The University 411: Good Health and Hygiene

Continuing the student life blog series which I began here, today we’re going to talk about healthy habits, applicable to all walks of life and not just university students. This is especially true for people who are juggling multiple responsibilities (along with education or training having multiple paid or volunteer jobs as well as families and other relationships) and/or if you’re feeling pressure to succeed (maybe you need to maintain grades for a scholarship or you’re in a competitive programme). I’m not going to tell you to forget about those priorities. But I am going to tell you to take some time to breathe. If you simply can’t afford to sacrifice your time to make and maintain friendships like we talked about in yesterday’s post, still remember to take care of yourself first. Eat right – or at least eat something. Toss some dried food snacks into your backpack as you never know when you’ll be hungry. Don’t skip breakfast and preferably avoid the fast food line. Your brain needs FUEL so don’t try to run on empty. Since I’m usually on the go every morning, I’ve been relying on shakes. You don’t need a fancy 20 speed blender; The cheapest blender on the market will do the job. You can vary up the shakes with different frozen fruits (if you’re on a budget buy in season and freeze a load), add some protein if you can (if you have nut allergies try yogurt if you’re not lactose intolerant), and make it up the night before to save time.

Don’t forget other parts of hygiene. The obvious – shower, clean clothes etc – and the not so obvious such as sleep hygiene and vision hygiene. Sleep hygiene is probably a laugh with most university students. But if you’re not going to sleep at a decent time every night, at least avoid blue light before bed. This will help prevent insomnia. The goal here isn’t just quantity (number of hours slept) but to get quality sleep. Have a good sleep environment: dark room, cool, and quiet or with a sound machine. Don’t work IN bed. Ideally don’t work in your bedroom at all, but dorm rooms seem to ignore that so try to stick to your desk (or find a library or study hall) and avoid the bed itself.

Surprsingly blue light filters only help with sleep hygine, and doesn’t effect vision hygiene at all. Vision hygiene is a concept I learned just this week from my son’s optometrist. She said that studies have shown that environmental factors are a bigger influence for poor vision than genetics and that the more educated you are, the higher the chances of getting glasses. This is because we focus so intently for long periods of time so we strain our eyes. If you already have glasses, there’s also a high chance that your vision will get worse throughout your university career. The good news is that this is an environmental factor that is preventable if we practice good vision hygiene. The doctor suggested the 20-20-20 rule: if you’re focusing intently, every 20 minutes look up and focus on something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. So get up and stretch your legs and look out the window or get a cup of tea. Interestingly this 20 min rule also matches up with an interesting factoid I learned in psychology class 15 years ago: we’re more likely to retain information from our first 10 minutes of studying and our last 10 minutes of studying. While I have no idea if this study has since been debunked, taking a break every 20 minutes can’t be a bad thing. But make sure to keep it a short break. Don’t go bingewatch an episode of your favourite Netflix show every 20 minutes. (…. I, of course, have done this myself more than once. So do what I say and not what I do.)

Making friendships is also a part of healthy mental hygiene, of course, as is physical exercise. But I also recognize that some students are in extremely stressful situations due to any number of external factors and simply don’t have the time for these necessities. If you’re really feeling overwhelmed, Please seek help. Your campus might provide mental health services themselves or even provide a few therapy or counselling sessions as part of your tuition. Check out what’s available. If you don’t know where to find this info, student or information services should point you in the right direction. Your city might also have a toll free help line which provide 1) someone to talk to, as well as 2) further information on services and programmes available in your area. If you’re lucky enough to study in a country with public health care, you can also talk to a doctor about anxiety and depression. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re asking for medication, but instead they should be able to refer you to the right service. (You may need a doctor’s referral to get an appointment in a free/public health programme.) But also don’t rule out medication entirely. Forget any stigma and look at it as an emergency flotation device: something to help you tread water until you can figure out how to swim. That’s the goal at the end of the day: just keep swimming. And remember to breathe.

Tomorrow we’re going to talk about first steps and overall picture if you’re considering postgraduate/studies studies. Until then, take care.

The University 411: Step Outside the Bubble

While I’ve been talking about study tips and other practical advice for this student life blog series (started here), I’ve neglected to talk about an important part of the university experience: everything outside of the classroom. Whether your starting your undergrad or (post)grad degree, DON’T get so caught up with the idea that you constantly have to study that you miss out on some amazing friendships. Your university will likely have a diverse range of opportunities and experiences. Check out the sports groups or social clubs on campus – or start your own! Social clubs and groups are a good way to meet people who have similar interests and/or identities. Take advantage of it while you can: Making friends as an adult is HARD; don’t look back at your university experience and regret not taking advantage of all the avenues for social exchange.

I also suggest instigating conversation with your classmates. While this can be difficult in a lecture hall of 100-300 students, your module might provide bulletin boards or other techy methods for students to interact outside of the classroom. There may also be different instructional components with smaller class sizes alongside or in lieu of your lectures. These include: seminars (a focused discussion led by an instructor); labs (usually a 1-3 hour block where you’re required to perform an activity with results); and workshops (where you bring the material you’re working on such as project drafts or sample questions).

Introduce yourself to the people sitting next to you. Strike up a conversation and suggest a study group. If you’re too shy for any of that, that’s okay! Smile. Make eye contact. If you keep your eyes down, you’re presenting the message that you don’t want to talk and people will respond accordingly.

Once you make (verbal) contact, suggest exchanging contact info. You can frame it as exchanging info for practical purposes if the idea of “let’s be friends” is putting yourself out there too much. A study group or a class group is a good way to exchange notes and questions. This can mean a regular physical meet up where you all sit down to work on the assignments together. Or instead of regular meetups, you can suggest a Facebook or Discord group where you pose questions about the content alongside practical considerations. For example, what the heck is MLA vs Chicago style? If you are handing in a physical copy, do you know where the hand-in box is? Have you figured out printing on campus? There will likely be a whole host of practical questions on your mind. If your new friend(s) don’t know the answer either, it’s still nice having someone with you so you can figure out the answers together.

Once you’ve established a relationship as classmate and colleague, it’ll be easier to suggest a more casual meet up like coffee or lunch or a drink at the university bar/pub/cafe. Social relationships are an important part of mental health. Having someone to vent about your finals with can be therapeutic. That being said, I know some of you have too many other responsibilities and thus dedicating time into making and maintaining friendships might seem like a luxury. In these cases, make sure you’re still taking care of yourself! We’ll talk more about good mental health and hygiene tomorrow. Until then, take care and (try to) have fun.

The University 811: Invest Time and Money in a Scrivener Programme (or Equivalent)

As promised in yesterday’s post regarding reading practices, today we’ll be talking about organizing your research through a programme like Scrivener. I’m calling this section University 811 to differentiate from University 411. My 411 blogs are applicable to all levels of students, whereas 811 (in Canada, a phone number for health services) will be targeted more towards researchers (masters, PhDs, postdocs, and beyond). If you’ve every done or about to engage in a literature review or have files and files of documents stored all so you can write one sentence in your article or chapter, this post is for you.

Note that I’m not a paid advertiser for Scrivener and there are tons of other similar apps or software out there (Dabble, Living Writer, Ulysses, to name a few). But I think these alternatives are geared more towards creative writing (novels, screenplays, etc) than non-fiction research. (And if you’ve used any of these platforms for creative writing, please drop me a line; I’m not completely sold yet on Scrivener for my fiction writing.) If you google “Scrivner alternatives” you will find plenty of other bloggers who discuss the pros and cons of these programmes. But as I’m familiar with Scrivener, that’s what we’ll be talking about today. It has a 30 day free trial based on usage. That means if you use it on 30 separate days spread out over years, you’re still covered by the free trial. At the moment it costs $67 CAD (or $57 if you have verified university affiliation as student or staff). They just released another update for Windows in 2021 – BUT, if you purchased version 1 after November 2017, then updating to the new version is completely FREE. If you purchased it before 2017, then you still get a 49% discount on the upgrade. (Mac upgrades are separate and I know absolutely nothing about it. Sorry!) While the price point might make you hesitate, I think they take good care of their new and existing customers. You can investigate cheaper options like Dabble but the cheaper price point means less features and I’m not entirely sure what gets cut. Admittingly, the other con with Scrivener is that it has a steep learning curve to figure out all of their features. But I highly recommend checking out their tutorial during one of your free trial days. And you can always go back to the tutorial as you need it.

Scrivener is another system that I wished I discovered during my PhD. It would’ve made things SO much easier. If you’re already well into your research, you can import your existing research files fairly easily, but I recommend you do small chunks at a time rather than crashing the system with 5000 documents. There are two main folder systems in Scrivener: drafts for writing and research for your notes. The research section lets you upload all different types of files such as powerpoints, pdfs, jpgs, etc but can also includes movie and audio files. So you should be able to organize ALL of your research in the same place and access it quickly.

View of Binder with fies in draft and research portions
View of Binder with files in draft and research portions

For each of my research files, I write a summary of each critical text in the “synopsis” or index card feature of my notes. I break down my notes for a book by chapters rather than having one document for the whole book. This way I can review the summary without having to flip through the book itself and the contents of my entire bookcase. You can colour code the cards with labels (I haven’t yet as I’m not entirely sure how to best use this feature but I’ve added both “label” and “status” in the example below so you can see how that works). As well, you can customize the presentation of the card itself. Actually, you can customize the look of the entire software at an insane level, so be careful not to get lost with fiddling with settings as a way to procrastinate from work. Once you twiddle with these options, you can view the cards in a handy corkboard view at multiple levels (folder or various subfolders) and you also have the option to drag and drop cards (when set to free style mode):

Corkboard View of My Notes from Cecire’s Re-Enchanted (2019)

While these features are helpful, the reason I personally love Scrivener is the tagging feature. I’ve tagged all of my notes with primary and secondary authors. This means I tag, not only the author of the text I’m reading, but also any fiction or non-fiction author that they cite.

A Selection of My Keywords
A Selection of My Keywords

This way if I want to search my research for all the critics that reference, let’s say, Ursula Le Guin, I just hit the keyword search button to find them. It’s also worth nothing that the search feature is fairly extensive and not limited to just a keyword search:

Screenshot of Search Window
Screenshot of Search Window

More importantly, I also tag my research notes with references to my planned article or chapter. Let’s say I’m sitting down to write my first draft for chapter 5. I do a search for that tag and it pulls up all the notes that I’ve made for the chapter. I can then save this search as a smart “collection” which updates automatically. This is the part of Scrivener which has become so essential for my research process: keyword tags means I don’t have to comb through all my files and pages of notes to see where I’ve made comments indicating I should include a specific piece of research in chapter 5.

I also use a combination of comments (much like comments in Microsoft Word), highlights, annotations, internal and external bookmarks, and project notes. We’ll be discussing these features more when I talk about first drafts (check back this time next week). But it’s a powerhouse tool and I highly recommend it for anyone who has gathered a lot of research and need a way to organize and access it efficiently.

Tomorrow we’ll continue the University 411 series with self-care advice. Until then, take care!

The University 411: Seminar Prep and Reading Journals for ALL Readers, Writers, Students

Hello all! Today we’re going to continue the University 411 which I started here and talk about reading journals. It’s a great tool for your seminar or lecture prep, but also useful for any reader (i.e outside of school). I can’t express how much I regret not keeping one until much later in life as I’ve been an avid reader since I figured out my ABCs. Have you ever thought back on a book that you really enjoyed, but can’t remember anything about it? You want to read it again, but only vaguely recall the scene or premise and can’t remember the title, author, or even character names to help you with a google search. Now imagine you had a reading journal where you wrote down this basic info!

For myself, I only started a reading journal last year after I became a mum. I wanted to read the newly released book 4 of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Usually, I’d re-read the entire series in preparation for a new book release. But throw in work, parenting, and the fact that I’m a fantasy researcher (i.e should be reading new books instead of re-reading my favourite mammoth series), I simply don’t have time to re-read 1000 page works every time a new book is released. So I am repeatedly kicking myself that I hadn’t kept a reading journal until now, especially as one of our university assignments in year 3 was to keep a reading journal; but the professor never explained the purpose of a journal, and so I saw it purely as a necessarily evil to get good grades and never considered it as a useful tool in itself. There are a number of reasons why a reading journal can be useful, in any field or discipline (in school), or if you’re a casual or avid reader (outside of school). I’ll try to cover the main advantages, but if you use your reading journal differently, please drop me a line in the comments!

First, a reading journal is a good way to log a list of your reading. Yes, Goodreads or equivalent can do this for you to. But you might also want to consider adding articles or other research to your reading log along with a 1-2 sentence summary. There’s been a number of times when I’ve re-read an article because I couldn’t remember if I had read it before or not. At the very least, consider keeping a log in your Bullet Journal (which we talked about last time). Include basic information in this log – Author, Title, and Initial Date of Publication (and a short summary if you’re not planning on keeping a full journal). For your reading journal, you may also want to consider recording the publisher and year of the edition published. Note that your paperback edition might be published at a later date than the original publication. If you’re citing the text in a paper, you will need to reference both dates. As well, making note of the edition might be important if you’re reviewing your reading journal years later. I say this because while I was editing my Shape of Fantasy manuscript, I realized that I had taken quotes from 3 different editions of Robert Jordan’s The Great Hunt – a US print, a UK print, and a Canadian ebook. The manuscript from start to finish took 8 years and I had moved back and forth between Canada and UK during this time. (It’s also worth noting that my ebook license purchased in Canada was invalid in UK, so if you’re planning to move out of country and think you’ve been clever with purchasing ebooks so you don’t have to worry about moving physical books, BE CAREFUL. Once you enter credit card info for your new country into your ebook reader, books purchased in your home country might become inaccessible.) With all that moving around, and with 3 different copies of the text to work from, I had a heck of a time confirming the edition of each and every page reference (i.e was this page in reference to my US print or UK print or neither?). As well, I soon found out that there were very small changes between the US and UK print; something as simple as “Rand said” was changed to “said Rand.” (WHY??? I have no idea why the editions differed). So take my experiences as a warning and log the edition information; thank yourself later.

Once you’ve logged the basics, next you want to focus on summarizing the piece. If it’s a length novel or a densely packed article, your summary can be pretty substantial. But I figure re-reading a 10 page summary is much quicker than re-reading a 1000 page book. For novels, I include character names and major plot points. Since I usually read fantasy, I also note down important world-building information. This is especially true for incomplete series, as I’m not entirely sure whether the piece of information will become useful. (For example, with works like George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, you might want to include information that you think foreshadows events or provides clues to unanswered plot questions.) While I keep a reading journal for my fiction reads, for non-fiction, I’ve switched to Scrivener, as it has a handy index card feature. (If you’re at a stage in your education or career where you need to make and keep lots of detailed notes for research, I highly recommend Scrivener and talk about it here.)

Except from my Reading Journal for Sanderson’s Steelheart

Next, you want to identify essential information. This bit is tricky, because what’s essential is highly subjective. If you’re using a reading journal as prep before class, then first I want you to take out your syllabus. Seriously. And a highlighter (either a physical one or use the highlighter on your ebook/pdf copy). Now go through your syllabus and highlight important concepts. Does your instructor provide objectives or key themes? HIGHLIGHT THAT. If you can’t find the information, take a look at the course description on your department’s website, or the table of contents in your required reading list, or the titles/labels of each lecture or seminar. What concepts jump out at you? Write them down in a handy list. (This is would be a good list to put in your bullet journal.) It’s also okay to take a quick look at google or wikipedia to skim through the key points of a topic or text. You’re NOT using wikipedia as research here (so don’t cite it in a paper); instead you’re using it as preliminary research to investigate the key themes and concepts of a work before you start reading. This will let you read the work as a more informed reader, with you eyes open for things you should be looking out for.

The next part is trickier to identify, especially if you’re a new student. What essential information is important FOR YOU? Why are you taking this course? What attracted you to signing up for the class? Take some time to reflect on this (yet another BUJO page. We seem to be wracking them up). These ideas are things that you might end up developing for an essay or project. For example, I remember one semester where I wrote all five final exams around the theme of gender. I had taken completely different courses (Children’s lit, Shakespeare, Roman mythology, etc), but feminist ideas was what appealed to me at the time and so it’s what I took note of. You want to take note of things that interest you while you read the work. Maybe quotes leap out at you or a particular phrase or definition. If you’re an aspiring writer, you might want to note technique or things that give you inspiration for your own work. Other things you want to take note of in your reading journal are things that confused you; make note if it so that you can bring it up in class or study group to discuss or to investigate further on your own. If you’re keeping the journal as prep work for class, think about things that YOU want to talk about in class; things that interest and excite you, or questions that you have. If you’re keeping the journal for pleasure, then the same still goes. A reading journal is exactly like any journal, only one focused on your reading content.

Since we’re talking about prep for class, I want to end on a note of caution. You do NOT have to read EVERYTHING on the recommended reading list. And, even if you instructor states that it’s required and not just recommended, I would still approach a heavy reading load with caution. Some instructors are just assholes. So if you’re meant to be reading 6 novels a week for just one of your modules, FAKE it. Focus on just one of the texts so that you can contribute to some part of the conversation, and do a quick internet investigation of the other 5 so that you know basic points and can identify points of comparison with the text you’re focusing on. While 6 books a week might be an exaggeration (the most I’ve had as a student was 3 novels a week for one of my senior-level undergraduate seminars), the point is that you shouldn’t be killing yourself to reach some unattainable model of perfection set by an instructor who thinks your university experience should break you. DO make note on it with student feedback/course evaluations. Even if you’re tenured professor doesn’t care to look at them (as The Chair so brilliantly depicted), the department should. That being said, I can’t guarantee that trying to keep a healthy work/life balance won’t come back to bite you. Usually (in the humanities) if your final exam is formatted as a series of essay questions, these will be presented as broad questions which lets you select any of the texts/topics/figures covered in class (provided that you didn’t utilize the text/topic repeatedly for each essay question). Alternatively, if the topic is pre-selected by the question, these are still usually written in a way that gives you a lot of choice. (For example, you might have a choice of 20 questions, with 1 or 2 works identified in each.) But I remember one experience where the professor told us the that the final exam will be essay questions with a comparison of 4 books for each essay, and then presented each question with the 4 works pre-selected. This meant that, rather than focusing on texts that we connected to, we needed to have detailed knowledge of each and every one. Unfortunately, sitting down to write my final was the wrong time to figure this out. While I had read every book, I hadn’t bothered to study all of them. A brief perusal through a reading journal (if I had had one) might have at least helped me avoid a failing grade. If you can, get some information about the lecturer from other students early in the semester (remember to step outside your bubble); that should hopefully give you some idea of what to expect for assessment and you can revise your approach accordingly. If you know in advance whether your finals will be testing for detailed knowledge of ALL the material instead of focused knowledge on your areas of interest, then you can figure out in advance the size of your work load and how best to tackle it (we’ll talk more about this on Friday). *Fingers Crossed* that you have instructors who genuinely want to see you succeed rather than setting you up to fail. And good luck! Tomorrow, we’re going to starting talking about tips for (post)grad students. Until then, take care!

The University 411: Bullet Journaling

As promised when discussing note-taking tips yesterday, today we continue our student life series with a crash course in Bullet Journaling. Bullet Journaling is a system of organization developed by Ryder Carroll, but if you take a casual scroll of the #BUJO hashtags on pinterest and instragram, you’ll quickly see how people have taken the basic premise and made it their own. A word of caution: do NOT look at these examples and think you need to recreate a beautiful, artistic masterpiece. Ryder Carroll’s basic premise is very, VERY minimalist. Start there. Don’t go overboard and get overwhelmed with any of it. It’s suppose to be a tool to help you and to have fun with, not an extra workload that you need to make picture perfect.

The name “bullet journal” comes from a specific type of notebook that uses a dot matrix, but you can use anything really. My first journal was in an art book for watercolours. At the time, I enjoyed doodling with watercolours to form as the background for each page. I also used a lot of washi tape and coloured pens. But I’ve had little time for that recently, so a simple black pen is my preferred weapon of choice now.

Primarily I use a bullet journal for my note-taking. This means that I have one notebook that I carry with me everywhere. I do not have subject specific notebooks or notebooks for different purposes. At the moment, I am independent researcher applying for lecturships and fellowships, co-head-editor of Fantastika Journal, and am employed as a Quality Assurance Manager at a manufacturing company. Despite these different hats, I use the same journal to record meeting notes for my manufacturing job that I would use to record meeting notes for Fantastika or for my fellowship application. It’s also a place where I jot down ideas. For instance, my journal includes: ideas for activities that I think my 2-year-old will enjoy; concept mapping for chapter drafts for my next research book; topic-specific list of books I want to read. (Yes, I have a loooong TBR list on Goodreads. But my Bullet Journal have more specific lists. For example, I’m organizing a digital symposium for Fantastika Journal which focuses on LGBTQIA+ graphics, so I have a list of Fantastika (science fiction, fantasy, gothic horror, etc) graphic novels, animations, and video games all which have strong LGBTQIA+ representations.) Number your pages so you can refer back to them easily. Ryder Carroll recommends having an index or table of contents on the front page of your notebook, which you can add to as needed when you want to find things. Personally, I tend to just flip through the book, or occasionally flag with stickies or washi tape. As this is my 3rd University 411 post, you probably won’t be surprised when I say ‘do what works for you.’ The important point is that you don’t need to write your notes in subject-specific sections. You simply make a note “continued on page 34” or “notes started on pg 6”. Or you can use a short form (<- 6 or -> 34). But the point is you write your notes on your next blank page without worrying about keeping your notes all grouped together in a sectioned off part of your notebook.

When all the pages are filled in your journal, or if you want to start a new one at the beginning of the school year, go through your existing bullet journal and copy out any items that you want to keep in your new one. If you find yourself copying out the same information every year, you might want to consider moving it to your subject specific notes. As I said in my previous post, The University 411: Note-taking Part 1, or the Jasnah Kholin Method, I use bullet journaling to take quick notes during lectures, etc, but I then rewrite the notes out in a different medium for studying. In some cases, I might have notes that I need every year, even after the module is over. Keep these in a *permanent notebook* and use bullet journal for your everyday/ on-the-go. These can be any number of things that you might want to transfer to a permanent notebook, depending on your field of study. Maybe you need a quick definition for the difference between socialism and communism when you argue with idiots online. Or maybe you really need to know Plank’s constant to save the world and you just don’t have time to sing a duet with your girlfriend to get the info. For me, I have a set of notes – a cheat sheet – identifying major theorists in my field with a few sentences explaining their main ideas. After 15+ years in university, I still sometimes need to pull out my cheat sheet so I can quickly confirm what the heck Adorno was going on about, and if I’m not mixing him up with that other guy.

From Stranger Things, season 3. When you have a monster on the lose and don’t have time to serenade your girlfriend so she will give you valuable information, BUJO might very well save your life.

While I use bullet journal for note-taking, the heart of bullet journaling is with rapid logging; a way to keep your to-dos and important dates organized. Carroll uses 3 simple icons for this. (If you add more, then make sure you include a key chart in your table of contents, so you know what the symbols mean if you look back at them later.) The 3 icons are:

• a simple dot for “tasks”

o an open circle for “events”

– a dash for “notes”

An example from Chuckie’s Bullet Journal

As you can see, mine isn’t pretty or perfect. It’s serviceable. The example shows my schedule for the week. If I have a lot of meetings, appointments, classes, etc then it’s a simple matter to switch to a daily format whenever I need to do so. If I have less going on (e.g. during holidays), then I use a monthly format. I use a combo of all 3 depending if I need more focus and organization during a particularly stressful time. I also keep a long-term schedule at the front of my journal (what BUJO experts call a “future log”). This includes things you might need to think about months in advance like final exams or deadlines for an essay. But it could also be something that occurs more regularly that you need to remember; things like birthdays and anniversaries, but also practical things like “renew car insurance every March” or “go see dentist in June.” At the start of every day (or week, or month, depending on which format you’re going with), take a quick look at your future log to make sure that you’ve included relevant items in your rapid logging.

Bullet Journaling is also a good place for “brain dumps”, where you have SOOOO many tasks or ideas and have no idea where to start. Write it all down. From the big to the little. Write it all down, and get it on the page. You can then pick the most important ones to include in your rapid logging or your notes.

At the start of each day (or week, or month, or year) take a look at your log. I like to do this before bed every night, or on Sundays at the start of a work week. It gives me an idea of what I’m expecting my day/week to look like. I then pick 1-3 top tasks and label them A, B, and C. It’s okay to change your mind (like I did in my example). But here’s the important part: these 3 tasks are NOT something you’re picking in order to feel productive or successful. They’re not do-or-die goals. Instead, they’re things I hope to get done. I focus on task A first, before I move on to B. I don’t move onto task C until A and B are both done. If I had time to finish A, B, and C, then I pick more. If I manage to do them all, then wonderful! If not, I copy out the tasks again in my next rapid log. DON’T leave unfinished items in a rapid log that you plan to look back on later. First, you will kick yourself if (*when*) you end up forgetting about the task. Second, rewriting out the to-do list over and over again should hopefully help motivate you; if you’re putting off a task for weeks, you might decide to get it done with so you can stop writing it down every day. Third, by re-writing the task, you’re continually gauging its importance. Can you drop the task completely? If you can’t, take some time to examine why you’re putting it off.

In cases like that, use your Bullet Journal as a “dear diary” reflection when you need to. Really, use your Bullet Journal however you want, for whatever purpose. Use it as a tracker for spending habits, sleep, exercise, and healthy eating. Use it to store ideas for recipes, date night, or that story you plan to write ‘maybe one day’. You can use it to plan your next vacation, or as a daily diary during vacation. BUJO users call these different uses “collections,” and I can assure you that if you go google or hit up pinterest/instagram with the BUJO hashtag, you’ll see hundreds of collection ideas as well as innovative formats and layouts. If you’re in back-to-school mode, this is the perfect time to break out a fresh set of coloured pens to start your new journal. There’s really no age limit on enjoying a new box of crayons, so go nuts and have fun.

Today we’ll continue talking about keeping a reading journal. Until then, take care!

The University 411: Note-taking Part 1, or the Jasnah Kholin Method

Continuing my series of “how to student effectively” which I started here, today we’ll be talking about approaches to notetaking. As prep for today’s post I did a quick google search for notetaking methods. And. Yikes. What the heck is the Cornell Method? Why does it matter if I write my notes in columns versus sections? Are we being graded on our notetaking presentation?

So I’m going to go ahead and propose my own method. I’m going to assume other people use it too simply because while reading Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives, I came across a scene where one of the characters describe their notetaking method and thought “hey! I do that too.” So I’m calling it The Jasnah Kholin method after Sanderson’s character.

Okay. First of all, it doesn’t matter if your first set of notes are in columns or sections or morse code. Just get words on the page. This is especially true if you’re taking notes during a lecture. There’s going to be a lot of information thrown at you. If you’re worrying too much about making every mark in your nice, new shiny notebook perfect, you will never get anything down.

So you want to think about what medium is the quickest and most convenient for you. As an undergraduate, I brought a laptop to lectures. I was a fast typist and I essentially wrote out every single word spoken by the lecturer. This is not an effective note-taking process, and of course it depends on your typing speed. BUT, while it’s not something I generally recommend, ultimately it DID help me start to process how to take in information disseminated via lecture. (If you recall in my previous post (Identify Your Learning Style), initially I struggled to pay attention in lectures. So writing out everything was the best way for me to start paying attention.) But once I started developing the skill of listening to the spoken word for an hour+, I eventually began to listen to the whole while only taking notes on the “essential” parts. (We’ll talk more about identifying “essential” parts as this blog series continues).

Some lecturers cram a LOT of info into their lectures with very little visual aids. So a laptop or a tablet with keyboard (if you can afford either) might be a way to go. If you have a smart phone, you can look into pairing a keyboard to your phone. (You don’t need a top software programme to take notes during lecture.) If you want to avoid tech altogether, thay’s fine too. If your instructor provides handouts, you can consider taking your notes directly on that, or even directly in your book/textbook (only if you’re not considering reselling it later). Or if they post their PowerPoints online before class, you can print out an outline version. Alternatively, a simple notebook works too. I’ve started using a bullet journal for everything. I.e. ONE notebook that I use EVERYWHERE instead of carrying several for each subject. (I talk more about bullet journaling here.)

As I moved into postgraduate work I began preferring hand written notes more because it lets me draw connections better – and I mean literally draw connecting arrows. When I used to type my first draft of notes on the computer, instead of arrows I’d make a note that said something like “this connects back to what lecturer said earlier about x” . But taking the time to write that sentence is time you don’t have, so I prefer symbols and shorthand: this part on page 3 of my notes connects back to page 1, so I’ll mark both sections with a quick astrix or some sign making a shorthand connection.

Oh. And speaking of shorthand, create a system for words that you use commonly. Maybe you use a forward slash / to replace the letters ‘tion’ or you write out just the initials instead of a person’s full name. Who wants to write out Shakespeare 50 times when you can write WS? You might also want to consider symbols for phonetic vowel sounds. This is for when you’re not entirely sure what word the lecturer is saying or how to spell it (especially for proper names or technical jargon). Rather than worrying over the spelling of the word, try to write it out phonetically to look up later. (Personally, I think the English alphabet sucks for phonetics. So maybe figure out what the heck is a macron and long vowel sound, or develop an equivalent short hand that works for you. I – honestly – use the Japanese alphabet. I have not been able to read or speak Japanese since I studied it in grade school nearly 20 years ago, but I remember the alphabet and it’s a phonetical system so that’s what I use.)

Keep a key or index somewhere so you remember what the symbols mean when you re-read your notes. And for goodness sake, label your notes. Write the date, the title of the course/topic, and the lecturer (or author if you’re note-taking during reading/research instead of during a lecture).

Now onto the nitty gritty of note taking itself. The key thing to keep in mind (IMHO) is that there are multiple layers to note taking. First you start with a fact or concrete concept: A historical date; A chemical property; The name and artist of a painting; A physics formula; etc

I’m going to use an English literature example because that’s my training. Author/playwright/poet wrote x. That’s your basic concrete idea. A quote from a text. Let’s take an important Sanderson Stormlight quote to stick with today’s theme: “You must find the most important words a man can say.”

Next you (or your lecturer) add(s) layering and depth. You’ve got a quote. What does it mean? What does it mean in the context of that particular scene? Does the meaning change as the narrative progresses? Maybe you gain additional information about the world building or events later in the text. Does the meaning change depending on the point-of-view character? Does the meaning change for you if you go back and RE-READ the scene, this time with the knowledge of how events unfold and characters develop? Does the meaning change if you have extra knowledge of the author’s background or events in the world at that time? These are some of the questions that your lecture or required reading might cover and essentially what you’re taking notes on. (You are unlikely to cover every single question; these are just examples of layering. While I use English lit as a example, think about how layers and depth works for your field.)

Ah, but wait. We still haven’t talked about the Jasnah Kholin Method of note-taking. This is the part where you REWRITE your notes. Your first set of notes will be scribbles getting info and ideas now. Now take that draft and make it coherent and legible. Pretty it up in whatever format you want (columns or sections or whatever). But also make sure you’re synthesizing the information: cut out extraneous words or ideas that don’t add much info or knowledge; write out the loose connections and ideas and layers you formed in your mind but didn’t have time to write out fully during lecture. Add MORE connections if you think of them off the top of your head or include examples or practice questions. If you have the time, you might want to consider how the material in front you connects to earlier lectures in the module, or to lectures from an entirely different module. Maybe your discussion on Brandon Sanderson has points of connection with your Shakespeare module. Note that down!

Format here doesn’t matter. And that’s why notetaking techniques/blogs which focus on handwritten format is baffling to me. Format and presentation is not the important part. So long as you write it in a way that works for you. Maybe you’re typing up hand written notes, or re-writing them in a different subject specific notebook. Maybe you have a recording app on your phone and need to talk our your ideas. Maybe you’re writing them out on index cards as prep for studying for exams. Or maybe you got a poster board of each of your courses/module and you’re concept mapping your ideas. Maybe you’re doing a combo of things. (And please share if you have completely different techniques/format. I’m always interested in using different approaches myself.). The important part is you’re reprocessing the information into a medium and method that works for you.

The Jasnah Kholin method: Rewrite your notes. Do this the same day or within the week so that your ideas are still fresh in your mind and you can figure out what the scribbles and half-formed thoughts mean. But DON’T stress overly about adding further connections and layering immediately. (We’ll talk more about stress/time management later). A thought or connection might come to you after you read something else, or maybe while you’re taking a walk or in the middle of a shower. That’s your brain mulling over and processing ideas. But you don’t have to write down every single thought or piece of knowledge in your head. The rewriting method is not meant for you to solve the world’s research questions. Instead, by re-processing the information, you’re making sure you know and understand the material to build off it for further learning. And if you find that you DON’T understand the material, that’s okay too. This is why you’re reviewing your notes. Make note of your questions! Try to find the answer by working through practice questions, or in a study group. Ask your instructor at the next lecture or pop in to see them during office hours. (Seriously. We’re not going to resent the opportunity to chat about the subject we’re passionate about.)

An incredibly underlooked aspect to note-taking is making sure you understand the material. Your note-taking for a lecture/research isn’t finished until you’ve done that. Your set of re-written notes are the foundations of your essay/ project/ exam prep. And it’s a good, solid foundation.

The first draft of my notes for an upcoming blog piece.

Check out my “Tackling the Blank Page” posts for next steps on how to start a project/assignment. You can find the first of this series here. And check back in a few weeks for a series on exam prep and study tips. But in the meanwhile, check out the seminar prep and identifying your objectives for some advice that may apply to you. And tomorrow we talk about bullet journaling. Until then, take care!

The University 411 – Part 1: Identify Your Learning Style

Lately it’s dawned on me that “learning how to be a student” is a skill that isn’t taught efficiently. Honestly, I think the first year of university is chaotic simply because you’re having to negotiate what’s a lecture vs seminar vs lab vs workshop, and how do I prep for each, and what do I do once I’m there, and oh crap, now I have to study off the crappy notes that I’ve taken; did anyone take better notes?? You might be lucky and have a teacher (at grade school or university) that sets aside a day to tackle some of this info, or your university might cover it in orientation or have dedicated services to help you negotiate *how to be a student,* and, as well, you’re bringing the study skills that you’ve learned throughout your education. But you might’ve picked up some bad habits or have a study technique that isn’t the “right fit” for you. So for the next few posts I’ll be taking about all the ins and outs of being a student.

First and foremost is identifying your strengths and weaknesses. In my first year of university, I quickly realized that I wasn’t a student that could take in audio information, i.e sit through a lecture and retain info. (And it wasn’t until the third year of my five year undergraduate programme that I slowly started developing this skill!). It quickly became the joke amongst my friends that since I never went to any of my lecturers, I can hold down the fort (our preferred table in the cafeteria). But, as I was pursuing a Bachelors in Science at this point, I had the benefit of having a dedicated textbook for each of my classes. (This differs from the humanities, in my experience, as we’re not given a textbook of, say, “Romanticism Literature: Key Dates, Ideas, and Peoples”). Not only that, for my first-year science-modules the instructors identified in the syllabus which part of the textbook they’ll be going over in each lecture. So, while I didn’t attend the vast majority of my lectures, I still spent that time learning, sitting down at our cafeteria table with the textbook and a notebook. I did the practice questions recommended in the syllabus. At the end of the day/week, I’d go home and RE-WRITE my notes. Where my first set of notes were a mess of scribbles, the revised notes were cleaner. They were colour-coded with different pens and highlighters. What I didn’t realize even at that time was that this process – of revising notes – was, in fact, studying. As I explain further in my next post, The University 411: Note-taking Part 1, or the Jasnah Kholin Method, I was turning that short-term memory into long-term memory by re-processing it. Doing this every day/week, meant that I was constantly studying, right from day 1. So, when it came time for the final exams, I pissed off all my friends by flipping through a magazine as we waited outside the examination hall instead of desperately cramming in material. For the most part, this process worked for me. (The one noticeable exemption was organic chemistry, but EVERYONE failed organic chem that year.)

I realized then that I retain information best by reading and writing, rather than listening. This knowledge also lead me to switch programmes from Science to Arts. While I eventually developed the skills for different modes of learning, it made sense to me to go with a programme which favoured my learning-style. So identifying your learning style might also give you a good indication of your suitability for a programme. This isn’t to say that you SHOULDN’T go into a programme where your learning style works against you. But identifying your style, your strengths and weaknesses, will allow you to develop skills to shore up those weak spots. I know a number of people with dyslexia who achieved a literature degrees, for instance, as well as a number of people with dyscalculia (number dyslexia) who achieved a maths degree. Your weaknesses doesn’t bar you from pursuing education. But identifying them allows you to then seek out the tools you need to address those weak spots. This might be a quick patch job for the task/course at hand, or a slow repair that you develop over time.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a handy way for you to figure out what are your strengths and weaknesses. There isn’t a “test” that you can take to identify if you’re an audio learner, or visual learner, or verbal learner, or a kinesthetic (hands-on) learner. To be frank, I wouldn’t trust any test of this sort; you’re unlikely to be solely one type of learner. More likely, you’re a mixture of all four as it depends on the SITUATION. While I wasn’t an audio learner in a lecture situation, I WAS in seminar as it combined the verbal element. So while in lecture – where you have an instructor talking at the front of a large hall with 100-300 students and no audience participation – I kept daydreaming, in seminar – a small room of 10-30 people in a discussion led by the instructor – I did much better. Still not amazing, mind you, not to start. But better. Over time, I took the audio-learning skills from seminar environment and were able to apply it to the lecture environment too.

For those students (and teachers) who struggled with the online/Zoom mediums this covid year, figuring out the ins and outs of WHY it didn’t work for you might help you start thinking about how to MAKE it work. If your university is continuing online classes (or a combo), identify what works for you. Do you need a social element or smaller group discussions if you’re shy? Can you arrange “study groups” with a few of your classmates outside of lecture time? Is the visual part of it fatiguing? Maybe you need to close your eyes and just listen, instead of straining your eyes at the screen? Maybe it’s the environment itself? Have you cozied up with a cup of tea and find yourself dozing? How are you taking notes during this time? ARE you taking notes?

In the next few posts, I’ll be talking about these different ways of learning more as we cover note-taking, organization, study tips, etc. As there is a huge range of situation/environments which you’ll experience as a university student, we’ll be covering a number of different modes and mediums. As the Northern Hemisphere preps to go back to school this autumn (apologies, I have no idea what timetable the Southern Hemisphere is on), I hope this blog series will help new and returning university students figure out the best tools to help them. Tomorrow we talk about note-taking; until then, take care!

Pictured above: Stock Photography i.e. not my cat