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.

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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

Reader Questions: What do I do if I failed an exam?

… I thought I was ready for this exam but I blanked out. I failed! I’ve never failed an exam before! What do I do? What if I get an F for the course? None of my friends seem to have as much trouble with this class. I feel so stupid!

You’re not stupid. Most students fail an exam at some point in academic careers, and that first below 50% grade is always hard to take. You’re not even unique in your failure. Your gut reaction may be “oh god, I’m such a failure”, or “f*** you professor! I’ve studied so hard for this exam, how dare you fail me”, or “the universe is out to get me”, or “what? what? I FAILED? How could I fail? I was the smartest person at my high school!”. Whether it’s listless acceptance, indignation, or a feeling of incompetence, get over them. Yes, it’s harder said than done. Take that failed midterm, bury it in the bottom of your binder or filing folder, and don’t look at it for a week. If you’ve calmed down by then, look at it. If not, wait another week.

You know that Robert Frost poem? The Road not Taken?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could

You are the traveler, except you’re not looking the roads often taken and not taken. Instead, one road is success and the other failure. What road you end up on – how successful you are from this point onward – depends solely on you. So how can you ensure that you are on the path to success?

1. Recognize that YOU and you alone was responsible for that failed midterm. It’s no one else’s fault. Take responsibility for your own actions (or perhaps inactions).

2. Also recognize that this exam is a reflection of how you’re doing in the course. It is NOT a judgement of your worth or competence as a person. .

3. Resist falling into the “I’m such a failure” hole. You failed an exam, but you are not a failure as a person.

4. Promise yourself that you will do better. Promise yourself to take action and responsibility for your own learning. Promise yourself that you will find better study strategies and overcome any reservations or issues you have with this class.

Aside from taking on new attitudes, what are some concrete actions you could take now? 

1. Perform an exam post-mortem. Cal Newport, one of my favourite study bloggers, has an excellent article on it already. Figure out what was working, what wasn’t, and find solutions for things that weren’t working. Come up with a plan of attack. List how you will study, what might hold you back, what outcomes you expect (e.g. final grade, amount of content learned), and how you can gauge the efficacy of your own studying (in fact, this is very close to the Research Approach to Learning).

2. Visit your professor or TA. No, you are not to mark grub. In fact, unless you still don’t understand a question on the exam, you are not to talk about any specific question with your prof or TA. You are not to whine about your mark, how the exam was marked, and why you think someone else’s test was marked so much easier than yours. What you will do is show them the results of your post-mortem and your study plan. Ask them for advice. For example, do they know of any more study techniques you could try? When they were a student, what were some things that worked well for them?

3. If your issue is related to text anxiety, I can definitely sympathize. Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight. The best cure to test anxiety is confidence in your own abilities. And that confidence takes time to build. There are some good tips on the internet, but it really comes down to believing in yourself. This is extraordinarily hard after a failed exam, but fake it ’til you make it, and it gets better.

4. If your issue is related to not internalizing enough content or not being able to apply what you learned during the exam, try some new study strategies! Force yourself to re-organize data (e.g. tables and charts), summarize it (cheat sheets), or teach it to someone (real or imaginary). Pretend you’re the professor and come up with questions that you think would really challenge a student’s understanding of the topic. If possible, apply what you’re learning to real world situations.

Fall down seven times, stand up eight. – Chinese Proverb

Yes, you failed an exam. But climb back up. It is not the end of the world. If your’e failing an exam in first year, take it as a wake-up call and use it as motivation to never fail an exam again. If this is a midterm (especially THE first midterm), all the better. The exam is probably worth so little you could still do really well in the course despite failing it.

You’ve made it to university and you have what it takes to excel. It takes time to adjust and a failed midterm is simply a sign of that. Don’t let it hold you back. Learn for your mistakes, move on to bigger and better things, and your grades on your future exams will reflect your abilities as a better learner and student.

The Mental Battle

Overwhelmed

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 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 🙂

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*)

Easy Breezy Goal Setting

Goal Setting

Image "Goal Setting" courtesy of Flickr User angietorres. Licensed under CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.

A new year is right around the corner, and what better time than now to set goals? I know that not everyone enjoys this task and maybe nothing I say will be able to convince you otherwise. However, it is something that you should at least give another try (in true Scratches on the Notepad Style) before you decide to discount it. (Note: If you have your own method that works, use it. It doesn’t matter how you set your goals as long as you do it).

First, find a sheet of paper, divide it into 3 columns, and write “academic”, “professional”, and “personal” across the top. Then just write down everything that comes to mind in its respective column. Academic is for school work, professional is for current or future jobs/careers, and personal is for anything else. Don’t censor yourself and don’t bother considering its feasibility. Just write until you are out of ideas. Think mostly about next term but if you have long-term goals, definitely write them down! Then leave the sheet of paper (or papers) for a couple of days. If you come up with anything else, add to. If a goal seems to fit under more than one heading, pick one category. The headings are useful guidelines, but are by no means set in stone. If you are a more visual person, you can do a mind-map or concept chart (rather like the image above). Whatever works for you.

Finally, take out the piece of paper and look at your goals. This is when you decide whether to keep or remove them. Some goals might be fanciful (anyone else wants to become a superhero?) or not achievable at this time (e.g. become the Prime Minister of Canada). Others may not be as important to you on the short term as others. Whittle down your list until you have a workable one (this length varies from person to person). Now grab another piece of paper and write down the goals that you did decide to keep. Be as specific as possible and you can use the SMART(ER) criteria. If you’re fairly organized, go ahead and try sorting goals by short-term, medium-term, and long-term.

I always keep the paper on which I brainstormed because it provides insight onto what I was thinking and can be pretty funny.

 

And that’s it! Easy breezy, no?

Do you have a specific goal-setting method? Why does it work so well for you?

 

Happy New Year!