Student Success Strategies: Coping with Class during Covid

As colleges have closed and we have transitioned to distance learning, many students are faced with the task of completing class assignments largely on their own. For students who didn’t sign up for online classes, independent learning can be stressful and difficult. English Composition classes can be especially challenging, as much of the vocabulary is new to Freshmen, and the writing assignments – policy proposals, research papers, analysis essays – are much longer and more complicated than perhaps they were in high school. Take a deep breath and read on for some tips on how to complete your class assignments and make it to the finish line.

Keep a Schedule

“If you do not conquer self, you will be conquered by self.” – Napoleon Hill

Get out your academic calendar and write down “appointments” for every online class meeting. But don’t stop there. The academic rule of thumb is that for every credit class hour, you should spend 2-3 hours of outside study. If your professor has reduced the class meeting times because you’re now in class on ZOOM, that doesn’t mean the (normally) 2-3 hours weekly class is now only 30 minutes. Keep to the original schedule; if your English Comp class was to meet twice a week for a weekly total of 3 hours, schedule out an additional 6-9 hours of study/writing time. This is the MINIMUM amount of time students should devote to college-level coursework; for many of us, the current distractions could necessitate additional hours of study.

Stick to a Routine

“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

It’s essential during these times of crisis to have a regular routine. Trying to navigate life right now without some kind of regular routine is like trying to run a marathon without regular training. Not gonna happen.

Establish a daily routine. Wake up at the same time, get dressed, go to bed at the same time, eat at least 3 meals a day, exercise, and maintain relationships. Once your basic needs are met, you’ll have more space – mental, emotional, and physical – to meet life’s other demands, including college coursework.

Check your syllabus to see when your professor holds virtual office hours. Pencil those hours into your academic calendar so you’ll have access to your instructor when you need it if questions or problems arise. If your instructor has offered the option of recorded classes, try your best to virtually attend the live class meeting, as you’ll have the benefit of immediate chat or breakout sessions. These live sessions can also be a great way to keep up our social interactions with our classmates.

Break School Work into Smaller Chunks

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” –Confucius

A long research paper takes time, but try to avoid sitting in front of the computer screen for hours on end. Schedule in break time to get outside and take in some fresh air and give your brain a break. Instead of scouring library databases for hours collecting sources, schedule a research session for one hour and take a break. Try creating an outline of your research assignment, and break each point in the outline into smaller chunks of actual work time.

Alternate between doing coursework and listening to music. Research has shown that listening to music can help improve cognitive performance, but listening to your favorite music before you have an especially stressful or challenging assignment or exam will also improve your emotional state (The Benefits of Studying with Music).

We’re All in this Together

“If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.” – Buddha

If you find yourself struggling with an assignment, don’t delay in reaching out to your classmates or instructor. If you have a question, I guarantee a classmate has the same question, but might be too embarrassed or intimidated to ask. Consider starting your own virtual study group. It’s not only a great way to keep up with classes, but also a great way to keep up social connections and prevent isolation fatigue.  

If you find yourself falling behind, keep putting in the effort. In our current academic environment, professors really do appreciate the effort, and the last thing anyone wants is their students to drop or disappear. If your institution offers a virtual writing center, make an appointment with a writing consultant for assistance.

Also, consider that instructors might be struggling too. This might be the first time they’ve taught online, and many professors are just trying to figure things out as they go. They might have let some of the lessons drop that could have made your assignment easier to understand. By speaking up and posing questions, you’re not only helping your classmates, but you’re helping your instructor navigate this new academic territory we’re all finding ourselves in.

Final Thoughts

Reach out, make connections, and keep showing up. The antidote for worry is action. Take action, even if the action is imperfect. Finish the assignment, even if it’s not your best work. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, and you’ll be one step close to that final goal.

Simple Steps to Organize an Argument Essay

You’ve created a strong thesis statement, you’ve compiled your research, you may have even written your intro, but where do you go from here? Are you stumped about how exactly to put all of this information together?

Organizing a long research paper can be a daunting task, but fear not! Read on for a quick and easy way to lay out your argument essay. This organization method is only one option, and your instructor may have a preferred method, but if you are lost, this is a great road map to get you unstuck.

Start with Your Thesis

To begin, you’ll need to write down your thesis statement.

Thesis: The US should implement a cross-country high-speed rail system.

Now you have to answer the big question: Why should the US implement a cross-country high-speed rail system?

Reasoning out an Argument

Answering this question in a series of what we’ll refer to as “because clauses,” will fill out the body of your paper. These will be the reasons why your audience should support your position. Let’s pick three strong reasons, and list them here:

Thesis: The US should implement a cross-country high-speed rail system because. . .

Because Clause #1: because a rail system will greatly reduce highway congestion, resulting in lower automobile fatalities.

Because Clause #2: because a rail system will serve the poor population who cannot afford the cost of owning and maintaining a car.

Because Clause #3: because a national rail system will greatly reduce automobile emissions and be more environmentally friendly.

As you can see, each because clause smoothly follows the thesis statement. You should be able to combine the thesis with each because clause in one succinct, logical sentence. These three (or four) reasons or because clauses, as well as the information and research you include to support these reasons, will constitute the majority of your paper.

Once you decide on what your reasons will be and what research you’ll use to support each reason, you’ll simply begin to lay them out after your introduction. Organize your paper by following your reasons, keeping each “because” reason in its own paragraph/s. In other words, don’t talk about information related to because clause #1 in the paragraph for because clause #3.

Simple, right?

Think of the body of your essay as a train; each rail car is lined up one after the other, holding its own separate contents. Just as the engineer wouldn’t want to mix the rail car full of coal with a car full of apples, you don’t want to mix the information in your clauses.

Including Opposition and Rebuttal

After you have given all of your reasons, now you’ll need to include a section (one or more paragraphs) of opposition and rebuttal. Below, we have included two different oppositions.

Opposition #1 (followed by rebuttal): Many opponents against a high-speed rail system believe the monetary costs outweigh the benefits.

Opposition #2 (followed by rebuttal): The cost of high-speed rail tickets will be unaffordable for the low-income population it hopes to attract.

These opposition points are developed depending on the audience you’re hoping to persuade. The length of your paper will usually dictate how many different oppositional points (with accompanying rebuttal) you will need. For our purposes, we are placing the opposition after the reasons have all been argued, but it is also acceptable to place a direct opposition immediately after each reason, if the opposition directly argues against the specific reason. Above, Opposition #2 directly relates to Because Cause #2, and could be placed directly after.

It’s a good idea to outline your argument before you begin writing. If you’re not into numerical outlines, just draw a box for every paragraph or section, and label each box with what’s going inside, like this:

You can get as detailed as you want, including what research goes where.

To break down the body section, for instance, it might look something like this:

Once you’ve determined your reasoning, you can easily arrange and rearrange as needed. After outlining the Intro, Body, and Opposition, all that’s left is the concluding thoughts.

Easy, right?

Final Thoughts

Organizing a longer argument essay takes some time and forethought. Remember to keep the coal with the coal, and the apples with the apples! With a little work on the front end, you’ll be on track for focused and well-organized essay.

Productive Writing: 5 questions to help manage your writing project

When starting a writing assignment, sometimes we have more questions than answers, such as

What topic should I choose?
How can I get all my jumbled thoughts to make sense?
How can these jumbled thoughts ever result in a successful essay?

Beginning writing without spending any time in the initial planning stages is a recipe for failure. Careful planning is vital before any action can be taken. In the world of business, this is referred to as Project Management.

According to business writer and coach, David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, our minds go through five steps to accomplish any task:

  1. Defining purpose
  2. Outcome visioning
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Organizing
  5. Identifying next action

Our minds work in mysterious ways, but sometimes our minds become overwhelmed if we try to mentally juggle too many tasks. Instead of trying to mentally multitask a huge project like an essay assignment, take it one step at a time.

Before you ever begin developing an outline for your paper, you’ll need to answer a few key questions.

What is my purpose?

If the purpose of writing is to satisfy a class assignment, what is the assignment? What are the guidelines and requirements? What type of topic can best satisfy those requirements?

This is merely common sense. Don’t get caught up in worrisome details. Think about the “why” behind your reasons for writing. Knowing the why will help clarify your focus and make the rest of the decision-making process easier.

If you decide your purpose is to write a policy proposal on a current issue in your community, then knowing that will guide your choice of topic.

What outcome do I envision?

Having a clear vision provides the blueprint for your paper. Do you want to argue in favor or in opposition to a controversial issue? Do you want to propose changes to current laws, policies, or procedures? The vision is the “what” instead of the “why.”

Take some time here to imagine what you want the final paper to communicate. What arguments or points do you want to make? What message do you hope readers take away? What changes in thought or policy do you hope readers will consider?

For example, you might envision readers will agree that spending more in the city budget to increase the number of bike lanes in your town will save money in the long run by reducing road maintenance, traffic, and accidents. That is the outcome that you envision.


 “If you’re waiting to have a good idea before you have any ideas, you won’t have many.” — David Allen

Now that you know your purpose and where you’re going, you’ll need to capture ideas of how to get there. Following the why and the what comes the how.

Brainstorming has lots of terms – mind-mapping, clustering, spider webbing – but they all basically mean the same thing. They are all ways to organize our thoughts. Once you’ve defined your purpose and vision, your brain will automatically begin to create thoughts and ideas, but if you don’t have any method of capturing those ideas, you will either lose them – or won’t have any. Psychologists call this “distributed cognition,” or the need to get all the stuff out of our heads and into objective, reviewable formats, such as a mind map, cluster, or even a Post-It note.

“The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas.” Linus Pauling

The most important thing to keep in mind is to not judge your thoughts as you have them. You are going for quantity, not quality. You might naturally analyze them, such as, “Here’s what might not work with that idea,” which is good. You’re beginning to critically think about your project. But don’t let your critical side overtake your creative side yet. Just give all your ideas a chance at this stage and analyze their usefulness later.


Now you know the why, what, and how. Once you’ve emptied all the clutter in your head, your mind will naturally begin to organize those thoughts. You’ll think in relationship to sequences and priorities. What are the essential components for the final paper? Which of the brainstorming ideas will best support my argument?

Organizing is a matter of identifying the significant pieces, then sorting by

  • Components
  • Sequences
  • Priorities

In relation to an argument paper, what are the major components needed to reach your vision? This will most likely be the major points of argument that will support your thesis or reasons why your policy proposal should be implemented.

For example, the policy proposal, increasing spending in the city budget to increase the number of bike lanes in your town will save money in the long run, will require the components of argument points, such as

  • reducing road maintenance
  • reducing traffic
  • reducing automobile accidents

Other components might include the opposition’s side, outside research, and a call to action.

The sequences are the natural progression of the paper. How should you order the ideas – which should come first, second, and last? How will you organize the paper to best present the information for a logical flow? Should you introduce the opposition for each point, or should it come after the points are fully laid out?

Finally, what are the priorities, or essential information that must be included? What must you do first to meet these objectives? For example, once you determine your topic and brainstorm ideas, you might need to gather information from research, data or statistics. Consider what is your next step, and what steps should follow, prioritizing your work into manageable steps. Every essay is different, and no two projects are the same, so for one you might need to do more initial research before you begin, and for another, you might need to write out the points of opposition first.

Identifying Next Actions

So far, you’ve considered the why, what, and how, and begun the steps to organize how you are going to approach the work, prioritizing your next steps. The final stage of planning your writing project should come easily once you’ve defined and clarified your project.

Any writing project, especially longer projects, will have lots of moving parts. For each step above, decide what the “next action” is for each moving part of the project. For example, if you know your paper’s thesis, but not quite sure on your major points of argument, your next “action” might be to brainstorm a bit more to decide on your points of argument. If the components of your essay will require quotes from experts, your next “action” will be to locate research from reliable resources. This will most likely require you to find library databases with peer-reviewed research, read lots of articles, and begin keeping notes on source information that will best support your essay.

Make A Plan!

As you can see, a lot of planning goes into a writing project before the actual writing begins. How much planning is enough? As much as you need to get the project off your mind. The reason things are on your mind and causing you worry is that the outcome and action steps have not been clearly defined, or you may not have developed the details sufficiently to trust your plan. If you are worrying about the project, you obviously need to spend more time planning.

Feeling confused or lack clarity? You need more planning in stages 1, 2 or 3. Are you getting bogged down in research? Do you need more action? Move down to steps 4 or 5. You don’t need to read every single article on your topic in EBSCO to collect 6 or 8 required sources for your project. Focus on what you need that will meet your objectives, and move out of the research phase and onto writing.

Applying project management steps in your writing will not only save you time in the end, but will also create a mental environment where worry, stress and anxiety will be reduced, allowing creative ideas to flourish, one step at a time.

Research Required

When writing a research paper, the research process can be overwhelming and time consuming. Many writers often find themselves sucked into hour after hour of futile searching. Answering a few key questions in the beginning and creating a solid research plan will help focus your mission and guide you through the process efficiently.

Understand Assignment Guidelines

Forget starting research before you know two things: one — what are your guidelines? and two — what topic will fit those guidelines and requirements?

For instance, a topic such as the benefits of smartphone use for high school students, probably isn’t going to be found in peer-reviewed journals. If incorporating peer-reviewed or academic journal sources is a requirement of your assignment, then pick a topic accordingly. How?

Many topics based in the sciences, for instance, genetically modified food, endangered species, green energy, or organ transplantation, will likely have research in peer-reviewed or academic journals, as well as books and respected websites. Some topics that are considered current event issues will often be written about only in newspapers, magazines, or online. Your instructor may have strict guidelines that prohibit the use of these types of sources. Before you get too far into the research process, make certain your topic will work for the type of research your assignment requires. If peer-reviewed or academic research is required, debating the merits of a smartphone use or the pros and cons of a college playoff system might not work.

Finding Quality Research

Think quality over quantity. If your assignment requires 8 sources, citing 16 isn’t going to double your chances of a better grade. Using too many sources often sends up a red flag that you’ve relied too heavily on source material and not your own ideas. Quality sources — books, peer-reviewed journals, scholarly articles, library databases, and some websites — are usually written and reviewed by experts in the field. Some instructors allow “.edu” or “.gov,” websites, but beware that even some “.org” websites can be misrepresentative.

Wikipedia is an often-cited source — but most likely not allowed for an academic writing assignment. Most instructors oppose its use as a source. In addition, using a dictionary or encyclopedia definition isn’t considered “research” so avoid using definitions in place of research.

The best way to locate quality research comes from other quality research. If you’ve found one good source, look at that source’s citation page at the end of the article. Who has your source referenced? These are often the best sources for your topic.

While you might not be able to use Wiki sources in your paper, it’s often not a bad starting point to find other research. Wikipedia’s reference pages are often quite long and a good place to find further research. The search “Smartphones in School” in Wikipedia had 40 reference sources at the end of the page.

Keywords are King

When searching library databases such as EBSCO or ERIC, vary your search terms. Avoid using the same keyword, for instance, simply the one or two word topic, as you’ll usually get poor results. Database searches are all about keywords, and your best results come from careful consideration of search terms.   

Searching keywords related to your topic, however, will most likely return results that are too broad — and too many. Try to focus in on the main points you want to make. Instead of “Smartphone Use in High School” try searching one main point, such as “Phone Apps used in Education.” Instead of “global warming” try “declining ice sheets” or “atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

Organizing Research

As you spend time sifting through research, it’s essential to keep careful records. You’ll save valuable time if you stay organized and maintain careful records so you don’t have to go back and try to find where all your sources came from. Keep research note cards, photocopy materials, or keep a detailed research journal.

Figure 1: Simple Research Notecard

It’s easy to use index cards for research. Simply jot down the identifying information, such as the article title, author, source, URL if web-based, and don’t forget to make a note of how you plan to use it.

Final Thoughts

Start early and schedule ample time for collecting research. This is often the most time consuming part of the essay process, but it’s also the most crucial, and will set you on course for a research paper you can be proud of.  

Once you’ve selected the best source material, it’s important that you understand the research and incorporate the information effectively. Avoid simply gathering data to dump in between paragraphs. You must incorporate the research, connect it to your main points, and contextualize the information.  

6 Editing Tips for a Great Final Paper

You’ve done the hard work of crafting a creative, compelling essay. Before you hand it off for a final grade, follow these 6 final editing tips to polish it to perfection!

Tip #1

Run a spell-check.

Hopefully, you have spell-check run automatically. If not, turn it on (found under the Review tab on the toolbar) to catch misspellings or other sentence-level errors. Keep in mind, however, that the spelling and grammar check doesn’t catch misused words, and often wants to correct things you might not want corrected. See Tip #2.

Tip #2

Run an editing search.

Under the “Editing” tab on the toolbar, click on “Find.” From there, a Navigation tab will open on the left, where you can run a search on commonly misused or confused words, such as then and than, effect and affect, were and where, or definitely and defiantly. Check that you are using words in the correct context, even though they may be spelled correctly, which Spelling and Grammar check won’t find. You can also run a “Find” on #3, there are and there is, to make sure you aren’t over-using them.

Tip #3

Reword sentences that begin with “There are” or “There is.”

Technically, it isn’t incorrect to begin sentences with this phrasing. However, beginning sentences with this lazy phrase creates vague language with no subject. What does “there are” or “there is” really refer to? Instead, revise the sentence to begin with a stronger subject.

For example, There are three characters in this story who are very important can be reworded to say Three characters in this story are very important.

Tip #4

Check for redundancy and wordiness.

Cleaning up repetitiveness and wordiness will make your essay much easier to read, and make you sound like an expert writer. Avoid phrases such as “he was large in size”; “the building is tall in height”; “the doctor was smart and intelligent” — you see what we mean.

Wordy phrases can kill clarity. See the common examples of wordy phrases below with a better substitute:

in addition = also, besides, too

at the present time = now

in the event of = if

until such time as = until

due to the fact that = because, due to, since

Tip #5

Check all in-text citations.

Cross check that every citation in the body of the essay is found on the Works Cited page, if following MLA. Every direct quote should have an author or attributive tag, introducing the quote. Also, make sure that all summaries and paraphrases are cited as well. Double check that punctuation is correct (period goes AFTER the parentheses). If you have a quote with over 4 lines (MLA), it should be blocked (do not use this often). For MLA formatting, blocked quotes begin on a new line, have no quotation marks, are indented 1 inch, double-spaced, with the period in FRONT of the parenthetical citation, as opposed to after.

Tip #6

Double check your References or Works Cited page.

The words, “Works Cited” or “References” (without quotations) should be at the top of the page, not bolded, not italicized, and double-spaced between title and first entry. Make sure the entries are in alphabetical order, double-spaced, with a hanging indent (the second line of entry and subsequent lines of each entry indented). Finally, make sure Works Cited or Reference page is paginated with essay (if essay is 10 pages long, Works Cited or References will be page 11).

Of course, this is an abbreviated list. Your instructor might have his or her own checklist of their personal preferences, such as preferring two spaces at the end of sentences (new guidelines for APA) as opposed to one. Taking time to spit and polish one last time before you hand your essay over might make the difference between an okay grade and a WOW! grade. Taking time to carefully edit will be worth the extra effort.

Generating Essay Topic Ideas

Brainstorm Your Way to a Great Essay Topic

Photo by Pixabay on

Deciding on a topic to write about is one of the most difficult parts of the writing process for many students. With so many choices, we can become paralyzed with indecision. Utilizing some simple invention or brainstorming tools will set you on your way to uncovering an engaging topic, one audiences will be interested in reading, and you will be excited writing about for the next several weeks!


Your instructor might ask you to spend some time “brainstorming” before you begin the writing process. How exactly does one brainstorm?

1.  Take a piece of paper, and list numbers 1-20.
2.  To begin filling in this list, write down what interests you. If you draw a blank, consider what has been going on in your life lately – conversations you have had, or things you have read or heard on the news – and jot them down on your list.

If this seems too overwhelming, try categorizing your list into groups of 5.

Create one list titled POLITICS (this could include current legislation that might affect you or your community; concealed weapons; mandatory military service; electoral system, etc.)

Create one list titled SOCIAL ISSUES (this might include healthcare, deforestation, sharing wealth, etc.)

Create one list titled CULTURAL ISSUES (this might include language reform, race relations, polygamy, etc.)

Create a list titled COMMUNITY ISSUES (this might include things that affect you where you work and live, such as parking, recycling, dorms on campus, A-F grade system, etc.)

Try to generate at least 5 ideas for each category. Once you break it down into manageable chunks, it’s much easier to uncover some interesting and unique topics from current issues. Let’s look at our examples from above. One way to decide if a topic will make a good persuasive paper is to ask a “should” question based on the topic. Let’s look at some of the issues from our examples and put them into a “should” question:

  •   Should the government require mandatory military service?
  •   Should the government alter the tax system to force the rich to share their wealth with the poor?
  •   Should elementary schools require students to learn a second language?
  •   Should colleges and universities abolish the A-F grade scale and GPA system?

Digging Deeper: What do you already know about?

Another way to identify topics you might be interested in writing about is to consider your own knowledge and expertise. Everyone is knowledgeable about something, and many of us are knowledgeable about several things. What topics are you an authority on? Don’t sell yourself short.  A list might include:

  •     Unique hobbies (spelunking, metal detecting, dumpster diving)
  •     Unique skills (second language, yoga master, cartoonist)
  •     Training or education (CPR, computer tech, sign language)
  •    Work Experience (manager, bartender, crisis counselor)
  •     Personal Experience (single parent, football coach, nurse aide)

Now that you have a good list of hobbies, skills, and other knowledge and experience, consider how you can pull a topic out of those lists to compose an interesting essay. Some topics would make great informational essays, while others would make great persuasive essays.

To reduce waste and our reliance on landfills, dumpster diving, or reusing or repurposing someone else’s trash, is a viable alternative.

Yoga has been proven to not only improve balance, lower blood pressure, and fight disease, but can also relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Training in CPR should be mandatory for all public-school teachers.

Bartenders should/should not be held liable for the accidental injury or death of a person by someone they served who was found to be intoxicated.

Taking time in the early stages of the writing process to brainstorm will lead you to unique and engaging topics for your paper. No one wants to write another “Legalize Marijuana” or “Lower Drinking Age” essay like they did for their high school teacher, and I promise instructors don’t want to read another one either. Brainstorming will often lead you to numerous topics you possibly hadn’t even considered.

Give it a try and let us know what you came up with!

Research Note Cards

Compile your research on index cards
to simplify your research process —


When writing a research paper, the final result depends on the effectiveness of your research. Many beginning writers search the internet and copy piles of articles, but fail to take notes as they read. Beginning writers might think they’ll be able to recall what they have read, but without taking careful notes, time is wasted that could be spent writing. When you sit down to write, you’ll have to thumb through pages and pages of articles and try to guess what the purpose of saving them was in the first place! Taking effective notes during the research process saves valuable time, as well as ensures a better research essay.

Many instructors require students to use note cards for research, as note cards are an excellent method to keep careful records of your research. Utilizing note cards makes it easier to keep track of sources, and simplifies the process of creating a Works Cited page if you’re following MLA guidelines, or a Reference page if you’re following APA.
Once you locate a source you think you would like to include in your paper, evaluate the source, thinking how you might utilize it in your paper. Once you have determined the source is reliable and credible, jot down a few bullet points that you might want to include in your paper.

Index cards are a great way to take and save research notes. In the example below, a “code” is used in the upper left corner to indicate the topic, “Cacao Tree”:


In the upper right corner of the example above, the source and any identifying information is listed, including page numbers.

In the center of the card, place the fact, thought, or quote you want to include in your paper. In the example above, the writer has used a bullet-point list to include the major details. You can also paraphrase or directly quote the information you want to use in your paper. Taking time to paraphrase now will save you time in the writing stage.

When complete, the index card should have all of the information you need to begin formatting your outline and begin to write your paper.

Below is another type of note card format. This example places the author and page number at the bottom right; the descriptive heading is at the top, and the source information centered:

note 3

Some writers find it useful to write the full bibliographic information on a separate card for use in compiling the Works Cited page. An alternative is to write the full bibliographic information on the back side of the note card. You might also find it useful to use color-coded cards to easily organize your paper. Below is another example that shows an alternative note taking strategy that includes a direct quote:


There are many different ways to utilize note cards, but one thing is certain: the more effective your note taking skills, the more effective your paper.