Getting [back] into the swing of things

Hello UofT! My name is Charles, and I’m the student blogger for the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (or the “CTSI”, to save a mouthful). That means I’ll be mostly blogging about things that relate to my experiences with student-faculty engagement, both inside and outside the classroom. But we can talk more about that later. Let’s start with a proper introduction. This is me:

Photo of Charles pondering

“Whatcha thinking about?” “Oh, just bear stuffs

Some things about me: I am a nerd about many things. Thankfully, I’ve managed to “focus” my nerdery down to degree interests in philosophy, psychology, and bioethics. This is my fifth and final year here at UofT, and it’s starting off a little different than the rest: this is the first year where I’ve taken the summer off from studies. By the end of my fourth year, I had spent nearly forty-five consecutive months in school. I deserved a break, and I enjoyed it. But summer’s gone, and now I must deal with something entirely new: learning how to get back into the swing of things.

Photo of A.A. Milne books, photoshopped to read "Now We Are Fifth Years"

This lesser-known A.A. Milne book has really helped me out.

Whether from summer vacation or from life events, I think everyone faces a moment where they’ve fallen out of step and need help to get back to their studious peak. But, how do we go about doing that?

Others will tell you it’s all about time management. About getting time to sleep and time to relax. It’s about visiting your professor’s office hours, and getting help at the math aid centres or the many writing clinics. And absolutely those are things that you should be doing. But, maybe you want to try something a little… different.

Photo of women dancing with umbrellas

Well, at least not umbrella-convulsively ‘different’. [source]

In the past few years, I’ve collected a few weird “brain hacks” to help me stay productive and get the most out of my studies. These aren’t just habits I picked off the street: they’re supported by science. I’ll even link to some articles; that way, if anyone asks why you’re biting the pen they just loaned you, you can confidently say: “Science told me to“. (Just don’t blame me). Here are some of the “hacks” I use:

  • Go Green. Get yourself a cactus or another easy plant: keeping a plant near your workspace can boost your creativity and your  health. Can’t afford a plant? Buy a green pen! The colour green in general might help you relax and be more creative. Hanging around abstract art also works.

  • Bite, Pull, and Cross. Have trouble paying attention in class? Tug on your desk. It tricks your brain into thinking you’re engaged, and helps you relax and pay attention! If that doesn’t work, try crossing your arms. Still stuck? Try sticking the end (not the tip!) of your pen in your mouth to make you feel relaxed and happier.

  • Lay down. While studies show sleep frequently helps with problem solving, those of you too lazy to even sleep might like to know that just physically lying down can help boost your problem solving skills.

  • Study with Strangers. If you’re having trouble breaking through a tough problem, try bringing somebody new into the mix. Studies suggest that switching up members of a group makes the whole group more creative.

  • Just Get Started. Finally, if you’re a procrastinator like me, it may help to know that just getting started a little bit on that assignment (even for one minute!) can help with your motivation to complete it. Science.

Have any tips of your own? Share them with everyone in the comments below. I know I could use the help!

Library Lovin’

Last week I had my very first (and maybe last?) summer school exam and I found myself once again spending a lot of time in the library. I’ve never been one for studying much in Robarts (although the 12th floor views are a big pull for getting there earlier and snagging a table in the window section of the St. George corner) so over the last 2 years I’ve sought out smaller, more visually appealing libraries. If you read my last post you’ve already gotten to see some of my favourite (outdoor) study spaces so this one will be some of my favourite indoor spaces!

Hart House • 7:00 am – Midnight • noise level varies hh

Hart House Library is a great space because it's so central on campus. Unfortunately every other student at U of T also thinks it's a great space so all the good spots are pften taken. Never fear though, you can normally find a spot onthe benches and chairs on the landing, or at a table in the reading room.

Hart House Library is a great space because it’s so central on campus. Unfortunately every other student at U of T also thinks it’s a great space so all the good spots are often taken. Never fear though, you can normally find a spot on the benches and chairs on the landing, or at a table in the reading room.


Chairs and benches on the landing

This is on the landing at the east end of Hart House and I've never actiually studied here because it's always occupied but one day I will.

This is on the landing at the east end of Hart House. I’ve never actiually studied here because it’s always occupied but one day, if I’m lucky, I will.

Knox College Library • hours vary • quiet space

knox lib'

The perfectly inspiring place, especially when poring over history books. Look up and be transported to a bygone age of architecture. Make sure you check out the old card catalogues!

Emmanuel College Library (Victoria College) • hours vary • quiet space

This tiny library is so beautiful and only gets really full at the peak of exam season. To get here go to the third floor of Emmanuel College, in front of you will be the reading room (which I also love) and to your right is the library. There are divided desks throughout the main floor and some (but don’t quote me on this) up on the mezzanine.  DSCF2541DSCF2537DSCF2535


The reading room opposite the stairs. People seem to sleep in here a lot.

Student hacks: The Sleep Edition

Oh, the romanticization of the coffee-addicted student who sacrifices their sweet slumber at the expense of marks. It is no secret that at some point during the semester, many students will lose sleep over their assignments and exams.  But let’s face it, sleep deprivation is awful—so awful that it is technique of torture! Lack of sleep leaves me feeling run-down, blunted and unmotivated. Realistically though, getting less hours of sleep is often unavoidable for students because of our busy lifestyle that sometimes feels like we’re juggling eggs on a unicycle.

As you may realize if you’ve been following my posts, I love all things efficient and self-experimental. So I’ve decided to look into hacking my sleep using different methods to optimize my time awake and asleep. Here are my results in a nutshell (and yes, they’re all quite subjective).


Sometimes we’re all a little tired.

1: Lucid Dreaming to Accelerate Motor Skill Acquisition

What is this about? Dr. Dax Urbszat, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto describes lucid dreaming as “the act of being conscious—or what others would call “awake”—while dreaming”. Basically, lucid dreaming entails being aware that you’re in a dream state while sleep, which enables you to control your dreams. Studies have shown practicing a motor skill in a lucid dream can speed up its acquisition1.

The experiment: I play squash a lot and I like learning different techniques to improve my game. One of these is the power serve. However, I have a lot of difficulty with bringing my racquet behind my head and snapping it to the front to hit the ball and actually put power behind my serve. So, I decided to induce lucid dreaming 3x a week for 4 weeks and practice this specific move in my sleep. If you want to try lucid dreaming as well, here’s a how-to guide. (link:

Results: The hardest part of this experiment is actually inducing a lucid dream state, which takes some practice. Overall, I think it did help me refine my technique faster. By the end of the second week, my squash partner observed that I snapped the racquet back a certain way that I hadn’t done before without prior rehearsal except during my dreams. I wouldn’t recommend dreaming lucidly too often though, because it leaves you feeling faintly like you haven’t slept.

2: Placebo Sleep

What is this about? A new study (link: has shown that people who were told they slept better performed better on cognitive tasks (whether or not they actually did sleep better).

The experiment: Over a period of a month, whenever I got less than 8 hours sleep, or felt tired, I told myself that I actually got high quality sleep and felt rested. I also picked out a friend who I would tell upon seeing him that he looked like he had gotten a great night’s sleep.

Results: This only worked if I believed what I was telling myself. Some days I was so tired that it was hard to convince myself. As for my friend, he told me he felt a bit more energetic when I told him that he looked like he had a good night’s sleep, even when he said he was tired (Note to self:  don’t tell friends that they look tired, when they look tiredJ).

3. Actual Sleep

What is this about? There comes a time at 3am when I ask myself whether I should keep studying and pull an all-nighter, or go to sleep with what I know and go to the exam as well-rested as possible

The experiment: If I view the past 3 years of my student career as an experiment, then I can say that I’ve done repeated trials of seeing the outcomes of staying up and pulling an all-nighter, or going to an exam well-rested.

Results: I do much better going to an exam well-rested. The fact is information that you’ve learnt consolidates in your brain while you’re sleeping, so it’s important to let it seep in while you sleep!

Do you get enough sleep or do you feel sleep deprived? What are your sleep tips and tricks? Let me know below!


Selfies (at Robarts)

Our Community Crew Captain, Abdullah, posted the most honest, groundbreaking tweet that I’ve seen in my 5 months here at Student Life:

Ah, the fabulous Robarts selfie. You’re guilty, I’m guilty. I’m here to tell you that you are not alone in your obsession with taking photographs of yourself when you should be studying.

Styles, angles, and locations all tell you a lot about the individual behind the Robarts selfie. One thing that ties all of our masterpieces together is the fact that we are all students, we are all tired, and we all dread the first announcement – “the library is closing in 45 minutes” – that’s basically asking us to get the heck out of the library at 10PM on Friday. You are not alone in the struggle to April, comrade.

Here are 6 common types of Robarts selfies that you might find on any given U of T student’s MacBook. Much love to my friends and colleagues that agreed to let me use their images!

1. The “I don’t get this concept so I’m going to take a selfie” selfie.
2. The “I don’t want anyone to catch me taking a selfie” selfie.
3. The “checking that your hair is in place and making sure you still look cute” selfie.
4. The Not-Quite-A-Selfie Selfie

5. The “I look too good to be here, let me take selfies instead” selfie.

6. The “I don’t care if people catch me taking a selfie because I’m over this day” selfie.

(This is me! Hello, everyone)

(This is me! Hello, everyone)

I want to see your selfies at Robarts! Tweet your selfies with the hashtag #SelfiesAtRobarts and show us how hard you’re working.

Reflecting on the beginning of the end

My usual reluctance to leave the holiday cesspool of unproductivity is further complicated by a sad realization that I will soon not have to deal with this problem anymore.

This is my last semester at UofT.

IMG_9550new self-portrait.

We all start our undergraduate careers thinking about the possibilities that the next few years will hold for us, without realizing how quickly those few years will slip by.

There are many things I wanted to do, that I managed to do,

  • Get involved with on campus extra curricular
  • Discover what I was interested in
  • Live well in a city I am unfamiliar with
  • Learn how to cook
  • Make fabulous friends
  • Make a snow angel
    (Coming from the tropics, this is a big one, I have my first experience on film)

Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 12.20.41 PMa still of me executing perfect snow angel form from aforementioned film.

There were also things I didn’t plan on, but did anyway,

  • Pull multiple all-nighters
  • Work at a soup kitchen
  • Read a ridiculous amount of literature in a short time
  • Eat too much food truck poutine
  • Do a random minor completely for fun
  • Fall badly on the ice at least once every winter


the UofT student diet.

With one semester left, I decided to compile a list of things I wanted to do before graduated:

  • Go see a collection at the Justina Barnicke gallery in Hart House
  • Use as much wifi as possible
  • Go to a couple of free lectures/talks
  • Use the career center
  • Enter a poetry contest
  • Study outside when the weather gets nice

I also wanted to conquer my fear of talking to professors more openly, so I will be conducting some professor interviews this semester and writing about my experiences.

What else should I do before I graduate?
What do you think are some must dos at UofT?
Follow #TryitUofT on Twitter to catch events all over campus.


Staying Productive Over the Holidays

They say that what really defeated Hannibal Barca in his war against ancient Rome was the winter he spent at Capua. His soldiers became soft. They ate and drank and slept and relaxed, and when spring came around they were unfit for the tough demands of soldiering. I think you know where this is going . . . 

The Holidays are upon us! Well, soon. And over our nearly month-long break, it is tempting, tempting, tempting to throw away all cares and concerns and succumb to complete mental and physical abandon. OOH YES!!

BUT doing so tends to make returning from the Holidays much more arduous. Luckily, there is a beautiful word and a wonderful idea that relates to this exact predicament:


A healthy balance between relaxation and reasonable productivity is exactly what the Holidays call for.  Here’s what I do:

Sleep . . . in.

I sprawl in bed throughout the morning. I need the rest. But I always get up before noon. It’s a terrible crime to sleep in past noon. Everybody knows that!

Eat . . . what I want.

I eat only my favourite foods. And I eat a lot of them. My favourite foods provide the best nutrients because my body likes them so much, and I need to replenish my fluids. All I eat over the Holidays is shrimp and asparagus. Warning: This rule could make you hate all your favourite foods.

Read a book . . . that I enjoy.

That’s easy because I find every book enjoyable. Reading helps keep my brain active, but not too active. I try my best to read a book that has a higher percentage of words than pictures. Pictures books are not books, their called magazines.

Talk to someone . . . about nothing.

I try my best to avoid talking about anything over the Holidays. I like to clear my brain. But it’s hard. Conversations are so easily started, and once they get going it’s hard to walk away. The best way to talk about nothing is to eat a lot of your favourite food!

Sleep . . . more.

Once I’ve done all the other stuff, especially after I’ve eaten some of my favourite food, I find it helpful to go back to sleep. Sleep offers priceless restorative powers for both your body and your mind. In fact, most doctors say we should probably sleep at least once every day.

And if I feel like it . . . sometimes . . . I review my old study notes. But I don’t really have to explain the merit of that one. You’re a university student. You get it.


Have a great break, U of T!

- Stephen

How to fine tune your caffeine intake for the daily grind

My relationship with coffee started in first year when I first saw it in a pot across the breakfast table. At first, I would only see it in the mornings, often accompanied by cream and sugar. Gradually, as I got to know it better, cream and sugar dropped out of the picture, and our rendez-vous in a cup alone became more frequent—sometimes extending into the night. It was a crazy love story alright: too little coffee and fatigue grew over me as I yearned for more; too much coffee and nausea, jitteriness and anxiety would follow. Just the right amount and I felt ready to take on the day.

Our love for something has a tendency to drive our curiosity to know more about it, and it was no different for me in the case of coffee: how do I fine-tune my caffeine intake so that it’s just the right amount?

Well, it turns out there are different ways of fine-tuning your caffeine intake

1. Cultivar determines caffeine content: Arabica or Robusta



Cultivar is a term used to denote species of coffee plants, which can be either Arabica or Robusta. A general rule is Arabica beans have about half the caffeine as Robusta. There are also variations in caffeine content depending on the variety within the cultivar.

 2.The degree of roast has virtually no effect on caffeine content



Roasting is more about the flavour than caffeine content. There are laboratory analyses showing that darker roasts have less caffeine than lighter roasts. However, the difference is so minuscule it almost doesn’t matter.

3.How fine is your grind?



The finer the coffee grind, the higher the caffeine content. Different levels of coffee grinding is also related to brewing method. For example, beans used for filtered coffee are less finely ground than those used for Turkish coffees.

 4.Brewing method



Brewing methods that take longer and use higher temperatures will contain higher levels of caffeine.  This explains why espresso has a lower caffeine content than filtered coffee.

5. Amount



This one is pretty self-evident. Don’t drink 5 cups of coffee if you’re planning to do open-heart surgery afterwards.

Figuring out optimal caffeine intake can be tricky sometimes because it differs between people due to individual biology, and it also changes as time goes on due to tolerance.

Playing around with the variables led me to explore local coffee shops and the discovery of a wide range of coffee flavours and textures. I hope you have just as much fun as I did fine-tuning my coffee intake.

Happy Studying!


Face The Music (and Mid-Terms)

On the school calendar, the first semester might as well highlight the months of October and November as not the months that belong to fall, but to midterms instead. Like I have mentioned before, midterms are notorious energy-drainers. It’s easy to lose momentum and plateau when the majority of your day-to-day schedule revolves around doing school work. So I like to keep an ever-growing playlist of songs to help keep me determined to not only survive, but ace mid-term season, and to remind me that yes, it is possible to slip in a little exercise in between working.  I like to match the music that I listen to according to how I feel, I also like to listen to songs that will help me to find the energy to exercise.

Here are three songs that keep me on track in between my sleep, eat, work, eat, exercise, work, sleep (well, not all in that order) schedule:

TV on The Radio – Wolf Like Me
The colder the weather, the sleepier I get, and the more I envision myself becoming best friends with the heater in my room. Lately, my body is trying to retreat into a three-month hibernation, so just waking up has been struggle —my brain is like an overheated computer that needs to take time to load. So while it’s in the “buffering” mode, I like to play an upbeat song such as Wolf Like Me as an alarm clock to help me wake up. Listening to a song about being an unstoppable force of energy inspires me to get out of bed and prepare myself to start the day in a not-so-sluggish manner.

Sky Ferreira – You’re Not The One
For those who know me personally, my favourite type of cardio is the “dancing like crazy in my bedroom”-type of cardio. Dancing (in my room) is cathartic, because I can jump up and down, do a twirl here and there, all while no one is watching me. Whenever I put on this song, I forget the fact that I’m exercising because I’m so immersed in moving along with the tempo.

One day I’ll make my dancing debut. VIA MICSGIFS.TUMBLR.COM

I’ve also been using this song as a motivating tool to complete my assignments, or readings, by creating “dance” breaks whenever I feel like I am running out of energy or losing focus. Most recently, I came across this song (via the recommendations of many music review blogs), and have used it as my go-to track when starting my ten-minute breaks to do cardio. I like to say that I don’t like pop, but I secretly do—and I must admit, this song does glam pop very well. It’s lively, and is also about moving on and not dwelling on the past, and I take heed by dancing away my worries. I’ve come to realize that I need to open up my options when creating a song list in order to get me on my feet and moving. And since I used this song during my break in between writing this post, I can tell you that opening up my options has been working so far.

King Krule – Out Getting Ribs
During mid-terms, I’ve still managed to go to my Pilates classes at the Athletic Centre, but I’ve fallen behind on going to the gym more than once a week this month. However, I’m still determined to not spiral back into my past sedentary lifestyle, so I’ve kept active when dancing in my room, or practicing my Pilates moves. One of the main motivators for me right now is that I can do a killer plank without slouching, and that I’ve moved on to practicing other positions and exercises, such as butterfly crunches, (I lie down on my back and lift my legs in a slanted positions, all while doing quick breaths and waving my arms just above and below my abdominal muscles).

Sometimes, when writing papers, I hit a roadblock and worry about whether the words that I have written on the page make sense. This kind of anxiety makes it easy to lose focus. So I use what I’ve learned in my Pilates class, take a break to do a few moves and refresh my mind—but not without the help of music playing in the background.

I like to stick to dreamy and calming music that sometimes have a rising tempo—and the beginning guitar riffs in Out Getting Ribs do just the thing. Also, the song isn’t’t too slow so that when I do pick up my pace in doing moves like butterfly crunches, I can at least keep my body in sync with the beats. As well, I like to end my night feeling relaxed, and this song helps to soothe me into resting mode.

Sleep, eat, work, eat, exercise, work, sleep schedule still intact.

What songs do you listen to when you feel like you need to calm down, or get up and going?

Why I Might Pretend to Embroider Kanye West Quotes at Parties

The other week at a party, a stranger asked what I did. I told them I was a student at U of T. But then they said, “No, what’s your thing? You know, for fun.”

So I just paused and stared blankly at them.

“Are you just really into school?”

It was getting worse by the second. I was mortified when I was unable to respond. For fun?! Was I really just into school?! The horror!

I repeated what I was studying and then left to go get another appetizer.

How the conversation ended. (via

After that party, I went into a state of shock. Realizing that I have no hobbies was troubling. Especially since I used to have many things I did for fun. I used to play sports and write poetry and go to interesting events and…now I just stare blankly when people ask what I do for fun.

Trying to think about what I do for fun. (via

I had wanted to say something witty and self-deprecating like “For fun? Oh, you mean when I sit around in my PJs and watch TV until I hate myself?” but I didn’t think of it in time.

And I could have mentioned that I went to a curling bonspiel last week and enjoyed it a lot.

Or that I blog and “Haven’t you heard? It gets published every week online. Life @ U of T is kind of a big deal.”

But I didn’t say any of those things. Instead, I was the person who is “just really into school”.

Life of a U of T student (via

How ‘being really into school’ makes me feel. (via

Determined not to repeat the scenario again, I thought about all the cool things I could do that could also be easily dropped into a small talk conversation.

There are free dance lessons on campus, intramural field hockey next term, and scuba diving courses at Hart House.

How I feel when I talk about geeky things. (via

Dancing at free dance lessons. (via

But after talking to a few friends, I figured out that I actually already have fun. (All hope was not lost.) It is just that my interests are difficult to describe at a moment’s notice.

So the next time I’m asked what I do for fun, I will either talk about some geeky thing I am interested in and hope the other person also likes dynamical systems theory or I will troll the unsuspecting stranger with precious gems of ridiculous hobbies that I will pretend I have.

At one party, I may be an avid eavesdropper. At another, I may embroider Kanye West quotes.

My new favourite hobby. (via

My ‘new favourite hobby’. (via

Some days, my one true passion will be crushing my parents’ dreams. (Too true to be funny though…) Other days, I’ll be into extreme ironing (yes, with an ironing board and clothes on the side of a mountain).


(credit: Phil Shaw via Wikipedia and Creative Commons)

And hopefully my actual interests or my interesting sound bites about extreme household sports will allow me to avoid any blank staring and “just being really into school” comments for years to come.


*If you have an interesting hobby, I’d be glad to hear about it in the comments section. I promise to use some of them in conversation with strangers at parties :)

Difficult Conversations: Conversations as education instead of confrontation

University life is fraught with plenty of difficult and intimidating conversations, which many students try to avoid like the plague. Some of these conversations lie within the academic sphere, such as explaining to a professor why you think you deserve more marks on a midterm. Others lie within the social and emotional sphere, such as disclosing to friends the effects of low marks on your self-esteem and asking for support.  But sometimes, the most difficult conversations are the most important.

Many students struggle with asking something from others, and/or disclosing information about themselves.  For example, telling someone that we no longer want to be in a relationship with him or her, and then having to explain why, can be very difficult. One reason why such conversations are challenging and stressful is  because most of us do not have a lot of experience at this, and most of us don’t want to cause others suffering. Nobody likes to give or get bad news—and it is doubly worse when you are the messenger!

However, avoiding  these conversations can lead to negative consequences. By not having the conversation about what we need from others, especially when we perceive the need to be great, we are denying our own needs, which can be stressful, and this can also lead to the deterioration of relationships. A prime example of this is asking roommates to contribute more fairly to their share of chores.This is often awkward and unpleasant. But, if you do not address the issue, then you run the risk of resenting your roommates for something  they may not even realize  is irritating you. You are also missing the opportunity to reach an understanding and resolve the issue.



So, is there a way to make it easier to have heavy conversations? Yes. And it is not unlike  exercising: the more you do it, the better you get at it, even though the exercise itself may not get any easier.

The approach that one takes when having a difficult conversation is important. Here are some techniques that have worked well for me:

  1. Go into the conversation with the intention of acknowledging both your feelings as well as  the other person’s feelings—and then reaching an understanding. I have gotten to know my roommates very well using this approach. Difficult conversations are a great place to learn about other people’s values and attitudes.
  2. Be calm. An emotionally charged conversation conducted by a highly emotional person is a catalyst for disaster.This situation is usually unproductive because nobody understands why the other is feeling the way they do.
  3. Be prepared to really listen to what the other person has to say. Again, this encourages mutual understanding and respect.

So, the next time you feel like avoiding a difficult conversation, just remember: if you never ask, you will never get.

What are some strategies that have worked for you?