September 01, 2017

Advice to keep in mind for the new academic year.

As we begin a new academic year, Vice-Provost and Dean of Students, Dr. André Costopoulos shares his advice on starting the term and keeping things in perspective during the coming months.

Whether you are returning or starting University for the first time, here are a few things I encourage you to keep in mind.

Pace yourself. You won’t do yourself or anyone else any favours if you are exhausted by mid-term. Budget your energy. You won’t be perfect in everything. The best paper is a finished paper, whether it is an undergraduate assignment or a PhD dissertation. You will only finish your assignments if you have the energy.

Plan your academic work and your other activities. Don’t put yourself in a position in which you have to rush just before every assignment is due, or just before any quiz or exam. Look at your course outlines. Plan your time. Schedule blocks every week during which you will work on your assignments and your reading. Be disciplined about keeping to those times. You will soon develop a routine. A little bit of time invested in academic work early in the semester really pays off by the end of term. We all have routines in our lives, whether they are for working out, reading novels, spending time with significant others, hiking, etc. Take the same approach to your academic work. Make some time for it.

Reach out when you need help. You’re not alone and you’re not isolated. You’re part of a big community and there are lots of people around you who want you to do well and succeed. You have peers, teaching assistants, professors, tutors, student services professionals. Most of them are reasonable, helpful people. There is no reason to feel alone when you are confronted with a problem or when you are feeling overwhelmed. Talk to someone. Don’t let things get overwhelming before you ask for help.

Balance your academic obligations with the rest. You are in an investment phase in your life. You will spend a lot of time and energy on school work. That’s normal. But don’t become hypnotized by it. Look up from the books or the screen once in a while. Connect with the people who are important to you. Keep up with what is happening in the world. Spend some time on your favourite hobby. Then go back to your work with a new perspective and a new energy.

Apply the knowledge you acquire in your courses to the world around you, every day and in a variety of situations. Manipulate it. It will bring it alive, and that’s how you’re really going to start mastering it. That fountain’s beautiful shimmering is a Euler equation. That thought provoking report you just saw on the news is a classic example of neo-colonial thought. Wouldn’t Piaget argue that this child playing with buckets in the sandbox is developing insights about conservation? And that awesome band on stage tonight, they’re really capitalizing on that tritone.

Engage with the University community. There are countless opportunities to become involved in student activities and university governance. Students are important participants in the life of the institutions. Student voices are important. We need them.

Start thinking about how you are going to make a difference. No matter what level of degree you’re pursuing here, you’re preparing for what comes next. What you’re getting now are the building blocks that you will use your entire life. What do you want to accomplish? How do you want to make a difference when you graduate? How can you best prepare for that role now, through your academic program? If you don’t know, we can help you figure it out. But odds are, if you look deep inside, you have a pretty good sense of where you want to go. You might feel that you can’t, or that you shouldn’t. You might not know how. You can try. We can help.

Most of all, take care of yourself and those around you. Participate in the life of the University and learn. Learn. That’s what we’re here for.

Questions for the Dean of Students? Let him know at Learn about the Office of the Dean of Students and Student Services here

April 24, 2017

Last minute studying: what should you do?

Have you ever forgotten to study a chapter, or left studying until the last minute? Even with little time left, you can still study strategically. Mebbie Bell with the U of A Student Success Centre shares her secrets for last minute studying. 

It’s the night before your exam. You've been studying for the past week or two, making sure you are prepared for this final. After covering the last section of your textbook, you review to ensure you have gone through everything that could be on the exam. Except! …you forgot to cover the last chapter and have only a few hours to study before bed.

We've all been there, whether we forget to study a section of the textbook or leave our studying until the day before the exam. Even with limited time to work through material, you can strategically study and commit some information to memory. You may not understand the information as well as you could, but you need to accept that any knowledge you do gain is better than none. Here are my strategies for last-minute studying that will help you get the most out of those few hours. 

Taking care of you: handling test anxiety

Handling anxiety can often be a daunting task. Keanna Krawiec, dean of students web content coordinator and recent alumni, shares U of A Counselling and Clinical Services strategies for dealing with test anxiety.

For anyone who has ever written a test or exam, the feeling of stress and anxiety can be all too familiar. For many, it can enhance our motivation to study and our test taking ability, but what happens when that anxiety reaches a level that is actually detrimental to performance? This sense of panic, despite being well-prepared for the exam, is often called test anxiety.

There are a number of strategies for reducing test anxiety — and stress in general — to help you perform better on your exams. 

April 20, 2017

Understanding procrastination and kick-starting your productivity

Feeling the effects of procrastination? The Student Success Centre shares advice for identifying your procrastination habits and working through them to increase productivity. 

It’s the middle of semester and Fall Reading Week still feels far away. You are studying for midterms, you have a term paper due in a week, two lab reports the week after — and lots of readings yet to complete. No one would blame you for curling up on the sofa for a binge session of your favourite Netflix show.

Procrastination affects all of us at some point in our academic careers. Whether we battle with competing deadlines and demands, all-too-inviting distractions, worry about failure, or fear our own success, we struggle to accomplish what we set out to do despite our best intentions. We become overwhelmed, paralyzed, stressed, or even bored, and getting “unstuck” is a challenge.

While procrastination is a complex issue, you can figure out your patterns of procrastination and get back to work. Here are some ways to get started:

April 12, 2017

What You Can Do Now to Prepare for Finals

With final exams around the corner, Mebbie Bell, director of learning resources at the Student Success Centre, shares the best ways to plan your time now to make the exam season go smoothly.

Even though you may still be in the midst of term assignments and midterms, you can take productive steps to get prepared and focused for finals. The following tips will help make your final exam period as stress free — and academically successful — as possible.

Confirm your exam schedule. Double check the date, time, length, and location of each of your exams on the Office of the Registrar's 'final' version of the final exam scheduleIt’s unusual that an exam date would change, but sometimes the exam locations do. Then, check these against your course outline, eClass postings, and in-class information. If the information does not match, contact your instructor immediately. Double checking these details in advance will help you avoid unnecessary stress on exam day.

Know what to expect. For each exam, you should know what material will be tested, the type and number of questions, and what you need to bring. This checklist will help you fine-tune what you need to know. Then, review your course outlines, eClass postings, and class materials.  Even if the exam is still a week or two away, ask your instructor about anything that is unclear. And, be specific with these details so that you can be strategic about how you study. 

Make a plan. Set aside some time now to plan how you want to spend the rest of the term. Grab a monthly calendar and your course outlines to plan, one class at a time:
  • List all upcoming due dates for assignments and your final exam.
  • Make a list of the themes/topics you need to cover for the final.
  • Estimate how much time you need spend on each topic (e.g., 3 hours for unit 2 in Psyco 105). Focus on individual, smaller topics within course sections or units to make planning this time easier. While you may ideally want 50 hours to review that really tough class unit, remember that you may realistically have less time — especially when you need to balance your overall study time between courses while maintaining your well-being.
  • Then, schedule these blocks of time on your calendar between now and when you write your final exam. Break up larger topics into multiple study sessions, and aim to complete your review at least a day or two in advance, so you have time for extra review.
Make every day count! Even if your final exams seem far away or you feel you have so many things to do before you start studying for finals, aim do something each day to help you prepare. For instance:
  • Think about what you are already doing in your courses that is helping you prepare for your final examination. Whether you are working on a lab report, prepping for a quiz, or submitting a paper, ask yourself what you are learning that you can carry forward to the final exam.
  • Work strategically with your class notes. Review them each day after class, add information from the textbook, or identify questions that could show up on the exam.
  • Do practice questions from the textbook, exam registry, or instructor.
  • If the exam is cumulative, review old midterms or quizzes.
  • Note questions you have about course materials, then meet with your instructor or TA to discuss them.
It doesn’t have to be a lot, but each small step helps you get set for successful exams!

Interested in more strategies? Check out our exam strategies workshops or meet with a learning strategist.

Moving past “the moment”: avoiding cheating during exams

Ever have your mind go completely blank while writing a test? You are not alone. Unfortunately, this is often when panic hits and cheating becomes very tempting. Deb Eerkes with Student Conduct and Accountability shares advice for moving beyond that moment as she discusses cheating during exams. 

You've read all the tips on this blog about smart studying, time management, and exam strategies (if not, take a look!), and you still might experience “the moment”. You know the moment I’m talking about. You have your exam paper and pencil ready, name and ID number dutifully printed on the front, opened to the first page and your mind has gone completely blank. It is one of the more terrifying moments of your university career — especially when you know you studied and there’s no good reason not to remember the material. You watch the clock ticking away what precious time you have left, and you start to panic. 

March 27, 2017

Research Is More Than A Lab Coat

Following the success of FURCA 2017, Brigitte Rioux, Communications Coordinator with the Office of the Dean of Students, provides a glimpse into the Undergraduate Research Initiative’s (URI) campus-wide celebration of undergraduate student research.

An interpretive dance on quantum dots may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking “research”. And yet, that’s exactly the kind of undergraduate work that was showcased at this year’s Festival of Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities (FURCA).

Crystal Snyder, Undergraduate Research Coordinator with the URI, believes this U of A event highlights the complex questions addressed by students, their passionate efforts in pursuing answers and their dedication to exploring their curiosity, beyond the walls of the classroom.

Since its debut in 2011, FURCA has evolved into something more than merely poster presentations. Taking full ownership of its organizing, URI has expanded the event to allow undergraduate students a means to cultivate their research contributions in a supportive environment that encourages creative approaches, connecting research to a wider audience.

Snyder and Tony Luong, URI’s current intern and an award winner at last year’s FURCA for his research in healing through vulnerability and storytelling, collectively believe this event creates a forum where students are emboldened to share ideas, reflect and converse with others and celebrate the rich and diverse research culture on campus and its impact on the greater community.  Luong attests the week-long event helps in dispelling myths that research is discipline-specific, or that undergraduate contributions are less impressive than feats made by graduate or post-doctoral students.  “Where undergraduate students might feel marginalized, FURCA creates an inclusive space to assist students in strengthening the skills they need to move forward with their research,” he says.

This year, more than 150 students representing 12 faculties across campus displayed their research in the form of creative performances, visual art exhibits, oral presentations, and a poster symposium. A total of 16 award winners in 10 categories were recognized for their achievements in categories including communications, interdisciplinary research, creative activity, early career research, international research, international student researcher, community connections, and healthy campus. Each presentation was evaluated by three volunteer judges who provided feedback based on merit of work, knowledge of research topic, and ability to articulate inter-disciplinary commonalities — a crucial aspect in terms of research success, according to Snyder. “A key factor in helping students succeed is the expectation they can identify commonalities between their research topics and its connection and relevancy across disciplines. Having this level of insight can lead to larger conversations that give students a glimpse into opportunities outside of their own immediate research and discipline,” Snyder believes.

For a complete list of this year’s presentations and award winners, visit

January 17, 2017

The Benefits of Study Groups

Wondering whether study groups are for you? Sharon Stearns, student learning advisor with the Student Success Centre, shares the benefits of having a study group and strategies to make them more effective.

As you power through the second half of the semester, you may want to consider forming a study group for one of your classes. While some students prefer to study solo or have had unproductive experiences with study groups, research insists that study groups can benefit their members’ learning immensely. The very mechanisms that make study groups useful for deepening your understanding of course content — interaction and collaboration — provide benefits to the development of soft skills as well. These are the skills regularly touted as desirable by employers and include effective communication, group planning, group decision-making, problem-solving, adaptability, and leadership skills.

Additional benefits include the following:
  • Perfect your notes. By comparing notes with one another, study group members can fill in or clarify any important concepts they missed. 
  • Divide and conquer. More people can cover more material. A group can assign each member specific material to summarize and share.
  • Widen your perspective. With each member bringing their own knowledge, talents, and insights, your perspective is bound to be enhanced by the contributions of other members. This is especially useful when quizzing one another, as other members will think of questions that would never occur to you!  
  • Increase retention. Teaching and verbalizing concepts to your group members will reinforce your own learning. 
  • Feel connected. School can be stressful and studying alone can promote isolation. Studying with a group can provide motivation and support. 
Common pitfalls of study groups — the difficulty of scheduling mutually convenient meeting times, the built-in temptation to socialize rather than study, or the possibility of members slacking — often turn students off from study groups. But, keeping in mind these common problems and using the recommendations below, you can learn how to work effectively within a study group.

January 14, 2017

Making this your best term yet

Do you want to have a strong start to this semester? Mebbie Bell, associate director of learning resources at the U of A Student Success Centre shares her top tips. 

Starting a new academic term is exciting — new classes, new books, new opportunities. But, it can also be challenging to come back after the December break. Whether you want a different experience this term or are excited to build on your previous successes, consider taking some practical and proactive steps toward change.

Reflect on the fall term. 
Take some time to reflect on what worked in the previous term and what didn't. Maybe you took on too many work hours or extracurricular activities? Left studying until the last minute? Or, worked really hard but didn't see the academic results you wanted? While it’s tempting to focus exclusively on the negatives, remember to recognize the positives, as well. You can build on your strengths as you start addressing the challenges you encountered. As you reflect on your experiences, ask yourself:
  • What do I want to stop doing?
  • What do I want to keep doing?
  • What do I want to start doing?

How to profit from red ink: gain new insights from old feedback

Rob Desjardins, graduate writing advisor with the Student Success Centre, shares his tips on turning feedback from past writing assignments positive tools for revision. 

You’re back again — ready to take on another term, and keen to do better on your writing assignments than you did in the fall. What can you do strategically right now to write better essays, annotated bibliographies, or lab reports in March or April?

Here’s a suggestion: dig out your marked-up writing assignments from last term (that’s right, the ones you never wanted to see again). Now that the emotion and stress have dissipated, take a second look at your professors’ comments as they can provide a great starting point for improving your work this term. Start by analyzing them critically — what types of comments are the most common?

January 13, 2017

Making Your Computer Work for You: Colours, Voice, and Seeing

In the 'Making your computer work for you' series, Stephen Kuntz, Associate Director of Writing Resources at the Student Success Centre, shares the features of your computer that can make writing and studying easier.

The word “revise” literally means “to see again.” So part of the revising process is to reexamine your writing using a different approach to really “see” the issues you may be having with your writing. The computer can help you do this. How? Use colours. Why colours? Colours are visual and although they don’t communicate content, they can relay other aspects of your writing.

Here is how you can use colour to help you really “see” your writing.
  • Highlight all your quotations in one colour.
  • Choose a different colour and highlight all your paraphrases.
  • In some cases, you might use a third colour to highlight facts, plot, or summary.
  • Now shrink the screen size so you can’t read your writing, but you can “see” your writing in a new way.
Some questions you may want to ask yourself when using this approach:
  • How much of your writing is coloured?
    • Too much and you are probably lacking a voice and presence in your writing.
    • Too little, and perhaps you are lacking support and/or evidence.
  • Where is the coloured text primarily located?
    • If in the beginning, you might be setting up your paragraphs poorly.
    • If at the end of your paragraphs, you might not be “unpacking” things enough or closing the paragraph well.
    • In either case, you may be minimizing your own intellectual presence in the paper.