10 Ways to Avoid Falling Behind at University

Posted by Deea Deb on September 17, 2021

Academic Success

With many things happening at university in the first few weeks, it can be very easy to fall behind on academics. While Frosh Week, meeting new people, exploring the campus and the city is essential to a wholesome university experience, these things can sometimes take centre stage. To help you enjoy your time and keep up with coursework, this #YUBlog post provides you with 10 ways to avoid falling behind at university.

Organize your time

Screenshot of a Google calendar week

If you are new to planning, check out our post on Everything You Need to Know Before Buying a Planner!

This is the first thing that you should do at the beginning of every term. Organizing your time means getting a planner or calendar and adding in all your deadlines, exams and class schedules. Don’t forget to also add any time-bound co-curricular activities and personal commitments that you may have, too! Refer to your course syllabus and schedule times to study and complete readings. This will help you create a routine and keep you accountable. It will also show you how much time you have left to do other things.

Success tip: If I have similar tasks, I batch them together. For example, if I have to read an article and complete some discussion posts on it, I will batch these tasks together and do them one after the other.

Set simple, achievable goals

Most of you may have heard about setting SMART goals. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. For example:

“Complete assignment 1” is not a SMART goal.

“Complete assignment 1 outline by 3:00 p.m. tomorrow” is a SMART goal. It breaks down assignment 1 into smaller tasks and defines a time by which you need to do it.

Success tip: While you can set targets like “Get an A+ in History of Astronomy” or “Maintain an 8.5 GPA”, creating a roadmap to how you will achieve this target is a better idea. Break this goal into smaller tasks that you can do each day to reach your final goal.

It may sound daunting in the beginning, but this is a one-time activity. Once you have created this roadmap, all you need to do is follow the steps! If you need more help with creating roadmaps, Atomic Habits by James Clear is a great book to refer to!

Complete readings before class

Your instructors will likely not check if you have done your readings before every lecture. However, doing them beforehand helps you easily understand lecture slides, figure out key concepts and themes and take effective notes. This is better than going to a lecture without any background on the topic.

Although you may not need them before lectures, you should definitely have them done before tutorials. Doing your readings before tutorials is essential because you are expected to participate in discussions and answer questions. The TAs will most likely put you in a spot. So, it’s a good idea to be prepared!

Having said that, it does not mean that if you haven’t had the time to do the readings, you should skip class.

Attend all classes (in-person or online)

As a Peer Mentor, I often get asked if it is okay to skip class and my response is always “No”. Skipping a single lecture in university can set you back an entire week. You would then have to request your classmates to share their notes, and if they are willing to do so, you have to understand the material based on someone else’s understanding of the topic. If your classmates’ notes are not what you hoped for, you will have to do additional research and take notes again! This can be quite time-consuming. (You could be hanging out with your friends instead!)

However, it is okay to take time off if you are unwell or having a bad mental health day. Let your instructors know about your situation and get help. York’s Student Counselling, Health and Well-being has a ton of free resources including one-on-one counselling if you need to speak to a professional.

Take your own notes and keep them organized!

Collage of a folder system on a laptop and a notebook with subject tabs

Don’t forget to add tabs to your notebook separating your subjects!

Everyone takes notes in a manner that helps them learn. Everyone learns differently. I prefer to write notes that look like mind maps. This method may be completely useless to you. You may want to take notes in full paragraphs or bullet points. Therefore, it is better that you attend classes and take notes the way you want to. Having done the readings in advance also helps the notetaking process as you are able to add your own thoughts to it.

Keeping your notes—digital or physical—organized will help you immensely during exam time. If you keep your notes on a laptop or tablet, make sure that you create relevant folders for each of your courses. You could also divide the folders into sections according to your lecture schedule. If you are using physical notebooks, differentiate your courses properly so that your notes don’t get mixed up.

Although I’ve switched to digital notes this term, I was previously using notebooks. I found the three- or five-subject notebooks to be very handy. I could divide them into my courses and always have my study material with me.

Success tip: It is not enough to just take notes. You also have to go back and read them frequently to ensure that you remember everything. According to the Curve of Forgetting, it is a great practice to read your class notes within 48 hours of taking them down to help with retention.

Go to instructor office hours

All instructors are currently holding virtual office hours. In case your instructor doesn’t have a specific day or time listed as office hours, feel free to email them to book an appointment with them. You can use this time to get your doubts clear, ask questions, network with them and get feedback on your assignment drafts.

Start working on assignments ahead of time

I don’t know who made all-nighters popular, but it does nothing to help you! A good night’s sleep will not only give you the rest you need but also energize you for the next day—especially if you have early morning classes or need to complete a bunch of assignments.

Also, it is never fun to start an assignment the night before the deadline and pull an all-nighter to complete it. Not only is this super stressful, but it often results in bad grades. Don’t put yourself through this last-minute stress. Give yourself enough time to work on essays and take your time to study the material, especially if it is a research paper!

Success tip: If you are new to this and not sure about how early you should begin working on assignments, I usually start working on research and taking notes as soon as I receive the instructions. This works really well for me because I don’t like rushing my work.

Consult the Writing Centre on assignments in advance

The Writing Centre instructors are a great resource to brainstorm ideas with or get feedback on your drafts. However, don’t go to them at the last minute when you don’t have much time to implement the changes that they suggest. Give yourself enough time to edit. You can book multiple consultations with Writing Centre instructors for the same assignment!

Try to work every day

Working a little bit every day prevents things from piling up. Some days will definitely be more intense than others, but as long as you get a few things done each day, you should stay on track. Try to check a few things off over the weekends too! That is a great way to reduce your workload over the week.

Doing something every day will also keep you in rhythm and prevent you from getting into a slump. Having said that, it is also important to not overwork yourself.

Take regular breaks, but not when you are in the groove

If you are laser-focused while working, kudos to you! If not, taking regular breaks can help you stay motivated throughout the day. This is called the Pomodoro technique. Create a to-do list of all the things you would like to get done (be realistic). Now set a timer for 25 minutes and focus on a single task until the timer rings. Take a five-minute break. Do this four times and then take a 15–30-minute break.

However, if you get into the groove of working on a task and the timer rings before you’re done, continue working. Don’t break the flow of your work until you complete the task.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, reach out for help. Check out Student Counselling, Health and Well-being‘ s free resources including one-on-one counselling if you need to speak to a professional. If that’s not something you want, talking to your friends and family can also be helpful.

Let us know in the comments below what you do to stay on track!

To stay up to date on campus life and events, connect with York on social media. You can follow us on Facebook @YorkUStudents, Twitter @YorkUStudents, Instagram @studentlifeyu and with our weekly This Week @ York emails.

Deea Deb
Deea Deb

Deea Deb is a third-year English and Professional Writing major at York University. She loves reading, travelling, being organized, and writing. She hopes to help York students succeed at university.

See other posts by Deea Deb