Ah, September. The leaves begin to fall, the air cools, and the smell of fresh textbooks lingers in the air. Although we’re all busy constructing new IKEA furniture and scrambling to attend as many back-to-school keggers as possible, most of us university students manage to find time to think about what we’d like to achieve in the upcoming year. We make countless resolutions: We will spend more time at the gym and less time spending money; we will spend more time reading and less time drinking ourselves silly—the list goes on. Every September, university students across the country think to themselves, “This is my year. I’m going to buckle down, work my ass off, and get better grades.” Unfortunately, raising your grade point average is much easier said than done. As the novelty of a new semester begins to wear off, most students find themselves slipping back into bad habits. In order to keep you from falling off the wagon, the Fulcrum has gathered advice for staying on track from the Student Academic Success Services (SASS), professors, and recent graduates.
Get to a professor’s office!
Regardless of how down-to-earth a professor may be, he or she is always a little intimidating. Maybe it’s because all professors have an impressive string of letters following their names, or perhaps it’s simply the fact that he or she is the person responsible for all of those comments in red ink on your papers. Whatever the reason, professors have an unfortunate way of making most students feel a little nervous; however, becoming acquainted with your educators could raise your grades. Professors are oftentimes more willing to negotiate extensions or suggest helpful resources to students who have taken the time to visit during office hours.
According to Corinne Gaudin, a history professor at the U of O, the secret to success lies in visiting your professors before problems arise.
“We often see students only when there is a dire crisis, and by then it may be too late for us to be of much help,” she says. “Professors and the library are the two most important resources for students. Use them! Do not wait until you are overwhelmed and in a panic … If you have class during office hours, ask for an appointment. You are not disturbing us; this is what we are here for. Just don’t wait for the last minute.”
Recent history graduate Cassie Hanratty agrees.
“[Talking to professors] might seem terrifying right now, but if you can build good relationships with them, you’ll enjoy their class much more. Getting to know your professors also sets up possibilities for your future scholarly endeavours or career.”
Hanratty notes another little-known benefit of becoming acquainted with your educators: “Some professors keep candy in their office for students who visit them. How can you lose?”
Engage yourself in your learning
Oftentimes, students unwittingly find themselves in a seemingly endless cycle: Class, readings, papers, repeat. If you don’t make an effort to occasionally shake things up, you might begin to feel like a hamster running on a wheel. English professor Aïda Hudson encourages students to step outside of the box.
“If there is group work or oral work and you have the option to do it—take the plunge,” she says. “Once you have spoken, you are ‘here,’ really part of the [University of Ottawa] community. Over the years, I have noticed that those students who do this are truly engaged and do very well. They make their dreams come true.”
Communications professor Jenepher Lennox Terrion admits it is sometimes difficult for students to remain engaged during lectures.
“It is true that classes can sometimes be boring. If students do their readings, think about the content, and—perhaps most importantly—sit at the front of the classroom, they may find it easier to pay attention,” she says.
Prof. Terrion also suggests students stay on top of their readings.
“I notice that students don’t keep up with their readings and, thus, are always behind and then cramming come exam time,” she says. “Devoting about 30 minutes a day per class to reading over notes and assigned readings is probably enough to stay on top of things and keeps a student prepared for class discussion and, come exam time, confident about being ready.”
Pick the right place to study
Keeping up with readings is a difficult task in itself, so be sure to read in a location that is conducive to productivity. Many students are under the impression that the library is the only place to study on campus; however, for Laurel Hogan, a U of O graduate who holds two degrees in translation and English, Morisset is not always the right place to work.
“I found out the hard way that the library is probably one of the worst places to study on campus during exam period,” she says. “You’re better off avoiding the procrastination party and finding an empty classroom or an isolated cafeteria table.”
Hogan encourages students to be bold when necessary.
“If you do get stuck in the library or residence—or any potentially disruptive area on campus—don’t be afraid to tell people to turn down their music or stop the chit-chat,” she says. “Chances are everyone else in the room was too chicken to say the exact same thing.”
When it’s impossible to find a quiet place to study, Hanratty recommends “investing in ear plugs, because you never know when they’ll come in handy.”
If you do decide to read on campus, choose a place that best suits your needs. Students who find they focus better with a little white noise in the background should try the cafeteria in between meal times, while those who crave complete silence should check out the silent study rooms in the School of Information Technology and Engineering building.
Most importantly, remember to be considerate of others. If you bring an iPod to a quiet study area on campus, keep the volume down. No one in the vicinity is interested in hearing the bass line of whatever song you happen to be listening to. The same goes for talking on your cellphone—your peers don’t care about the party you went to last weekend, so pack it up and take your calls outside.
Don’t forget to let loose
As a student, your number one priority should always be your school work, but Hanratty and Hogan both agree it’s important to study hard without neglecting your social life.
“Make friends with anyone and everyone, everywhere you go,” says Hogan. “Most people are worth getting to know. These people will be your drinking buddies, study partners, shoulders to cry on, connections to sweet summer jobs—basically the best, most memorable parts of your university experience.”
Hanratty adds, “Stay connected with things going on, both on campus and around the city. Don’t forget that an entire world exists outside of the downtown core. I’d suggest downloading a few free apps that keep you posted on deals and events around Ottawa.”
She encourages students to “remember that you’re in university for both an education and a social life, so don’t get too involved in one or the other. University can become really stressful if you’re too focused on one and neglect the other.”
Know when to ask for help
Sometimes students find themselves facing difficulties that are too stressful to handle alone. When personal problems arise, students may feel the need to take a few days off from school; however, given the fast-paced nature of university course work, it can sometimes be difficult to get back on track. Donald Martin, manager of the SASS Counselling and Coaching Service, encourages students who are struggling to make an appointment with his team of counsellors.
“Our mandate at the Counselling and Coaching Service is to help students with transition and adjustment issues,” he says. “Students have access to a counsellor fairly quickly here; they can usually see someone within one or two days as there is no waiting list. If students face a roadblock on their way to success, this is a good place to come to have a few sessions and get back on their feet.”
Students who need help with a specific issue but are unsure where to look can also turn to the Counselling and Coaching Service.
“Our job oftentimes is to make sure that students get connected with the other services SASS offers,” says Martin. Students are encouraged to take advantage of these services (see sidebar for details), as they will not only keep a person afloat during times of stress, but will also improve his or her work and university experience in general.
Perhaps it is Prof. Hudson who best summarizes how to have a successful year: “Keep up with readings. Start essays and projects early. Take notes during lectures. Above all, love what you do and appreciate how lucky you are to be a student at the University of Ottawa.”
—Kristyn Filip, with files from Ali Schwabe and Michelle LePage