Strategies for Success: 5 things that helped me get through first-year courses

64 Days to go….Happy July!


Once during an Open House tour I facilitated, a prospective student raised their hand and asked what my top 5 tips were for academic success in first year engineering. Since then I’ve spent time thinking more about that question, so without further ado, I present 5 tips that helped me get through my first-year courses:

1. Go to Office Hours…..and then go again

Regardless of whether a class is run in-person or online, your instructors will always offer some form of Office Hours during the course. Office Hours are extra hours outside of designated class time where an instructor makes themselves available to answer any of your questions about course concepts. Office Hours are similar to tutorials, but allow for smaller group discussions, and don’t have any specific agenda of topics to cover like a tutorial might.

Some instructors whose primary offices aren’t easily accessible to students will even run office hours in public spaces such as the Pit in the basement of the Sandford Fleming building or at a nearby coffee shop. Courses that run online will be offering a virtual space for the same one-on-one Office Hour discussions you would otherwise experience in-person.

Instructors are often surprised by how few students show up to their office hours, because they really want students to feel comfortable coming to ask for help. A big hesitation for many students stems from the worry of asking a seemingly “simple” question and embarrassing themselves in front of their instructor or other classmates. It’s so easy to feel this way, but I can promise you that whatever question you have, chances are, someone else in the room probably has the exact same query on their mind, so you most definitely should still ask!

Office Hours are such an overlooked resource that they have the potential to make the difference between doing okay in a course, and doing great. In fact, at the end of a semester if you ask just about any upper-year student what their biggest regret was when it came to studying for their course, most often than not it’ll be that they didn’t attend enough of their instructor’s office hours, or didn’t go at all.

Even beyond your courses, Office Hours are a great opportunity to get to know instructors one-on-one. A lot of them are very willing to share with you their story of how they got into academia, and are good people to ask about summer research in their fields. At the end of the day, your instructors are people too, and probably enjoy chatting about their passions just as much as we students might.


2. Utilize Libraries and Study Spaces

This past year I had to write an essay for my Engineering Ethics course and I was looking for some information on the history of a piece of technology used for surgeries. After days wandering aimlessly on Google (out of laziness), I took a trip upstairs to our Faculty’s Engineering & Computer Science Library in the Sandford Fleming building. There I was met with a friendly librarian who was able to point me to exactly the references I needed, and showed me how I could even find everything online through the University’s massive online library database.

Since then, when the library was open, I made an effort to stop by during my free time for a quiet space to review for my quizzes and midterms. Wherever in the world you’re living next semester when classes start in September, if possible I encourage you to seek out a local library or a designated study space that’ll help you stay focused and engaged with your studies. 


3. Introduce an Agenda and/or Calendar into your routine

Right from your first week of school, your instructors will begin assigning homework and announcing dates/deadlines for quizzes, assignments, and even midterm tests. Having an agenda and/or calendar to jot down all your real-time dates and responsibilities can be such a big help. The great thing about calendars these days is that you don’t need to buy a physical one. There are great virtual and mobile-friendly calendars available online completely for free!


4. Read that Course Syllabus 

When I was in high school, my interactions with a course syllabus consisted of a brief glance on the first day of classes to see if my parents needed to sign anything, after which it would live in the back of my binder untouched for the rest of the school year. Now in university, syllabi are so much more valuable. A syllabus is a document that your instructor will typically share in the first week of classes that outlines the schedule for the topics to be covered in the course. It will also list important dates like project deadlines and major assessments like quizzes and exams. 

This means that in September you already know what you need to be preparing for and when. Such information can help you formulate a custom study plan for the rest of your semester, and ensure that you’re on track with all your coursework. 

A syllabus will also typically list which (if any) textbook(s) you might be required (or simply encouraged) to purchase for that specific course. The Faculty works to ensure that the costs of textbooks are affordable to all students. *

*Please note: For courses held exclusively online for the Fall 2020 semester, instructors are working to share access to suppliers of digital or open-source textbooks/resources when access to physical copies is not possible.


5. Review….and then review again

This tip is one I hear from commuter students all the time! Instead of spending those hours commuting on public transit bored, why not use that time to review notes taken during lectures and tutorials? Even if you don’t commute to school, taking time out of your evening or morning to simply read over the notes you took in your last lecture or tutorial is a big help in the long run.

I’m personally guilty of showing up to a class having completely forgotten what we covered in the previous lecture, and would then need to spend time just catching up before beginning to listen to the new content. Reinforcing your learning with periodic review of concepts makes it easier when you sit down to study before a midterm or exam because you can skip a lot of the initial review and go straight into working on practice problems.


Until next week, see you soon!


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