How Do You Curb End-of-Semester Student Stress? Suggestions Welcome

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   The final three weeks of the semester following Thanksgiving Break are harried, to say the least. Even though I try to plan accordingly I am inevitably swamped with grading over Thanksgiving and, subsequently, I flail into the final exam period barely keeping my head above water. I know I’m not the only academic who struggles with this problem. Having taught college students for fifteen years now I have accepted that I will be overwhelmed as the semester is coming to a close so I embrace the chaos: I listen to music, get to an extra power yoga class, or go for a long walk to re-set.

I cannot, however, quickly or easily deal with my students’ stress. Here is the scenario I have imagined over and over in my mind: students spend the holidays with well-meaning family members asking how their classes are going. For some of the students there is a horrible realization during those conversations that their history class is not, in fact, going well at all. My office hours the week after Thanksgiving are subsequently spent fielding breathless questions: What can I do to pass? Can I complete an extra credit assignment? What grade do I need on the final exam to earn a C?

Generally by the time these stressed-out students come to meet with me they know how grim the situation is. With digital grade books available for every class the students’ current course grade is not a surprise to them as they prepare for final exams. The challenge for me, then, is figuring out what to say to help them learn from the predicament so that the next semester is more successful. These conversations are sometimes difficult. I’m not a proponent of “extra credit” assignments unless they are used as a device to get students to do something they would not otherwise do -- attend a public lecture by a visiting scholar outside of class time, for example -- so the hopeful request of a failing student to do additional work leads only to more disappointment when I tell him/her extra credit is not an option.

The sad reality is that by the end of November the majority of the grades that my students will receive for the course have been earned and there is not a lot of room for dramatic improvement. As I write this blog, for example, my US History I students have only two quizzes and the final exam left in the semester. Nonetheless, it is not until after Thanksgiving that students who are struggling generally come to discuss their grades with me.

It’s also at this time of the semester when I inevitably am faced with at least one case of plagiarism. I cannot recall a single semester in the last ten years of teaching when this problem has not surfaced. A sense of disgust and disappointment that a student handed in work that was not his/her own is mixed with my frustration that in spite of how many times I implored students to come to me for help with their writing or studying, one or two instead chose the route of academic dishonesty. Did I not make myself accessible enough? Did they procrastinate and then panic?

So these are the unpleasant realities that I’m dealing with as the semester comes to an end. As in years past, I find myself wondering how to get students in academic distress to engage with me earlier than the week after Thanksgiving. This week I would love to hear from fellow faculty who have forged successful efforts to get students to send out an academic SOS prior to Thanksgiving. Mandatory meetings at office hours? Anonymous student surveys? What have you done to make the last few weeks of the semester less stressful?

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.