When I was in my first year of university, I had a insatiable thirst for the magical potion of success in post-secondary studies. This elixir would, as rumour had it, provide one lucky student with a 4.0 GPA, exemplary extra-curricular activities, and a stellar resume with both work and volunteer experience.
For many of you – as fellow patrons of the deserts of university – my elixir could serve as a much-needed oasis. Unfortunately, I must confess, this magical potion eludes me. I, too, soberly continue on under the overwhelming and scorching university heat, perspiring under the surmounting pressure to put one foot ahead of the other and continue on in my academic journey.
A weary traveller, such as I, can recount many tales of wonder and amazement, moments of downtrodden and disheartened spirits, and most importantly, bits of wisdom. I may not have the secret formula for university success, but recent successes in my academic career give me confidence to impart a few words from the wise to our novice travellers.
Fable: The Donkey and His Shadow
A traveller hired a donkey to carry him to a distant place. The day was intensely hot, and the sun was even hotter. The traveller stopped to rest and sought shelter from the heat under the shadow of the donkey. The owner who accompanied him, found no other shelter there, and the donkey shadow gave protection only for one.
Both the traveller and the owner of the donkey claimed it, and took to arguing violently as to which one of them had the right to the shadow. The owner claimed that he had let out the donkey only, and not his shadow. The traveller asserted that along with hiring the donkey, he had hired his shadow too. The quarrel went on from words to blows, and while the men fought, the donkey galloped off.
MORAL: In quarreling about the shadow, we often lose the substance.
Application: The Substance is in the Learning
The “substance” in academia is the learning, not the marks. “Losing the substance” is a common complaint I hear from Teaching Assistants about undergraduate students. T.A.s say that when undergrads receive their marks, they tend to be so fixated on the letter grade that they forget to recognize the constructive criticism on how to improve. Sometimes, the shadow of the grade inhibits us from really understanding what the grade tells us.
In addition, students tend to approach the T.A.s to “quarrel about the shadow” and ask for a grade increase. In doing so, you demonstrate to the T.A. that the substance – the interest and passion to learn something new – is not important to you. Quarreling for a one or two grade percentage increase does very little in the long run for your marks.
TIP: The next time you get a grade you don’t like, consider looking at your first assignment and the attached commentary, and compare it to your second assignment and the attached commentary. As a T.A. mentioned to me, many students are surprised to find that they did not resolve the mistakes from the first assignment, and instead, just repeated them, thus not improving their marks.
Resolve to improve your next assignment, and don’t let a poor grade affect the rest of your performance in the course. Pushing past the letter grade can really help you to improve, as I have learned from experience. You can even try my trick: if I get a mark I don’t like, I give myself maximum 24 hours to stress about it. Then I put it away into a cabinet and I don’t look at it again for the rest of the semester. In putting it away, I openly acknowledge that the grade is not what is important, but rather, the learning. Somehow, with the right attitude, the marks just seem to follow!
MORAL: To argue bitterly for a small grade increase will only hinder your progress. Not only do you fail to grasp the joy of learning, you encourage your T.A. to see you as a “grade-grubber”. Instead, take the criticism constructively, and aim to improve rather than get emotional about your marks.
Fable: The Caravan Travellers (adapted from The Ant and the Grasshopper)
In a field, one summer’s day, a traveller was lounging about, relaxing and singing to his heart’s content. A second traveller passed by bearing, with great toil, heavy bundles of dry food and blankets to store in his wagon.
“Why not come and chat with me?” asked the first traveller, “instead of toiling away?’
“I am storing up food for the winter,” said the second traveller. “And I recommend you to do the same.”
“Why bother about winter now?” came the response. “We have plenty of food at the present time.”
But the first traveller went on his way, continuing to bear a heavy load. When winter came, the first traveller had no food, and found himself cold and starving, while the second traveller ate a little bit of food each day from the storage he had collected from the summer.
MORAL: It is best to prepare now for the days of necessity.
Application: Study Now what is Inevitable to be Due Later
I never really thought it was realistic to study and work on assignments in advance. After the first two weeks of classes, students tend to be swamped with work, and overwhelmed. Generally, many students get back into gear when they receive poor marks for their first assignment.
Although I was proud of my grades last semester, I realized that if I hadn’t been in lazy-post-summer-break-mode at the beginning of the school year, I could have done well on those first assignments, and bumped up my marks in every course.
This semester, I am trying to do just that: I am pretending the assignments are due next week, instead of the actual due date of two weeks from now. Something as simple as reading the textbook a week or two ahead, or working on an assignment early enough so you can get help from a T.A. can really improve your grades at U of T. I’m hoping that by doing so, I will not only get a head start, but I will create more time for the days of the “winter spell”. Then, in the blackest, stormiest days of midterm exams and papers, I can survive by feeding off the bits of work I did preemptively on assignments.
MORAL: No time like the present! Seize the day! Catch my drift? Shake off the post-Christmas ‘breather break’ mentality and use the downtime to prepare for the winter storm of midterms.
The Bear and the Two Travellers
Two men were travelling together, when they suddenly encountered a bear on their path. One of them climbed up quickly into a tree and concealed himself in the branches. The other, seeing that he would be attacked, fell flat on the ground, and when the bear came up and felt him with his snout, and smelt him all over, he held his breath, and feigned the appearance of death as much as he could. The bear soon left him, for it is said that a bear will not touch a dead body. When he was quite gone, the other traveller descended from the tree, and jocularly inquired of his friend what the bear had whispered in his ear. “He gave me this advice,” his companion replied. “Never travel with a friend who deserts you at the approach of danger.”
MORAL: Misfortune tests the sincerity of friends.
Application: Study Power develops in Numbers
One of the exciting secrets I have learned about university and academic life is that there is great power in numbers and friendship. On the non-academic side, making friends in the classroom is a great way to relieve stress, to connect with familiar faces every week, and to relax your mind from the pressures of academia.
On the academic side, there is great benefit from studying in numbers, and I find that U of T St.George students don’t really use this opportunity to its fullest. Having multiple minds work on something together – whether it is studying for an exam, editing a paper, or sharing ideas on how to interpret a question – is a perfect way to expand your critical thinking skills. Getting in touch with students isn’t difficult – you can, for example, use the communication tool on Blackboard to access a roster of students’ email addresses. Sending out a quick suggestion to open study session is very simple!
Of course – the moral of the fable comes in here: you don’t want to organize a group study session and then have other students bail on you. Be prepared for a bear! In times of difficulty and unexpected tribulation, be sure to have friends who will actually stick through till the end – who will come prepared to the study session, who are willing to put in the effort, and who will protect you in times of difficulty.
Your Own Story
The best part of being a student is that you get to be a traveller and create your own memories, experiences and stories which you can then share with others. The most important thing to remember is being an undergraduate student is about the journey, and not the graduation.
Please, feel free to share your own experiences!
Cheers, fellow travelers!