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.


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.

Material from Science One Presentation

Hello Sci-Oners,

Here are the slides from the guest lecture I did last Tuesday. It’s contents are very similar to that of A Research Approach to Learning (but is more Science One-specific).

Academic Success in Science One (PowerPoint Slides in PDF)

Research Approach to Learning Handout (Handout at the end)

Good luck with your finals (you might want to check the exam prep series on how to start)!

Feel free to e-mail me with any questions that you may have.


Your First Day (Of University)

That Huge Lecture Theatre!

Hopefully your class isn't this big! (Image "That Huge Lecture Theatre!" courtesy of flickr user teddy-rised. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The first day of university is very much like the first day of elementary or secondary school (except without your nice first grade teacher and the bully that always stole your lunch money). Don’t believe me? Here is what you can expect on your first day:

8:50 am. You walk into the lecture hall for your first ever university lecture. The class is ¾ full and people near the door look at you, sizing you up, as you walk in. Miraculously you find an empty seat without tripping over a dozen people. Taking out your new notebook, pens, and a 50 pound textbook (that won’t ever be used in the lecture), you say a tentative “hi” to the people around you.

8:52 am. 8 more minutes to go. You look to the front, where someone – probably the prof – is setting up. People are trickling in through the doors of the lecture hall.

8:53 am. A quarter of the class seems to be asleep. A few people are looking around anxiously, almost furtively, as if they are puzzling out some great mystery. Your neighbour to the left is looking decidedly hang-over and is chugging coffee the way he probably chugged alcohol the night before. The two girls to your right look to be best friends and are chattering incessantly about that hot guy at the party last night. There are a couple of people with computers in the row ahead of you. Some are reading the course syllabus. Most, however, are on Facebook or playing distracting computer games.

8:56 am. The class is filling up and people seem to get just a tad bit louder. Your professor is looking at the clock on the wall, debating the best time is to start.

9:01 am. The prof introduces herself, then hands out the syllabus. It’s 8 pages long and contains her information, a summary of the course, the learning outcomes, and a schedule of the term. She details her expectations and talks about how performance will be graded. Most people listen (or at least pretend to), but a a few people sitting right behind you just won’t shut up. The professor draws your attention to the reading list. You realize you have to read 3 chapters – at least 50 pages with tiny words – each week just to keep up. You start feeling just a tad bit anxious.

9:15 am. The professor spends a few minutes demonstrating how to use the online system for the course. She tells you you are expected to check the website frequently for announcements. The website will also be used to assign additional readings and collect homework. The system seems way more complicated that it needs to be.

9:23 am. The professor asks for questions regarding the course. Someone in the first row puts up their hand and asks about scaling. The prof says something about not bell curving. A big sigh of relief arises from the person who asks the question. You’re not quite sure what is going on. A few more questions were asked, but you were starting to get distracted by the chatting behind you and the Facebook page of the guy who’s on his computer in the row in front of you.

9:32 am. The professor starts the lecture on the first topic. She says it’s mostly review from high school and that you should know it already. You don’t and struggles to follow along.

9:39 am. The professor asks the class some questions. You don’t even understand what she’s asking, but some one sitting near the front of the class rattles off an answer. The professor asks a few more questions. You still don’t know how to answer them. Not all of your classmates are struggling though, a couple of students consistently got the answers right, seemingly without any effort. They must be really smart, you think.

9:46 am. The professor finishes her lecture and reminds the class to pre-read before the next lecture. People positively swarms out the lecture all. You follow slower, feeling dazed.

10 am to 4 pm. You attend a few more classes and they pass pretty much the say way as the first one. Some of your professors were nice, others didn’t seem to care. Some spoke clearly and eloquently while others mumbled or had an accent you had to strain to decipher. Some profs looked at their students while talking, others seemed to have an intimate relationship with their laptop or the blackboard. Your classmates ranged from the very eager to those that fell asleep (and snored).

5 pm. You’re feeling drained and ready to crash. You go home, eat dinner, and starts going over the material from your classes, but you’re too tired and falls asleep early.

7 am the next morning. Your alarm wakes you up. You groggily starts getting ready for class while realizing you didn’t get any work done the night before and must make up for it tonight. *Cue mini panic attack*

Thus concludes your very first day. Welcome to university. Really.

So now that your first day is done, how can you ensure that the rest of the year goes more smoothly? Check out this post!

FYI: Joy to the World, Calculus Help Is Here!

FYI is a weekly column dedicated to showcasing resources, topics of interest, and humour for students.

Title: Integration (Calculus) Videos “Playlist”
Author: PatrickJMT
Type of Resource: Youtube Videos

This play list covers stuff from second semester calculus. I start with antiderivatives and integration, then go on to applications of integration (areas, volumes), along with inverses (exponentials, logarithms) , polar/parametric curves, some differential equations and lots of sequences and series…

Link: http://www.youtube.com/user/patrickJMT#grid/user/D371506BCA23A437

Comments: Sometimes, learning calculus is like getting hit over the head with a baseball bat. It’s hard, it’s dry, and it just plain doesn’t make any sense (especially when your prof seems more interested in the ceiling than teaching you!). Luckily, PatrickJMT, a math instructor/teacher/tutor has a wonderful series of wonderful math videos up on youtube. The link above is for integration and second term first year calculus, but he also has differentiation, multivariable calculus, and even non-calculus videos if you are interested. This is one source I myself have used exhaustively and can definitely vouch for. I remember sitting in my room madly watching the videos right before my midterms/finals and finally understanding what is going on. Whether you need to learn an entire semester’s worth of math or just need to tackle a few tough areas, these videos are definitely great places to start.

Terms every Student Should Know Before Starting University

Welcome to University

Image adapted from "Vintage Banner" courtesy of Flickr User K Sandberg, licensed under CC Attribution 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!


One of the most confusing things about university or college is that there seems to be a whole new set of vocabulary used. Tests aren’t tests, they’re “midterms”. Instructors are not the same as Professors while TA’s are definitely not lecturers. So what is what? Here is a list of words every incoming student should know before they start university. Terms in each group is ranked in the order of importance (although no group is more important than the others). Memorize this list – it will make your life much easier.

List of Terms Every Student Should Know Before Starting University:

Group A: People
Group B: Courses
Group C: First Year Specific Terms
Group D: Miscellaneous

Group A:

Professors – Professors are not exactly the university equivalent of teachers. Most professors are P.I.’s (Principle Investigators) who have their own labs and do their own research. Typically, professors are paid to do 3 things: research, teach, and sit on committees. Although most professors are adequate teachers, some really dislike teaching (as they would rather do research) and others are not great at it despite their best efforts (because they have very little training). Professors can be further divided into several other subcategories: associate professors, assistant professors, and emeritus professors. However, different subcategories rarely affect undergraduate students.

Instructors – An instructor’s role in university is like that of a high school teacher. Unlike professors, they are paid to teach and not do research (though some instructors do do some research). Instructors typically have at least a ph.D and many years of teaching experience. Therefore, their classes are usually excellent.

Lecturers (otherwise known as sessional lecturers) – Lecturers are people hired specificially to teach certain courses. Their positions are usually not permanent and they don’t really do research. Their qualifications are about the same as Instructors.

Teaching Assistants (TA’s) – TA’s are upper year undergraduate students or graduate students. They can teach classes or discussion groups, run or help out with labs, mark your assignments and exams, hold office hours, and run demonstrations and experiments. Students become TA’s to help pay for their education. Some TA’s are absolutely great and others could care less about what you do (both of which have their advantages and disadvantages). As well, which TA you get is up to chance, so cross your fingers (or switch classes)!

Principle Investigators (P.I.’s) – Researchers who run their own labs. They usually have at least one graduate student working for them along with Post Doc’s, research associates, and undergraduate students. Each P.I. has a specific area of interest. The main objective of a P.I. is to find something new and amazing and publish that finding in a paper.

Lab Directors – Lab Directors… direct labs. If you are taking a class with a lab component, these people are the ones who work out the logistics of fitting several thousand undergrad into their respective labs. They won’t be the ones teaching and you’ll probably never see them after lab check-in days. Nonetheless, they play an important role.

Deans – A dean is the head of a faculty (or department) at university. They oversee the entire faculty and make some executive decisions. If, for example, you are failing multiple classes, you may get hauled up to the dean’s office.

Advisors – There are faculty advisors (people who tell you what you need to do to graduate with a B.A. or B.Sc, or a B.F.A. etc.) and program advisors who tell you what you need to do to graduate with certain specializations (e.g. Major in Psychology, Honors Geology, Minor in English). There are all sorts of other adivisors, but they vary by school.

Group B: Courses

Midterm – Akin to a test in high school. Any exam (or test) that is not the final exam is a midterm, regardless of when during the academic term they actually happen. Midterms can be worth anywhere between 20 to 50% of the course mark.

Finals – Final are final exams in any course. Depending on the length of the course (e.g. 1 semester of 1 year), they can happen in December or April. They are weighed heavily and can be worth up to 100% of the course mark.

Quizzes – Are exactly the same as the ones in high school. Some quizzes are computer based. Quizzes in total rarely exceed more than 20% of the grade for any course.

Assignments/Homework/Exercises – Questions and readings that may or may not need to be turned in. Most of the time, they do not have to be, but check with your professor/instructor/TA.

Labs/Tutorials – For science courses, labs are where students perform experiments. Tutorials are where TA’s guide students through difficult topics, do some exam prep, or answer questions. Some tutorials are optional and their usefulness largely depends on the TA.

Office Hours – Just about every professor, instructor, lecturer, and TA has office hours. This time, usually 1 or 2 hours per week, is reserved for students to ask questions, discuss issues, look over exams, and beg for extra marks (or perhaps not). This is a good time to get to know your professor better and hopefully get some hints for exams!

Review Sessions – Before a midterm or final, professors will have review sessions in which they go over materials they have covered and take questions from students. Sometimes they give out extra questions people can try. If you can make these sessions, ALWAYS GO. Even if you don’t have any questions. That’s because professors give away a LOT of hints in these sessions. For example, a professor may have just finished writing the exam and he will give out questions which are similar to those on the exam. Other times, students will ask her a question she like so much that that question make it onto the exam. Even if those 2 things don’t happen, review sessions are a good way to consolidate your and help you figure out what topics you need to focus on more.

Semester – Usually 4 months in length. Depending on the school, it can be one term or a fraction of a term (or session).

Session – Can be synonymous to a semester. However, at some schools, the winter session is 8 months long and runs September to April (with the summer session running from May to August). In these schools, 1 semester would be half a session. The terms semester, session, and term are used interchangeably in some schools and their exact length can be very school-specific.

Credit – A unit of exchange indicating how much a certain course is “worth”. For many schools, a course which runs for one semester is worth 3 credits, and a full “year” (2 semester) course is worth 6. Labs can be worth 1 or 2 However, this also varies by school. To graduate, students generally have to obtain a certain number of credits. Tuition is also often calculated on a per-credit basis.

Faculty – A group of departments which focuses on one major topic. It is like an umbrella which encompasses a whole bunch of loosely connected topics. For example, the Faculty of Science, the Faculty of Arts, the Faculty of Law, and the Faculty of Music.

Department – A division of a faculty. They are far more specific and is concerned with a narrower field. For example, the Department of Earth and Ocean Science, the Department of Economics, and the Department and Mechanical Engineering.

Group C: First Year Specific Terms

Orientation – An event, lasting anywhere between a few hours to a full week depending on the school, to welcome freshman students. Usually involving campus tours, meeting the professors/deans, pep rallies, and mini-competitions.

Frosh or Frosh Week – Frosh is another word for a freshman student. However, when someone asks “are you going to frosh”, the word “frosh” actually means an event specifically for first year students. Frosh Week is a week-long event and can involve all sorts of crazy stunts probably not sanctioned by the university (i.e. dying each other purple, chucking paint balls, throwing rubber chickens, and stealing mascots). Frosh can be synonymous to orientation, be a part of orientation, or be completely separate from it. Not every school or faculty has frosh.

Group D: Miscellaneous

Clubs – Exactly the same as the ones in high school, except probably involving a lot more people.

Fraternities/Sororities – A group of people sharing some common interest. Fraternities are male-only while sororities are female-only. Having never been in either, I can’t say I know too much about them. They do have a reputation for hosting drinking parties, but that is complete hearsay and I don’t actually know what they do.


Did I miss any terms? Heard something somewhere and you’re not sure what it means? Leave a note in the comments 🙂