Brainstorm Like There’s No Tomorrow


Assignment planning is no easy task. It is often very difficult to get started, and even harder to organize the tornado of ideas spiraling in your mind. From decoding the assignment’s requirements to organizing paragraph order, starting the writing process can be a long and arduous task. This is why brainstorming plays a pivotal role in pre-writing. Writers beginning an assignment are much like storm-chasers; storm-chasers would never enter the eye of the storm without adequately preparing themselves for the weather they are about to encounter. Similarly, writers prepare themselves when starting assignments by equipping themselves with ideas and information pertinent to the task. As a result, writers start effectively organizing their ideas by bunkering down for the incoming brainstorm.

I Storm, You Storm, We All Storm for Brainstorms!

Finnbogason and Valleau (2006) describe brainstorming as a free association activity that allows writers to organize their thoughts on the subject of the writing assignment, as well as organize a proposed structure for the assignment (p. 7). However, not all people brainstorm in the same linear way. When writers give themselves free space to creatively think about their topic and develop ideas, it could eventually lead to the synthesis of a thesis, main points and the structure for body paragraphs. The following are examples of different formats and styles of brainstorming that might benefit you when equipping yourself before heading into the eye of the essay storm!

  1. Good Ol’ Fashioned Lists

Lists are no longer monopolized by groceries and buckets! Quickly jotting down ideas is an efficient way to record bursts of thought. Without focussing on the order or specificity of what is being written down, lists are fast and effective (Finnbogason & Valleau, 2006, p. 7). For example:

What are the causes of high incarceration rates among males ages 18- 25 in Canada?
1. Lack of educational opportunity
2. Low income
3. Criminalized in the youth courts
4. Insufficient government programs for this age group
5. High rates of violent crimes
  1. Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is visual representation of the writer’s thoughts. By organizing them in a compartmentalized and structured way, it allows the writer to physically see the connections between different thoughts (Finnbogason & Valleau, 2006, p. 7). Mind maps do not always follow a specific format; instead they are merely a way for you to see how different ideas can associate within a topic. Mind mapping can often benefit the brainstorming of a thesis or main points for an essay. As seen in this example, the writer came up with four different themes that directly connect with the topic he/she is brainstorming. As well, the writer came up with three additional subtopics that are similar to the main topic, but are not as closely associated. This helped produce both a relevant research question and a specific thesis. Mind Map

  1. Free Writing ktpng

Free writing is explained by Finnbogason and Valleau (2006) as a method of brainstorming where a person takes a short period of time to write out their thoughts (7). This allows the writer’s feelings on the topic and natural voice to emerge. Setting about five minutes of time aside to continuously write out thoughts on a specific topic fosters spontaneous and creative bursts of writing. Often people who consider themselves to be deep revisers, meaning they prefer to write out their essay without planning out the structure beforehand, find this method to suit their writing style.

  1. Branching Out

According to Finnbogason and Valleau (2006), branching is a variation of mind mapping. The difference between these two types of brainstorming is that branching is a more linear way of developing ideas, whereas mind mapping tends to be less methodical and more sporadic (8). Branching begins in a similar fashion to mind mapping, where you start with the topic in the middle of the page. Next, you would create as many main branches as there are main ideas that emerge from the topic. Connecting to the main branches would be any supporting points that are contingent on the main point (Finnbogason & Valleau, 2006, p. 8). Branching gives the writer a more concise visualization of how the different parts of a topic relate to one another. It also provides a visual reference of the topic, and a clear understanding if there are any gaps in between the thesis and the main points where more research is necessary.

Branching Out

Altogether, putting thoughts on a page can often be daunting and difficult to start. Using different types of brainstorming activities and selecting the style that best suits your writing style best will only help the writing process. You better prepare yourself; I think there is a brainstorm brewing!

All the best,

Erin McHarge

Summer Intern


Finnbogason, J., & Valleau, A. (2006). A Canadian writer’s guide (3rd ed.). Toronto:          Thomson Nelson.

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Study Now! An Effective Way to Successfully Learn

Too often students find themselves only days away from a midterm or final exam and just starting to review notes from class. Sometimes we are even guilty of cramming for a test or staying awake the entire night before. Creating unnecessary distress and despair before walking into the exam room is the last thing any student needs. If only there was a better way!

The good news is that studying does not have to boring, stressful or even all too difficult. By developing positive work habits that aim to transfer information into long-term memory and improve our understanding, studying can be a positive lifestyle change. Consistent studying using simple review tactics listed below or your own effective study method, will contribute to less stress, reaffirm what was recently learned in class, as well as help to develop a deeper understanding of course material.

  1. Active Review is Your New Best Friend

Study Now! Pic 1Fleet, Goodchild & Zajchowski (2006) explain that reviewing notes after class reinforces the information in a person’s long-term memory (57). Finding regular time, approximately fifteen to twenty minutes, within twenty-four hours after a lecture to go over your notes will make a vast difference in the comprehension and recollection of what was learned. To make this reviewing extra effective, challenge yourself to put your phone down for that window of time and resist the temptation to log onto social media sites. The most important element to this studying technique is the intention to remember the information. Langan (2002) asserts that deciding to remember something not only signifies your willingness to effectively learn, but it provides motivation to get through a small study session (211).

  1. Test Yo’ Self- For a Deeper Understanding

Study Now! Pic 2Develop your own questions from lectures and readings to develop a deep comprehension and application of knowledge. After using active review, develop some questions that ask about the main concepts from the lecture or readings. Try to come up with questions that push you to not only show that you understand, but that you can also apply a concept or analyze the information.  Both summarizing and expanding upon important ideas in an answer demonstrates that you really grasp the concepts discussed in class. As an added bonus, these questions will prepare you for any assignments or tests relating to that topic! (Fleet, Goodchild & Zajchowski, 2006, 57).  You can read our previous blog entry for more information about creating a deeper understanding with Bloom’s taxonomy.

  1. Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Meeting with friends or acquaintances from your class to discuss lecture material is a positive way to review information (Fleet, Goodchild & Zajchowski, 2006, 57). Working in a productive group setting elicits conversation about the lecture or readings which can provide clarification for any ambiguous parts of the material. As well, conversation between peers creates an opportunity for different people to explain their unique perspecStudy Now! Pic 3tives of the information, which you can compare with your own conceptualization or understanding. This allows for an engaging and interesting way to review ideas and their implications. Grab a coffee, settle down, and spend time with your friends evaluating the week’s lecture. If you would like to learn more about group studying, read up on our blog entry to learn more about its benefits.

  1. Rehearsal is Key, Rehearsal is Key, Rehearsal is Key

Be sure to continually test yourself and review material throughout the semester to fully commit the information to your long-term memory. Rehearsal is when a person uses information over and over again, spanning across a period of time, as a way of remembering and learning. This is not only a way to recall information, but it helps you build upon the foundational knowledge you previously learned with newer and more intricate information (Langan, 2002, 212). Several kinds of memory techniques, such as using senses or focussing on key words contribute towards a deeper and more personalized recollection of the information you have previously learned. Using the senses as a strategy, such as writing out the information, drawing an associated symbol or picture, or even speaking the information aloud are proven to be more effective than just reading over the information silently (Langan, 2002, 213). Any time we make our review strategies active instead of passive, we benefit from improved learning.  Key words, or hooks, help you remember ideas by associating them with a central word that is representative of the overall concept. For instance, see the chart below for an example of a key words exercise you can use in your own notes (Langan, 2002, 214).

  Uses for Plants in an Urban Environment Key Words
1. Gives off oxygen (and pleasant smell) Oxygen
2. Absorbs air pollution (gases used as nutrients) Pollution
3. Cools the air (evaporation from leaves) Cools
4. Catches dust particles Dust
5. Muffles noises (from traffic or construction) Muffles

You can avoid future stress by starting to study now! If you would like to discuss study strategies further, we are available for individual consultations at the Centre for Student Success. You can book an appointment here at the Brantford campus through the student portal. We are here to help!

Erin McHarge

Summer Intern



Fleet, J., Goodchild, F., & Zajchowski, R. (2006). Learning for Success: Effective                                    Strategies  for Students (4th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson.

Langan, John. (2002). Reading and Study Skills (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Higher                  Education

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How to Participate Effectively in Seminar Discussions

Perhaps for you, the prospect of distilling your thoughts on the article or chapter you just read into a coherent comment during a seminar is highly daunting. Or perhaps for you, this process of “thinking aloud” is a natural part of unpacking the ideas and confirming your understanding. Either way, it’s likely that you will one day find yourself being evaluated by a professor or a TA on your “participation” in a seminar.


Here are a few tips to help you participate to the max and maximize that participation grade:

Do the readings – Okay, this is an obvious one. In order to participate in the seminar discussion, you need to understand and be able to explain the perspectives of the authors. While you’re reading, keep an eye out for good conversation starters or ideas that jump out to you as interesting discussion topics (Fleet, Goodchild & Zajchowski, 1999). Perhaps you notice a concept that you find to be related to or in contrast to ideas in previous readings. Making connections between theorists is a sure way to make your seminar presentation meaningful and gain participation points!

Engage the other students – While you may be tempted to address your comment or question to the professor or TA, remember that there are others in the room! Asking questions that engage other students will help the professor or TA to see that you thoroughly understood the content of the reading and are interested in expanding your knowledge of the subject area. Plus, it just makes things more interesting for everybody.

Don’t speak too much! – Maybe you’re really excited about the topic; maybe you feel like you totally “got” the author and want to tell the world. Those are great feelings, and hopefully will come across to your audience through your comments. Just don’t go overboard! Remember to leave space for others to speak, and keep in mind that some people need a few seconds to ponder a question or concept before they speak, and that’s okay.

Listen actively to the conversation – You might think that getting a good participation mark is about how much talking you do. Yes, your comments are important, but in order to stay connected to the conversation, you also need to really listen. It’s important that your comment is connected to the ongoing conversation and doesn’t “come out of left field.” Plus, your fellow students may have found things in the readings that will be helpful for you, too.

If you would like to further discuss how to effectively participate in seminar discussion, or would like help with planning your presentation, don’t forget that you can book an appointment with the Centre for Student Success on the Brantford Campus through the student portal. We’re here to help!

Graduate Peer Mentor

Work Cited

Fleet, J., Goodchild, F., & Zajchowski, R. (1999). Learning for Success: Effective Strategies for Students. Scarborough, ON: Nelson Thompson Learning.

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Successfully Scheduling and Planning Your Course Readings


For university students, planners and schedules are everything. They keep us on track and let us know what we need to be doing in order to complete assignments or papers. In one study, researchers discovered that undergraduate students that completed a workshop on time management skills made better marks, reported lower levels of stress and felt they had more control over their time (Häfner, Stock & Oberst, 2014, p. 89). But one aspect of academic work that seems immune to scheduling is readings. With all of this in mind, I’ve compiled some examples of different ways to organize your readings this semester.

Here at the Centre for Student Success, we offer a handout that works as a checklist and a schedule for keeping track of readings. While this is a great resource, for some students the layout of this reading schedule can be overwhelming, difficult to read, or is just not a good fit.

Sticky Note Tabs

This is the method that I personally use to keep track of my own readings. Using mini sticky notes, I write which chapters/pages need to be read, and the date of the classes they need to be done for on each tab. That way, when I open my book to read, I know exactly how much needs to be done and when it needs to be completed by. I also use sticky flags that are colour coded to mark any chapters/topics that may be important for assignments or exams. I’ve also found this method to be helpful when it comes to studying for exams, because I can see exactly what readings go with my notes from lectures. Below is an example of sticky notes in my BF190 course pack this semester.


Excel Spreadsheet

This is a really comprehensive way to keep track of readings while sticking to a checklist format. It is great for organization because you can create a different sheet for each class while keeping them all in the same document. This method is also completely customizable for each class that you have because you create your own layout. For example, if you have more than one textbook for a class, you can put in two “reading” columns. Below you can see a mock schedule that can help with visualizing how to make an Excel reading schedule for yourself.




Plotting Readings in a Planner

Having a planner can be useful for managing not only your personal life, but also your school life. If you have a student planner like the ones in the bookstore, it might already have a column for assignments and readings. If you have a regular planner though, you can create sections in the week pages specifically for readings, and colour code them so it is clear which class each one is for. This is a good way to see everything that needs to be done for the week.

In my example below, I put in when I work that week, some assignments and tests that are due, and created a separate section for my readings for the week. I can see what needs to be done for my classes that week, as well as when I will have free time to read before the class.


There are a ton of different ways to fit reading into your everyday study schedule. There are other options available through a simple Google search as well, if you would like some more options. Don’t forget to use active reading strategies, like noting for gist, to get the most out of your textbooks. You can also use Bloom’s Taxonomy to ensure that you have the best understanding of your course materials, which can also help with getting better marks on exams.

Happy scheduling!


Peer Mentor



Häfner, A., Stock, A., & Oberst, V. (2014). Decreasing students’ stress through time management training: An intervention study. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 30 (1), 81-94. doi: 10.1007/s10212-014-0229-2.

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Overcoming the Fear and Anxiety Around Presentations

Anxiety. Intimidation. Fear. Pressure. Panic. All of these emotions are often used by students to characterize the attitudes they have towards presentations, but I am here to tell you that presentations do not have to be this way! Public speaking and giving presentations can be great opportunities to practice skills such as communicating with larger groups, gaining confidence speaking to groups, practicing summarization, and many, many more! It takes a lot of practice to become an expert public speaker but by implanting some of the following tips, I know that you will be well on your way!

It is useful for students to know that having a reasonable amount of nervousness or anxiety before giving a presentation is completely common; thus, students should use these feelings as validation that their presentation is important to them (Gardner, Jewler, & Robb, 1995, p. 121). Additionally, students should know that their peers and their professor want them to succeed and to do well, so if they put in the effort and try their best, the audience will appreciate it (Hay, Bochner, Dungey, & Perret, 2012, p. 276).

Another thing that can decrease anxiety and bring success to a presentation experience is rehearsal! According to Gardner et al. (1995), “[the] best way to reduce your fears is to prepare and rehearse thoroughly” (p. 121). So practicing their presentation like a dress rehearsal, with appropriate time limits, pauses and so on kept in mind, should allow students to feel more comfortable about giving their presentation when the time comes!

A daunting aspect of presentations for many students is the question and answer period. This induces stress for students because of the unpredictability of how exactly the question and answer session will go. Although there is no way to prepare one hundred percent for these sessions, as we cannot predict exactly each question that will be asked, there are ways to get ready so that we can feel as prepared as possible for these question periods.

The following are two strategies you can use to help prepare for audience questions:

  • Brainstorm potential questions that you think may be asked by your audience. Then, you can try to think of the possible answers that you can give to these questions.
  • When you are rehearsing, you can have a friend sit in on your presentation. Then, you can ask your friend to ask you a couple of questions once you are done presenting. This way, you are able to practice responding to authentic audience questions.

Overall, students should know that it is okay to be unaware of the answer to an audience question; like Hay et al. (2012) say, “[if] you don’t know the answer to a question, say so” (p. 280). It is better to be honest with your audience than to pretend that you know the answer and then give them the wrong information.

The following are some quick tips for public speaking that you can use to feel more confident in giving presentations:

  • Do your best to be confident and enthusiastic in front of your audience as you are presenting. Ways that you can do this is to look, and be, interested in the material you are presenting, and to make an effort to engage your audience (Hay et al., 2012, p. 276). The way that you speak will influence your ability to do these things so it is helpful to “project your voice” and to “[vary] your volume, tone of voice, and pace of presentation” (Hay et al., 2012, p. 277). These are all strategies that should help you to engage your audience.
  • Your body language is another important factor that can determine the success of your presentation. As a speaker, you should try to avoid “distracting behaviours” such as fiddling with something in your hands, or “…swaying, and pacing back and forth…” across the room (Hay et al., 2012, p. 277). These nervous habits can be distracting for your audience and can take away from the effectiveness of your presentation. Additionally, presenters should maintain eye contact with their audience members as well as face the audience throughout the entire presentation (Hay et al., 2012, p. 277). A good way to know if you have any bad habits while presenting is to look out for them when you rehearse. Not only will you be able to identify them but you will also be able to practice avoiding them!
  • One way to gauge how your presentation is being received is to take note of the way that your audience is reacting to your presentation (Hay et al., 2012, p. 277). So, if it appears that the audience is not catching onto a concept that you are explaining, try re-explaining the material in a different way to heighten their understanding (Hay et al., 2012, p. 277). Prepare for situations like this by practicing different ways to explain concepts when you rehearse your presentation. Additionally, try to “[direct] your attention to the less attentive members of the audience” (Hay et al., 2012, p. 277). According to Hay et al. (2012), it makes more sense to direct your talk towards those who seem less engaged in order to capture their attention instead of focusing on the individuals who are already interested.
  • Another good tip to keep in mind is to “keep to your time limit” when giving a talk (Hay et al., 2012, p. 278). For many students, time requirements are a stressful factor of giving presentations. They are often worried about going over their time or not having enough material. Again, rehearsal will help students to ease these anxieties; by rehearsing the presentation several times beforehand, you can become aware of the estimated length of your presentation.

I hope that in reading this you have learned a new strategy for how you plan to approach presentations in order to reduce presentation anxiety in the future. However, if you are still a little wary or want to talk more about presentations, you can book an appointment with a peer mentor at the Centre for Student Success to talk more about presentation strategies. We are also starting our Presenting with Confidence workshop series on Monday, February 27th. Register online!



Hay, I., Bochner, D., Dungey, C., & Perret, N. (2012). Making the grade: A guide to study and success (Canadian ed.). Canada: Oxford University Press.  

Gardner, J.N., Jewler, A.J., & Robb, A. (1995). Your first year experience: Success strategies for Canadian students. Ontario: Nelson Canada.  




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