Continuing Success

Second Year

Too much focus on grades can be detrimental, but it is simply misinformation to believe that they are unimportant.  Grades are a low-level metric used to filter applicants to graduate schools or potential recipients of scholarships and summer jobs.  

More importantly in the present, grades on assessments are a checkpoint for students on their level of conceptual mastery.  An 80% is obviously a satisfactory grade, but it still means that there were concepts (often the mastery level concepts that instructors seem to love to test you on at the end of the course) that you have not yet mastered.

In the absence of other factors, instructors will generally default to your grades when asked to serve as a reference – more to come on this!

Grades - End of Semester 3

Average Status
90+ Doing great – keep it up!
85-89 Strong start – well done!
80-84 Depending on your goals, some adjustments in your approach could be helpful (e.g. minimum eligibility for NSERC USRAs)
75-79 Depending on your goals, some adjustments in your approach could be critical (e.g. minimum eligibility for graduate school)
Less than 70 TROUBLE ZONE – you will definitely struggle in subsequent courses without a new approach to your studies

Please note in the chart above that your options and opportunities become severely restricted when your average falls below 75%.  For students below 70%, history tells us that they will struggle in 3rd and 4th years of their physics major without intervention.


Reflect. - A critical step to learning is reflection on your past experiences – without this, you are at risk of repeating the same mistakes of your past!  The end of Semester 3 is a perfect time to reflect on how your degree is going.  Be honest with yourself – this only works if you acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses.  

Stop getting in your own way. – just have fun and enjoy science.  Dare to be nerdy.  Ask questions, even if you are worried about what others might think.  Participate in the physics club.  If you aren’t having fun, you are doing it wrong.  For far too many of our recent students, they get to 3rd and 4th year and don’t seem to be open to having fun.  With the right mindset, you can find enjoyable things in every course.  

Be an engaged learner. - Come to class prepared; it is always easier to understand a concept the second time! Participate!

  • Many, if not most, professors and university instructors consider themselves guides first and foremost, not teachers – the days of cramming information into unwilling heads end with high school graduation!
  • Professors are there to facilitate YOUR learning of the material and to help guide you to the most important points – do NOT fall into the trap of treating lectures as your sole source of learning!  Your textbook is invaluable, and the internet increasingly provides a large number of alternative viewpoints on a given subject (although you should be careful).
  • Lectures only work if students are motivated and prepared!

Own YOUR learning. - Review course concepts frequently. Work example problems independently, ensuring that you arrive at your own solutions. Deliberate practice makes…better.

  • Even 10-15 minutes of review per course per day can go MILES towards improving your performance at the end.  This helps you convert information to long-term memory where it is more easily accessed during an exam.
  • “I understand everything you do in class, but I don’t even know how to start a problem on an assignment or exam.”  - This means you didn’t actually understand everything I did in class.  Instead, it demonstrates that you understand how to read.  Don’t fall into the trap of believing that seeing somebody else work a problem can substitute your own effort.  You must internalize those tools and concepts, and that only happens when you practice and practice some more.
  • Practice.  Practice some more.  Mastered it?  Good – practice now to do things quicker, because assessments typically include a time constraint.  We automatically assume that professional athletes, musicians, and artists spent countless hours (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour hypothesis) honing their craft.  While the notion isn’t quite so black & white, there is a good correlation between excellence and practice.    
  • Teach somebody else – if you must work in groups, do so in a way that enhances your learning.  Explaining a concept (not a solution!) requires a deeper level of mastery; you will never understand a concept better than when you have tried teaching it to somebody else.

Study effectively, not more. - Don’t try to cram more study hours into your day. Your brain can only handle so much. Be efficient with few hours of intense study that you have – group studying can be ineffective.

  • Figure out which of your study habits is working and which are not.  Some people crave group studying, but this is often very inefficient for most people because of the constant distractions and interruptions to your focus.
  • Group studying is effective when you are nearly done, but you should work alone in the early stages to get as far as possible in your work independently.  When you finally resolve the roadblock to understanding, the knowledge will “stick” more effectively because you were thinking about it for so long.

Don't be a panic zombie. - Avoid lurching from crisis to crisis – try to spend a bit of time on every course each day!

  • University is BUSY – balancing courses, social life, exercise, personal time, etc. is challenging.  Academically, the most common mistake I see (so common that everybody in this room will do it!) is that students focus exclusively on the most impending deadlines to the exclusion of their other courses.  This ensures that those other courses reach a crisis point, necessitating that you solely focus on them in turn.  The result is an endless cycle of panic and anxiety.
  • Break the cycle – budget your daily time so that you are spending even a little time on every course each day.  Whether it is simply reading over and thinking about an assignment question, reading part of a chapter in your assigned reading for the next class, or looking up some resources from that seemingly far-away term project, you can get a LOT done in 30 minutes.  Save the big blocks of time for the urgent course, but stay on top of everything to avoid reaching your boiling point.

Be awesome. - Master your very marketable skills: coding, mathematics, communication, ability to focus, critical thinking, problem solving, etc. These skills will give you the toolset you need to excel academically and, more importantly, secure a satisfying career.

  • In this age of digital distraction, individuals with ability to maintain productive intense focus are increasingly rare.  Taking steps to develop this skill will improve your ability to excel in cognitively difficult tasks (physics certainly qualifies, but so do marketable tasks like computer coding or mathematical modeling).  
  • By its very nature, physics provides students with critical thinking and problem solving skills that other disciplines have to force into their curricula.  Don’t waste the advantage you have acquired by pursuing a physics degree!
  • We have intentionally added more opportunities for physics majors to develop their communication skills (technical and non-technical writing, presentations, critical reading and synthesis of arguments using the existing literature) – take advantage of this as strong communication skills are at a premium in pretty much every career discipline.

Deal with Adversity. - "Our greatest glory is, not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." - Oliver Goldsmith, 1762. "I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work."- attributed to Thomas Edison

  • Failure is a term loaded in negativity, but it shouldn’t be.  Embrace your academic failures to become a stronger student. Failure is how we test and ultimately expand our limits.  Failure is a diagnostic tool that we can use to change unsuccessful behaviours.
  • Think of a figure skater – you can be content doing a half-rotation jump for your whole life, and you will probably land them 99.9% of the time.  Olympians are looking to do quadruple-rotation jumps, and they might only land them 50% of the time.  

It's okay to go offline. - University students tackle complicated subject matter, and your learning will required your undivided attention!

  • Most of you will send and/or receive texts during lectures.  You will definitely do it while studying.  Social media is ubiquitous, and has provided a lot of positives.  Increasingly, however, we are now recognizing that there are significant detriments associated with social media.  Call this apocryphal if you must, but anecdotal observation of students over the past 5-10 years has demonstrated a decreasing ability to focus and avoid distractions.  Students are Snapchatting and DMing their way to academic disappointment and mental health issues.
  • If you cannot bear to give it up altogether (having done so myself, I haven’t missed it at all), BUDGET your social media time each day.  Outside of those (preferably few) windows, fanatically protect your productivity time.

Attend office hours. - We want to help!  Make use of the opportunity for one-on-one time with your instructors.

  • Be prepared – bring specific questions with you!
  • Be ready to work – most university instructors will NOT simply answer your questions!  It is far more common for them to try to steer you towards your own answers.  Don’t show up without a pen and paper, or you may find yourself working on a whiteboard/chalkboard in front of the instructor.
  • Remember:  there is no better tutor than the person instructing the course and writing your exams!  Office hours are heavily underused, and it is a source of frustration for many instructors (particularly in first year).