A Fall Like Never Before: Academic Success Can Still Be Colorful!

Written by Shamim Ahmed – Design Researcher at the Innovation Hub

Academic success is so important for students, and we know it well. We often think academic success is all about studying, but if we reflect on lifestyles where academic progress seems to flourish for folks, studying is not necessarily the only thing that has helped them succeed. A little bit of planning and giving importance to the smaller but important things in life supported them to be successful in their academic journey. However, this summer was difficult for most of us. Due to COVID-19, students might have to make up for classes, continue home schooling or face financial uncertainties. Due to the pandemic, many students might not have been able to engage in summer activities, visit family, or have a summer vacation that helps us return to the Fall semester energized. It is well known how overwhelming it can be returning to school – especially now, no matter your degree or grade. It is not just applicable to new students, but also for the returning students after an uncertain summer of 2020.    

As a PhD student, I share a fair portion of all these challenges while returning to school every year. It is even more stressful for me as a student-parent during this pandemic. I have been preparing myself to get back to school, with hopes to still thrive in this next semester and enjoy it at the same time. So, for this blog post I decided to bring some research, insights from school journals, and community tips to share some elements that might support our Redefining Traditional community to feel like academic success is well within reach. 

Let’s Get the Ball Rolling! 

This fall things are a little different. It’s not all fun like meeting new people, engaging in conversations in between classes, going out for a coffee with your classmates, or relaxing on the Friday nights with friends. However, schools have re-opened. Classes have begun. Instead of taking a long walk in the morning to the campus, we might be getting ready to set up Zoom, Microsoft Team, Blackboard Collaborate and what not! Despite the challenge of meeting in person, we all want to do well in the first semester of the new year. To be able to do that, we need to have some plans in place. Let’s discuss what might work for us as students.  

Working Smartly

Lightbulb with rays of light and a plant growing inside of it.

Despite what we may have thought going into studies (no matter your degree level), studying all the time may not always be effective for academic success. On top of that, we need to consider the impact of how excessive studying or screen time might impact our physical and mental health. It is often suggested by the experts to work smarter, not harder. But what does this look like?

One way that helps me is to start is by planning for the whole semester. The things we want to do apart from studies can help us begin making plans effectively. Depending on jobs and personal commitments, we may choose to select the number courses that we can manage comfortably. I always found it helpful to plan in advance and progress gradually instead of going for all-nighters before the exam or a stressful day ahead!  

Giving your Hobby a “New Wing” 

Icon of baking supplies, with a whisk, bowl and roller.

Hobbies are important for students – and anyone really! It not only helps us to relax or refocus our energy to another area of our life, but it can also help boost our confidence and connect ideas. Hobbies are usually not imposed on us; it is something we choose to nurture. No matter the hobby or activity you choose, it can help us de-stress or set boundaries in our days to really have that “me time” or family time that can often compete with other areas in life. Fishing, cycling, gardening, or even going outside and listening to new podcasts involves physical activity that creates chemical changes in your body to reduce stress. Some other hobbies, like the ones I have, such as: reading books, watching movies, listening to music may not require a lot of physical activity but still can rejuvenate our mind and prepare us to get ready for studies, teachings and exams. Hobbies also help us socialize with others in in the community, and can even include informal clubs with similar interests to enjoy together. I remember making my first few friends at the University of Toronto by going to a book club! This informal engagement with other students really helped me build friendships in an uncertain time. 

Enjoying the Great Outdoors 

Icon of mountains and trees

As students we often get too busy with our studies, exams, and assignments that we forget to take care of ourselves in other ways. Taking a break from our daily routine is highly encouraged by the researchers for self-care. Even if it’s taking 15-30 minutes to be outside (especially if the weather is nice or it’s not the middle of winter!), listening to music, or treating yourself with an ice cream every now and then. However, self-care should not only be considered as a break from our daily routine, but also a part of a longer journey. Self-care can help someone to learn to balance physical and mental wellness that is important to explore as a student – any beyond our time at our Universities. I have discussed about this in detail on my last blog: http://blogs.studentlife.utoronto.ca/redefiningconference/2020/08/21/  

It’s the Little Things that Matter Most

Lighten Up Your Room!  

Desk lamp icon

There are some small things that we tend to ignore but are vital for academic success. For an example, positioning of lights in the study space has significant impact on someone’s study habit. Poor lighting might lead to headaches, nausea, or low vision in general. It is advised by experts to use as much natural light as possible to fight eye strain and fatigue. Apart from natural lights, general light helps to properly illuminate a study space. I found white light to be useful in reducing stress in my eyes. Task lights are also essential for students if they need to study during the evening regularly. A big lamp or a wall-mounted light that can be safely hung above and illuminate your desk, is perfect for task lights. If you’re working or studying on campus (however this might look for you in these times), take a look online to see if libraries or open spaces offer lighted spaces that are helpful for you. 

Living Distraction-less!  

Icon of a bell with a red dot for a notification.

Distractions can be either internal or external. I’m sure many of us have also experienced the overwhelming amount of distractions, notifications, or even media sources that might have important information but are difficult to navigate all on one screen! Internal distractions are mostly psychological needs and emotional thoughts that require time, and the right space or resources, to acknowledge and work through. External distractions are mostly technology, people, or perhaps the environment(s) that you are in.

One of my friends mentioned hunger as the most important distraction for concentrating in her studies. It is helpful not to start studying while you are hungry! Consider hydrating with water, checking in with yourself when the last time was you have a full meal, or even having some snacks available prior to your time to focus on your studies. For technological distractions, I prefer to go “off the grid”. I turn my phone off and try not to sign into social media platforms from my laptop while studying, or avoid certain apps that I could have on my phone but I can also access on my laptop if I want to. If this is something difficult to do (which is super common!), some studies show that using apps or plugins that can block certain websites can be really helpful. Finally, consider how many distractive elements are in your space. Multitasking such as doing homework while watching TV or shopping online can be a nice treat sometimes, but a set up like this ultimately offers more distractions and might have you working on a task longer than intended. I found it useful to concentrate in one task rather than many – at least with my studies!  

Being Active During the Pandemic  

Welcoming the New Normal… but “Old” is Gold Too!  

Notebook with a pencil

Many classes are now distant and working from home in the new world that might be offering up lots of new opportunities – but it can also be causing distractions or stress in a variety of ways as student parents. However, there are few things which have not changed at all, such as the importance of having a plan and to help honour my time with my family. I have started the semester by reflecting on my study goals, what do I want to achieve by the end of this semester and what my plans are for being successful. I maintained a journal this summer and wrote down what worked, what didn’t and what are somethings I’d like to improve on. Now, I am planning accordingly to make my fall feel more useful and productive for myself. I believe staying safe and healthy should be the main goal for all of to feel prepared, supported and a have sense of accomplishment in the long run.

A Stitch in Time Saves Nine

Icon of a clock.

Time management can be difficult while we are attending or facilitating classes from home. But for academic success it is important to consider building (or continuing) a regular routine. Attending classes on time, preparing for exams and assignments and submitting those before deadlines, helped me a lot in the previous years – but this also takes time to develop as a habit or understand what works best for you! There are still few activities where we can be more flexible. Not everyone of us have the same routine in life. Some students prefer to go for a morning walk, exercise and then start the day. Some others prefer to go for a walk in between classes, or to do yoga instead of going to the gym which is fine too. Thinking about the moments in the day that can offer this balance for you is a great first step to support carving out a routine in uncertain times.     

Our Acts of Kindness Make an Impact

Messaging bubbles with a heart, and another with three dots typing.

As students, we are going through a lot during this pandemic. As someone who is helping with teaching in classes, learning to use technologies such as: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Blackboard Collaborate etc. has be overwhelming for myself alongside other students, staff, teaching assistants and professors. Financial constrains are there too. International students who could not come to the campus and attending school from a different time zone might also be facing barriers to feel engaged or have a “school space” in virtual times. Student parents can be very stressed as they also need to take care of their children who are going to school during COVID-19. Therefore, being empathetic has never been more important than now! It’s important to share our feelings with near and dear ones. It is crucial that we stay connected, be patient and help each other during this difficult time. In learning spaces, consider also offering those moments for extended timelines, shifts in schedules, or open conversations with peers can make an immense difference for everyone.  

Thinking Ahead

I recognize that this is a lot of information, but it’s important to consider these elements and think about actionable steps that work for you and your family. If you want to read more about academic success and interconnecting wellness within success, here are some great online resources that you can check:    

Do you have insights, experiences, or a story that you would like to share in the Redefining Traditional Community? Share your story by emailing us or submitting your insights here!: http://blogs.studentlife.utoronto.ca/redefiningconference/share-your-story/

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