The final weeks of the semester can be a satisfying time, as material in courses begins to come together for professors and students alike. Connections among a variety of topics or concepts can be made, details fit into place, and major ideas consolidated. On the other hand, the end of the semester can also be a time of extreme frustration and stress for everyone, as demands pile up, deadlines loom, and unexpected problems test our composure.
To avoid the latter of these two extremes, we have the opportunity, now, to step back and consider what the next few weeks might look like. If we're running behind in our syllabus and thus delaying assignments, or if we're encountering problems with the quality of student performance in our courses, it might be a good idea to reconfigure our expectations. Much can still be accomplished if we take a practical view of what we and our students can achieve, and prepare students for successfully completing courses.
The design of the syllabus lies directly under the professor's control, often allowing for some abbreviation of content. Nothing is more frustrating for students than to have the course suddenly begin to move at lightening speed so that a month's worth of information is jammed into a week's lectures. Covering content is not the same as teaching it, and students, we know, can only make sense of concepts that are fully explained and sufficiently illustrated. Even for sequence courses that require us to reach a predetermined destination, paring down details and boldly emphasizing the most critical information can minimize the disturbing sense that a dump truck has suddenly upended in the classroom.
If we step back to view the semester from a student's perspective, we recognize that we might consciously communicate more fully our expectations of how students should approach their work in our courses. Students are, for the most part, inexperienced managers of time, especially first-year students. They may have been accustomed to studying at the last minute, cramming for exams, and writing papers the night before they're due. By this point in the semester most of these novices have learned that staying up all night before a major exam or attempting to write a ten page research paper in two hours doesn't work well. In order to help these struggling students, faculty can wisely invest five minutes of class time to review the rest of the semester and clarify what remains to be done and what deadlines approach. We might recommend that students sit down and carefully plan out the remaining days in order to set realistic short term goals. For students who need help thinking through such matters, the Learning Resources Center tutors can be of great help.
Experienced students also realize that studying for exams should begin early to minimize stress and provide sufficient time to ask questions during office hours or review sessions. Encouraging students to organize the semester's material in concept maps can provide them with methods for making connections among topics and focusing on the big picture rather than getting lost in the details. Finally, test anxiety is a serious issue for many students, and again they can be encouraged to seek guidance on how to minimize its impact on their performance, either through counseling or by following preparation strategies others have found to be helpful.
Courses often require final papers or final presentations. Many professors have discovered that assigning a single long paper due at the beginning or end of finals week creates last-minute crises and, occasionally, problematic essays. Unless students have been required to submit outlines, bibliographies, or drafts during the semester, the final result can be a less than satisfying read; (as Samuel Johnson noted, "what is written without effort is read without pleasure"). It's important to get students moving early, and to encourage them to seek help from tutors or friends in order to polish their work before turning it in. .
While many professors offer very clear guidelines for students regarding their written work, they may inadequately prepare students for oral reports and presentations. As with all assignments, the more explicit the instructions the better, along with the advice to practice in front of others or before a video camera.
Finally, faculty members should protect themselves too from the stresses of the end of semester dash. Advice about stress, however, is only as good as one's willingness to slow down and take it seriously.
Available at the Faculty Development Center:
Gmelch, Walter H. (1993) Coping with Faculty Stress. Newbury Park: Sage.
Near the end of last semester, I wrote a brief article in Insights ("Racing to the Finish")
about how faculty can help students successfully manage the final weeks of the semester.
As this semester speeds to a close, I would like to discuss how faculty can best prepare themselves for a successful conclusion to the academic year. Effectively managing time and stress during the end of a term (instead of wearing ourselves out) can help us enjoy these weeks, conclude with a sense of satisfaction, and be primed--after a brief rest--to begin summer projects.
The final month of teaching presents various challenges, including finishing the material originally outlined in the syllabus, preparing tests and assignments, giving feedback on projects, and dealing with individual students' late papers, personal crises, or grading concerns. Depending on how closely the current calendar matches with the original syllabus, consider cutting back on content (if this is an option). Students don't benefit from having four weeks of information squeezed into two since there's little likelihood that they'll have time to comprehend and digest the new information. Focus on the major concepts of the course and tie as much of the course together (through review) as possible. Most of the memorization should be over for students by now: they should be concentrating on integrating and consolidating information.
This notion of limiting new content to the most significant ideas during the final weeks also relates to another key factor in managing short periods of time well: make priorities stick. Decide on what is most important and be ruthless in staying on task. One of the most insidious forms of procrastination is to imagine that smaller and more trivial things need to be gotten out of the way before we tackle larger tasks (like grading that set of essays or reviewing those final reports). Tackle the big concerns first, when you're fresh and able to concentrate best. This may require spending a little more time planning out the day, but such planning becomes especially crucial in hectic periods.
For other teaching tasks, two suggestions offered by Douglas Robertson in Making Time, Making Change (see below) may be useful: "require students to monitor their own completion of course assignments," and "require students to prepare their own study guides" (p. 42). The rational for both suggestions is both to save faculty members time and to place greater responsibility on students for their success in a course. Robertson takes this position on study guides, "because it has now become clear to me that on many of our campuses the professor's study guide may constitute the only course reading that some students do" (pp. 42-43).
In the last weeks of the semester, many faculty feel that review sessions are more effective that office hours. Review sessions help one avoid having to repeat the same information or review the same problem several times for different students. If possible, videotape the session and make it available for students who can't attend. In the same vein, asynchronous online discussion boards can serve the same purpose-and even save more time if students are encourage to answer each other's questions.
Other common time management advice also holds: set time limits for tasks and stick to them (if possible); avoid interruptions by isolating yourself if necessary--inform people in advance when you'll be available and when you won't; finish a task if possible, rather than jumping from one thing to another. And finally, save time every day for yourself-to unwind, exercise, enjoy pleasure reading, or relax with family or friends. You may have noticed the phenomenon that occurs regularly for undergraduates: by winter break in December and by finals time in May, they have worked themselves so ragged, slept so little, and eaten so poorly, that their first few weeks after classes end are spent with the flu, or a cold, or home in bed with another ailment. It's nice to have learned from our experience so that even though we are on similar schedules, we don't have to repeat the mistakes of our youth.
And of course the biggest reason for avoiding an end-of-semester collapse is to move into the summer months with energy for our research projects and a clear plan to carry them forward. Use some time in the coming month to begin careful planning and setting small goals and tasks to accomplish soon. Another of the worst causes of procrastination is imagining a task that is so large that it seems impossible to begin. To avoid stalling in the face of a trek up Everest, start small and make certain that several short hikes are taken before the summer even begins.
Resources on Time Management for Faculty:
Time Management New Faculty
Books available at the FDC
Gmelch, W.H. (1993) Coping with Faculty Stress, Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Robertson, D. R. (2003) Making Time, Making Change : Avoiding Overload in College Teaching, Stillwater, OK: New Forums.
Zahorski, K.J. (1994) The Sabbatical Mentor: A Practical Guide to Successful Sabbaticals, Bolton, MA: Anker.