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!

How to Properly Use a Textbook

Girl reading a German book while sun bathing

Image "Studious Andrea" courtesy of Flickr user Robert Wallace (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Student: I failed my midterm(s).
Me: I’m sorry to hear that. Why do you think you failed?
Student: I don’t know! I’ve been studying really hard.
Me: So how do you study?
Student: Well, I read the textbook…

On a good day, I inwardly sigh. On a bad day, I want to *headdesk* and *ragequit* (yes, I just said ragequit). Why? Because reading the textbook is NOT a study technique!

Why not? Because deliberate practice is the best way of understanding or getting good at something. Deliberate practice is:

1. Studying with focus and without distraction…
2. With a goal in mind…
3. While being challenged by the contents (of what you’re studying)…
4. And using feedback to make adjustments in approach…

Reading a textbook may satisfy criterion 1 and maybe criterion 2. However, even though reading the textbook may feel challenging, it’s not the good type of challenging when you feel your mind bending around and understanding a concept. No, reading a dense textbook sometimes feel like hitting a mental wall with no hope of going around and usually breeds frustration. Furthermore and perhaps most importantly, the textbook offers no feedback and there are very few ways to track how you’re learning objectively. Sure you could do the in chapter questions, but even that is usually about memorization and not understanding.

The high school way of simply reading through a chapter from beginning to the end is passive, not active, learning and is highly ineffective.

So how can you use your textbook properly? That depends on the course. If…

… The course is memory intensive and you will be tested directly out of the textbook (e.g. psychology, history):

You’ll have no choice but to read everything. BUT, don’t just read. Do something active while you’re at it. Write summary notes, create study questions, note down how all the key terms link to each other, etc. This helps retention and prevent you from having to re-read the textbook for the midterm or the final (because you have notes!).

… The course is memory intensive and you will not be tested directly out of the textbook (e.g. biology, physiology, pharmacology, genetics):

Don’t read any more than you have to. If your professor states that he or she won’t test you anything that haven’t been covered in class, then there is no need to read your textbook unless you don’t understand a topic. Use the textbook like a highly specialized encyclopedia (er… Wikipedia or Google). Read the section you don’t understand (plus any other sections necessary to understand that section). Then move on to higher yield study techniques.

… The course is not memory intensive and is more about problem solving (e.g. math, physics, some chemistry):

Use the book for the questions (if they are like the ones your prof asks on exams). Don’t simply read the example questions in the textbook – actually do them! Cover up the answers, read the question, and go as far as you can. If you solved the question, move on to the next one. If you are study, look at that section of the answer key, then cover it up again and redo the question! This may take some more time than straight up reading, but you will learn and retain so much more.

… You’re pre-reading. 

Figure out if you need to pre-read first, then act accordingly.

The textbook is a reference material. For better understanding and retention of topics, you must supplement it (or replace it) with more effective studying techniques.


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

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!

Three Steps to Academic Bliss Step 1: Choosing the Right Courses

Fortune Teller

Image "Fortune_Teller_ 004" courtesy of Flickr User OrigamiNate, licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

There are 3 steps to academic bliss (a.k.a. improving grades):

Step 1: Chose the right courses

Step 2: Picking the right tools

Step 3: Fine-tune your techniques


Instead of covering all three steps in one very long article, I will do three shorter articles instead. So to start off… Step 1: choosing the right courses.


The most critical step to getting good grades is ensuring you are taking the right courses. A class that plays on your strengths makes getting good marks easier and more fun. Conversely, a class that is both boring and hard can wreck your term and GPA.

Determining which courses to take can be simple or complex. In general, there are three types of courses students take: required courses, interesting courses, and choice courses. Required courses are well… required, either for a degree/program or another course. Students take interesting courses because they like it (these are usually far and few in between), and choice courses include everything else. For example, psychology might be a choice course for a science student who must take a certain number of arts credits. Likewise, an anthropology student may have a choice between medical and cultural anthropology. In the grand scheme of course selection, we are really only concerned with choice courses. Students must take required courses and it’s fairly easy to decide whether to take an interesting course. These two types of courses combined set a “baseline” for your GPA. Choosing the right choice courses will boost your average above this.

Before I go any further, I want to state that I believe anyone can do well in a course, even if that course is in a discipline you don’t believe you are good at. Therefore, do not let a course with hard reputation deter you from taking it if you really want to. However, if you have no great interest in the course, there is nothing wrong with taking an easier course. When I use the word easy (or hard), it implies “easier for you because it plays upon your strength”. Easy and hard are personal, not absolute, gauges of a course’s difficulty.

So just how do you pick the right choice courses for you? Follow these easy steps:

1. Obtain your transcript (unofficial is fine) for all of your years at a post-secondary institution, especially those at your current school.

2. Look at your average for each term. Then note down all of the courses you achieved above average and below average for that grade reporting session.

3. In which courses were you obtaining the highest marks? It is entirely possible you are achieving the highest grades on all of your required courses. In that case, you are either in a major that is perfect for you or you are not using your choice courses to boost your grades as effectively as you can.

4. Look at your top 5 grades (top 2 if you are in first year) and think back to those courses. Did they require a lot of memorization? Lots of problem solving? Abstraction and big picture thinking? Creative interpretation? Essay writing? Formal reports? See if you can find a common thread or a characteristic that is common to most if not all of those courses.

5. Repeat step 4 for your bottom 5 grades.

Steps 4 and 5 should give you an idea of your strength and weaknesses. For example, I have obtained the highest grades on courses that required some understanding and then problem solving. I’m not as good at courses that are mostly memorization or courses with poorly defined course objectives. The more specific you are with your strength and weaknesses, the better.

6. Look deeper at the courses you did well in and think about the exams. Were the exams much more difficult or easier than the rest of the course? Did they feel really “tight” time-wise? Did the prof employ heavy scaling and did that benefit you? Did the course give you a good idea of how the exam was going to go (or was it completely out of the blue)? Are the midterms in class or at night? Are you a better exam taker if you write an exam during certain times?

As exams make up the most part of a course, step 6 should tell you which exam conditions best suit you. For example, I do best in exams with fairly comfortable and questions that are like those encountered during class. I’m not as good in exams that have unexpected questions and not enough time, or those that place emphasis on details (nerves!). If you are picking between a few equally appealing courses, knowing the exam conditions might help you eliminate a few choices. If possible, find courses with exam conditions that are favourable for you.

Step 5 will tell you what kind of courses you might want to try. If you are good at memorization, try something in biology, psychology, history, or the languages. If you’re a very abstract thinker, try some philosophy or higher level math or physics. If you like problem solving, stick to math, chemistry, or classical physics. If you excel at writing essays and papers, try English. Narrow down a list of courses that are good fits for you, not the other way around. Normally when studying, students fit their study strategies to the courses they are taking. That works well, however, isn’t it better to find ones that are perfect for you without extra effort?

Ultimately, the Golden rule of course selection is simple: play on your strength. The above steps present a systematic approach to figuring out what those strengths are and will hopefully help you pick courses that emphasize your strong suits.

Next Up: Picking the right tools…

Tips for Buying Textbooks

Stack of Textbooks

Image "Day 31: Read Up!" courtesy of Flickr User truds09, licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.


Hi Everyone! Welcome to Scratches on the Notepad! To get a detailed account of what this blog is about, click the “about this blog” button above. Thanks for visiting and please leave a comment!


I was going to do a detailed post about the ways to save money while buying textbooks, but alas, with school starting so soon, a quick list might be more helpful. These tips have saved me hundreds of dollars, reduced my back strain, and have made my textbook buying experience more positive. I hope they prove useful for you as well!

A note of caution: If you are a first year student, I would recommend getting all of the books on your “required” list and not not get/share/borrow. This is because you have enough issues to deal with as a freshman without worrying about whether you have all of your books. Imagine yourself 2 months into the term with a big midterm in a few days. Are you confident enough about that exam to study without one of your books? What about if 50% of the content was never covered in class and is exclusively from the book? 

Worst case scenario aside, here are some simple and advanced tips for getting the most out of your textbook budget.

Simple Techniques: 

1. Always negotiate. If you are comfortable asking people to drop their prices, do it. If you’re not, ask for other freebies such as class notes, practice midterms, handouts from TA’s, exam preparation packages, and model sets. Most people are fairly willing to pass on these things as getting rid of them frees up shelf space (or they are electronic files which makes for easy transfer). This would not only save you some money, but could also make you privy to exclusive information. However, the curriculum could change, and just because a certain topic wasn’t tested the year before doesn’t mean it won’t be this year. If you buy more than 1 book from someone, ask for a discount. You are saving them hours in contacting sellers and making the sale and they should pass those savings on to you. 

2. Do an amazon search for your book. The price for a “new” book on Amazon is the utmost you should pay for any book. If your bookstore has a more expensive version, get it off amazon. To get an idea of how much second-hand books will cost, head over to Craigslist. Facebook Marketplace is also pretty good for this, but not as many people post on there. 

3. Get multi-volume editions of your textbooks. If your book has multi-volume editions and single volume editions, do yourself a huge favour and buy the multi-volume edition. Why? Let me give you an example. In one of my first year physics classes, my professor had the brilliant idea of going through the entire textbook in 2 semesters. The textbook was over 1000 pages long and had 42 chapters. That meant that we were constantly getting assigned questions from the book and so had to carry it around all the time. Single Volume = back pain. 

4. Get the current edition. Yes, older editions are cheaper. But when you’re done and want to sell them, you also have to sell them for less (and their values depreciate faster as more and more new versions come on to the market). This doesn’t apply however, if someone can lend or give you the book for free. If their copy is within 1 or 2 editions of the current one, it should be good enough. Definitely double check with the prof though. 

4. Photocopy. No, I am not advising that you go copy the entire book. However, if your book is covered under Access Copyright (Cancopy) and you only need a small section (under 10%) of a book. It might be legal to photocopy that. But I’m no expert on copyright law, so check out this: http://libguides.acadiau.ca/content.php?pid=49843&sid=366188 before you try anything. 

5. Borrow from friends. And only if your friend doesn’t need the extra cash selling the book would bring.

6. Borrow from the library. Do this only for books you wouldn’t mind having to return the day before the midterm (in the worst case scenario). If you’re completely screwed for an exam without the book, buy it, don’t try anything fancy. 

7. If your professor wrote the textbook, buy it. Profs make money every time you buy their book (am I the only one who thinks there is a conflict of interest here?). They will also very likely want you to have the latest edition. 


Advanced Techniques:

1. Know exactly how much the book you want to buy is worth. First, check Facebook Market Place and Craigslist. This would tell you how much the book is realistically going for (second-hand). Now let’s look at this from the sellers point of view. After a student is done with their book, they have 2 options – sell the book to someone else or use the bookstore buyback system. Bookstores buy back second-hand books and then sell them to unsuspecting student for more. Check these buyback prices (e.g. UBC’s is right here: http://w4.bookstore.ubc.ca/cgi-bin/check_book.cgi). As a seller, it would make no sense to sell a book for lower than the bookstore buyback price because it’s more convenient to just sell it back to the bookstore. Similarly, it doesn’t make any sense to sell a book higher than the “used” price at the bookstore because buyers can just get the said books from the bookstore. Therefore, as a buyer, snatch up a book quickly if it its price is lower than bookstore buyback price and the average Craigslist/Facebook price. 

2. Get alternate/international editions. Many textbooks have international editions as well as the native North American edition. These books may have different covers (usually soft), but are general very similar if not identical to the North American editions. You can find these books online at retailers such as abebooks.com and save up to 50% on your books this way. Do remember though that selling these books would be more difficult, particularly if the book is for a first year course. Freshmen tend to play it safer (as they should). 

3. Wait until school starts. This is perhaps the simplest and most effective way of saving money. Your first lecture in a course should tell you 1) whether you want to stay in it and 2) if the professor actually uses the textbook. If the answer is “no” to either of these questions, then forget about getting the book. The downside to this (and why it is not in the simple technique category) is that textbook sales tend to dwindle after the first week or two of school, and it might be more difficult and expensive to obtain them. You might end up saving money simply because you bought less books, not because you got them at the best prices. 


And that’s about it. Good luck with buying your textbooks! Have some awesome tips? Leave them in the comments!


Have a terrific school year!