Study skills useful in stressful times

George Brown course aims to calm the frazzled nerves of its students

By Michael Dojc

[Published October 2, 2001--Toronto Star]


Post-secondary students already have enough legitimate reasons to put off or ignore their homework - time-consuming part-time jobs, real financial concerns and family crises. Add the recent terrorist attacks to that list and suddenly reading about accounting principles and human biology just doesn't seem all that important.

This past summer, the faculty and administration of George Brown College designed a mandatory one-semester course called Strategies for Student Success. The class is for first-year business and creative arts students and is intended to increase student retention, ease the transition from other schools and teach success and survival techniques. The timing of what essentially amounts to a compulsory guidance class could not have been better. "I could have used a course like this every year of my life," said Sarah Gowans, a business administration major, the day after the attacks in the U.S.

Marjorie Frutos, an educator for more than 25 years, teaches Strategies for Student Success. In the class, she peppers her lectures with positive mantras such as, "you can do it," "persevere," "don't give up" and "discover what you want and then go after it." With all the hours of work and school and commuting, students have difficulty catching up on their sleep. "I've noticed that by the end of a semester, some students are actually pale from exhaustion," says Frutos.

To cope with sleep deprivation and the anxiety exacerbated by the recent events, the course takes a holistic approach to de-stressing: A Pilates instructor will visit this semester to lead the students in breathing, stretching, and strengthening exercises, which aim to create balance between body and mind.

Success courses have been taught in the U.S. for some time now, and they're growing in popularity. Houghton Mifflin's Becoming A Master Student, which is used in the George Brown course, was one of the top-selling textbooks in North America last year.

At George Brown, along with general guidance, the course curriculum includes time-management strategies, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. And Frutos brings a warm, welcoming atmosphere to the class. When a few students amble in 15 minutes late, instead of chastising or embarrassing them, she smiles and gently informs the nervous bunch that they shouldn't be afraid to come in late as long as they don't disturb the rest of the class.

Taking a hand count to see how many students have jobs, Frutos smiles at the sea of extended arms that represent roughly three quarters of the class. "Your generation is much more sophisticated than mine," she exclaims, explaining that when she went to school in rural Saskatchewan it was a huge deal for someone to have a job. "The students are working so many hours, I don't know how they cope, but they do handle it," Frutos says following the class.

Karen Hamilton, a co-ordinator of the communications and general education programs who helped spearhead the development of the course, agrees. "I've had students who are 18 years old, who have had 10 jobs in their lives. Some of them have resumes that are longer than some of ours," she says.

"I think most institutions are realizing that one of the reasons that a lot of students leave is because they do not feel connected and one of the main goals of the student success course is to make them feel that they belong, they are not alone, and that we care about them," says Hamilton.

And the approach seems to be working. Derek Brass, a first-year business administration student who is enrolled in the success course, says he finds the atmosphere at George Brown to be more conducive to learning than his previous college.

*Article appears with permission of the author