Get Your Head Right for School

“It’s the mooooossssst wonderful tiiiiime of the yeeeaaarrrr…*

*humming in the key of Z-flat*

Yes folks , faster than you can say “OSAP”, we're back to school. I'm convinced some of us are in denial about summer's end, since I've noticed a few people still walking around campus in shorts, with a slightly befuddled expression that reads, "I was sure that the Summer Mixer was somewhere around here...I must have taken a left at the wrong corner"... As for the rest of us donned in the requisite layers of sweaters and tees, summer is now but a mournful memory.  I’m sure that you spent yours just as psyched as I did, eagerly anticipating the return to deadlines, midterm preparation, and endless chapter readings to complete. Yaaaayyy.

Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy my summer. Between late night cookouts at my friends’ homes, checking out events at the Harbourfront, and discovering various hiking trails in my neighborhood, it was pretty memorable.

But wait – I’m jumping ahead of myself here - please forgive my bad manners...

My name’s Dara… and I’m happy to be one of the new bloggers here at Upbeat.  I’m in my second year of a double major in sociology and equity studies. I’m classified as a "mature" (ugh) student. I came to the university through the Academic Bridging Program. With the help of Accessibility Services, I’ve recently uncovered a learning challenge and am actively working to move beyond it. 

I spent sixteen years in Trinidad, basking in the glow of my mother's home cooked Caribbean dishes. I worked as an occupational safety manager, and also bred fancy goldfish as a side business.

Fast forward to 2008: I took a leap of faith and left family, food, and fish behind and returned to my country of birth to finally get my degree. I've always wanted to attend the University of Toronto, and so it means a lot to me to be here now.

But I digress… time to get down to the meat of this post.  In the spirit of the beginning of the school year – let’s talk organization. How do you “get your head right” for school?

Having a clear study plan is crucial. My partner, who’s currently pursuing her PhD here and knows a thing or two about being organized, sat down with me and helped me draft my study strategy. See below...

Dara's Study Strategy

1. Skim chapter intro and summary, then sub headings.

2. Read 1 section of article. Pause. cover it and recall section's gist in my own words, out loud.

3. Sketch a quick mind map of that section.

4. Cornell notes of section's main points.

5. Repeat for next section.

Prior to this, I’d just pick up the book and start reading without a clear purpose. Now when I sit down I can easily glance at clear instructions on HOW to read to maximize my retention of the material.

Another weapon in my arsenal is the Cornell Note Taking System. Here's a pic taken from my own notebook:

My notepaper is divided into three sections. I record my lecture or textbook notes in the right-hand column; keywords or prompt questions in the left hand column; and the bottom margin is where I write a three-sentence summary of everything on the page. Exam prep becomes a breeze – I just cover my right hand column and use the questions or prompts on the left to test myself. Voila!

To circumvent issues with memory, I enter all of my deadlines, assignments, and readings into my smartphone's calendar.

In short, I mix and match a variety of tools. Different people will find different combinations of techniques useful. If you find any of my tips useful, find a way to adapt them to your particular learning style.

This said - I'd like to hear from you! What study techniques do you use? Let's share/compare/barter! Or simply drop me a line to say "hi". And look out for me again next week!


5 comments on “Get Your Head Right for School

  1. I personally find that the Cornell note taking strategy works better for some courses than others. Just having a specific “keyword” on the left or a couple of lines on the right is not going to help a person recall Descartes proof for the existence of god or something more complicated especially when the exam requires more than a couple of lines. If its something which is more easy to digest I think the Cornell notes would fare better. But having said that, it all depends what one finds easier.

    My study techniques are pretty old school. If there are certain courses in which slides are provided, I print them out before class (not more than 4 on a page) and write besides them. For other courses, like philo, I record the lecture and I write down notes in a way that would give it a momentum of its own. For e.g I try to make a story out of the lecture in a way that each previous bullet is connected to the next one, so that while preparing for exams it’s like I’m reading a book. However the key for me doing well in exams is being crystal clear on everything that is contained within the notes. If there’s something I’m unclear on I go back to the lecture recording. Also T.A’s are an indispensable tool in helping one getting making that extra difference. I’m pretty certain that I’m the first person in the semester to TA’s for all my courses in their OHs.

    Oh and the other key thing is love what you study. That makes it a whole lot easier to study and to do well.

    Anyway, happy studying people.

    P.S. Why I wrote a comment, I don’t know. I would never have a written comment on any blog; major procrastination issues. The irony is that before reading this post, I didn’t have a ” study strategy” per se 🙂

  2. I’m so glad a mature student is writing for Upbeat!

    I’m thirty and living abroad – I won’t be able to go back to Canada to do my undergrad for a couple more years – so I’m really looking forward to reading about your experiences.

  3. You bred fancy gold fishes? Like Koi? SO COOL.

    My study strategy is tailored to each course. My major and minors are really different (psych/paradigms and archetype+writing and rhetoric) so I found that the same strategy doesn’t work for each class.

    What I do have consistently is the same note-book binder, where I keep my classes divided and I always have the syllabus. The thing with that binder is that it comes with the divider that’s also a paper holder right? So I use that to keep all my lecture notes, assignments, etc. That way I don’t have to keep opening the binder or closing the binder every time I need something.

    I haven’t tried the Cornell method but I think I’ll have to! Exam prep sucks so much of my time.

    Awesome post, and AWESOME binder!

  4. Hi!


    I find your post very helpful and timely, as I have long since the start of September been looking to develop an effective study strategy! In the past month, I’ve been experimenting with several different methods. I’ve tried focusing on taking and rewriting notes, reading the chapter summary ahead of time, and more recently, focusing on the assigned questions and problem sets.

    Many people advice me that doing exams is the best way to study, so I’m busy with that at the moment. I also find going to lecture-tutorials and group office hours offered by professors very helpful!

    I think I’ll try your recall/paraphrase out-loud method! How do you mind map a section?

  5. to HB: thanks for the feedback! You’re right, the Cornell system works best for certain areas of study, as opposed to others. Some people use flash cards or other methods – as you said, it’s about finding what works best for you. I really like your technique of creating a story with your notes; I think I’ll give that a try as well 🙂

    to Heather: yes, I’m glad to be writing from the mature student aspect as well; coming in as a mature student can be a little isolating if you don’t know where to find others that share your situation. Here at U of T we have the Mature Students Association . Stay in touch!

    to Cynthia: well, not koi, but fancy goldfish – ryukin, shubunkin, red caps, orandas… I also did beta fighting fish, hillaries, and platies. I’m hoping to get back to fighter fish early next year 🙂

    And your right, keeping everything in one binder makes things a lot easier. I also use the pocket dividers, for my syllabus and lecture notes.

    to Alice: you’re very right about working with past exams. It gives you a clear idea about what areas to focus on. Mind mapping is pretty easy. Here’s a link to a page that can explain it to you

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