Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Turkey Triage: Preparing Well for the Semester's End

Students should assess their semester's performance while preparing for finals.

This entry is more about the psychology of students than the teaching psychology, but there are some good lessons to be learned herein. The issue is how best to use the precious last few weeks of the fall semester to maximum effect where grades are concerned and to enjoy rather than be stressed out by work not done over the Thanksgiving break.

I use the medical term "triage" here, which refers to a method for sorting casualties to determine their need and order of treatment. I think the term "triage" also fits well as a metaphor for students' end of semester plans regarding coursework, grades, and the like. In essence, students need to assess where they stand in their courses and then allocate the precious time remaining accordingly. This exercise is an important one because Thanksgiving—the food and family oriented calm before the stormy end of semester—is right around the corner.

Each year at this time, I warn my students not to be seduced by the promise of hearth and home too soon. Why? Because now, pre-turkey time, is when they need to hunker down and plan a realistic schedule for how to finish all that must be finished-papers, quizzes, exams, presentations, homework, heretofore unread reading, and all the rest—before they go over the river and through the woods (or airport or bus terminal or train station).

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Many will decide to bring their work home with them "to do" over Thanksgiving. This is a grievous error, the equivalent of "the big lie." Why? Because holiday time is precious, it passes too quickly, and students come home exhausted and sleep-deprived—and then the reindeer games begin in earnest. Consider the typical college student, whose "Wednesday before Thanksgiving's" firm resolution to "write that paper" right after dinner is forgotten after Thursday's feast-the post-prandial warmth and fellowship, not to mention the soporific quality of the bird—and then mirabile dictu—it is Sunday again. That Sunday. Travel Sunday, back to campus Sunday, heavy traffic oh-my-God-I-did-none-of-my-work Sunday. Once back on campus, any resolve to head to the library is compromised by the need to do a post-mortem on Thanksgiving revels with friends and suitemates. Uh-oh. Its midnight and there is no health in us. Bed calls, and all that undone work is still undone the next morning when classes re-commence and the race to the end begins in earnest.

Yes, I went to college once. I know the drill.

What to do? Here is my simple advice for personal triage as Thanksgiving and then finals approach—if students begin to do these things now, then they can watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade guilt-free—or maybe even sleep in that day:

To start, I advise students to determine where they stand grade-wise in all of their courses. To do so, they need to meet with their instructors if they are uncertain. But, if they know they have a solid B in a given class—there is little chance of getting an A or a C—then they should spend more time shoring up the class(es) where they are not doing so well. In my experience, students often ignore the course where they need the help, preferring to burn their offerings on the altar of the "sure thing" grade. Simply put, that is not a good use of time or effort.

Second, what assignments remain and when are they due? Shorter papers can wait (exceptions being those that can be written in an hour or so—get those done). Term papers (those long, detailed research papers) need to be started immediately. Revising and editing what's already been drafted should be done at the start of each session before any real writing begins. Complete rough drafts should be taken to the college writing center for objective, independent critiques.

Third, what about group projects? First, convene the group so a time line can be created and then stick to it. Second, limit the time the group can meet—no more than an hour—so that amiable chatting doesn't burn up the time that needs to be spent planning individual contributions to the project. Third, take no prisoners where social loafing group members are concerned: If a member misses more than one meeting and/or is not contributing her share, inform the instructor and drum her out of the group.

Fourth, think about reviewing for final exams, those high stakes winner take all tests. Ideally, you should have been reviewing all semester. If not (sigh), then begin at the beginning and review a chapter or two each day up to the day of the test. Do not study with others unless you have been doing so all semester (see the problem with amiable chatting above). Whatever you do, don't wait for the university's "Reading Day," which on many campuses is an excuse for a holiday bacchanal (not that I am not against such things, especially if you've done all your work so that you can enjoy the fun with a clear conscience-but many students who are not caught up enjoy the fun anyway with predictably sad consequences-don't be a statistic).

Fifth, sleep is essential. Pulling "all-nighters" is silly and counterproductive and, no, you really don't perform better under pressure—no one does—that is another "big lie." (I did one all-nighter when I was a student and I sometimes think I am still fighting off the resulting fatigue from that foolishness.) Try to get 7 or 8 hours sleep each night as finals approach. Eat all three meals. If you can exercise, do so.

Sixth, if you can study in different places on campus, do it-research shows that there are memory benefits to learning in different settings. Break up your studying by spending time on one subject and then switching to another so your mind doesn't wander. Take short breaks for a walk, to get a cup of coffee, or to check Facebook (briefly, please!).

Finally, once a paper is turned in, a quiz completed, or an exam submitted, put it out of mind and focus on the next task until all your semester's work is well and truly done. Any subsequent ruminating is wasted-better to focus on the up-coming long winter's nap!

 

 

 

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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