By PLA Alanna

     When I found out about the group projects I needed to do for my courses this semester, I felt the chill of a visit from the Ghost of Group Projects Past. The last time I had worked on a group project was in high school, and I was hoping I wouldn’t have to go down that road again. I prefer to work independently, or at least that’s what I told myself. 

     Having completed one group project this semester (remember, my first one since high school!) I feel I should pass on my wisdom:

  1. When you first meet your group, learn everyone’s name and use these names. This probably sounds silly, but people respond better and more openly to their name.
  2. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Even before your very first meeting, prepare yourself before you go to it. Read the assignment, try to understand it and make notes. Write down any questions or ideas you have. Time is precious, and with group projects it is priceless. With everyone’s different schedules, meeting will be difficult, so it is imporatnt that when you do meet you are in a position to get things accomplished. Before every meeting try to have some kind of game plan as to what everyone should do ahead of time and what you will work on during that meeting.
  3. If you have an idea, share it – even if you’re not sure about it. Not all good ideas sound good at first, and not even all good ideas will necessarily pan out. Brainstorming is a wonderful thing, and you never know what your idea might spark in someone else. 
  4. Make your criticism constructive. If you find something you don’t like that was completed by someone else, tell them what you don’t like about it and tell them what you do like about it (there is always something). This way, you’re giving them a starting point to make their work better – which will benefit the group. On the flip side, if you receive criticism that is not so constructive, try not to take it personally. You are working with real people who have real lives with stress and everyone has different ways of dealing with stress. On the plus side, you will now understand the value of constructive criticism!
  5. Ask questions. Never be afraid of sounding stupid in front of your peers. If you ignore questions you have, it could end up having a big impact on the project later on when it will be more difficult to address.
  6. Meet as often as possible. Technology is wonderful, but it can’t replace face-to-face conversations. The meaning behind something can be difficult to convey over email or Facebook, and it’s easier to communicate when you can see everyone and have what you’re working on in front of you. On that note…
  7. Be prepared to make sacrifices. Meeting at a time that works for everyone will be difficult. If you’ve said you can’t meet at a particular time because you’re meeting up with friends or because you like to sleep in, try and find it within your flexible heart to change your plans.
  8. When you are finished with the project, reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Taking time to note approaches that went well and strategies that you can use next time will be worth far more than any grade you walk away with. 

Good luck and enjoy the experience!



By PLA Cindy

     As a first year medical student who completed undergrad at Queen’s, there wasn’t much adjustment needed in terms of campus or city – I was already in love with Queen’s and Kingston. However, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in terms of the learning strategies I would need to meet the demands of this new program. After 1.5 semesters, I have learned/re-learned a few things I would like to share with you.

  1. Learning the forest before the trees

     There’s a true story that goes around in our class about an upper-year student who was being evaluated on performing a physical examination. When it came time to test the general movement of limbs, the student asked the patient to get up and walk across the room. The patient did not budge; instead, he pointed out that he couldn’t do so because he only had one leg. 

     There is so much to learn in professional school, and in many undergraduate courses, that we often find ourselves closely examining the trees (the minutia), but lost in the forest (the big picture). Professors are well-aware of this. They like to expand the horizon of our knowledge by giving out a lot of supplementary detail, but they also know that we need a big-picture perspective to tie everything together. They generally give objectives at the beginning of lectures, and take-home points at the end. The objectives narrow down what to study, and perhaps more importantly, tell you why you are studying. They are a life saver, especially when it seems like there’s an overload of information in a short amount of time. Using these objectives to self-assess understanding when reading textbook material also helps to keep the reader (you!) more focused and engaged. Finally, thinking big-picture makes it harder to make those silly mistakes during an exam, like not doing a general inspection of the patient and asking them to walk across the room on one leg!

  1. Creating balance and routine:

     One thing that took a little bit of getting used to for me was the amount of class during the day (upwards of 8 hours) compared to the breezy 3-hour-per-day class load of undergrad. I used to follow the 9 to 5 method  to make the most of prime daytime brain power and will power, but now that 9-5 time is taken up by classes, and the outside-of-class time seems more precious than ever. Every person that I’ve talked to seems to use this time differently. Some have daily study sessions on campus after class until later in the evening, some go to the gym and sweat it out, some go home right away to eat and veg out by watching an episode of Suits. My default is in the last category, but I have begun more and more to strike a balance. The truth is, we are all busy students, and it doesn’t stop this week or next week. So, embrace the work that you are doing, but also give yourself time for fun (even during midterms!) 

     I have found what works best is to choose your battles: maybe you don’t have time for three readings, but you probably have time for the most important and urgent one (critical for understanding what the prof will be talking about in class tomorrow for example). Try to review notes from classes the same day if you can, as constant review is the best way to shelve learned material into long-term memory. Always leave time for a little bit of relaxation and fun, like scheduling in Monday night zumba class with a friend. Having a routine is the best way to realize your time management dreams – if you do something long enough, it becomes second nature. Figuring out what kind of balance you need takes a lot of trial and error – I’m still working on mine! 

  1. Adopting the growth mindset:

     During the first couple weeks of medical school, I was suffering from “imposter syndrome,” the feeling that somehow the people on the admissions committee made a mistake and I had slipped in accidentally as an imposter med student. This was compounded by the fact that the office could not find my file on the first day of checking in, and then I was only signed up for the fall semester. Regardless of the few hiccups, I have managed to fool the admissions office so far, and it’s probably too late for them to send me home now . The point is, we all experience these moments of doubt about our abilities, and we become fixated on our perception of our capabilities. “I am not smart enough,” we say. “I always procrastinate – that’s how I am,” or “I suck at math” are comments too familiar to many. 

     One of the best things that I learned from being a PLA is the idea of the growth mindset. It essentially proposes that our abilities aren’t fixed, but are instead learned, practiced, and sharpened over time. It’s about focusing on the process of growing as a person instead of the end result. People say that the profession of medicine involves lifelong learning, but I think that lifelong learning applies to pretty much every profession out there. Having a growth mindset allows us to overcome challenges and obstacles along the way and recognize them as blessings in disguise. It makes us rethink our abilities and step outside of our comfort zone. 

     What do you think you would like to grow as a learning skill? As always, there are tools here on this site to help you along the way. Come to Stauffer to visit the PLAs for some more study skills advice – we are lonely!

Best wishes on your journey!

…have an optimism smoothie!

By PLA Erin

Fun Fact 1: Research has demonstrated that IQ is not the top predictor of academic success. 

     You say, WHAT?!?! 

      I say, it’s true.

Fun Fact 2: The top three skills that help students achieve high academic excellence include Time management, Organization, and Optimism! 

     You say, WHAT?!?!

      I say, it’s true. And remember it is not possible to have too much TOO!!!

Today I am going to focus on Optimism because it’s the skill that I practice most regularly and I think it can be applied by everyone, everyday, in simple ways that make a difference. 

Optimism Smoothie Ingredients: 

  • ½ cup outside motivators
  • ¾ cup inside motivators
  • 1 heaping cup positive attitude
  • 3 tbsp determination, discipline, direction 
  • 1 tsp motivated & positive peers

Now, let’s elaborate on these key ingredients, all of which help you achieve optimal levels of optimism:

Outside (extrinsic) motivators:

  • Things in your environment that motivate you: 
    • Parents 
    • Seeing a good grade on your report card
    • Food (treats) and rewards 
    • Scholarships 

Inside (intrinsic) motivators: 

  • Things inside of yourself that motivate you:
    • Self-confidence in your abilities 
    • Determination to achieve 
    • Satisfaction with your achievements   
    • Personal goals 

Positive attitude:

  • A very important ingredient (Don’t be shy; exaggerate the ‘heaping’ with a few extra teaspoons)
  • Unsure how to go about practicing a positive attitude? Try using a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset: 
    • Try a new study method, listen and be open to suggestions, change the way you think about a course! 
    • Try replacing “I can’t do it” with “I can’t do it yet.” 

Determination, discipline, and direction help you:

  • Become motivated and stay motivated – motivation does not magically appear – it comes when you start something.
  • Stick to your specific goals and timeframes. 
  • Channel your energy toward your goals. 
  • Try setting a specific goal that you can measure and that you know is realistic to achieve in a certain time frame.

Motivated and positive peers:

  • Being surrounded by people who are motivated and positive helps you to become motivated and and positive as well! 
  • Try creating a regular-scheduled study group with people who are in the same course.  You will motivate each other!

Blend smoothly, drink, and enjoy! Remember that this “optimism smoothie” won’t last forever, but that the ingredients to make another are very accessible 🙂

By PLA Team Leader Heather

Victim: Me. Fourth Year Queen’s Student, mere months away from graduation. 

Item(s) Reported Missing: Motivation to study. 

Victim’s Statement: With a diploma so close I could feel it, and post-grad plans well laid out, the pressure for grades was dwindling. And, with it was going my motivation! There was a time when I could power through hours of reviewing, reading, and studying. I was so focused! But lately, Facebook, emails, and snack breaks had been winning my time. I was worried I was losing my edge. This couldn’t be happening to me! How was I ever going to succeed in grad school if I couldn’t find motivation now?

Intervention: After a few weeks of fretting over my missing motivation, I sat down and took a hard look at my situation. I figured out a few things.

  1. This is normal! Motivation fluctuates. And, a dip in motivation is not uncommon in soon-to-be grads. 
  2. I can’t just put off studying until I “feel” like it. Motivation can be developed, even faked. Studies even state that the more you practice, the more motivated you will become. 
  3. I was forgetting the very strategies that I’d been using for so long to give me my motivation. I hadn’t lost my edge, I’d just forgotten how to use it!

And so, with a new positive outlook, I revisited a few of those old strategies.

  1. 50/10 Rule: Study for 50 minutes and then take a 10 minute break. Repeat! Knowing that 10 minutes of bliss is coming is a super motivator! And keeping chunks of studying short keeps you focused. 
  2. Break it down: “Study for PSYC midterm” looks pretty dull sitting on your To Do List for days. So why not break it up by chapter or by week of lecture material? Crossing off 5 items instead of one = 5 times the satisfaction!
  3. STING: Select one thing, Time Yourself, Ignore everything, No distractions, Give yourself a reward! – Sometimes all your need to get yourself started is.. starting. Select one thing, anything, and time yourself (for even just 10 minutes)! By doing what you dread, you’ll be surprised (as I was) at how easy it then becomes to keep going. 

Closing Notes: With a few simple strategies and a little practice, my motivation was found. Case closed!

By PLA Team Leader Ramona

Four months – the only period of time that students are given in a semester to master the content of 5 or more courses. How should we pace ourselves to be highly effective and efficient? Let’s learn from people who train for marathons. Training for a marathon takes discipline, motivation, and hard work.  Their strategy? Each month has its own focus in training:

January – Base Mileage / Background and Practice

This is when you have to put in the time to do all the background reading and to brush up on skills that you know you will need for the rest of the semester. This is when runners start logging more and more miles, starting out slow and steady, and increasing their mileage each week. This phase of training is the most important, as it gets the gears going again after the relaxing winter vacation. Staying on top of the material during January will prepare you for the next phase…Midterms!

February – Midterms

This is when runners start doing their interval training. Interval training consists of shorter, more frequent, intense workouts rather than the long, steady runs during the Base Mileage phase. The intense workouts are analogous to midterms. Students who stay on top of their material in January will have a less stressful and even enjoyable time during midterm season. Recovery time between midterms is also very important in February – so try to do something relaxing like meeting up with friends after a midterm to wind down. (For runners, they would usually have a hot, relaxing bath and a nice meal after their interval workouts – perfectly valid for after midterms as well!).

March – Hard work

During this time, runners try to mimic the racing atmosphere they know they’ll have to face in one month. This is called threshold training – running similar workout distances at the pace they would be racing. When it comes to studying, this translates to doing more practice problems or essays with a time restraint (as would be encountered in exams), practicing being strategic and efficient while completing homework and assignments, and keeping a momentum and motivation every day. Most of the learning should happen during this stage. The big exam days are fast approaching!

April – Maintain, Review, and Nourish

During the weeks leading up to the marathon, runners don’t cram in as many workouts as they possibly can. On the contrary, they taper. This means that they maintain their fitness and mobility by jogging lightly every day, while eating carbohydrates to let their muscles build up as many energy reserves as possible for the big day. So, since most of the learning should have happened in March, April is the time to review and consolidate material. Avoiding cramming is one of the best things to do during exam season, and will lead to more confidence when it’s time to pace yourself through exams.

Off to the races we go! Good luck on your training, midterms, and finals!

A Whole Day Off?

By PLA Justina

     When my parents first immigrated to Toronto over 30 years ago, they were alarmed to find that the entire city seemed to turn into a ghost town every Sunday. By the time I was born and raised there, businesses across the country had long since stopped closing on Sundays for the traditional “day of rest” and the lively bustle of the big city continues right through to Monday. 

     Time is money and in an increasingly fast-paced society we can’t afford to slow down for fear of losing out on progress and achievement – or can we? What if I told you that it’s possible to take one day off every single week?

     I used to find that even during my so-called “downtime,” I was constantly thinking of what I still had left on my to-do list. When I tried to explain the increasing stress that gave me headaches, it all just boiled down to the fact that I felt like the work never ended and I was never able to relax. I can’t take credit for this idea because I learned it from a pastor I met and then tweaked it for myself; I have been taking a day off almost every week for “recreation” since before I started university. 

How to get started:

1. Pick a day!
     I picked Sunday because that makes the most sense in my week, but if you have a weekday off in your class schedule, or if you prefer Saturdays off, go for it! You could even start off with just setting aside one afternoon or one evening a week, whatever fits best. 

2. Identify what it is you need to break from! 
     It’ll be hard if you just casually decide to “do nothing,” so it’s good to specify what you’re taking a break from. For me, it was strictly schoolwork that was bogging me down, so I decided I would not do any academic reading, assignments, or studying on my day off. Everything else remained fair game. 

3. Commit to keeping that day free!
     Now simply guard the time you have decided to use as your break.

Note: I certainly do not follow this to a tee — should I have an exam on Monday morning and feel the need to review on a Sunday night, I will and it doesn’t ruin my day at all. The point of my day off is to give me some time on a regular basis where I feel completely justified about not thinking about my work (and believe me, it’s a wonderful feeling). 

What am I supposed to do with my day off? Anything, really.

     This could be a time to get cracking on cleaning your room that has been cluttered all week, or trying out that new recipe you’ve been thinking about and making yourself a fantastic meal. It could be time for you to pursue those hobbies you always have to put aside for schoolwork, or to meet that friend you’ve been trying to make time for.  You could finally read the rest of that book you’ve been trying to finish, or watch the newest episode of that show you haven’t caught up on yet.

     The best part is that you can do all this without feeling guilty, thinking that you should be being more academically productive. Although it takes some getting used to, this will train your self-discipline to work harder throughout the week. Then, you can even apply this newfound skill to other areas of your life. You may be astounded by your motivation to get things done “in preparation” to enjoy your day off, reducing stress by giving you a breather at the end of the sprint! 

     When you have a clear separation of “work time” and “recreation time,” it allows you to focus on what is at hand rather than thinking about work while you play and wishing you could play while you should be working! For more tips on how to stay on track and motor through the week, visit us in the Queen’s University Learning Strategies Office (Stauffer room 143) or check out our online resources at www.queensu.ca/learningstrategies.

By A Graduating PLA

     I get really good grades in university. I don’t say this to brag, but to share my story in the hopes that it helps you realize this: a high GPA isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of your university experience – not even the academic component. So, here’s my story.
    In first year, I got 100% in PSYC 100. In second year, I was awarded the highest overall average in my program. In third year, I repeated this honour, received the honour for the highest overall GPA of any girl in a social science field and, to my complete shock, the award for the highest overall GPA of any student entering their final year in a Bachelor of Arts program. 

     Only my closest friends have any idea that I hold such titles. While I do consider myself intelligent, obtaining these grades was by no means a breeze. Although I began at Queen’s in a true spread of liberal arts courses, I decided at the beginning of second year that never again would I take another writing elective. I loved writing courses, and I got great feedback on my essays; however, I found it nearly impossible to crack 90% on a paper. Grades in the 80s simply weren’t acceptable to the impossible standards I had imposed upon myself.

     So, I spent my 2nd and 3rd years sitting through boring electives, where my ability to quickly memorize a textbook enabled me to score perfect (or near perfect) grades. Even at the beginning of this year, when I was offered the chance to take 4th year seminars in my program – the small, discussion-based classes that I had been craving my entire university career – I turned it down to take 300-level, 200-student, textbook-memorizing courses that did not interest me at all. Not only was I spending hours poring over boring textbooks in the library, but I also gave up the valuable opportunity to get to know profs one-on-one.

     Now, here I am, in the 2nd semester of my 4th year, asking “why did I care so much?” After living for 4 years in a self-created academic environment I couldn’t stand, I have no intention of going on in school. While I do have several job interviews lined up, not a single company has asked to see a copy of my transcript. 

     The message of this post is simple: learn from my mistakes. Take the electives you want to take, take the smaller classes in your program, love your time spent in Stauffer. If you don’t, you’ll end up so burned out that you won’t want to do anything that needs a good GPA anyways.