Personal Experiences in University I

Tags: mathematics, education, statistics, programming

Posted: June 2, 2016 by William Kong
Last Modified: June 5, 2016

For many people growing up in an academically tempered family, the transition from high school to university is often seen as a necessity to success and where effort is seen as all that is needed to achieve success. While there is some truth to this, too often though this way of thinking is overly idealistic and ignores many other study dynamics in university. In this blog post, I hope to share some of my opinions on study habits in university. As you read, please note that some of my points I make are solely based on my personal experiences at one university (University of Waterloo) and only within a specific department (Mathematics).

As students begin the first year of university, they will most likely (there are some exceptions) be faced with one of two experiences: (1) an over-the-top arrogance stemming from exceptionally high grades in the early semesters of university or (2) a sense of growing incompetence and despair over their lackluster performance in a few difficult courses. In the former case, these students often will reach a point in their undergraduate career where their natural abilities are no longer sufficient to support their egos and will either opt to select less demanding courses to maintain their GPAs or choose to taking ‘shortcuts’ to achieve ‘success’. In the latter case, however, students will either remove themselves from the field altogether or will cling to taking as many ‘bird courses’ (courses where it is easy to achieve a high grade but not necessarily learn anything useful) as possible to survive. In the long run, choosing such easy routes can make your life harder, not easier.

The best way to avoid these ego-inflating or self-pitying habits that I have found, though, is to genuinely take an interest what matters to you and to subtly remove yourself from what does not. This means that rather than surround yourself with friends who are only there to inflate your ego, find people who are more talented than yourself. They should know more about that one subject that you always wanted to learn than you do, be able to carry conversations that you can learn from, and can generally throw ideas off of. You should always make a vested interest in making friends who you can both teach as well as learn from them in return.

It also means that the courses that you take should be those that will expand your core knowledge base. Do not take courses because they are easy. Take them because they are interesting. Do not be afraid to fail at times because the sooner you deal with the rarely felt emotion that you may call failure, the faster you can get back to building better habits and finding ways to succeed. Personally, as an undergraduate, I failed two midterms and at least a couple of assignments in my early years. Sure, I felt disappointed afterwards but it did not stop me from finishing the courses or choosing to select more difficult courses in the same series later on. I felt that learning was the most important goal for me at the time rather than contemplating whether or not I should have selected an easier variant of the same course. This ideology eventually allowed me to perform far better in my senior year compared to my lackluster performance in my freshman and sophomore years.

For courses which are mandatory to your program, but provide very little additional gain to your core knowledge base, you should still make an effort to learn the high level concepts of the course and aim to have enough mastery to be conversationally fluent in them, but you should not commit to completely memorizing to every single fact needed to get that 100% in the course. Such approaches only leave you with shallow knowledge in the end which is far more damaging than learning nothing at all. If you are to learn something of only minor importance, either learn it at a comfortable but correct level or don’t bother with it at all.

Now while the ideas behind this may sound easy to execute, there are many dynamics found in studying in university which may make it difficult to follow. The most common of which is procrastination, followed by plagiarism. For the former I always found it helpful to imagine the deadline for the assignment or project to be 2-3 days (or ~1-2 week for PMATH/Adv. MATH courses) earlier and working my schedule around that. If this does not work, another approach would be to gather other like-minded people (there will also be at least some) and work together starting at an agreed time. The latter approach was how I managed to survive some of my terms where I needed to complete 6 courses, rather than the standard 5 for most people.

It should also be emphasized that working together does not also mean writing the same answer together. Because maths is one of the few subjects where creativity as well as the ability to create logical and structured thought is a must, it is unlikely that two people working on the same problem will produce the exact same method to solve it in the exact same sequence of steps. In fact, as a teaching assistant, this was how I could tell which students were copying from each other and it was especially effective when it was the case that several students had the exact same wrong answer with the exact same sequence of wrong steps. If you are working in a group, toss around a few ideas, concepts, or paths to try but do not outline the exact steps to solve the problem. It is far more beneficial for you and the group to individually solve the problems yourself and compare answers and methods when everyone is done.

Just as important as it is to learn from others, it can be beneficial to teach others as well. Not only does re-stating difficult concepts in maths to your peers help re-enforce your core understanding, it can also help with identifying flaws in your thinking which may not be obvious at first. You can also use this method as a great study tool. Try to explain the maths concepts to yourself as if you were teaching a class. How would you outline them? How would you make the more obscure theorems more transparent? Which points can be easily derived from points derived earlier on? All of these trains of thought will definitely work towards improving how your brain connects the various branching regions of knowledge in your head. I know that I would not have done so well in my senior courses without this technique.

Other than the above, plenty of the usual advice from university preparation seminars or from your high school teacher will still hold which includes, but is not limited to, the following: (1) Keep your notes concise and dated. (2) Attend office hours. Talk to your professors. (3) Don’t be afraid to speak up in lectures. That stupid question you want to ask? Yeah, probably 1/2 of the class has the same question.

All in all, while doing well in university on paper is important to some degree, always remember that your journey should not stop at graduation. Graduation should be the end of your practice. Before graduation you should build solid ideals so that you will be able to keep your steadfast mentality against whatever life throws at you, not just against assignments, tests, or essays.


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