Ending the Semester with a Smile

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The topic for this week’s blog came to me in a dream: I was handing out a 10-page exam to students in US History II when I realized I did not have enough copies for the entire class. I ran back to my office to print more but could not find the file on my thumb drive. Gone. Lost forever. I was left with a terrifying question: how would I assess those students for whom I had no copy of the exam? A sweat-inducing panic swept over me and I woke feeling utterly overwhelmed.

Last year at this time I blogged about the challenges of dealing with student stress prior to finals. This year, as I’m preparing for a semester-long research sabbatical, I’m feeling more end-of-the-term stress than usual. In addition to grading students’ work and computing final grades, I’m planning my spring research trips. In spite of all of my list-making and organizational efforts, I am stressed out! This week’s blog, then, is more a collection of my rambling thoughts than a succinct discussion of a teaching topic.

In the past I’ve thought about changing my syllabi and having fewer assignments due at the end of the term. I’ve agonized over final exams: do they have any real value as assessment tools or are they simply something I do because everyone else is doing them? I’ve read articles and blogs arguing their merits: see, for example, “A Final Round of Advice for Final Exams” (The Chronicle of Higher Education) and “Final Exams Fail at Giving Students Anything of Value” (The Daily Campus). In my upper-level courses I long ago replaced the final exam with projects. Students complete weekly content-based online assessments and then spend the end of the semester researching and writing.

So in spite of having already made some of the many expert-recommended changes to alleviate end-of-semester-chaos, after fifteen-plus years of college teaching, I am still feeling the stress…deeply.

A student came to my office this week for what I assumed was help preparing for her history final exam. I was surprised to discover that she had come to talk to me about another class. She was at a loss at how to prepare for a science exam and was completely overwhelmed by the volume of material. My disconnect from the subject matter enabled me to help her organize and make a plan. Although she left my office without an enhanced understanding of the key biology concepts, she nonetheless left with a smile: voicing her concerns about the exam had helped and in that moment talking was enough.

I guess my point with this week’s blog, then, is not to solve the problem of end-of-the-semester stress but instead to simply vent it.

I feel better already.

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.