University ate my homework

How to make it through your first year in one academic piece

Erik Akaoka, ArtSci ’07 and a former TA, says TAs can bridge the gap between students and professors.
Erik Akaoka, ArtSci ’07 and a former TA, says TAs can bridge the gap between students and professors.

Learning to deal with a new academic system can be one of the hardest transitions from high school to university, but most of the people seeking out academic advice are upper years.

Linda Williams is co-ordinator of the Learning Strategies Development team, which teaches learning and study skills while helping students gain confidence in their abilities.

Usually Williams sees more upper-year students than first years, most of whom don’t know they’re having difficulties until they get marks from mid-term exams.

“Often students don’t know that what they’re doing won’t be effective,” she said. “That’s the big difference between first year and upper year.” she said.

Almost all the students who visit Williams for help say they wish they had come earlier.

“One of the challenges is that they have come to Queen’s full of excitement and ambition and feeling confident that they can do this, they can just do fine at university, and they can,” she said. “But the challenge is that … university is not the same as high school.” Often, skills from high school need to be fine tuned in university, and many first year students feel alone during their adjustment.

“I guess the message that I want to deliver to first-year students is you’re not the only one,” she said. “It’s not the same situation. And so you’ve got to do something different, and that’s where we come in.”

The team offers group workshops, individual consultations with counsellors in the learning commons at Stauffer Library, counselling sessions with learning strategists from counselling services at the LaSalle Building and peer mentoring, where students are matched one-on-one with an upper-year student.

“What we do is support students. We try to help them be the best that they can be academically,” Williams said.

Students often find the learning environment in university to be less personal than in high school because of the lecture-style classes and heavily weighted exams.

“One of the big tips would be to encourage students to go to class even though they’re big and even though the notes are available on the web,” Williams said. “You learn a lot in the lecture about what excites the professor. It’s the professor that makes material come alive.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that, like everything, marks are relative, said Ian Chin-Sang, a fourth-year biology professor and an academic advisor in the biology department.

“One high school might give out 90s; another high school might only give a similar student a 75,” he said.

In university, students should focus on their ranking in a course rather than the mark itself.

“There are some courses that are notorious for having failures or very low marks, like organic chemistry. But if that person who’s used to getting 90s or perfect … if they’re getting 85 or they’re the top student in the class, then they’re doing well,” he said.

One of the major differences Chin-Sang notices between first-year and upper-year students is that most first-years aren’t focused on a certain area.

“That’s perfectly normal at that stage,” he said, adding that some first-year classes are so large students feel overwhelmed and avoid asking their professors questions.

“I think what a student might feel is they don’t have that one-on-one relationship where you can put up your hand and ask questions,” he said.

In upper years, however, the setting again begins to resemble high school. Chin-Sang’s fourth-year molecular biology class has 35 students, all of whom are required to ask at least one question during a lecture in order to get full marks.

“I encourage my students to always ask questions, because usually if they ask a question there’s somebody thinking the same thing,” he said.

Chin-Sang said most professors are open to students approaching them after lecture or outside of class to ask questions. They often have designated office hours when they’re available for discussions with students.

“It’s always good to contact the prof by e-mail or by phone and leave a message to set up a time to meet,” he said, adding that because professors are busy, booking an appointment is important.

He said once students realize their professors and teaching assistants are only human, it becomes easier to approach them.

“Once you get over that, we’re not as intimidating as some people might think we are.”

Erik Akaoka, ArtSci ’07, was a teaching assistant (TA) in the linguistics department last year.

He said although some students worry about university coming out of high school, he thinks it’s more of a nurturing environment.

“They assume that you’re there because you want to be there and you want to learn, so the University has all these resources available to students to help them when they need it.” TAs like Akaoka are one of those resources—part of what he called, “a big peer-support atmosphere” at Queen’s.

“TAs kind of bridge the gap between students and profs,” he said, adding that they’re younger, more accessible and often easier to talk to, acting as the first line of defence before professors.

As a TA, Akaoka attended classes and was available at the end of class to answer quick questions. He also worked with the other TAs and the professor to decide on marking schemes and mark tests and assignments. By far, though, what he enjoyed most about being a TA was the tutorials.

“Between classes, each of the TAs held an open tutorial, where students could feel free to come in and ask questions and hear examples of problems from the class,” he said.

“They gave me a chance to get to know some of the students, and to actively help them get a better understanding of the material,” he said, adding that he did what he could to present topics in a more personal manner.

He has received feedback from students telling him that he helped them out in tutorials.

“Of course, I can only really help those who come to me for help, but I’m confident that I and the other TAs provided a valuable service to the students in general.”

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.