PSYC 300w has a reputation as a very difficult and demanding course. But with the right approach, this can be one of the most rewarding courses of your post-secondary education.

General tips (i.e. the 3 Stays)

1. Stay positive

Becoming a good writer takes time and effort. This means that you’ll likely receive the same feedback or criticisms on multiple occasions. You’re not alone in this! Everyone has particular areas that they struggle with and that they’ll always need to work on. Many students become frustrated and give up. They feel there is no point in trying because they will never get it right. But the key to success in Psych 300 (and life more generally…) is to keep working on your weaknesses. So don’t allow yourself to start feeling defeated when you’re asked for a more concise thesis for the third time. It just means there’s still room for improvement.

2. Stay in your TA’s good books

A good relationship with your TA is crucial to doing well in Psych 300. They are your greatest resource, so make sure you go to office hours and show them you are eager to learn. It can be really difficult for your TA to give precise feedback in written form. But in person, it’s much easier to give detailed suggestions and work out exactly what a student needs to address. So a good relationship with your TA will ensure that you get the most out of this course. And that will make it easier to stay positive!

3. Stay on top of your schedule

Never fall behind. Do not miss deadlines. Not only you will lose marks unnecessarily, it will very quickly become impossible to follow tips 1 and 2.

Assignment-specific tips

Most students become frustrated at the course when they feel as though their work isn’t paying off. Often, it’s simply a matter of misunderstanding some aspect of the assignment requirements. So here are some tips for each assignment.

Weekly Critical Reading Evaluations (CREs)

Keep summaries short

Being a good scientific writer requires that you condense a large amount of information into a small number of words. Learning to paraphrase well is crucial to doing well on the CREs. Shorter summaries leave you more space for critical analysis and ultimately for better marks.

Engage with the readings

You should try and capture the central theme of that week’s readings. Rather than looking at each paper individually, look at what message they convey together. Ask yourself what the guest lecturer was trying to say by assigning that particular combination of readings. You want to make this point stand out in your summary.

To do this, you will need to read the assigned papers carefully. Try and summarize each paper in a sentence or two. Then arrange those summaries into a logical order. This should help you identify the overall message they are sending.

Build an argument

The other important part of the CREs is the critical analysis. The most effective way to do this is to build an argument.

  • Once you’ve identified the central theme of the readings, you need to use those readings to build your own argument. It does not matter what position you take on the themes/issues presented in the readings, as long as you clearly state your main argument. This is the art of thesis building, and developing it during the CREs will be a huge asset in later components of the course.

  • In this course, you are being asked to build an original argument, which means you cannot simply re-state content that you have read. You must develop and support your own argument that contributes to the discussion of the topic. You also want to ensure that you are using clear and strong language. Avoid statements like "I believe," or "I think," or "in my opinion," or "this may/could/might be." Instead, state your arguments boldly and directly. 

  • With your thesis clearly, concisely, and boldly stated, you need to choose two or three points that support it. Arrange them in a logical order and provide supporting evidence for each one.

Exploratory paper

The exploratory paper is simultaneously the easiest and hardest part of the course. It’s not a terribly difficult paper to write. But there’s a lot of extra work that goes into it behind the scenes. If you do the exploratory paper well, you’re going to find the term paper much easier to write.

Show you’ve done your research

You should take this opportunity to do most of the research for your paper. Provide a summary of the papers you read in your exploratory paper.  Provide a little commentary on that summary showing you’ve thought about the paper. This will start shaping your thoughts, which will make it easier to write your draft.

Use the paper to structure your thoughts

Structure the exploratory paper like a diary, or focus on individual papers, or cluster similar papers together. It’s not the format that’s important, but the evidence of your thought process. You want to do the work (and develop your thoughts) over a period of time, not cram it in the night before. It’s also good practice for all term papers to allow your thoughts to percolate and develop over a longer time frame. Taking time to structure your thoughts will ultimately allow you to see connections between ideas better.

Highlight your thesis development

Whatever format you choose, emphasize your thesis. Start with a general question you’d like to pursue, and at the end of each entry write a revised question or a potential thesis. The purpose of this assignment is to arrive at a thesis, so you need to show that you’ve been thinking about and working towards a final thesis statement.

Remember a good thesis is a clear and concise statement that takes a stance on a particular issue. It tells the reader exactly what your main point will be. Getting to this point can be difficult, and requires a lot of revision because you have to know exactly what you’re going to say. This is the point of the exploratory paper. But even afterwards you will need to reword things to make your thesis as precise as possible. So always be open to revising and refining your thesis. 

Make your thesis stand out

Make it really obvious what your final thesis is by bolding it at the end of your paper. If you don’t want to bold it, then highlight it, put it in italics, or use a larger font. It does not matter what you do; just make it physically pop off the page.

Term paper

The term paper is the largest component of the course. The process for this assignment forces you to revise your paper several times, which means you have the opportunity to produce the best term paper possible. Some students even go on to publish their term papers in the undergraduate journal. So if you engage with the process fully, you can really get a lot out of this exercise. Here are some tips:

Explain yourself 

Strong academic writing involves making and supporting claims. Supporting your claims means both ensuring that you have evidence to back you up and explaining why your claims are significant. This step can be challenging because the significance likely seems obvious to you as a writer. But, remember that your reader doesn't share your understanding of the topic and so you need to make what is obvious to you clear to them in your writing. Consider, for example, questions like the following: what would happen if we don't do things the way you argued? Would there be negative consequences? Why are these consequences negative? etc. 

Address these kinds of questions clearly and directly in your writing, rather than leaving it to the imaginations of your readers to answer them. 

Don’t hand in the minimum for the peer review draft

The more writing you give to your peers, the more feedback they will be able to provide. You want as much feedback as possible because that’s going to place you in a better position to revise and edit your draft. The more you revise and edit, the better your final draft will be.

Give your peers good feedback

Although providing good feedback does not guarantee that you will receive good feedback, it does force you to think through the writing process more critically. This will improve your own writing because you’ll see what works and what does not. Learn from others’ mistakes and successes! And look for ways to improve your own paper and writing in general.

Take feedback seriously

People tend to shrug off feedback and say “Well they just didn’t understand what I was trying to say.” In most cases, they didn’t understand because you didn’t state your point clearly enough. We all understand our own writing because we know what we were trying to say. But that is not always what comes across to the reader. So make an effort to see feedback as opportunities to grow as a writer, and not as a criticism of you or your abilities.

Critically evaluate yourself and revise

Spending the extra time to revise your paper beyond the feedback you received will only make your submission stronger. Writing is really just a form of thinking out loud. As we write we clarify our thoughts, we see new connections between points, and we solidify the message we are trying to convey. Thus, the more time we spend thinking about our writing, the better the end product becomes. So take the time to properly revise each draft of your paper.

Spend additional time with your TA

Doing revision does not come naturally to most people, so we have to learn strategies to help us become good at it. Of course, it’s entirely possible to learn these skills on your own. But it will definitely take longer and will almost certainly cost you marks. So why not make it easy on yourself and ask for help? Your TA will have helpful tips that’ll make things easier or more effective.

Also check out free SFU academic resources like the Student Learning Commons, which offers in-person writing consultations, and WriteAway, an online writing-tutoring service. You’ll get skilled feedback to help you revise your writing even more effectively.


Content by Reg Booy, SLC Graduate Writing Facilitator, 2017, with additional contributions by Pearl Tran, 2020