ISSS academics guide
CHAPTER 1: AN OVERVIEW OF THE U.S. ACADEMIC SYSTEM
Celia, Bergman, former Assistant Director
International Student and Scholar Services
CHAPTER 2: WHAT TO EXPECT IN THE CLASSROOM
Bruce Michelson, Ph.D., Director
Campus Honors Program
CHAPTER 3: ENHANCING YOUR RELATIONS WITH THE FACULTY
Julie Misa, Director
International Student and Scholar Services
CHAPTER 4: WRITING ACADEMIC PAPERS
Julie Misa, Director
International Student and Scholar Services
CHAPTER 5: TEST TAKING SKILLS
Julie Misa, Director
International Student and Scholar Services
CHAPTER 6: CHOOSING A THESIS ADVISOR
Michael Loui, Ph.D., Professor
Electrical and Computer Engineering
CHAPTER 7: DISSERTATION SUCCESS STRATEGIES
Gregory Lambeth, Ph.D., Clinical Counselor
APPENDIX 1: ENGLISH LANGUAGE RESOURCES
APPENDIX 2: COMPUTING RESOURCES
Edited by Julie Misa, Director
International Student and Scholar Services
CHAPTER 1: AN OVERVIEW OF THE U.S. ACADEMIC SYSTEM
Understanding the U.S. Academic System
In the United States, students begin "higher education" after completing 12 years of primary and secondary education. Higher education is available in public and private institutions in many sizes. Some colleges enroll fewer than a thousand students; many large universities enroll 50,000 or more. Much of the information in the section is derived from The International Student Handbook published by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
Undergraduate Education - The undergraduate bachelor's degree typically takes four years to complete. At most institutions, the four years are known as the freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years. The curriculum of many undergraduate programs is based on a "liberal arts philosophy" that requires students to take courses from a range of subjects to form a broad educational foundation. Because many international students are accustomed to concentration on coursework directly related to their major, they may be surprised by the liberal arts approach to undergraduate education. Students are asked to choose a specific field of study known as the "major" no later than the beginning of their junior year. Students then spend the remaining years taking courses directly related to their major.
Graduate Education - A graduate education can result in a variety of degrees including the master's in arts (M.A.), sciences (M.S.), business administration (M.B.A.), fine arts (M.F.A.), law (L.L.M.), social work (M.S.W.) and education (M.Ed.). The most common terminal degrees are doctorates in a variety of fields (Ph.D.), education (Ed.D.), law (J.D.) and music arts (D.M.A.). Master's degrees are the most frequently awarded graduate degrees and are usually obtainable after one or two years of study. A doctorate usually requires four to seven years to complete. Unlike undergraduates, graduate students begin specialized study on the first day of class.
Credits and Grades - Most U.S. colleges and universities use a credit system in which each course is given a specific number of "credit hours," representing the number of hours the students in the course spend in class each week. A normal course load for undergraduate students is 12 - 15 credit hours per semester, or four to five courses. At the University of Illinois, a full course load for undergraduate and graduate students is 12 credit hours per semester, although many students take a higher course load. The professor, using number or letter grades, evaluates academic performance in each course. Your credit hours are multiplied by your grade values to determine your "grade point average" (GPA). GPAs provide a general indication of your overall academic performance and are used by admissions offices and employers interested in your academic history.
Honor Code - Most colleges and universities in the United States have established "honor codes" - statements of certain rules that students are expected to follow in their academic work. These rules relate primarily to academic honesty and originality as they are defined in the U.S. Academic dishonesty is defined differently from country to country. Hence, some international students have discovered that U.S. rules regarding academic honesty are quite different from the ones that they followed at home. It is important to understand that U. S. educational institutions take these rules very seriously. Furthermore, ignorance of the rules is not usually accepted as an excuse for breaking them. Nor is it acceptable to say that a particular academic practice is accepted in your country. When you are in the U.S., you will be expected to conform to U.S. academic regulations. Cheating is a failure of honesty. In the U.S., cheating means getting unauthorized help on an assignment, quiz or examination. You must not receive from any other student or give to another student any information, answers or help during an examination. You cannot use unauthorized sources for answers during an examination. You cannot take notes or books to an examination, unless the instructor specifically authorizes you to do so (such as in the case of an "open book test"). Finally, you cannot obtain test questions illegally prior to the examination. Sometimes students who speak a foreign language in the classroom are perceived by others to be cheating, even though they may simply be asking for a piece of paper or an eraser. You should be aware of this and try to avoid suspicion. Plagiarism is another part of the Honor Code. For further information on plagiarism, see Chapter 5. Following the Honor Code is the responsibility of each student. Students found guilty of violating the Honor Code are subject to penalties. If you have questions regarding Honor Code issues, talk to your instructor, your academic advisor, the Graduate College or ISSS.
Understanding degree requirements at University of Illinois
The first step to understanding degree requirements is to consult with the University of Illinois Programs of Study catalog. This catalog outlines the requirements for all degrees and certificates awarded at University of Illinois. In addition to this catalog, consult your academic department's main office. Most departments distribute a statement to their students listing the requirements for the degrees that are offered. Degree requirements are generally the same for both international and domestic students. The main difference is that some international students need to fulfill the English proficiency requirement by taking English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. For more information about ESL courses, contact the Division of English as an International Language at 333-1506. The following information discusses degree requirements at each level of study and is taken from the University of Illinois Programs of Study.
Undergraduate Students - A candidate for a bachelor's degree must meet University requirements with respect to registration, general education, English proficiency and the minimum grade point average (GPA) requirements of the student's college or division. Undergraduate students must pass the subjects prescribed in their curriculum and must conform to the requirements of that curriculum in regard to electives and the total number of hours required for graduation. In addition to meeting specific course requirements, each candidate for a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois must fulfill a residence requirement. This can be accomplished by spending either the first three years earning not fewer than 90 semester hours or the last year (two semesters or the equivalent) earning not fewer than 30 semester hours in residence at the Urbana-Champaign campus, uninterrupted by academic work at any other institution. Only those courses that are applicable toward the degree sought may be counted in satisfying the above minimum requirements. For more information on the undergraduate residence requirement, consult your department.
Exchange Students - For more information on course requirements and registration for non-degree students participating in an exchange program at the University of Illinois, consult with your University of Illinois exchange program administrator (listed on your Form DS-2019). Undergraduate exchange students may register for 100, 200 or 300-level courses. Those admitted as graduate exchange students may register for courses at the 100, 200, 300 or 400-level. Please note that the University of Illinois Programs of Study catalog lists all courses. However, most classes are not offered every semester. A listing of available courses for a given semester can be found on the Class Schedule page.
Graduate Students - The following are the general requirements of the Graduate College. The Graduate College Handbook outlines the requirements in greater detail. Graduate students should use the handbook as the official statement of Graduate College regulations during their graduate study on the Urbana-Champaign campus. Departments may have requirements that apply in addition to those of the Graduate College. A departmental standard higher than that of the Graduate College (e.g. the minimum grade point average for degree eligibility) replaces the Graduate College standard. Be sure to clarify both the Graduate College and your department's regulations at an early stage in your program of study.
Master's Degree - The Graduate College requires a minimum of 32 semester hours of graduate credit for the master's degree. All hours must be at the 400-level or greater. At least 12 hours must be in 500-level courses, and 8 of these 12 hours must be in the major field. Half or more of the hours applied to a master's degree must be earned in courses counted for residence credit. A number of departments have degree requirements more extensive than the Graduate College minimum. Master's candidates must complete all degree requirements, under normal circumstances, within five years after their first registration at University of Illinois. Some departments require a final examination for the master's degree. Individual departments also determine master's degree thesis requirements. Some departments require or recommend a thesis; others ask for a "substantial research paper" or require only the minimum of 32 hours of course work.
Doctoral Degree – Doctoral degree programs are divided into three stages and must include the successful completion of a minimum of 96 semester hours of graduate credit as well as the preliminary and final examinations. At least 64 of the hours, which may include thesis credit, must be earned as residence credit. A doctoral candidate normally must complete all requirements within seven years of first registering in the Graduate College, unless the student is enrolled in a department for which the Graduate College has approved a different time limit for earning a doctoral degree. Preliminary examinations are taken after completing the required course work and may be oral, written or both. Final examinations are oral and public. All candidates for the Ph.D. degree and candidates for most other doctoral degrees are required to write a thesis. Individual departments may have special requirements in this respect. In addition, all completed theses must be acceptable for deposit in the Graduate College. The thesis must be the work of a single author.
Academic life at University of Illinois might be a surprise and much different from what you experienced at home. Students visiting American universities mention the pace is faster, examinations and major projects occur more frequently, and they have to participate actively in the classroom. Students often need to adjust to the style and objectives of American classes and to working with instructors and other students outside of class. Because the University of Illinois offers about 200 different academic degrees and certificates, no generalizations about campus life are universally true. In the opening weeks of each term, you must go to your classes ready to learn - not just about the subject, but also about the expectations the instructor and your fellow students have about the course and about your own role and responsibilities.
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CHAPTER 2: WHAT TO EXPECT IN THE CLASSROOM
Classes for undergraduates usually meet two or three times per week for 50 or 75 minutes; graduate seminars meet less frequently (once per week is normal) for two or three hours. Class attendance is expected, and in courses of 50 students or fewer, students with more than two or three absences may be downgraded or urged to drop the course. Some instructors take attendance each day throughout the term; others will stop taking roll after the opening weeks. Nonetheless, they will know who is there and who is not and which students are actively engaged in the class. In larger lectures it may be possible to miss classes once in a while, but you will probably find that the tests, quizzes and examinations will include material presented in lecture. Most lecturers don't want to waste their time repeating written material; they want to move outward, and they want their class meetings to figure centrally in the overall learning experience. So go to class, pay attention and take notes.
In smaller classes and seminars, discussion, speculation and student participation will probably be expected and even required. The smaller the class, the more likely this is to be true. International students are sometimes astonished at how early and often they are called on to voice opinions and ask and answer questions. At the beginning of the course, look carefully at the syllabus (the plan for the semester) and see if there are indications that class participation will figure into your final grade. You may find nothing explicitly stated, but the opening sessions will give you a good idea as to how much the instructor values responses from the group.
There is no firm law about how you must participate in class. Rarely will you be required to do anything out of character for you; you won't have to talk incessantly if you are quiet by nature or make profound statements every five minutes. Watch and listen to how the group operates; you will probably find that asking a good question once in a while is a welcome and easy way to participate. If you are normally shy and feel some pressure building to participate in your class or seminar, try writing down a question before the class, then waiting for a good moment and asking it.
On the syllabus, reading assignments and other homework are listed for each meeting. You will find the class begins where the reading assignments leave off. Students are not only expected to come to the class, but also to be prepared - to have read the assigned material and to have thought about it. In most courses, professors will not repeat the material in your texts; they will venture into implications and application and respond to intelligent questions about assignments. If you want to understand the class discussion, read the assigned material on or before the day of the class.
An undergraduate or graduate course will probably require you to complete several projects during the semester. These projects may be essays, laboratory reports or other work requiring sustained effort. Deadlines are firm! Some instructors may grant you some extra time if you have special problems, but many instructors will not. They are not being mean. Rather, they are trying to be fair to a large group of students and to encourage the necessary skill of getting things done on time. Plan ahead. Treat every deadline as if it were inflexible. A major project is expected to be polished and adequately prepared and researched. Haste and poor planning can do great damage, which may be reflected in your grade.
If you have questions about the format of a paper or major project, ask your instructor well ahead of the deadline. As the University of Illinois is increasingly a computerized campus, there is sometimes an unspoken expectation that written assignments will be produced from a high-quality printer or submitted on-line. If you are unfamiliar with computers, check with one of the many CCSO computer sites around campus about available tutorials (see Appendix III)
Help from the Instructor
Your professor or teaching assistant will list "office hours" for your class. "Office hours" are times when the instructor will be available in his or her office or laboratory to talk about class, your questions or projects or anything else having to do with your academic work. Take advantage of office hours! You will find these meetings to be very informal, and they may personalize the course for you and boost your understanding of the objectives and the material. You cannot expect your instructor to write or edit your papers or give you an unfair advantage in completing an assignment. If you have an interesting research question or need general reassurance that you are heading in the right direction, don't be afraid to ask. If posted office hours conflict with your class schedule, ask for an appointment to meet at another time.
Electronic mail is increasingly popular. If the instructor lists an email address on the blackboard or in the syllabus, it's a good indication he or she likes the system and will respond to queries that you send on-line. Email can prove a great advantage if you cannot get to office hours, are shy about talking directly to the professor or encounter an interesting question while working at an odd time of the night. Your professor will send you a reply when he or she is able.
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CHAPTER 3: ENHANCING YOUR RELATIONS WITH THE FACULTY
Your interactions with faculty members at University of Illinois help shape your overall academic experience. Most, if not all, faculty members are from a different cultural background than yours. In this section, we will examine the role culture plays in determining the quality of your relations with the faculty at University of Illinois.
The Faculty/Student Relationship From A Cross-Cultural Perspective
To a certain degree, we are products of our culture. Many of our values, behaviors, expectations, attitudes and communication patterns are in part a function of our cultural background. When you were in your home country, other people who shared your culture surrounded you. You probably had very little occasion to question your own values, attitudes and behaviors as they relate to other people. Now that you are in the United States, you may find that people do not behave as you would expect. In addition, your own behaviors may elicit very different and unexpected reactions from people who do not share your culture. These factors may make communication more difficult, contributing to frustration and potential misunderstandings. It is important to understand why communication difficulties can arise between people of different cultures. Let's examine this issue from the perspective of the faculty/student relationship.
What images does the word "professor" create in your mind? What is expected of a professor in your home country? What is expected of a student? Throughout your life, you have learned to make certain assumptions about appropriate behavior for those in the role of professor or student. In some countries, for example, a professor is an expert in a field who delivers lectures during class. Students are expected to write down, verbatim, what the professor says. Students are not expected to question or challenge any aspect of a professor's lecture. To do so would be rude and inappropriate. A student coming from such a system will probably have some initial difficulty in adapting to the U.S. academic system, where professors are sometimes called by their first names, and students are expected and encouraged to contribute to class discussions.
What expectations do you have of your interactions with faculty members at the University of Illinois? Chances are your expectations are based in part on the treatment you received from professors in your home country. It's natural to feel disappointed, frustrated or bewildered if your expectations are not met. However, you must take a moment to examine your expectations in light of the U.S. academic system. You might find you must modify your way of thinking to accommodate the reality of your new situation.
The Role of the Faculty at the University of Illinois
Special demands are placed on faculty at a large research institution such as the University of Illinois. Faculty are often expected to conduct research, publish books and articles, obtain funding for research projects, design and teach classes, serve as academic advisors, work on committees and supervise graduate students. Working with students comprises only a portion of what the average faculty member does. Because of the heavy demands on faculty time, it may appear that faculty are insensitive to your needs. Remember that while your academic matters are critical to you, they are of less importance to the faculty. This does not mean the faculty does not care for you, nor is it a signal that the faculty does not have an interest in your academic career. It is simply an indication that faculty members must deal with multiple demands on their time.
When you take into account the pressures under which faculty work, it is not hard to understand why the ideal student is one who is self-motivated, well-prepared and makes use of the many resources that are available on campus. With time, you will discover when it is appropriate to approach the faculty for assistance and when you might be better served getting help from another source. You may find that faculty better receive you if you make judicious use of your interactions with them.
The Special Functions of the Academic Advisor
In most cases, an academic advisor is assigned to you. Sometimes the advisor is a member of the faculty; other times, it is an individual designed to work with students in a particular department. Regardless of who your advisor is, it is critical that you make good use of the special guidance this person can provide as you move through your academic program. Good advice can help you avoid taking unnecessary or inappropriate classes, thus ensuring you complete your program in a timely fashion.
The key function of an academic advisor is to assist students in making educational choices appropriate for a given degree or study objective. There are several ways your advisor can help you meet your educational goals. As a new student, you may wish to develop a curriculum plan together with your advisor. A curriculum plan is a semester-by-semester listing of the courses you might take to fulfill your degree requirements. When designing a curriculum plan, your advisor can tell you which courses are required, and assist you with the proper sequencing of those courses. In addition, you can discuss potential elective classes with your advisor and choose those which best meet your goals. You and your advisor can periodically review your progress against your curriculum plan, to make certain you continue to meet degree requirements. As you move through your program, you may naturally make modifications to your curriculum plan. This should be done in conjunction with your advisor. Your advisor can also assist if you have academic concerns or difficulties, if you would like to incorporate an internship into your plan of study or if you need assistance in continuing education choices.
Communication with people from cultures other than your own takes extra work and care. This may be especially true of your interactions with faculty members at the University of Illinois. Fortunately, there are several things that you can do to enhance these vital relationships. First, take some time to examine your own expectations about the roles of faculty and student. Expectations that are perfectly reasonable in your own culture may not be reasonable here in the U.S. In that case, you must modify your expectations to match reality. Next, make use of all of the resources that are available to you on this campus. Finally, seek help and advice from the faculty when needed. You will find that by following these steps, you can enhance your relationship with the faculty members at the University of Illinois.
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CHAPTER 4: WRITING ACADEMIC PAPERS
As a student at the University of Illinois, it is likely you will be required to write papers as part of your regular academic assignments. You have probably had occasion to write papers in your home country, and you may be very good at it. However, you should be aware that writing a paper in the United States may be quite different from writing a paper back home. There are rules and conventions for writing a paper that are unique to the United States and a few other countries. Furthermore, certain U.S. values and norms shape the expected form of the paper. Therefore, you may need to adjust your writing style quite drastically in order to write successful papers here. In this chapter, we will examine the steps needed to write your paper, some of the peculiarities of the U.S. style of writing, and the importance of avoiding plagiarism.
Part of the work of composing a paper takes place before you write your first word. To begin, you must choose a topic. Take care to pick a topic that you can manage. Many students make the mistake of choosing a topic that is either too big or too small. For example, it would be impossible to write a paper on "The Civil War in the United States," as the topic is too broad. On the other hand, you should avoid topics that are too narrow. Generally, narrow topics can be traced back to a single source of reference. You may also prefer to avoid controversial topics. It is difficult to write on such topics in a purely factual way, avoiding bias. If your presentation is indeed biased, you may alienate your reader, who may have a different opinion on the matter. It is important to find a topic that is neither too broad nor too narrow and interests you as the researcher.
Once you have chosen your topic, it is time to research and compile information. There are many sources on campus to assist you in your research. First, you should become familiar with the library facilities, which are excellent. If you have not already done so, you may wish to take a tour of the Main Library or the Undergraduate Library. In addition, there are many departmental libraries on campus that contain information specific to a certain field. You may also wish to explore the resources available through the Internet. During the research process, take good notes about important points. Be certain to write down your source, including bibliographic information and page numbers. You will need to cite these references in the body of the paper, in the bibliography or both.
Developing Your Paper
Once you have done your research, you are ready to develop either a thesis statement or a statement of purpose for your paper. A thesis is a central idea that you intend to argue in your paper. With your thesis in mind, you can write your paper in a clear and concise fashion. A well-worded thesis statement, usually included as the last sentence of the first paragraph of the paper, will inform your reader of what to expect. A functional thesis statement commits the paper to one line of argument on the topic. As such, it gives direction to both you and your reader. In some cases you may substitute a statement of purpose for a thesis statement. A statement of purpose tells the reader what you intend to do in the paper. You may present several points in the paper, provided they relate to your statement of purpose.
Now that you have given direction to your paper, you should develop a working outline. An outline will serve as a guide to you when you draft your paper. A good outline will list the main topics you intend to cover in your paper. Each topic will be further broken down into subtopics and supporting facts. As you develop your outline, remember that all of the main points should relate to the thesis statement or statement of purpose. It will then be necessary to decide how the topics should best be ordered. Strive to create logical connections between topics, so your paper flows easily from one idea to another.
Writing Your Paper
Once you have your outline, write drafts of your paper. You may wish to have someone review your paper for content, organization, flow of ideas and sentence structure. A good resource for this type of help is the Writer's Workshop, located in the Undergraduate Library, Room 251, 333-8796.
As a final step, you must proofread your paper. Check for errors in spelling, punctuation, capitalization or grammar. These small errors can detract from the quality of your paper. In fact, some instructors will subtract points from your paper grade if you make several proofreading errors. When you are typing your paper, be sure to follow the formatting guidelines your instructor has given to you.
Writing Styles in the United States
Some international students find they have to modify their customary writing styles to conform to what is expected in the United States. Many international students have had the experience of receiving a poor grade on a well-researched paper. The poor grade was likely due to stylistic differences in topic presentation between the U.S. and the student's home country.
Most papers in the U.S. follow a similar structure. The first paragraph is used to present the paper thesis or statement of purpose. Next comes the body of the paper, in which several ideas related to the thesis or purpose are presented. Care must be taken to structure the body of the paper in a linear sequence, making clear transitions from one paragraph to the next. Finally, you must build a conclusion into your paper. A good conclusion will make reference to the central thesis or purpose of the paper, reminding the reader of the ways that this topic has been treated in the paper. Beyond that, the conclusion should provide the reader with new information or ideas on the topic. Hopefully, your reader will be so interested that he or she decides to further research the theme of your paper.
You will find that Americans tend to be direct in their communication patterns. You should adapt a similar writing style. For instance, in your opening paragraph, you will want to explicitly state your thesis or purpose. Each subsequent paragraph should either open or conclude with a topic sentence that states the central idea of that paragraph. Likewise, your conclusion should be straightforward and concise. You may be accustomed to a more indirect style of writing. In some countries, this explicit style of writing might be perceived as an insult to the reader's intelligence. Rest assured this is not the case in the United States. International students who do not adopt the direct U.S. style of writing may find their paper critiqued negatively for lack of cohesion, little focus or failure to stick to a topic or theme.
These are general comments about the preferred writing style in the United States, and they will probably hold true in most cases. However, expected paper styles can vary somewhat from academic discipline to discipline. Become familiar with the preferred writing style for your discipline. Read as much as you can from U.S. sources, noting not only the ideas, but also the style. Ask your professors if they have samples of past student papers. This is an excellent way to see what is defined as an outstanding paper by a particular professor.
A Note on Plagiarism
Plagiarism is the use, without attribution, of someone else's thoughts or words. According to the Code on Campus Affairs and Handbook of Policies and Regulations Applying to All Students, plagiarism may be defined as "intentionally or knowingly representing the words or ideas of another as one's own in any academic exercise." There are four kinds of plagiarism encountered in academic writing: a) quoting without crediting the source; b) paraphrasing without specifying the source; c) borrowing facts or information; d) adapting - without acknowledgement - someone else's argument or line of thought. Following are two examples of plagiarism that led to disciplinary action:
Direct Quotation Without Attribution
Source: to push the comparison with popular tale and popular romance a bit further, we may note that the measure of artistic triviality of works such as "Sir Degare" or even "Havelock the Dean" is their casualness, their indifference to all but the simplest elements of literary substance. The point is that high genre does not certify art and low genre does not preclude it. (From Robert M. Loran, Chaucer and the Shape of Creation, Howard University Press, 1967, p. 187.)
Student's paper: to push the comparison with popular tale and popular romance a bit further, you can note that the measure of artistic triviality in some works of Chaucer's time period is their casualness. The point is that high genre does not certify art and low genre does not preclude it.
A Paraphrase Without Attribution
Source: The era in question included three formally declared wars. The decision to enter the War of 1812 was made by Congress after extended debate. Madison made no recommendation in favor of hostilities, though he did marshal a "telling case against England" in his message to Congress of June 1, 1812. The primary impetus to battle, however, seems to have come from a group of "War Hawks" in the legislature. (From W. Taylor Reveley III, "Presidential War-Making: Constitutional Prerogative or Usurpation?", University of Virginia Law Review, November 1969.)
Student's paper: There were three formally declared wars during this era. The decision to enter the war of 1812 was made by Congress after extended debate. Madison actually made no recommendation in favor of hostilities in his message to Congress on June 1, 1812, though he presented a persuasive case against Britain. The primary impetus to battle, however, appears to have come from a group of "War Hawks" in the legislature.
If you plan to incorporate someone else's ideas, thoughts or words into your paper, you must make the proper attributions. Citations generally follow either the APA (from the Publication Manual of the APA), or the MLA formats (from the MLA Handbook). The fourth edition of each publication includes information on citing electronic sources of information, such as those found on the internet.
Penalties for plagiarism can range from a requirement to rewrite the paper to outright dismissal from the academic program or from the University. In light of the possible severe punishment for plagiarism, it is critical you use proper citations when quoting another source, borrowing ideas or paraphrasing information.
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CHAPTER 5: TEST TAKING SKILLS
As a student at the University of Illinois, you will undoubtedly be required to take examinations as one manner of assessing your mastery of a study subject. Because the final grade in a given course usually depends in part on exam scores, test taking can be a "high anxiety" activity. However, there are several steps that you can take to better prepare yourself for your tests. Students who are well prepared to take an examination not only achieve better grades, they often feel less anxious when taking a test. Let's look at some of the things you can do to become an expert test-taker.
Prior to the Test
It is critical you become familiar with the requirements for any given course. These are usually stated on the course syllabus. In addition, the syllabus may contain specific information about test dates and what percentage of your final grade is derived from the results of your exam(s). These facts will help you to construct a study plan for your class. You should, of course, plan to complete all readings and assignments in a timely fashion. Within that framework, set weekly goals for your studies. Allot a certain number of hours each week toward the class, taking into account the required time to finish everything listed on the syllabus, plus additional time to study and digest the material. If you pace your studies, you will find you retain the material much better and will be better prepared to take examinations during the semester.
Find out as much as you can about each exam that you are required to take ahead of time. For example, which topics will be covered? Will you be required to recall facts in an objective way or interpret and synthesize facts? How long will the test be? How will it be scored? You can ask your instructor about these matters prior to the test. Knowing what to expect from the exam ahead of time can help to reduce anxiety and will help you focus your study sessions.
Preparing for the Examination
Once you know what to expect from the exam, you should organize yourself to study and review effectively. First, compile all of your notes, books, projects, papers, quizzes and any lab work. Think about all of these items in the context of your instructor's focus during the class. What did the instructor emphasize, and what were the instructor's priorities? Review the syllabus, and take a look at the development of topics throughout the class. What do you think the instructor is likely to ask on the test? Be sure to review the topics that are likely to appear on the exam, paying particular attention to those that are more difficult for you. Look at any quizzes, papers or lab work you have done and did not score well on; review that material first. Once you have mastered it, study the material with which you are more comfortable. Spend some time reviewing class readings. Highlight important ideas, then write them down in your own words on a separate piece of paper. This will help make the concepts meaningful to you. Finally, be sure to get a good night's sleep right before the exam. Eat a good meal and try to relax.
A Word about the Different Types of Examinations
These are several types of exams you are likely to encounter at the University of Illinois.
Essay Exam - In this type of test, you will be given a few questions to answer in detail. Because essay questions are broad in scope, you will need to synthesize materials and concepts from class. Though it may be tempting to begin writing immediately after you read an essay question, do not do so. Instead, take a few minutes to organize your thoughts into a brief outline or summary of key points. Make reference to your outline as you are writing out the answer, and be aware of the time. Do not spend too much time on any one essay question, or you will find you cannot answer subsequent questions in a thorough and comprehensive manner. Finally, remember to cite your sources throughout the exam.
Problem Test - This type of exam is most common in science, engineering and mathematics classes. In it, you are required to solve a problem or problems using formulas, equations and rules learned in class. Before you begin the exam, take a moment to write down difficult formulas or equations. You can refer to these as needed during the test. If you cannot answer a question, move to the next one. You can always return to the problem later if time permits. Even if you do not know the answer to the problem, write down as much as you can. You may get partial credit for using the correct process. Whenever possible, take the time to double-check both your formulas and your answers.
Multiple-Choice Exams - In a typical multiple-choice exam, you will be presented with a question or statement and four or five possible answers. You must choose the correct answer. Just like the problem test, if you are not sure of an answer, return to the question later. Sometimes the answer to the question can be found in later questions. Find out from the instructor if you will be penalized for incorrect answers. If not, it is fine to make your best guess on an answer. Utilize a process of elimination when trying to guess an answer. Two or three possibilities may be obviously incorrect.
True-False Exams - In this type of exam, you will read a statement and decide whether that statement is "true" or "false." Keep in mind that absolute words (such as "never," "always," "none" and "all") may tend to make a statement false. Words such as "some," "sometimes," "usually" and "most" may make a statement true. However, be careful; these hints are not always correct!
Open-Book Tests and Take-Home Exams - It may sound like an open-book or take-home exam will be easy, but that is not the case. Though you will be able to refer to books, notes and other materials during this type of test, you should be quite familiar with the content of the course and the concepts covered during class. Furthermore, in the case of a take-home exam, you will be expected to turn in a neat, organized paper free of errors in spelling and grammar.
Final Exams - Final exams take place during the last week of the semester, called "finals week." As a general rule, a final exam tests your knowledge of the material covered over the entire duration of your class. Studying for a final exam requires special discipline and organizational skills, especially if you have final exams for more than one class around the same time. Begin your review of the course work at least two weeks prior to the end of the semester. Use the same good study skills you developed during the semester to prepare for final exams. Invest your study time wisely; do not spend inordinate amounts of time preparing for a final exam if the results of the exam will make little difference in your final grade.
What If You do Poorly on an Exam?
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you get a lower grade than you expected on your test. Rather than reacting negatively to your grade, use this as an opportunity to improve either your knowledge of the subject, your study habits, or both. Take a moment to look over the questions you missed. Go back and review any material pertinent to that area. If you did poorly on an essay exam, you may wish to talk to the instructor of the class. What was the instructor looking for in the answer? How might you have answered the question better? Assess your study habits. Perhaps you did not pace your studies. As a result, you may have tried to absorb too much information in too little time. This is rarely an effective study method. Perhaps you spent plenty of time studying for the class, but you did not focus on the right subjects. Next time, be sure you spend some time trying to ascertain the major topics within the course. Finally, keep in mind that it is common to achieve slightly lower grades during your first semester or two of study in the United States. With time and experience, you will soon figure out how to best prepare for and take examinations at the University of Illinois.
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CHAPTER 6: CHOOSING A THESIS ADVISOR
Choosing a thesis advisor is the most important decision of your life - perhaps more important than choosing a spouse - because your choice affects everything you will do in your career. Indeed, choosing an advisor is similar to getting married: it is making a long-term commitment. Unlike marriage, however, a good advising relationship should end successfully within a few years. Also, unlike a husband and wife, the advisor and student do not start as equals. At first, the relationship is essentially an apprenticeship; but, although you start as an apprentice, ideally, you should end as a colleague.
As you consider which professor might serve as an advisor, you should first formulate your goals in undertaking thesis research. A thesis demonstrates your ability to make an original, significant contribution to the corpus of human knowledge. Through your thesis project, you develop skills useful in any career: critical reading of the scholarly or scientific literature, formulation and solution of a problem, and clear written and oral communication of the results. Furthermore, you learn the practices of a particular scholarly community: theoretical frameworks and experimental paradigms, publication processes and standards of professional behavior. You learn how to present a paper at a seminar or a conference and how to give and receive criticism.
You should seek a thesis advisor who can help you meet your goals, and whose working style is compatible with yours. Here are some specific steps you can take to find an advisor.
Take a course with a potential advisor, possibly an individual study. In an individual study course, you can learn about the professor's working style, with a limited, one semester commitment between you and the professor. The individual study course might involve directed reading, with the goals of producing a survey article that could serve as the basis for a thesis. Or the individual study course might involve a small project in the professor's laboratory.
Ask for copies of grant proposals prepared by the professor that describe research projects of possible interest to you. A grant proposal states research problems, explains the importance of the problems in the context of other research and describes recent progress, including the professor's contributions. Usually, a proposal includes references to journal articles and books you can examine. You do not need the budget part of the proposal, which contains confidential information about salaries.
Consider working with two advisors. If you are interested in an interdisciplinary project, you could engage two official advisors, one in each discipline. Even if you choose only one official advisor, you may occasionally seek advice from a second professor, who can provide an alternate perspective. Some departments institutionalize this practice by requiring the chair of a doctoral committee to be different from the thesis advisor. Discuss these arrangements with both professors openly, to minimize possible misunderstanding about each professor's role.
Interview a Potential Advisor
What are the advisor's standards and expectations for the quality of the thesis, such as the overall length? Will the advisor help formulate the research topic? How quickly will the advisor review drafts of manuscripts? Will the advisor help you improve writing and speaking skills? Will the advisor encourage publication of your work? Will the advisor provide equipment and materials? Will the advisor obtain financial support such as funds to travel to conferences or research assistantships? Will the advisor help you find appropriate employment? Where have former students gone? What will your responsibilities be? Will you write proposals or make presentations to research sponsors?
The most common problem in the humanities and social sciences is infrequent contact with the advisor. How frequently will you meet with the advisor?
What are the obligations to the project-funding source? How frequently are reports required? Are deliverables promised? Could publications be delayed by a patent filing? Are there potential conflicts of interest?
How will decisions on co-authorship of papers be made? In engineering and natural sciences, co-authorship is common, but practices vary by discipline. Sometimes, the advisor's name always goes last. Sometimes, the order of names is alphabetical. Sometimes, the first author is the person whose contribution was greatest.
Interview Former Students
Students who have graduated are more likely to answer your questions candidly than current students are. Ask a potential advisor for names and email addresses of former students, whom you can then contact.
Was a former student's project unnecessarily prolonged? Did anyone not finish? Why? Many projects suffer unanticipated delays. Occasionally, for various reasons, students do not finish theses and dissertations. How were conflicts resolved? When you work closely with someone else, disagreements are inevitable - the key question is whether conflicts were handled respectfully, with satisfactory resolutions.
If Problems Arise
If you have a major conflict with your advisor, first attempt to find solutions within your department by consulting another trusted professor, other members of your committee or the department head. Should you be unable to find a solution by working with people in your department, be assured that the personnel of the Graduate College are available to help mediate conflicts. Fortunately, major conflicts are rare. It is most likely that you will enjoy a successful, intellectually satisfying thesis project.
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CHAPTER 7: DISSERTATION SUCCESS STRATEGIES
The dissertation may be the largest single project you will undertake during your lifetime. The most conservative estimates suggest the average dissertation will take a year to research and write, but many students require much longer, often working several years to complete all of the requirements. Therefore, it's not really possible to write a dissertation in a single burst of creativity (although many have tried this approach). In contrast to previous work, a successful dissertation consists of numerous steps undertaken deliberately and sequentially.
The dissertation is a rigorous task and many doctoral students encounter a variety of difficulties during the course of the project. Many doctoral students report the dissertation is unlike any project they have previously attempted and requires skills, abilities and work habits that are unfamiliar to them. The majority of graduate students have been in school throughout most of their lives, responding to the ebb and flow of the academic calendar. The structure of coursework, syllabi, exams and term papers vanishes once they receive candidacy and begin work on the dissertation.
These changes can result in doctoral students feeling directionless and not sure how to structure their time and work. Moreover, many students experience feelings of exhaustion once they complete three or four years of doctoral work; they no longer feel motivated to begin a large project like the dissertation. Therefore, they frequently manage time poorly, procrastinate and avoid work on the dissertation.
This essay will address some of the most frequently encountered difficulties that doctoral students experience while writing the dissertation, as well as strategies that can be employed to minimize these potential problems.
STEP 1: Establish Priorities - The dissertation will require a substantial investment of time you previously devoted to other activities. Thus, you must decide what sacrifices you are willing to make in order to finish the dissertation. The dissertation is rarely the first priority. Many students list family, friends, research, teaching, and/or searching for jobs as higher priorities. This is okay. If the dissertation is low on your priority list, however, you will allocate less time to work on it, which in turn extends the amount of time necessary to finish it. If you rank the dissertation high on your priority list, but it is actually a low priority, you will probably feel frustrated with the slow pace of progress. An honest assessment of your priorities can help you to avoid months or years of procrastination and guilt.
STEP 2: Establish a Strategic Plan - The dissertation can seem like such a long, complex and unpredictable project that it seems to lack beginning, middle and end stages. A strategic plan imposes a structure on the project and prevents you from drifting aimlessly for long periods of time. A strategic plan should include a time frame for finishing the dissertation and plans for accomplishing this goal. The foundation of your strategic plan will be a contract you develop with yourself that specifies the time commitment you will make to the dissertation. The contract will help motivate you to work during tedious or difficult phases and will provide the incentive to make sacrifices (e.g., "I need to work 15-20 hours per week in order to finish the dissertation in a year."). After you have set a time frame for completion, sub-divide the dissertation into smaller projects and develop goals for each step.
STEP 3: Manage Time Efficiently - A time management plan will incorporate the priorities and strategic plans you have already made and provide you with a weekly schedule to meet your goals. The dissertation will require a substantial investment of time you previously devoted to family, friends, work, recreation and other leisure activities. But, these sacrifices don't have to overwhelm your entire life. In fact, you shouldn't plan to work on the dissertation all day, every day. Many people have observed the tendency of a project to take up the time allotted for it. Therefore, rather than allowing the dissertation to fit into whatever time you happen to have left over in your schedule, decide when and how often you want to work on it. Allocate specific times during the week that will be "dissertation time," and remain faithful to these commitments. Ideally, you should dedicate at least 15-20 hours of time per week. You should leave enough flexibility in your schedule that you can occasionally skip dissertation work times and make them up later in the week. The more you view your dissertation as a job responsibility, the more likely you are to make consistent, steady progress.
STEP 4: Organize the Work Space - A dissertation usually requires a year or more to complete, so it is helpful to find a work space that is conducive to your work habits. You should consider what physical resources you need to write a dissertation, including a desk, computer, lamp, chair, books, shelves, file cabinets, papers and pencils. The more organized your space, the less time you will spend searching for materials, gathering books, sorting through newspapers and mail and preparing the area. Ideally, the work space will be organized so that you can begin work immediately whenever you have scheduled dissertation time. There are two other considerations related to the work space. First, print out early drafts of the dissertation and arrange them by chapter in a notebook. This will make your progress more tangible and real. You will also feel a sense of accomplishment as you finish chapters and see them printed in a notebook. Second, back-up your computer hard drive and store the disks in a safe place so you don't risk losing valuable work.
STEP 5: Negotiate with Advisors - The dissertation is often considered to be a solitary endeavor, but it offers numerous opportunities for collaboration. If you are able to develop a strong working relationship with your advisor, you will likely experience more satisfaction with the dissertation experience. If possible, schedule frequent appointments with your advisor and utilize these meetings to keep yourself focused and working consistently. These meetings will also keep your advisor apprised of your work and provide you with the opportunity to receive ongoing feedback about your progress. You may want to inform your advisor of the strategic plan you developed and collaborate on time frames and deadlines.
STEP 6: Maintain a Healthy Balance - The search for balance between the dissertation requirements and other life responsibilities is a difficult one. The dissertation is such a time-consuming project that it can seem impossible to find enough time for other activities in your life. If you begin to feel angry, resentful, frustrated, overwhelmed and/or depressed on a consistent basis, you may want to consider whether your life has become unbalanced while writing the dissertation. In order to maintain a healthy balance, it is often helpful to devote time every day or week to your physical, social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual well-being. There are many ways to do this, including exercise, a nutritious diet, reduced intake of drugs or alcohol, adequate sleep, friendships, time alone, expressing feelings, meditation or prayer. If you have specific questions about any of these areas, you may want to consult a physician, counselor, pastor, nutritionist or other professional.
STEP 7: Find Perspective - Don't be concerned if you have written relatively little after several months of reading and researching for your dissertation. Many doctoral students write the majority of their dissertation in the months immediately preceding their final oral examination. A great deal of time is initially spent selecting a topic, reading, researching, conducting experiments and organizing the information. It is more important to focus on the process of researching and writing the dissertation than the outcome. In other words, if you develop a reasonable strategic plan, prioritize the dissertation and manage time effectively, you will eventually meet your goals.
Conclusion - There are, of course, many ways to write a dissertation. The strategies proposed in this chapter are only guidelines. The most important criteria for dissertation success is to meet your own goals. If these strategies are not helpful, you are encouraged to develop your own dissertation plan. If, on the other hand, you have experienced significant and ongoing problems in your attempts to define, develop and defend a dissertation, you may want to discuss these issues with your advisor, consult with your committee or seek professional counseling.
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APPENDIX 1: ENGLISH LANGUAGE RESOURCES
The University of Illinois community has a wide variety of resources to assist beginning to advanced students wishing to improve their English language skills. Instruction ranges from semester-long classes, required and optional, in the academic programs of the University of Illinois and Parkland College, to free classes, English conversation groups and "drop-in" centers staffed by volunteers on and off campus. Individual tutoring is also available, with the charge for instruction usually ranging from $12.00 to $20.00 per hour.
University of Illinois graduate and undergraduate students who are not native speakers of English take the English Placement Test given by the Division of English as an International Language (DEIL) at the beginning of each semester and the summer session. The results of this test determine placement in either the required writing sequence for undergraduates or optional classes for graduate students. Development of both oral and written skills is expected in all classes, with increasing emphasis on writing in the higher numbered classes. In addition, classes focused on the improvement of pronunciation skills and classes designed especially for international teaching assistants are offered.
OTHER OPPORTUNITIES INCLUDE:
Urbana Adult Education https://www.usd116.org/adult/
Free and low-cost beginning, intermediate
and advanced classes
211 N. Race Street, Urbana
Free tutoring and basic, conversational English
First United Methodist Church at Lincoln Square
304 S. Race Street, Urbana
Informal opportunities to practice English conversation skills can be found through the International Hospitality Committee's (IHC) International Friends Program, Friendship Groups, and English Conversation Classes (call ISSS at 333-1303 for the name and number of the appropriate IHC representative).
The Division of English as an International Language may offer classes or other English-learning opportunities. Call 333-7921 or 333-1506 for more information.
Make English learning an everyday effort by using every means at your disposal to gain skill and confidence in your English. Join study groups with members of your class; talk to your professors; join in activities outside of class where you will need to speak English; recite in class; talk to your neighbors, to the bus driver, or to people in stores; write notes and letters in English; practice reading out loud; in short, practice, practice, practice! Your level of competence in reading, speaking, writing, and comprehension will increase the more that you practice your skills.
TO ACTIVATE YOUR UNIVERSITY ACCOUNTS
As a student at the University of Illinois you will have accounts that will allow you access to a variety of campus services. For the full overview of how you will be granted access to email and other network services, please see “Entering Campus".
- Your first step to activating your accounts is to claim your NetID (Network ID) and set up your NetID password.
- You will also need to set up an Enterprise ID and Enterprise Password. Your Enterprise ID is usually the same as your NetID. You will use your NetID and Enterprise password to register for your classes.
- Your NetID is part of your University of Illinois email address (NetID@illinois. edu). Undergraduates can either create a Google Apps account or redirect Illinois email to an account that they already have. Graduate and professional students need to set up an Exchange email account. All students should see the Partner Computing Services page for more information.
Technology Services Help Desk 244-7000
The Technology Services Help Desk provides phone, email, walk-in and online chat consulting for Technology Services and other computing needs to students, staff, faculty and other affiliates of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Technology Services Training Services 333-6285
This office provides training for students, faculty, and staff at Illinois. For further information, go to the University’s Software WebStore website (https://webstore.illinois.edu/home/), which links to these training opportunities.
Instructional Computer Sites
Computers, printers and other equipment are available for use by students. Call ahead for hours of operation, or visit https://techservices.illinois.edu/services/computer-labs
Room 70 A & B
1203 1/2 West Nevada
901 West Oregon