The Heart of a Balanced Schedule: A University Perspective

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“Time is our most precious and fleeting resource.
We never have enough, yet we have all there is.
This is the time-management paradox” (Tom Reilly).

I love these words of wisdom and find my daily experiences reflect this sentiment. As a Learning Skills Instructor at Brock University, I often talk to students about “time management”.  I hear about their struggles, their confusion, and their ongoing quest to juggle and balance a multitude of tasks and activities—yet their loss as to how. As I listen, I see my past self. I know my own approach and attitude towards time management changed drastically over the years from an undergraduate student to a graduate student. So, I will often draw upon my past learnings and experiences, as I explore tips and strategies for time management, aiming to meet students where “they are at” and with authenticity.

In my early undergraduate years, I would say I had a patterned process—beginning as an “extreme optimist” and moving towards sheer panic. Each year as I was positively sure I could fit in every class, work, volunteer, and social activity that my heart desired. What was at the root of this philosophy? I was young and energetic and the world was my oyster. Saying “yes” to presented opportunities could open up new doors—new career paths. If I turned something down, I might lose out. So, I would pack my schedule full. Then, more often than not, only after I was deeply committed, reality would hit. pic 2There are only 24 hours in a day and 7 days a week. Try as I might, I could not alter this math. Yes, I had moved to that “place of panic” where I had no idea how I would complete everything. My solution? Head down—I would forge ahead hoping all would work out. Often it did (which allowed me to repeat this pattern for a few years). But, eventually the stress of the pendulum swing began to take its toll. I needed to discover a better way of figuring out the reality of time limitations.

Here is one of my favourite strategies which emerged —guided by the “experts”, and personally tweaked for different seasons of life. Over the years, during workshops and consultations, I often find that students enjoy hearing about this strategy. Some even return to let me know how successful it has been for them. The strategy? I like to call it, “creating a balanced weekly schedule”.

Basically, you take your computer, or a piece of paper, and create a blank schedule—Monday—Sunday, for every hour you are up. For the next steps, you can choose to use different colours, if you are a visual person like me. Fpendulum old-clock-436495_1280irst, in one colour (say green), slot in all of your fixed activities for the week. For students this will mean their lectures, seminars, labs, and part-time work schedules. For the second step, you take a different colour (purple, sounds good), and block off the time you need to complete your university work (e.g. your times for reading, reviewing, studying, writing assignments, etc.). The general recommendation, which can come as a surprise to students, is to block off two to three hours for every hour of class (e.g. 15 hours of class = 30 hours of school work). Next, in a different colour (maybe blue), you schedule in time for balance (e.g. hobbies, physical activity, family and friends—all the things that make us happier and healthier in life).

During this activity, students may experience an “uh-oh” moment, when they realize they cannot fit everything into their schedules (“hello past-self”). I have met students who are working thirty hours a week in addition to taking five courses. (Yes, these students would discover not only could they not fit everything into 24 hours, but there was also little to no room for “blue” time, or balance). Rather than letting students panic, this is the moment to guide students to feeling empowered to make decisions which work best for their lives. “It is good when we discover the reality of time-math” (Usually at this point, I’ll make a quick analogy to my personal past). “There are just choices to be made. Some people may choose to work fewer hours at a part-time job. Other people may choose to do a course in the spring or summer, in consultation with his/her academic advisor, and fewer courses during the fall and winter terms. And there are other options too. What do you think will work best for you?”…

What is at the heart of the “Balanced Weekly Schedule”?

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For me, it is allowing myself to live life to the fullest. When I know that the time-math works and I have created a healthy balance to my week, I can be fully present in each moment and not distracted by distance thoughts of, “How am I going to get everything done?” Is the schedule perfect? No. But it does allow me to better enjoy, even though it is momentary, that “precious and fleeting resource” of time.

What is your best time management tip for students?

Karen karenSmith Herrow
Learning Skills Instructor and Academic Zone Resource Developer
A-Z Learning Services, Student Development Centre, Brock University

Teaching the Science of Writing

eis-01Figure 1. How scientists see writing a paragraph.

I teach a mandatory Scientific Writing course for Chemistry and Physics PhD graduate students to help them write their thesis or dissertation, and hopefully publications.   The funny thing is that I don’t have a PhD, and when I first started teaching the course, I didn’t even have a Masters!

Surprisingly, in the 7 years I’ve taught the course, my lack of a PhD has never been an issue. The problem has been getting students to believe that they can work on their writing while in grad school. I’m not saying that they don’t recognize or value good writing, but with their courses, TA work, lab demonstrating, supervising undergrads in the lab, group meetings, seminar presentations, let alone their research, adding one more task seems overwhelming, even if they know that it’s something that they need to work on.

horses-01Although we can lead horses to water, how do we make them drink? Or in my case, although academic regulations lead them to my writing class, how can I make them think (that it’s worthwhile)?

What do I do? I try as much as possible, to talk their talk. Every example is scientific. Use non-science examples and the class tunes out. Show the same example with chemicals or lab terms and I get buy in. These students need to see the direct relationship between the examples and their writing. It’s a simple thing, but surprisingly effective.

I also try to show that writing is like any lab skill. There are specific steps and rules to follow, but at the same time they can improve with practice and reflection!

Finally, I tell them that I’m their litmus test. I know about as much as a new Masters student who might pick up their thesis for background reading. I might not understand their research, but if I can follow their thinking and believe their argument based on the evidence- their writing is clear! I might not know if the science is correct, but at least their ideas are clear.

How do you inspire your science students to “drink”?

eis photoElizabeth Ilnicki-Stone, MSc (Chem), BSc, BEd, OCT
Academic-Zone Resource Developer
Instructor, A-Z Learning Services
Brock University, Student Development Centre

*Figure 1. Formula for a good paragraph. Elizabeth Ilnicki-Stone, A-Z Learning Services, 2015.

Integrity is . . .

explosionI talk about academic misconduct a lot. I mean, A LOT. I talk about the underlying issues like anxiety, time management, research skills, etc. I define plagiarism. I talk about the “letter of the law” (AKA university regulations regarding academic misconduct) and about best practices for how to avoid academic misconduct. And it’s all so damn depressing. So negative. So deflating. It’s a mantra of doom and gloom, and I feel the clouds gathering over myself and my students every time the topic comes up.

Just recently, though, the skies cleared and the sun beamed down. Or, to toss cheesy metaphors aside, I had a very good day, and I have students to thank for it.

Our team has been working on a module on academic integrity. (Note that the topic is academic integrity, not academic misconduct.) The module covers all the underlying issues previously mentioned—has to be done—but they’re housed under the larger umbrella of personal integrity. Personal, as in internal, as in not defined by institutional policy. Our goal was/is to help students see academic integrity as a natural extension of personal integrity, which is something that lives and breathes in all of us in one form or another.

The trick with this approach, though, is that personal integrity is wrapped up in personal values, which are wrapped up in family values, which are wrapped up in cultural values ad infinitum. So we struggled a bit with how we could talk about personal integrity without explicitly or implicitly imposing our values onto students. Then we had an epiphany: Let the students speak for themselves. We decided on a video.

That’s where things started getting fun. We invited a bunch of students, set up a fancy camera and mic, got some swag to pass out as a thank you, and started filming. The students were asked to complete the prompt: “Integrity is…” however they wanted as long as it had NOTHING to do with academics or academic integrity.

Devon, Undergraduate Accounting Student

Devon, Undergraduate Accounting Student

The students were a little taken aback by the anti-academic approach, and at first they seemed perplexed at how to respond. (A jaded spectator might attribute this to the downfall of students today. “Academic” and “integrity” are linked so often in post-secondary education, that they’re practically a compound word. Outside of academics, integrity is, what? ) But the students were, as they often are, funny, creative, thoughtful, and intelligent, and before long they had a whole slew of responses ranging from,

Integrity is being true to yourself.
to
Integrity is not ditching your friends to watch Netflix.

Indeed, they had more responses than we had time to film, and we had actual fun as they came up with more and more.

I hope it was a great experience for everyone. I KNOW it was a great experience for me. It was the first time (ever?!) that I talked with students about integrity where we ALL smiled and laughed, as opposed to the usual scenario where I’m in front of the students, desperately trying to dispel the clouds hanging over the room, while the students stare back at me either frightened, slack-jawed, or insulted by the underlying assumptions behind the conversation.

ally1So thanks to all those students who came out to play. I had a blast, and I’ll carry the experience with me as I finish up my part in developing this module!

Allyson Miller, Learning Skills Instructor and eLearning Developer, A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

Writing Woes and Maintaining Perspective

Write about what you know. . .

Good advice. Right now, I feel the familiar tug of despair, but I have hope! Working with first-year university students in our transition program has its joys and challenges.  At the moment, I’m reviewing their writing (challenge) and I’m planning the editing sessions for January (oh, the joy).

First steps? We’ll be tearing through the writing methodically: identifying claims, evidence, analysis and transitions. Rip it up and then glue it back together. We use the acronym PERT to identify points, evidence, relevance (how the evidence supports the point) and transitions (words and phrases that make connections). The Where’s Waldo of academic research writing. The answers to “what is the point?” and “how do you know?” and “how do these ideas relate?” that are often missing in student writing.

The approach may be mechanical, but I find that it increases students’ awareness of their role in the academic writing process. It’s not about sounding smart and throwing some fancy terms and long sentences together. It’s about communicating their thinking clearly, synthesizing existing research, presenting well-researched arguments, creating meaning from existing research and questioning current understanding.

In our Essay-Zone module, we’ve placed an emphasis on analysis so that students can analyze their own writing–to see what they’re doing well and what they can do better. It’s about empowerment.

(Writing this post inspired me.  I needed a little inspiration!)

Margaret

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Lead Designer, Academic-Zone and Coordinator Skills Instruction, A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

Helping Students Think About and Engage in their Learning

By post-secondary, students often have a “fixed” idea of who they are as learners. Maryellen Weimer’s article in Faculty Focus, “Prompts to Help Students Reflect on How They Approach Learning” explores ways to “motivate students to consider their beliefs about learning”.  She provides a list of prompts to encourage students to reflect on their current strategies and beliefs.

I found Weimer’s prompts useful and use similar ones when working with students individually; however, many students….well, I just don’t see them. Why? Well, we know that struggling students–the ones who really need to see us– are less likely to seek help.

Do you find it even more challenging to engage male students to ask questions or seek support? Research out of Penn State University and University of Akron by Wimer and Levant (2011) explored the relationship between masculinity and help-seeking behaviour (1). They found that males with strong dominance and self-reliance characteristics were less likely to seek help.

Makes sense, but what can we do?

We created out Academic-Zone modules to provide a safe, risk-free way for students to develop their writing and numeracy skills. The online medium seems like a great fit for those self-reliant males. However, we still need to ENGAGE them in the skill development process.

I attended a conference a couple of weeks ago,  Conference on Peer Educators, Nov. 7-9, 2014 at University of South Carolina, by National Resource Center First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.  Ever since the conference, my mind has been spinning. We recruit male and female undergraduate students to deliver our on-campus skills programming, and we’ve been fortunate to always have a mix.

–but I know we can do more….

Please share your challenges, strategies, and thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.

Margaret Groombridge

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Lead Designer, Academic-Zone and Coordinator Skills Instruction, A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

(1) Wimer, D. J., & Levant, R. F. (2011). The relation of masculinity and help-seeking style with the academic help-seeking behavior of college men. Journal Of Men’s Studies, 19 (3), 256-274.

Are you Ready for Fall Classes?

Are you ready for the first week of fall classes?
I’m looking forward to the students, the excitement, the energy, the traffic (well, maybe not the traffic). In Brock University A-Z Learning Services, we are preparing for our student staff training, student orientation activities, and at-risk student success programming.

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Brock University, Matheson Learning Commons

We’re also busy connecting with our Brock professors to plan support interventions. Here at Brock, students seek out our services (e.g., workshops and drop-in support). However, we also deliver skill development workshops in lectures and offer Academic-Zone online access, as requested by professors. Academic-Zone can be implemented immediately and provides professors with a means to assess and support students’ foundational writing, grammar, and numeracy skills. How? All modules have pre- and post-quizzes and corresponding learning modules. Professors tell us the module they want and the date for the quiz (often before course assignments). Then we give them an academic-zone access code for student registration. Students test online and can explore the modules at their own leisure—to prepare for the post-quiz or as a support resource when completing assignments. Students can also seek additional support through their professor, teaching assistant, or campus services.
Through Academic-Zone, we’ve built strong service and faculty partnerships.

     • Are you a professor who has implemented Academic-Zone in your course? What has been your experience? What are  your strategies?
     • Are you a student staff professional using Academic-Zone in your service or as a support resource for your faculty? What is your story? Do you feel that students benefit from these partnerships?
     • Not an Academic-Zone user? Share your own strategies, challenges, or successes as an instructor or service provider. How do you engage and support students?

Sharing implementation successes and challenges will help all of us in our work.

Margaret Groombridge

Feeling Unable to Learn

I highly recommend reading Maryellen Weimer’s “Feeling Unable to Learn” addition in Teaching Professor Blog.

Weimer shares her difficulty with technology and frustration when trying to learn a new email system–her frustration,  sense of isolation, embarrassment and lack of control.

Weimer’s experience speaks to my own personal experience as a mature student who returned to university in my 30s. I felt frustration, isolation, and insecurity, but I persevered. Why? Deep down, I  knew I would be successful. I believed that I could learn.

Day after day, I see students struggling to believe. Some have never been challenged. When they eventually are challenged, which often happens in first-year university, they may feel excited or devastated. They may avoid the challenge and stick with what they know. Students may be on the other end of the spectrum, never having experienced success. Many students, when they are successful, may not acknowledge the success and only focus on what they haven’t done or on others who are more successful.

Instilling or strengthening students’ belief that they can learn, that being uncomfortable means that they’re growing, and that learning may involve risk drives my teaching. I strive to help students acknowledge their successes, see learning as a courageous endeavour, and feel empowered in the process.

As one of the content developers of our online Academic-Zone modules, I wanted students to feel empowered by using the modules. I wanted students who were struggling with essay writing to have the language to talk about their strengths and weaknesses and to not be embarrassed to seek next steps (and hopefully to actually show someone their writing!). How often have we wanted to hide our essay at the bottom of the pile?

I welcome your comments! :)

Margaret Groombridge BA, BEd, MEd

Lead Designer, Academic-Zone

Assistant Manager, Brock Learning Services, Student Development Centre

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