General Learning Advice from Peers

Learn from some of Western's best students. Consider the following strategies for academic success from senior student volunteers in the PAL Centre.

For more strategies from high achieving students, drop by the PAL Centre during hours of operation and speak with a student volunteer.

Listen carefully in lecture

Listening and understanding the lecture is something that many students forget to do. Mere memorization of facts isn't enough for success. Understanding the main concepts and key points of the lecture is the key to doing well.

Kevin, 2nd year Honors Specialization, Medical Sciences

Engage in same-day review of lecture notes

Read the class notes after lecture. This reinforces the new information freshly retained in your mind. It makes studying later easier too.

Payam, 4th year Physiology

Preparing for lectures

Previewing lectures beforehand is a great way to familiarize yourself with the material so that you can stay engaged during class.  If you have taken some time to learn parts of the content already, class time can be a time for review, clarifying concepts that you haven’t fully worked out on your own and further consolidation of concepts into your memory.

Jialin, 4th year, Medical Sciences

Manage time wisely

Use an agenda/planner or online organizer.  This helps you ensure that you won’t miss an important assignment or exam.  There are many different varieties of planners, for example, you can organize your daily to-do list based on task priority or time of day.  Online planners can also be synced between all of your devices for easy access.  Since the layout makes it so easy to visualize all of your future events, planners are also really useful in helping you remember prior commitments when making new plans.

Prioritize tasks.  Based on the importance of all of your tasks, be sure to focus your energy on and complete your highly prioritized tasks first.  Although it may be overwhelming to see a huge task list or to begin certain tasks, working through them is a beneficial way to help relieve some stress.  Breaking down big tasks into smaller chunks (with their own individual time lines or due dates) can also help you make steady progress.

Jialin, 4th year, Medical Sciences

Being a university student can feel overwhelming at times; balancing classes with part-time jobs, extra-curriculars, volunteering, etc. while maintaining a social life can be challenging. For this reason, I recommend using an agenda to keep your schedule organized. Personally, I use a paper agenda to keep myself organized but a calendar on your personal device works too. Each day I write down what I plan to get done hour by hour. That way I know what classes I have to go to, when I need to volunteer, what time I have to work at, and what I plan to do during my free time. These free time blocks can be very useful to schedule time to study, finish assignments, meal prep, or even schedule valuable break times to hang out with friends or go to the gym.

This method of time management works for me, however, weekly and monthly schedules also offer the benefits of seeing the big picture. For instance, making a weekly to-do list is great for prioritizing your tasks for the week and it's so satisfying to cross items off that list once they are completed. Also, having a monthly schedule allows me to see when final exams and project deadlines are coming up so I can budget my time accordingly while planning ahead. If you've never used a schedule before it can be daunting the first time. I recommend trying out different methods of and tools for managing your time, and find out what works best for you. If you need further assistance, come to the PAL Centre and we can teach you how to create your own schedule.

Andrea, MEng, MME - Engineering in Medicine

Keep caught up with readings

For reading-heavy courses, do not fall behind in readings. You will have to play catch-up the entire year if you do.

Payam, 4th year Physiology

Make connections between concepts

When reviewing notes always reflect back after finishing a major concept. This allows you to connect and understand concepts better. When reflecting, think about the big picture and how previous knowledge interacts with the latest lecture.

Kevin, 2nd year Honors Specialization, Medical Sciences

Explain concepts out loud

When studying, instead of just reading over the material, pretend that you are explaining the information to someone else/giving the lecture.

  • This engages you and causes you to actually think about the material.
  • It reveals areas that you don't have a solid understanding of that need to be reviewed.
  • This might make it easier to find connections to other topics.

Sameer, 3rd year Medical Sciences, Honors Specialization Physiology

Identifying and addressing trouble spots

It’s important to keep an organized record of your errors. Every time you make a mistake (on practice problems, assignments, exams, etc.), record it by writing down:

  1. What is the mistake?
  2. What type of mistake is it?  Was it because of...
    • not understanding the underlying concept?
    • a gap in your knowledge?
    • not catching a mistake while proofreading?
    • making a calculator mistake?
    • not feeling well?
    • etc.
  3. How do you correct the mistake?
    • What is the correct solution/approach?

This gives you a detailed record of concepts, definitions, processes, etc., for you to focus on as part of your preparation for the exam.

Jialin, 2nd year Medical Sciences

Do practice exams/problems

Don’t save all of your practice tests/exams till the last minute!! Doing practice tests early is an effective way to evaluate your areas of strength and weakness. Use this information to prioritize the material you’re studying.

Brian, 2nd year Medical Sciences

When doing practice problems, try to write them in as close to a test like environment as possible. This means no food breaks, Facebook, calling friends, etc. This will allow you to get the most out of your practice questions and better prepare you for the real thing.

Zaheed, 3rd year Medical Sciences

Predict test questions

Anticipate possible exam questions by altering specific details in processes and pathways and determine how that change would affect the system as a whole. This is an effective way of testing your understanding (examples: Physics - increase temperature of a gas; Physiology - blood pressure drops; Chemistry - pH decreases).

Sameer, 3rd year Medical Sciences, Honors Specialization Physiology

Preparing for exams - general

Know about your exam! Is it multiple-choice? Short/long answer? Tailor your studying and memory work to suit the format of the exam questions.

Calvin, 4th year Medical Sciences

When preparing for exams, visualization can be a powerful tool. Simulate the exam setting to the best of your ability. Take note of your physical environment, your posture, your emotions and your thoughts. If you pretend that several practice exams or study sessions are the real exam, you can mould your behaviour for the exam i.e. you can train yourself to focus all of your energy on writing the exam, rather than being distracted by stray thoughts or by your surroundings.

Jialin, 2nd year Medical Sciences

Preparing for exams - multiple-choice

  • In courses that are content-heavy, when studying, associate appropriate key words and concepts with one another so that one word in a multiple-choice question will hopefully trigger the rest of the words to pop up in your head.
  • In courses with questions involving math/equations, the incorrect options often represent values you’d arrive at if you made a mistake in one of the steps. Double-check your numbers, equations, arithmetic and algebra!

Calvin, 4th year Medical Sciences

Preparing for exams - short answer

In short answer (e.g. fill in the blanks, 1-2 sentences) questions, you’ll typically be able to rely on word association and trigger words to aid with recall and in providing an answer, so your study strategies should be similar to those you use for a multiple-choice exam. Provide concise answers!

Calvin, 4th year Medical Sciences

Preparing for exams - long answer

You won’t have the luxury of relying on trigger words to help guide your thinking. These exams typically require less attention to minute details but more knowledge of the bigger picture. Use mind-maps to help you study and connect broad ideas that may show up on an exam. During the exam, plan out your paragraphs (in your head or on rough paper) before you start writing. These exams will typically take you the full length of time allotted, so you’ll want to write nonstop once you start!

Calvin, 4th year Medical Sciences

Reflecting on your exams

After you have written an exam, it’s helpful to record some post-exam reflections. Rather than focussing solely on the questions asked, take note of the whole experience. For example:

  • Did anything in your surroundings distract you while you were writing the exam?
  • How effective were your test-taking strategies?
  • How did you feel throughout the exam?

Being aware of the factors influencing your exam performance is the first step towards improving your experience and performance. As a next step, you could discuss ways of improving your performance with a peer in the Learning Help Centre (website).

Jialin, 2nd year Medical Sciences

Take breaks

Use the Campus Recreation Center to take a break from studying. Getting up and being active, even for a short period of time, is much more effective than watching Netflix or TV because exercise activates your mind and wakes you up, not to mention all of the other health benefits you're receiving too!

Lianna, 3rd year Health Studies

Power naps are very useful if times are hectic, and you feel refreshed afterwards. Do not nap beyond 30 minutes, or if it's past 7 pm.

Payam, 4th year Physiology

Maintain focus

It can be draining to sit in the same cubicle for the entire day, so refresh your mind by switching to another location at some point. Don’t switch too often though, because your mind gets engaged in the material faster if you have a few consistent study spaces.

Jialin, 2nd year Medical Sciences

Sleep at least 7 hours a night

All-nighters never work, even if you're a nighthawk. Sleep consolidates memories.

Payam, 4th year Physiology

Use available resources

As an undergraduate, I wish I had taken advantage of my TAs' and professors' office hours when preparing a paper.

Julia, PhD candidate, History