Saturday, October 19, 2013

Study Tactics for Midterm Season

It is already midterm week, and half of the semester has already flown by. Not too long ago, I was a first year PhD student beginning my first classes, but it's so true that time goes by when we are having fun!  I really love being in school and being a student again after completing my masters degree over two years ago and spending a few years in what can be full-time drudgery. It is great to be back in academia.

But still, exams are a necessary annoyance.  No different from the undergrad experience, there are so many unknowns about how to study, how the test questions will be asked, how the questions and answers will be structured, whether to answer in enough or too much detail, how tough the professor will grade your answers, the subjectivity of the questions being asked the professor's expectations of the answers, and so on....

I am hoping and planning to do well on midterms and will share with you my study tactics. Some of these tactics depend on the type of test it is going to be.

In terms of grad schools, there are some great schools out there but are huge in student numbers. If you are attending a school where the classes have a high student to teacher ratio, seriously prioritize the focus on study groups.  Don't study on your own and have no backup if the lessons get tough.

Although I attend a smaller school, there are some general requirement classes with huge numbers of students. Unfortunately, this is the class where I have the in-class, multiple choice exam with an essay component.  These tests remind me of those horrible lower division "weeder" science classes I had to take in my undergrad years. In another class, I have the take-home exam. These are awesome and reduce the stress level of the work involved.  The third type of midterm I will receive this semester is the midterm written essay, to me the least stressful of these because I enjoy writing and researching.

Here are my study tips for midterm season:

Be sure to have a study (support) group.  This includes studying with a regular group of classmates, and networking with students who have been through this experience in the past. Ask people who have taken the class about the midterms, how they got through it and what they can tell you about it. Advice can be so golden.

Make sure the professor provides you with some sort of study guidance. Ask about the amount of time the test will take, some sample questions, how much time to focus on which topics, and how many questions/types of questions are on the test. Make time to go to office hours, ask for as much detail as you can get about the test.

Prepare and share study guides. Learning from classmates about what they think is important from the class provides you with a greater advantage of a broader perspective on the subject. How many times have I thought that something was not important while another student noticed it, and there it was, turning up on the exam.

Thoroughly review class lectures, worksheets, and tutorials. These are generally the best clue you are going to get about the structure, content, and style of questions that will be asked.

If you are assigned the midterm essay exam, get that peer-review! The reason to love the written essay exam is that you are pretty much able to seek advice, get editing guidance, and hear feedback on your work by the professor, a classmate, or a campus writing tutor. How helpful is that!

* If possible, find out what you can about the class before you enroll in it. We all have our preferences for which types of exams we prefer, and perhaps you can ask about these before you enroll in classes. If you have a broad range of course options and want to be successful in your studies, think about asking the professors and previous students of the class about this and decide if this is the kind of class where you will do well. When it comes to your GPA this is not the time to fail and try again. That transcript is going to be part of your academic career if you choose to become a professor or apply for postdocs, scholarships, or fellowships.

I wish you the best of success this midterm season!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Consider Your Goals!

Consider Your Goals!  (Lessons My Faculty Mentor Taught Me, Part 1)

I have a wonderful faculty mentor who was assigned to me when I was admitted into the PhD program. I think the school did an amazing job matching me to my mentor as we have many similar interests in the field, and he has shared information on excellent resources. I really appreciate his many years of knowledge and expertise and I appreciate the advice he has provided. At our first meeting, the lesson he provided was: Consider Your Goals.

Who do you want to be at the end of your program? Before beginning your degree program, take some time to write a list of who you want to be when your graduate program is complete. Completing an academic degree is exciting - it tends to expand your perspective and thought process, and can be life changing. Be sure to consider how you want to grow, and how to achieve your goals. Consider the following questions: 

1. What are the skills you wish to learn during your time as a student? 
Think about the possibilities of what you would like to learn - is it a new computer language, new methods of data analysis, or a new writing format? Are you planning to become a skilled public speaker or an expert at presenting at conferences? Do you wish to gain teaching experience as a student? Take this time to plan ahead. 

2. Who would you like to meet and learn from? Consider the subject you are interested in exploring within your field, and take the time to seek out faculty at your school or elsewhere. Get in contact by sending them an email about your research interests and asking to meet with them. These professors can become your future collaborators in research projects, and will likely provide you with significant new knowledge on research in the field.

3. What types of activities do you plan to participate in as a student? Are you interested in presenting at conferences, publishing articles, creating posters for conferences? Are you looking for a summer research institute?  Do you want to intern in the summer? Will you begin a campus club or research committee? Begin the process of seeking out these opportunities and planning for your submissions and applications. Be proactive in asking your mentor, faculty, colleagues or writing centers for assistance.

4. What will your career focus be when this degree is complete? I think this is such a fun question. Many students are afraid of this question or are just not sure. It takes time and a lot of exploration to determine your career interests and goals. Investigate current publications and research on fields which interest you, and search for related job openings. Could you see yourself working on this research topic or in the position for the next several years? Do you see demand or possibilities for growth in the field?  Consider researching the job market for the types of required research or skills, as if you were already on the search. Determine what you will need to achieve in order to qualify for these positions in the future. Matching your interests not only with existing disciplines, but also with market trends will be of huge benefit when your academic program is over and you begin competing in the academic and job marketplace. If you have a career center, it could be a good idea to make an appointment to learn about the current trends and existing positions that you can train yourself toward.

5. Finally, the question again: Who do you want to be at the end of your program? Imagine what your resume would look like 2-7 years from now as you complete your graduate degree. Search the online resumes and CVs of professors and professionals you admire for ideas and inspiration. Isn't this fun?

Planning ahead provides you with the opportunity to make sure you have accomplished all you had hoped for as a student, with less risk of looking back and wishing you had done or learned something during your time at the university. Looking at the job market to shape your plans will also be of benefit. Of course, over the years the plan may change as you develop your interests and learn about new resources. That will be the time to plan again! Best wishes in your adventures toward academic and career growth and transformation. Enjoy this time!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How to Set Up and Maximize Study Groups

As a first year student with a clean slate and a full list of required classes, the options for enrollment were pretty open. A few weeks before the semester, I selected and added the classes I planned to take.  I was attempting to set up a well- balanced schedule and to fit in all of my classes into a convenient schedule of classes one and a half days a week. There were also a couple of classes I was putting aside and hoping to delay until the last necessary minute, because of my own fears of how difficult they would be. 

However, after attending fall orientation and meeting some new friends there, we talked about the classes we were enrolled in, and I decided to change my schedule. Now having met students in a similar situation, I decided to join them in one of the classes I was dreading, with the agreement that we would struggle through the course together!

Several weeks now into the course, we have met several times and worked through the difficult assignments together, and have been available to meet at certain fixed times in the week with anyone who is able to meet that day. We are all learning together, and it is wonderful to know that when there are new concepts being taught in class that day, that we are not alone in this challenge. The intimidation I felt about the class has disappeared and what matters most is spending dedicated time to learning, and having a network to contact for help and support.

I have found that study groups are amazing. They're a great way to make friends with your classmates and to learn collectively and effectively. Also, being part of a study group makes the class more fun. Here are some suggestions on how to set up a study group and how to maximize your learning capabilities from this resource.

1. Plan to enroll in classes with other students you have already met and consider those who could be good study partners.  If you have met at a school event or are introduced through friends or faculty this is a great start. Suggest working together as a group with classmates who might be taking the same classes you need to complete.

2. Arrange a time to meet regularly on a weekly basis. Setting up this regular schedule will also help you with your time management skills as you set aside important study time each week. Use this time to ask any questions about the lesson, review what was discussed in class, and to go through homework as a group.

3. Find out where study rooms are located and reserve them when you can. Having a quiet study room space will help to keep the group focused on the assignment and to keep all students on the same "page" of the discussion. Check with your library or school faculty about group study room options.

4. Attend professor office hours together as a group when possible. This can help if your classmates may remember to ask questions you may have forgotten to ask, and also can help increase learning as different students remember different important points made about assignments.

5. Keep in touch with your study group network throughout the semester/term and plan to continue studying together in future classes. Once you have determined a great group of classmates to work with, keep this in mind when you enroll in any future classes that they may also need to take.

Being part of a study group, I feel like my learning has been more concentrated and more effective, and that I am more efficient with my time each week. Finally, spending additional time alone to study, to absorb the information, and  to successfully accomplish the assignments individually is what will ultimately be an indicator of how much was eventually learned at exam time! Best of success to you as you study with your group!