart enough. This is especially hard because you were near the top of your class (if not at the very top) in high school. You’re use to being outstanding and being simply “good” takes some getting use to.

This is where I’m going to use tough love. Suck it up. You’re not the best but you don’t have to be the best to get an outstanding grade! If you really care about being the best, work harder at the class. But really, let it go. You don’t like the keener, why are you trying to be him/her? Furthermore, looking like you’re the best is NOT the same as actually being the best. Which one is more important to you…?

5) Don’t write yourself off.

While it’s one thing to be upset about not being the best, it’s another to keep thinking you’re not as good as anyone else. You’re at the same school, the same program, and the same class as whomever you’re comparing yourself to. You are just as good if not better. Don’t believe otherwise! Hang in there, by your fingernails if you have to, and you’ll succeed spectacularly. *Cue bunnies and rainbows and other feel good objects*

6) Perfectionism doesn’t pay.

I’m a perfectionist. There, I said it. I proof-read papers dozens of times before handing it in and can’t seem to send off an e-mail with a typo or a missed capital letter. But I really shouldn’t be (and am working on it) because perfectionism is not a good thing in university. A student only has limited time to study. Being a perfectionist eats into valuable time that could be spent on something that has a higher payoff per time spent.

How do I avoid the perfectionism trap? I allocate an x number of proof-reads for anything I have to hand in and tries to stick to that number. I also have friends who warn me if I’m starting to go into the “this has to be perfect” zone. I still drive myself and others nuts sometimes, but it is slowly getting better.

7) Have a life.

Piano, violin, clarinet, ballet, ball-room dancing, tennis, soccer, ultimate Frisbee… the list of extracurricular activities students give up once starting university is a mile long. While it is a good idea to put some activities on hold to focus more time on school (you’ll find yourself studying a lot more than high school), dropping all activities and JUST studying isn’t a good idea. Actually, your grades will probably suffer if your brain doesn’t take a break once in a while.

This is not an argument for getting drunk every weekend (or every night).

Drop some of your least favourite or important extracurricular activities, then slowly pick them back up again throughout the school year to ensure it is adding joy to your life and not just causing you stress. Don’t just stick to activities you’re comfortable with – try something new! Your university probably offers a wide range of activities, so give some of them a shot.

8 ) It gets better.

While 15% of students drop out of Canadian university, most students head in that direction during or right after first year. Hang in there and if you make it through first year, you’re pretty much set.

9) It really is all about attitude. Short of sounding like a Hallmark card, it is about staying positive and believing in yourself. If you’re really feeling down, talk to someone! A friend, a parent, a trusted professor, etc. If you prefer, talk to a professional. Most schools have free counselling services for students. Go, unload yourself. You’ll feel better, I promise.

Since adjusting to university is largely a mental battle, some students do fall through the cracks. I knew of one student whose parents were getting divorced and were constantly fighting so he could never study in peace. Another student was so shy she couldn’t talk to anyone on campus for a month. Other perfectly capable students fail exams for the first time in their lives and couldn’t climb back out of the “I’m a failure” hole (in fact, this is probably the most common red flag).

If you feel yourself slipping the cracks through academically, emotionally, or personally, don’t be damsel in distress. Don’t wait for anyone to save you. NO ONE ELSE cares about how you do as much as you. Plenty of people will be willing to help you, but you have to be proactive, not reactive.

If you’ve read through this extremely long blog post and actually think it makes some sense, you’re all set for university. The battle is mental and it’s initially a war of attrition. Hang in there and have no fear, you’re going to kick some serious ass 🙂

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 here, here, 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


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!