By PLA Team Leader Naomi, with inspiration from PLA Ashlee

     “The more you study, the more you know.” This rule is drilled into us from the time we’re little kids. When we do poorly on an assignment, we’re told “study harder next time.” When we’re disappointed by an exam mark, we think “I just didn’t have enough time”.  

     While it is true that “the more we study, the more we know,” there’s a big part of the lesson that people tend to forget: the relationship isn’t linear and, in fact, it feels quite circular… kind of like a cycle.

     1. The bottom (‘I know nothing’): Where you begin, your mind sitting there like a dry sponge, itching to absorb everything. No diagram is too hard to maneuver, no concept too hard to understand, no equation too complicated to memorize. 

…Which slowly brings you to stage 2… 

     2. Midway (‘I know a little’): it’s been a little while since you’ve hit the books, and you’re feeling pretty good about what you know. Don’t let those nagging thoughts about how much you don’t know get in the way. 

…Moving right along to stage 3…

     3. The top (‘I know everything’): You’re on top of the world. Facts spewing uncontrollably. Quiz you on anything, you’ll know the answer. Practice exams, bring ‘em on!

…Free-falling, a seemingly endless tumble back to stage 1..

  1. The bottom (‘I know nothing…again!’): Something went wrong. That practice exam was harder than you thought. A friend’s question made you realize you had no idea what you were talking about. How can this be happening!?!


     BUT: Here’s the thing, IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD! The moment you question, ‘how can I possibly know nothing?, the moment you wonder how you managed to be so unproductive studying, that moment you fall to the bottom right before an exam: in your head!

     So, the next time you feel yourself plummeting down to the bottom of the cycle: pick yourself off the ground, shake it off, and take lots of comfort in knowing that it’s all a part of the process… and it will probably happen again.


By PLA Amy

     April exams for full year courses always feel different to me than December ones do.  

     December exams are surrounded by questions—how do I write this exam? How long should I study? How am I going to know what kind of questions are going to show up? April exams have more answers: you know the prof’s style, which study techniques were and were not effective, and what you need to improve.
     That, and the not-so-distant sight of summer looming on the horizon makes April exams feel like less of a battle and more like the last quarter-mile of a marathon—you’re huffing, you’re puffing, but you can see the finish line. That being said, the tantalizing image of you soaking up some rays while flipping through a magazine can be distracting when you have to plough through 600 pages of notes.  

Here are some tips for having a more successful April exam period than December.

1. Learn from your mistakes.  First, identify what was challenging for you about December exams.  Did you cram too much?  Did you study the wrong material?  Did you get enough sleep?  Once you’ve figured out some of the obstacles to your success, try to prevent them from repeating.  Start studying earlier (even just one hour every other day starting right now is better than four hours before the exam), try and really focus on the core themes of the course, and make sure you get at least 7 hours of solid shut-eye.  

2. Learn from your successes If you found a great study routine, or a great memorizing trick (flash cards, anyone?) stick with it rather than reinventing the wheel.

3. Trick yourself You’d be amazed at the difference a confident mind makes when it comes to studying.  Try to approach your work not with thoughts of failure, but rather a sense of confidence that you are going to work hard and it will pay off.  Fake it until you make it, and you’ll find yourself walking into the exam with a positive mindset.

4. Build off of your old exams Since the mystery of what an exam looks like has been solved, use your December exams and their structure to help build your studying.  Did you find that history exams tend to emphasize key terms and significances?  You can use that knowledge when re-reading your lecture notes.

5.  Adapt your schedule.  Making a study schedule for the first time can be a bit…shall we say…idealistic.  I remember leaving myself absolutely no time for breaks in my December exam study schedule, thinking that of course I would be capable of studying from eight in the morning to eleven at night.  Now that you know a bit better how much time you need for breaks, meals, exercise, etc., plan your schedule realistically.  If you really need a nice walk after dinner, book it in.  You’ll be better for it.  If you really don’t need five hours a day of Internet browsing, cut it down to two, or use it as a ten-minute reward after studying for an hour.

6.  Think about what you want to convey on your exam.  For full-year courses, April exams are a true culmination of what you have learned all year.  Think about what you want to present to your prof., and the details and elements you can work into essay questions that reflect the breadth of your knowledge.  It sounds cheesy, but in a weird way, writing your final exam for a course is like your final goodbye to it. Try to leave something behind that is a fond farewell.

Good luck!

By PLA Alanna

     It’s that time of year again: volcanoes erupt, earthquakes rattle buildings, extra-terrestrials invade, and zombies rise. Oh, and it’s exam time. In short, it’s the end of the world. 

     Yes, this is a gross overstatement, but there is some truth in it. Truth lies in the way students begin to hunker down in library carrels or at desks, and stock up on food. Or how we work all the way up to or just before our exams, cramming information into our heads and hoping it will be enough for us to survive. 

     But I think the thing that makes exams seem most like the end of the world is the way we treat our exam dates as though they are “zero hour”  – when our academic fates are cast. We tell ourselves that we have to “get through them” as though they are catastrophes. So yes, it feels a bit like the end of the world.

But does it have to feel that way?

     Even without the stress of exams and essays there is the sense that an end is coming, the end of an academic year. As such, there is a feeling that it’s too late to make goals, try new strategies, get to know a professor, or change bad academic habits. This kind of stuff is reserved for the beginning of the year or semester. We can’t change, so it’s the end.  We study and wait appropriately, patiently craving our results.  

This time around, I’m doing things differently. 

     I’ve decided I’m going to try some new study strategies, take more breaks, and exercise during the exam period. I’m going to look at my exams not as things to be dreaded, but as opportunities to show what I’ve learned regardless of the grade I walk away with. 

     And, each day, I’ll be learning not just what I’m studying but how I’m studying and therefore learning more about myself. As long as you can grow and change (and you can always do so) it can never be the end of anything. 

I hope it doesn’t  feel like the end of the world to you. I know that you, too, can feel fine. 

By PLA Team Leader Heather

     So many awesome things come in threes…tricolour, the Hunger Games trilogy, and chocolate (milk, white, and dark!) are just a few. And so does the best exam study schedule you’ll ever try.

     Each day is divided into 3 blocks of time, each 3 hours long. Now just fill out the blocks with studying for each exam. And the best thing is, all the blocks shouldn’t be used for studying. Some should be used for breaks!Image

Why use this schedule? Well, it gives you (you guessed it) 3 great things:

  1. Direction: You know what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. Keeping on track… check!
  2. Balance: Exams are a marathon, not a sprint. You need to head to the gym/have a movie night/go out for dinner once in a while! Keeping your life… check!
  3. Stress Relief: Breaking down your studying into smaller chunks of time makes it so much more manageable! And knowing that you are using your time efficiency while not letting studying (or procrastinating) take over your life is a huge stress reducer. Keeping your sanity… check!

So, try out an exam study schedule this April. I guarantee you won’t regret it! 

     Print off this schedule, or drop into our office (Stauffer Room 143) to pick one up. If you want more advice on how to most effectively use your schedule, or manage your time or stress, come visit the Peer Learning Assistants at Study Skills Coaching tomorrow and Wednesday nights from 6-8 PM in Stauffer Room 143!

By PLA Team Leader Carli

Throughout our lives, each of us is questioned as to “who we are,” to put it broadly. Despite this societal emphasis on personal identity, I recall being asked since kindergarten, if not earlier, “what I want to be when I grow up.” What I want to be, they ask – not who.

High school continued to pose this question in so many ways: what classes I took and what extra-curricular activities I enjoyed defined me, as everything was qualified “preparation” for the higher education and career which would define me. I entered university life expecting a space for self-discovery and personal growth, among academic opportunities.

I chose to attend Queen’s in part because of its academic reputation, and in part because of its rich traditions and immense school spirit. “Getting involved” became important to me, and eventually overtook schoolwork as my top priority and the biggest influence in determining my future, in terms of education and career. My academic and social pursuits have made my journey thus far rewarding – but not to the same degree as the extra-curricular activities I never imagined I’d so highly value.

My days are packed with meetings and rehearsals, administration and events, so I began presuming that others spent their time similarly when claiming to be “crazy busy.” It wasn’t until recently that I realized each person is involved uniquely and to a different extent, many people placing their academic commitment on a pedestal above all else.

I understand how, as academic achievements can open doors or limit opportunities to some degree; however, I know that it is my non-academic engagements which have helped me develop the necessary skills and connections to shape my own future, through stimulating my interest in new subjects and offering me the chance to apply what I learn in class. This is apart from the inevitable fact that I would simply go bonkers if academics were my sole, or even primary, focus!

My affiliation with a variety of student and community initiatives has built over the years, and now comprises the most fulfilling aspect of my university experience. It is these activities and the people I’ve met through them who have helped me define my values and reshape my priorities, and start answering the question I’ve always felt was overlooked: who am I?

Although I do love my studies and academics remain important to me, I know my future must be built on a foundation of balance which includes the extra-curricular commitments through which I can participate, lead, teach, and learn. These external communities have redefined my sense of self, and given me pride and opportunities detached from my successes and failures in coursework.

As we approach the end of this school year, I urge you to follow your heart and open your mind to these new possibilities! You never know what can be borne from a hobby or interest, let alone an inkling of curiosity or the itch to try something new; I challenge you to tackle the challenges of applying, engaging, and managing your time.

I cannot stress enough: the people you will meet, and the skills and lessons you will learn can make a greater contribution to your future than will the lost time from writing a paper or memorizing notes. It may take experimentation to find your niche, but I guarantee some space exists to support you on your road to self-discovery and personal growth.

By PLA Amy

     The advice I received coming into first year university was pretty predictable — don’t slack off, don’t eat more than one jumbo bag of chips per day, don’t fall behind — but by far, the suggestion that came up the most from family, friends, older students, and even TAs was to learn exactly what the prof was looking for, and give it to him/her. Profs were like Rubik’s Cubes: had a specific writing style they were looking for, certain topics they were interested in, and key discussion points they wanted you to hit on. If you magically aligned all of those criteria, you walked away with an A (or a perfectly solid colour, if we are going to keep this simile going).

     I spent the next two years at Queen’s treating essays like formulas, catering every argument and close reading to what I believed the profs and TAs wanted until they all blurred together in my mind.  As a friend of mine once said: “University is a game, and you need to figure out as fast as possible how to win.”  And win I did.  I have a bunch of A-grade papers tucked away somewhere in my closet.  But I only have one that sits in the corner of my desk, only one that I look at again and again for inspiration, and only one that I am actually proud of.

     Last year, rather than picking a topic for my culminating research paper in a history course that I knew the prof would like, or that I knew there would be a bounty of information on, I took the risk of actually writing a paper on something I cared about.  The prof advised against it because there wasn’t a ton of research on the topic, but I refused to let it go.  I dedicated hours of time to digging up research, finding personal testimonies, and brainstorming.  By the time my paper was done, it felt so personal and so meaningful that I was a little bit sad it was finished. 

     Confucius advised to “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” but I won’t deny that university can feel like work, even in the moments you enjoy it.  What I would say is choose a topic you love, and you won’t mind working for a couple of days, or weeks, of your life.  Keep in mind the prof’s guidelines, adhere to the proper citation and grammar requirements, and run your idea by your TA, but don’t feel that you have to compromise what you find interesting or quirky or exciting in a text because it might not be your prof’s focus of study.

     I would tell you the grade I got on the paper, but that defies my purpose.  Pursue your passions, and aim for having a stack of papers you are proud of on your desk or pinned up on your wall, not a whole bunch rotting in the closet.  It is through those passion projects that you really “win” at university, in my opinion.

By PLA Liz

     I was sitting on my couch at home during reading week when I realized how stressful my exams are going to be this year. The longer I sat there, the more reasons I came up with for why each of my five exams is going to stress me out. I was panicking. There was a voice in my head saying, “It’s going to be horrible, you’re going to be a stressed out mess.” I spent most of my free time during reading week on the brink of a hysterical breakdown.

     It wasn’t until the end that I realized none of this has happened yet. In fact, it wasn’t going to happen for another six weeks. I was stressing about the stress that hadn’t even hit; I was letting the future dictate how I felt in the present

     But how do I avoid thinking this way? Exams are going to be stressful and they are going to be difficult. The key for me was the old cliché: live in the moment. I can’t predict exactly how I’m going to feel seven weeks from now on the night before my first exam, so I can’t prepare myself now for that precise moment in the future. What I can do now is prepare myself for the present. 

     I broke my long-term goals that were causing me so much stress into more manageable, short-term goals. If I am able to get the most out of each day by accomplishing my smaller goals, I will benefit in the long run. 

     The trick is to live in the here and the now. If I am able to get the most out of the present moment, then seven weeks from now I’ll know that I did everything I could to be prepared for the future.