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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Strategies for Success in Online Courses

Hey Laurier Brantford,

With the new semester in full swing, I thought I would share what I learned last semester from taking half of my courses online. After all, I’ll be the first to admit that it is not as easy as it seems. Just because there are no physical lectures to attend, it does not mean it is less work.

Before deciding to take online courses you should definitely make sure that you are able to self-motivate. Not having to sit in a lecture might seem appealing, but make sure that you will actually set time aside to do the course lessons. For me, I found it best to schedule in a few hours a week that would be dedicated to each of my online courses. If you are having trouble doing so, one of our peer mentors is able to help you with this using our weekly schedule.

Once you are sure that you are able to handle an online course, I recommend that you have an established workspace. Having a designated and organized workspace will prove beneficial as the time you would usually spend sitting in a lecture will now be spent at your home (or wherever you chose to work). This will help in keeping you on track and avoiding distractions.

Next, you will have to familiarize yourself with MyLearningSpace in order to get the most out of your courses. From my experience, the most helpful feature on the site was the calendar. This is found by clicking on one of your courses and clicking “calendar” under the resources tab. Depending on whether or not your professor has made use of this feature, all of your assignments and due dates might be listed. If you prefer to have your due dates listed on paper, our term schedule template is available both online and at the centre.  I found that it is especially important to make note of your due dates for online classes as you will not be in a lecture receiving reminders as the dates come up.


Another important feature for online courses on MyLearningSpace is the discussion board. In my experience, this was used weekly in order to check for understanding and to promote discussion among classmates.  If you’re unsure of where to find this, simply click on the communication tab and then on “Discussions”. It is under the communication tab that you will also have access to a class list, be able to send an email, and see which classmates are in your discussion group.


In addition to the above, Dave Ellis (2011) has set out some helpful tips for online learning in his book “Becoming a Master Student” (p.169-170). The list of tips is as follows:

  • Do a trial run with technology—make sure that your computer and all of the programs you will need to access are working properly.
  • Develop a contingency plan—technology is notorious for crashing when you need it most.
  • Set up folders for easy reference—each of your classes should have their own folder on your computer for easy access to course work.
  • Take responsibility—when you are not in a classroom setting, it might be more difficult to commit to getting your work done. Be sure that you will be able to motivate yourself.
  • Prevent procrastination
    • Create to-do lists. Having a physical list of all that needs to be done can help you get motivated to start.
    • If needed, set up a reward system for finishing a task or a portion of an assignment
  • Focus your attention— try not to get distracted by social media and other websites.
  • Ask for feedback from your professor
  • Contact other students in the class

I hope these tips prove to be helpful. Remember, the Centre for Student Success is here to help you with all of your writing and study skills needs—this includes online courses.

Enjoy your semester,

Brittany Bartlett

Peer Mentor



Ellis, D. (2011). Online classes—Taking notes and using other review tools. In Becoming a Master Student. (pp. 169-170). Boston: Wadsworth.

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Handwritten Note-Taking and Technology

With the creation of the laptop, handwritten note-taking has slowly started to become less common. With laptops becoming more affordable, students have started to integrate them into their studying habits and routines. However, does newer always mean better?  In this post, I’ll take a look at the evidence to see why writing by hand is a more effective form of note taking.  But, in knowing that students are using computers for note taking, I will also discuss how students can bridge the gap between handwritten note-taking and the use of technology in the classroom.

An integral part of all note-taking is the idea of working memory. Working memory is defined as “the ability to temporarily hold and manipulate limited amounts of information” (Bui & Myerson, 2014, p. 13). The use of working memory is how students process information in lecture: we listen to the professor, think about what he or she says, and reshape the information into a context or wording we understand best. This raises the question: Is it better to take notes by hand or by using a laptop? As Stacy and Cain (2015) note, “Muller and Oppenheimer concluded that students who took notes on a laptop did not remember conceptual material as well as those who took handwritten notes…” (p. 2). This finding suggests that to retain concepts and theories at a more efficient level, handwritten notes are recommended.  Handwriting your notes allows you to actually synthesize the information, whereas trying to copy the words your professor is saying verbatim does not. To explain this, let us take a look at Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.

bloomsBloom’s Revised Taxonomy bases thinking skills on a spectrum. Higher skills on the spectrum are activities like creating and evaluating, and lower skills are remembering and understanding (Forehand, 2005). So, those of us who type notes may be good at remembering the material covered in lecture. We may be able to recall facts easily.  However, those of us who write notes by hand may be much better at understanding the material covered in lecture. We are able to process the information first and comprehend what the professor is saying, so we can then write it down in manageable chunks.  This leads to learning the material at a deeper level of understanding than merely relying on trying to capture the professor’s words verbatim as the professor says them.

Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California took on the task to further study the impact of laptop note-taking versus handwritten note-taking on students’ education. In three separate studies, Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) found that students who used the handwritten note-taking style outperformed their laptop-using counterparts when it came to conceptual-application questions. Conceptual-application questions are questions dealing with concepts and theories learned in lecture and how they can be applied in real world situations (i.e., the understanding and applying levels of Bloom’s).  In one of those three studies, it was also found that handwritten note-takers did better when faced with factual-recall questions, as compared to students taking notes with a laptop. Factual-recall questions are used to test your ability to remember certain bits of information (i.e., the remembering level of Bloom’s). The article goes as far as even stating: “The studies we report here show that laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments – or perhaps especially – when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking,” (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014, p. 8). The evidence shows that the use of laptops as note-taking machines is actually hindering our ability to learn and understand concepts. The staples we as students learn in university are theories and concepts, and with many of us using laptops to take notes, we may be actually hurting our own education and learning.

Now, before you start thinking that technology is terrible in the lecture halls and that we should all throw out our laptops, let’s get into the ways where we can use technology to our advantage in the classroom. Technology can be a great thing; it provides us with large amounts of storage in one convenient location, it allows us access to the internet where we can learn more about the subjects we are studying, and it allows us to share and collaborate on our work. I’ve given some thought to ways that we can get the benefits of handwritten note-taking while keeping our notes stored in a convenient place and having them remain easily accessible. Here are a few ideas:


laptopTablets are one of the most convenient forms of portable technology currently available. They are light, small, and usually as fast as the average laptop. However, when it comes to the purpose of education, they have an added bonus that most laptops do not have: they have a touchscreen display. This allows the user to interact with the tablet without a keyboard. If you get a stylus and a note-taking application, you can take your notes by hand, reaping the learning benefits, while being able to store your notes in a convenient and easily accessible place.

Rocketbook Wave Smart Notebook

notepadThis is one of the more interesting designs for a notebook. The Rocketbook Wave is a notebook that allows you to scan your notes directly onto cloud services like Google Drive or Evernote using a smartphone. The notebook uses little symbols located on the bottom of the page that you can set up to go to specific locations.

As well, if you want to improve the longevity of this notebook, use erasable pens. Erasable pens’ ink is removed by heat, so the wonderful people who designed this made the notebook microwave safe so that you can stick it in the microwave (with a mug on top of the notebook) and completely clear your notebook of notes.

LiveScribe Echo Smartpen

smartpenThe LiveScribe Echo Smartpen is a pen that records what you write as you write it.  It comes with internal storage, enabling it to record thousands of pages of notes. Those notes can then be transferred onto your computer via USB. This allows you to take your notes in class and then store them on your computer without typing out your notes or scanning them.




Whether you are taking notes by hand, using a laptop, or using some of the other options listed above, note-taking can still be difficult for some students. If you feel that you would like to improve your note-taking skills or want to learn a different way of note-taking, feel free to book a study skills appointment at the Centre for Student Success here. We are always here to help, and we look forward to seeing you!



Peer Mentor

Works Consulted

Bui, D.C. & Myerson, J. (2014). The role of working memory abilities in lecture note-taking. Learning and Individual Differences, 33, 12-22.

Forehand, M. (2005). Bloom’s taxonomy: Original and revised. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved November 29, 2016, from

Mueller, P.A. & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014).  The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science: 1-10. doi: 10.1177/0956797614524581

Stacy, E.M. & Cain, J. (2015). Note-taking and handouts in the digital age. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 79 (7), 1-6.

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