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Tips from Peer Advisors at the Academic Resource Center

Solving Everyday Academic Dilemmas

Note:  This page of advice is a work in progress. We will be adding ideas to this document regularly, so check back soon for more Tips from Peer Advisors.  November 2019.

1.  I don’t have time to finish in-class essay exam questions. I’ve barely begun when time is up. It’s not fair.

When I have to write quickly, I have found that the best strategy is to create an outline. I am a horrible outliner, and I hardly ever do it when I am writing non-timed essays. However, as I was preparing to take the GRE--which has two thirty-minute timed responses--I had to learn quickly the best way to tackle this issue. The best thing you can do is to calculate how much time how much time you have to devote to your outline and pre-writing and then go from there. First, I have to analyze the prompt and make sure I understand exactly what is being asked of me. Second, I move on to how I plan to answer this prompt. Even if I don’t have a clearly formed idea, I write down anything and everything that comes to mind. Third, I take this pre-writing and make a rough plan of how I want my ideas to flow and then BAM--we’re off to the races. In-class essay exam questions are difficult, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Realize the limitations of what is being asked of you and then understand that you can still write a wonderful response in the time allotted. Pre-write, prepare an outline, write everything up, and then edit your response to the best of your ability. Learning to write quickly and effectively takes time! —MS

I find that the best way to knock out in class essay questions in time it to first write down the keywords that I know I will need to use as they pertain to the prompt. Then, once I have four or five key words (or maybe two or three depending on the depth of the prompt) I just start writing and try to incorporate the keywords into my answer along with definitions. An outline can be useful, but I have found that oftentimes when I am crunched for time, writing out an outline can take up time that I could use writing. The best way to prepare for essay questions is to have a good understanding of course terms and concepts. This way you have the ability to incorporate these into your answer and the professor will know that you have a grasp of the course material. —RS

With a pen in hand, I ask myself what three or four main points I need to make to answer the essay question. I jot these down fast (1, 2, 3, 4), and then decide on the best order. I’ve learned to begin timed essays with the briefest of introductions so that I have time to explain each point fully and give an example or two. When I start a new paragraph, I skip a line so that my answer will be more readable and my main points will be right there in plain sight at the start of each new paragraph. (MM)

2.  I’ve started a research project but I can’t get myself to work on it. The topic is awful. Well, the topic is ok, but I have absolutely nothing to say about it. So the whole thing is stupid.

Not every research project you do in college is going to be the most interesting thing you have ever done. A good way to get started and stay motivated is to reward yourself for benchmarks as you work through the research project. This is something I have found useful. For example, when you are starting out and gathering resources, you might allow yourself to watch an episode of your favorite show after you find/read/annotate two sources. Once you start the writing process or whatever the project entails you might space out your writing/work over multiple days and at night allow yourself to do something fun like going to a movie. This way you can feel accomplished after each benchmark you set and before you know it the project is finished. — RS

I completely agree with the idea of rewarding yourself along the way on the small victories! If you start early, and do the project in pieces, the research won’t seem as daunting. I also suggest trying to do as much reading as possible at the start of your work. Once you’re more familiar with the material, it will be easier to write about it, grapple with various opinions on the topic, and create your thesis argument. You can also visit the Help Desk in the library or make an appointment with a librarian who will be able to help you find great sources and help you with citations. They can help you navigate our databases, narrow your search, and feel more prepared to begin the research. I’ve also learned that it helps me to start a research paper by creating an outline and pulling important quotes I want to include in my project. This can help organize everything in one spot before you start analyzing the material. - EK

Sometimes simply talking to someone helps. Amazingly, the person you’re talking to may start asking questions, and may show a nice glimmer of interest in what you’re doing. As you try to explain your topic, you find that it’s more complicated and thought-provoking than you’d imagined. And new questions occur to you. As this happens, write down your thoughts and run to the library to find what you need, with the help of a reference librarian. Take notes in a special notebook. -- MM

3. Every time I take a multiple-choice test in Psych I freeze. When I choose an answer, I choose wrong, even though I always prepare thoroughly for the tests.

When you start to feel anxious during the test, take a moment and breath deeply a few times. While doing this, remind yourself that you have prepared well for this exam and you are going to do well. Positive self talk is a great strategy in these situations. In your head say things like “Ryan is going to nail this test!” This is a good way to re-focus on the task at hand and get your mind right. — RS

Take each question one at a time, and make sure you read each option slowly so you don’t rush through your choices too quickly. Use process of elimination and cross off the answers you know for sure aren’t correct. This can help you narrow down a few options before deciding what you think is the best answer. Make an educated guess based on the material you’ve studied, but also go with your gut extinct. I’ve found that a lot of times, when I go back to a question and second guess myself, I often change my answer to the wrong answer. Be confident that you did the work and are prepared for the test. Also, don’t be afraid to do work in the margins of the test or on scrap paper. Work through each question thoroughly. Reread a question if it’s unclear at first, and if you get too overwhelmed, circle a question and come back to it later. -- EK

Multiple choice in my opinion is one of the trickiest formats for test taking. The struggle that students have with this type of test is that there is no room for error because no partial credit is given. However, one must see the bright side of this test is that the answer is right in front of you. When in a panic, stop what they are doing and take a deep breath, relax and reassure yourself you can do this. The way to attack this type of test is to take it one question at a time by covering up everything else but the question you are on. I also cover up the answer choices given to me to see if I can recall the answer through memory instead of relying on the answers given to you. Use the multiple choice answers as a last resort. Cross out the answers that do not make sense and make an educated guess. If you get stuck on a question, save it till the end and move on to your next question so you do not run out of time. Also focusing one question can overwhelm a person, so it's always refreshing and reassuring when you see a new question especially one you know the answer to. -- DC

4.  I studied really, really hard for the test, but the professor’s questions had nothing to do with the textbook.

In most classes one test will not determine your overall grade. This is a great opportunity to meet with the teacher and go over the test with them one on one. DePauw is great in this respect. Most professors are very willing to meet and discuss how you studied for the test and help you find better ways to study next time. It is also important to remember that most classes do not rely only on the textbook, many teachers put a large emphasis on lectures and class activities on exams. Make sure to review all of the materials the professor provides when studying for exams. — RS

Look over your class notes. The professor probably did describe the type of questions likely to be on the test. If your notes are too sparse, take fuller notes. And go to office hours before the test if you want to make sure you prepare efficiently. -- MM

5.  Can you help me read faster?

Reading faster takes time. I am an incredibly slow reader, which is very frustrating at times. The best way that I have found to improve my reading speed is to just read a lot more. It is hard at first to read slow and you think you’ll never get faster but the more you read the faster you will get. It is like anything else, practice is key. — RS

I am not a fast reader either, oftentimes I have to reread a whole page over and over again because I either zoned out or didn’t comprehend what I just read. However, I have learned to stop after each paragraph to paraphrase/annotate the text. You can do this after each paragraph, page, or chapter of the content you are reading, whatever works best. This will keep you focused on what you are reading. While this may seem like it will add more time, it eliminates the possibility that you will have to go back to reread something because you spaced out, didn’t understand, etc. -- LE

Reading slowly is better than reading fast. So if you’re a slow, steady reader, rejoice. Enjoy the reading. Make notes in the margin. Take your time. Sometimes it’s a matter of getting used to the vocabulary used in a specific field of study. Once you catch on to key terms, the reading gets easier. -- MM

6.  I am having a hard time staying focused or engaged during class or when working on a project.  Do you have any suggestions?

The first step is to acknowledge that you’re drifting and losing focus. One way to work on this is by asking lots of questions and taking lots of notes to insure that you’re paying attention to what the professor is saying. Try using a pencil and a notebook instead of your laptop. I have a hard time taking notes on my laptop because I always end up checking my email or working on other homework, which is a sure way to lose focus. -- ON

One of my friends is an extremely visual learner and has a hard time studying from her regular notes. An alternative she found was to draw pictures that helped her remember the material. I think it’s important to find out your learning style and use this to find a study method that works best for you! -- ON

Decide at the start of class that you’re going to hold a contest. You’re looking for the most interesting point that the professor or a fellow student will make during the hour. You’ll also award two runner-up prizes. Take notes in class (of course), and then mark the best ones with little symbols. Have some fun with this. -- MM