Adventures in Online Learning: Solving Calendar Woes

One of the hardest parts of taking a class on time is making sure that you stay on top of assignment due dates. When you take a class in person, often the professor will kindly give you multiple reminders that an assignment is coming due at the beginning or end of class. When classes are online, you are not necessarily going to get that same kind of reminder—especially if your class is operating asynchronously. So how do you make sure that you don’t miss a due date?

Get a calendar. You need some kind of calendar, but it should be one that fits with your habits. For example, no matter how cool a bullet journal looks, if you aren’t going to create the pages every week or month, this is a bad choice for you. If you never open the calendar app on your phone, this also isn’t the calendar for you.

Once you’ve got a calendar, you need to write all the due dates into it. The purpose behind doing this is that you can see how your assignments are stacked. If you have a bunch of papers due all in one week, you’ll know that you cannot procrastinate on all of them—you’ll need to space out the work.

Set up automated reminders for assignments. Once you have your calendar populated and know how your assignments align with one another, you’ll want to set up automated reminders. Here, you’ll want to explore your options: you can probably find programs that will send you emails, pop up in your online learning platform, etc. However, if at all possible, I recommend using a reminder app of some kind on your phone. Most of us can’t go more than an hour or so without checking our phones to begin with, so you are most likely to actually see the reminder if it pops up on your phone.

You’ll want to set up a couple kind of reminders. You’ll want one reminder to to get started on the assignment (this will be especially important if you have stacked assignments that you’ll need to space out work on). You’ll want another reminder set for the actual due date. After all, you don’t want to forget to turn the assignment in!

A final tip: make these reminders as annoying as possible. The last thing you want this to see the reminder, and ignore it. Doing that does you no good. Set multiple reminders, make sure that they pop up at a time when you are already planning on working on the assignment, and make sure that if you are the kind of person who tends to sleep through alarms or push the snooze button, you make the reminder hard to ignore!

Why You Need a LinkedIN Profile and How to Set It Up

Last week I attended a conference where I served as a co-chair of a roundtable. The conference delegates were all undergraduate students, who were representing their respective universities. The students were a truly impressive group and at the end of the conference, I told my students to stay in touch and to request me on LinkedIN. However, some of the students expressed uncomfortability with LinkedIN. This post is designed to give you a brief introduction to this important and necessary tool.

Why You Need LinkedIN

LinkedIN is a critical networking tool for professionals, but it’s also a really important tool for students as well. LinkedIN is a professional social networking site. The benefit of using LinkedIN is that it allows you to stay in contact with professional contacts. It’s useful for keeping up with where people work or attend school, finding their most current email address, etc.

But the most useful part of LinkedIN is that it allows you to engage in social networking in a strictly professional setting. You can engage with people you meet without also sharing the broader aspects of your life that you might share on other platforms like instagram or facebook. That’s because LinkedIN’s profile functions like a digital resume. You can list past employment and educational history, skills you’ve gained, and even give and receive recommendations.

How to Set Up Your Profile

LinkedIN’s basic features are free to use. You simply need to create a profile using your email address. I would recommend using your school email address and not your personal email address, as your school email address is your “professional” email address now.

LinkedIN will walk you through setting up your basic profile. However, sometimes LinkedIN’s profile functions can be confusing at first. Here are some simple rules of thumb as you fill out your profile:

1. For your position, you want to list “Student” at your University, even if you also have a part time position or are working while in school. If you are a part time student who also works full time, you have the option of listing your permanent position instead.

2. You also want to provide a summary. This section is open to some interpretation. However, some things you may want to consider listing include your major and minor, if you are looking for employment or an internship, and if you have a portfolio or personal website, this is an excellent place to list that as well.

3. Work Experience is the next major section that you’ll want to be sure to fill in. In this section, you will want to list places you have worked. (Told you this functioned like a resume). In this section, you also get the opportunity to write a brief summary of the job. In this area, you’ll want to give a brief description of your job responsibilities. You can do this in narrative (sentence) form or with a series of bullet points. Keep the description concise and to the point and be sure to highlight areas of leadership and particular skills you used/learned.

4. The education is the last section you should definitely fill in in an initial profile set up. This section should be fairly self explanatory, and most of the time need only list universities. You’ll have the opportunity to list additional information for these entries as well, and this can be a good place to put your major, or any major honors (for example, if you graduated cum laude).

If you fill in the four sections of the LinkedIN profile suggested above, you will have a profile that you can feel confident having people see. So, the next step is requesting connections. LinkedIN will automatically suggest connections for you (even if you do not give them access to your contact list). As you scroll through the list of suggested connections, click on ones for people you know (really know and not just know OF). I do not generally recommend requesting to connect with individuals you have not met simply because they are suggested.

Common Writing Mistakes and Some Easy Fixes

Below are some of the most common writing mistakes I see in student work. Many are mistakes that are relatively minor but can have a major (negative) impact on the overall quality of the writing. Luckily, these mistakes often have easy and fast fixes. So, before you turn in your next paper, check to see if you’ve made any of this errors. Fixing these small problems can lead to higher grades!

Mistake #1: Not specifying what “this” is

The Mistake: This mistake is the most common mistake I read in student writing–and it’s a mistake that I made myself until my undergraduate advisor brought it to my attention with a series of large red circles all over my papers. In short, students will often use the word “this” as the sole subject of the sentence. This is bad.

The Problem: If you write “This is bad” the question is what? What is bad? “This” is imprecise and unspecified. It makes your writing open to interpretation–it makes the reader have to guess at what specifically you are getting at.

The Fix: Put a noun after the word “this.” Instead of writing “This is bad,” write “This sentence is bad.” Anytime you see the word “this” in your paper–make sure it’s followed by another noun. You will sound more confident and your argument will automatically be improved.

Mistake #2: Leaving a hanging dependent clause

The Mistake: So often, I see students leave dependent clauses out to stand alone like it’s a full sentence on its own. An example of such a hanging clause: “While I love to teach.” If you read this phrase, you should immediately ask: why? While you love to teach, but what? The idea is incomplete on its own. It implies that something is to follow it.

The Problem: It’s a problem because the grammar is wrong and your primary school grammar teacher will haunt you for making such an elementary mistake. But seriously, this is a problem because dependent clauses cannot act as independent sentences (thus they are dependent on another thought or idea).

The Fix: Read your paper through before turning it in–bonus points for reading it aloud. Reading your paper through should allow you to notice those “but what” or “and what” questions when you encounter a dependent clause. This will work better if you give yourself a few hours in between the writing and the final review.

Mistake #3: Using jargon from class because you think you should

The Mistake: Using jargon–or buzzwords–from a course in your paper just because you had to learn the terms in class. Many students throw key class terms into their papers to show that they “payed attention/learned/did the reading.”

The Problem: If you do this without actually understanding what these terms mean AND how they are used in the context of the subject, you aren’t going to slip under the radar. Instead, your paper is going to light up like a beacon of “I am bullsh*ting this writing assignment.” If you use words wrong–your professors can tell.

The Fix: Most obviously, make sure you do the readings and pay attention. Beyond taking this step, make sure you also follow up with any terms you don’t understand. Ask the question in class or after class or even send your professor an email. A simple “Dr. B, I want to make sure I am using the term hegemony right. If I say: ‘The United States has achieved hegemony after the Cold War because it was the most powerful state in the world’ does this work?” Is a quick, easy email for me to reply “yes!” to. But the fail safe fix here is to avoid using the word if you don’t know what it means and don’t have the ability to check on it.

Mistake #4: Not reading over your paper before turning it in

The Mistake: This is another HUGE mistake I see students make all the time. The mistake here is not failing to revise, but rather failing to review–as in grammar, sentence structure, spelling, etc. I have literally had students turn in their paper with incomplete sentences: they obviously walked away from their computer mid thought, and returned later beginning afresh.

The Problem: Hopefully, the problem here should be fairly obvious: you’ve left your paper vulnerable to any number of copy editing mistakes. It makes you seem lazy/sloppy.

The Fix: Read over your paper before turning it in. You can do this any number of ways: print it an read it aloud to yourself; put it into google translate and have google read it to you; the newest versions of Microsoft word will actually read you the text on the paper. However you do it, DO IT! I cannot stress this enough.

Mistake #5: Trying to “sound smart”

The Mistake: Frequently, students think that they need to “sound smarter” by using overly long sentences and/or using extra words to communicate their ideas. They end up with paragraphs that run over multiple pages, or sentences that are as long as an entire paragraph.

The Problem: Making your writing more complicated doesn’t actually make you sound smarter. Rather, it makes it more difficult for the reader to truly understand your ideas. All writing should be written for an audience, and if your reader has to re-read the paragraph (or sentence) multiple times in order to make sense of what’s on the page, you’ve got a problem.

The Fix: Keep. It. Simple. Follow the KISS Method is the #1 piece of advice I give my students about their writing. The simplest way to communicate your idea if often the best way to communicate it. It also makes your ideas and your arguments really stand out and it makes them clearer and stronger.

These are five of the smaller, more common errors I often run into in student writing. Double check your next writing assignme

Strategies for Dealing with Large Reading Loads

If you are looking at your syllabus for the semester and panicking because your professor has assigned you more reading than seems humanly achievable, then you’ve come to the right place. Every once in a while, whether due to a particularly demanding professor or your first entree into graduate school, you run into a reading list that makes you question your professor’s sanity. Unless you can in fact read like Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds or are in possession of Hermione Granger’s time turner, you’re going to need some strategies for tackling this reading load.

Strategy #1: Make Some Friends

One of the easiest ways to deal with huge reading loads is to collaborate with your peers. Split the reading list between a small group of people, assigning a few readings to each person. Each group member is responsible for reading their section in depth and creating detailed, neat, and easy to understand outlines/notes for their assigned section. A day or so before class, exchange the outlines (so everyone has time to read over the notes before class).

Pros of this strategy: It significantly cuts down on the actual reading you’ll do; you end up with a complete set of notes to accompanying your readings for studying

Cons of this strategy: You have to depend on others pulling their weight; you won’t have immediate contact with all of the material and will be depending on the insights gathered by classmates (who might pick up different things than you would have)

Strategy #2: Skim

Most people don’t actually have any real skimming strategies, and think it means reading fast/looking at all the text. WRONG! To successfully skim, you want to read the introduction and conclusion in their entirety. Then, you read the first and last sentence of each paragraph in the body of the text. This will give you a broad understanding of the main ideas within the reading. If your professor has provided discussion questions or reading objectives ahead of time, you can use this to intensify your skimming, focusing more when you hit those sections that your professor has identified.

Pros of this strategy: you will have looked at every text yourself; you will get the main points from the text.

Cons of this strategy: you will probably miss some important details; it will be harder to take good notes

Strategy #3: Read Selectively

This strategy works better if you have been assigned whole books or reports to read. For this strategy, take a look at the “road map” of the work. This can usually be found in the preface/introduction/executive summary. Then, pick out the chapters or sections to focus on, skipping over ones that cover similar points/topics. For example, many social science books are laid out as follows: chapter 1 introduction; chapter 2 theory; chapters 3-7 empirical (evidence) chapters; chapter 8 conclusion. Read the introduction, conclusion and theory chapters, and then pick 1-2 of the empirical chapters to read (If one focuses on statistics, and the others on case studies, read the statistics chapter and one case study).

Pros of this strategy: you both engage with the text deeply and can take good notes of the sections you read; you will get the main points from the text

Cons of this strategy: you might miss an important detail; your notes will be incomplete.

The Bottom Line

Your best bet is to use a combination of these strategies, given the time you have. For example, you may want to form a study group, but also use strategy 2 and 3 to supplement what you get from your study group. If you have no friends in your class (or no one you trust enough with your grade), you might want to use strategy 3, and skim the chapters you don’t read in depth. In the end, you want to pick a strategy that works with your strengths.

5 Tips for Staying Calm, Cool, and Collected During Finals Season

Browse through social media during finals season and you’ll see no end of students lamenting the state of their mental, emotional, and future lives. Generally accompanied by a meme depicting the end of their life as they know it. Funny? Sure. Inevitable? Not even.

Getting through finals week does not have to be a painful, life altering experience. Below I’ve got five quick tips on how to make your finals week less painful.

1. Get Enough Sleep

For many students, finals week is better termed “see how far I can push the limits of my ability to stay awake for 24, 36, 48 straight hours” week. Aside from studies that show that sleep is necessary, forgoing sleep for 24 hours is the same as being legally drunk, staying in your normal routine means that you’ll just generally be under less stress. Getting a proper amount of sleep means that you’ll be more awake, alert and focused on the exams that sit in front of you.

But what about final projects or papers? You might gasp. Consistent and good sleep also makes you more productive. Have you ever felt yourself hit that wall, where the ideas just won’t make themselves legible on paper and you end off staring into space? Or maybe you work late into the night and it ends up taking you twice as long to write that final page as it did the first one. Guess what? You’re tired and it’s showing. (Please note: there is a case to be made for procrastination as a positive force or creativity, but I’m leaving that argument for another day.)

2. Eat Protein

During a long study binge it is often easier to reach for a candy bar, bag of chips, or Starbucks Frappuccino. And while your brain needs carbohydrates for function properly (read: do not try to start a crash diet during finals week), your body actually burns through carbs pretty fast. This means you’ll get a burst of energy from the sugar, followed by a nasty crash. During finals week, make sure that you are reaching for good sources of protein (whether that’s chicken, eggs, or even peanut butter) to help you stay full (and therefore focused) longer.

3. Eat Breakfast (or a small meal) Before an Exam

In a very similar vein to the advice above, it’s important to grab something to fuel your brain before going into a test. This will allow you to make sure that you aren’t distracted by hunger pangs mid-exam (and your peers will likewise thank you for keeping your stomach quiet!). One trick I used during my time in college was to keep a protein bar in my bag. This was especially helpful if I had the dreaded schedule of having finals back to back. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich or protein shake also make good, portable options.

4. Get to the classroom early and pick your seat wisely.

Two-for-one advice here. First, set your alarm so that you can get to the classroom early. This will let you take a few minutes to review any last minute notes, or ask the professor any last minute questions. It also give you the opportunity to hit the bathroom if needed, make sure you have your pencil and that your phone’s ringer is turned off. Having a few minutes to take a deep breath before you begin the exam means that your energy will be focused on tackling the difficult questions, not on whether or not you managed to put your shoes on the right feet as you raced across campus at the last minute. If you are a commuter student, I’d recommend leaving even more extra time to account for traffic, or other unforeseen problems.

Second, pick your seat in the room wisely. If this is the room the class has been held in all semester, sit in the same seat you’ve sat in all semester. Doing this will help you to better recall the class material during the exam because you’ve given yourself a physical clue in the location.

5. Moderate Your Caffeine Intake; Drink Water instead

There are several reasons for doing this. First, while caffeine can be useful in keeping you awake, it can also make you fidgety. Being unable to sit still during an exam, or stand relaxed during a final presentation is going to make it harder for you to concentrate on the task at hand. Second, caffeinated drinks are often diuretics, meaning that they’ll give you a desperate need to use the facilities. You really don’t want to end up having to turn in an exam early simply because you…well, had to GO. (For more on how to avoid this problem, see #4). But, you say, I’m contradicting myself by suggesting that you drink water instead. Won’t that create the same problem? Maybe, but only if you try and drown yourself right before or during the exam. The reality is that most Americans are dehydrated most of the time and this makes you tired. If you bring a water bottle to sip out of during the exam instead of slamming an espresso or five hour energy beforehand, you can alleviate some of the tiredness and improve your alertness without the ill side effects of caffeine. (Note: you should not take finals week as an opportunity to go cold turkey on caffeine, as that will leave you with a nasty withdrawal headache. Drink your normal amount and no more).

These are five tips that helped me sail through finals weeks in my past with a relative amount of ease. What do you do to make finals week less stressful and more successful?

A Guide to Reading Academic Articles: The Case Study and the Book Chapter

In my last post, I discussed the difficulty with reading academic articles–they can be dry, long, and full of jargon. In this second post in this series, I continue to offer suggestions that make academic article reading a bit simpler.

Remember, there are two key steps to approaching an academic article reading assignment:

(1) Identify the article type

(2) Identify the key takeaways

In this post, I’ll be covering the case study article and the book chapter.

The Case Study

Case study articles are, generally speaking, more likely to show up in a social sciences or humanities course than a physical science course. Similar to a research article, the goal of this kind of article is to test whether or not a theory (explanation of how the world works) holds up to evidence. In this kind of article, the scholar is exploring a particular case (country, event, person, etc.) in depth, and this may make the article appear to be more like a story. But ultimately–regardless of what discipline you’re working with, the focus of the case study will be “what causes what.”

In order to pull out the key information from this kind of article, you’ll want to ask yourself these questions as you read.

1. What is the case? What (event, process, person, etc.) is the author trying to explain?

2. What causes what? What is the main cause (could be people, particular decisions, outside events) that leads to the eventual outcome? (You might want to try and diagram this. For example, if you’re reading about the events that led up to WWII, your diagram might look something like this: Hitler gains popular support from German people –> Hitler is elected –> Hitler annexes Austria and the Sudetenland –> Hitler directs the German military to invade Poland–> World War II breaks out. The key is Hitler is a main driver of many of these incidents.)

3. What does the author conclude? What does the author tell the reader they have learned?

The Book Chapter

A book chapter is going to be fairly easy to identify–mostly because the title will include: “Chapter X…” or because it will very obviously be copied out of a book. But the key to approaching an assigned reading that is one (or perhaps two) chapters from a longer book, is to remember that you are only getting a piece of the story. Thus, the first question you’ll have to ask yourself is: “Is this an edited volume or is it written by a single author?” Generally speaking, if the book is an edited volume, you’ll be able to tell because the author name will be listed at the beginning of the chapter. If this is the case, you should be able to approach the chapter as if it were a research article. If the book is written by a single author, you’ll be dealing with a bit of a different situation. The questions below pertain to a book chapter assigned from a non-edited volume (and making the assumption that it is also not a textbook chapter).

To get the key Takeaways from this kind of assigned reading, you’ll want to ask yourself the following questions as you read.

1. What is the main question the author is attempting to answer in this chapter?

2. What is the author’s argument/answer to their question and what evidence do they present?

3. How does this connect to other themes or concepts from my class? (Why did my professor have me read this?)