Ending the Pandemic Semester Successfully

A professor offers advice for students.

Posted Nov 30, 2020

We are all aware that this has been a most challenging and unique semester. And now one of the stranger aspects of it is upon us—the fact that the vast majority of colleges and universities had made the decision to transition to an exclusively virtual format after the Thanksgiving holiday regardless of the modality used up until that point. This in and of itself is a huge departure from the academic calendar as we know it. Sure, it sounds like it should be no big deal for the last few weeks to be all online but that would ignore some important dimensions of what happens at the end of the semester. In this post, we'll examine some ways to end the semester successfully and with our sanity intact. 

Victoria Heath/Unsplash
Source: Victoria Heath/Unsplash

Having spent my adulthood on campuses—as an undergraduate student, a graduate student, and then for many years as a professor—I know something about the rhythm and pace of the end of the semester, and while we will all likely say it's incredibly stressful and we can't wait until it's over, that's only part of the story. There's also something about the ritual and release of it all that is special. For 26 years of teaching, it's also how I've come to mark time; I think in semesters, the beginnings, middles, and ends of them. 

Under normal circumstances, students go back to campuses after Thanksgiving usually realizing that campus has indeed become another home, that the circle of friends there are worth returning to, that another week or two of classes can be clarifying and help make things come together, that there can be something special about a last day of class party with fellow classmates and the professor even when it means that the planned potluck results in an all dessert buffet, that collectively stressing about exams, projects and papers helps you remember you're in this together, that somehow you will get it all done, that endlessly daydreaming about all you will do or how you will veg when this is finally over is perfectly normal but it's also making for a lot of procrastination, that meeting with your professor for one last time or two might actually be really helpful and builds a connection that transcends the semester's end, that working until the wee hours of the morning will sometimes happen, that you'll crash until noon and party a few more times until you head back home for the holidays. It's knowing you will eventually be done with this marathon, that you've passed Heartbreak Hill, that you are not alone in what it feels like to sprint to the finish line, and that throughout it all, there are rituals of work and rest and release that years later will evoke their own good and funny memories.

But none of that is happening quite this way this semester. Students may be having a nourishing meal at 7 p.m. with family including a younger sibling in elementary school or junior high rather than devouring food with friends at Taco Bell at 9 p.m. and pizza at 2 a.m. when they get a second wind; they may be taking an exam in their childhood bedroom or submitting their paper to a professor they never met. They may have no plans to celebrate the end of the term and their parents might have understandable trepidation about any mingling outside the family bubble. 

So how can students be successful both academically and personally as the semester ends? Here are some ideas that may be especially helpful now and perhaps even when the pandemic ends. 

Carve out a physical space to do work where it's possible to focus and accomplish things. This may be in your room or it may be in another part of a room in the house that has been agreed upon with other family members. Ask for what you need and explore what is workable for everyone.

Consider your routine. Try to implement the same routine at home if it has been working when away at school. Or, think about what has and has not worked and develop a routine for a few weeks that you want to try to stick to. 

Think about your time. Do you get more done in the morning, afternoon, or evening? Choose a few hours in that block of time and use it for school work. Then, try working for only 30-45 minutes of that. Take a short stretching break or a walk around the block, or make some coffee or tea and listen to a few songs. Come back and work another 30-45 minutes. Break again. Repeat this a few times and you will have worked a few hours and likely gotten more done because by giving it less time you might be more focused than if you thought you had all day and night. 

Don't email your professors begging for extra credit or asking what grade you are going to "get." If your professor plans to offer extra credit, s/he will offer this to the entire class because they cannot just offer it to help out one or two students. But, if you are asking because you have not done the regular work that was assigned, your professor might think this question is foolish because why would they need to devote more time to grading extra things when you neglected to do what was expected? And, remember, grades are not given; they are earned. And professors don't have crystal balls to predict final grades when not all the work has been submitted. So, before you email, think about how you want to come across and how you want to be remembered.

Make use of resources. Schools still have staff available virtually for appointments for counseling, study skills, writing center help, tutoring, etc. And, make appointments with your professors to speak by phone or through a screen session if you need help—but don't do this if you have waited until the last minute and there is no way they could fit you in. Look at their office hours on the syllabus and email for an appointment time in that window. 

Consider technology. Be sure to do your work close to a strong Wi-Fi signal and use the web browser best supported by your school's learning management system. If you have technological problems, first contact IT at your school rather than the professor, who is less likely to know how to troubleshoot these technical details. Also, speaking of technology, consider how much faster you might get work done if you leave your phone with the ringer and notifications off and in a different room from where you plan to do work. You will more easily get in the flow. It's too tempting otherwise and we all get jumpy and responsive for no real reason most of the time.

Find a study buddy and retain some semblance of community. Maybe you have a friend who is taking the class with you, or maybe you have made a new friend in the class. Or perhaps you have been taking the class online or as a hybrid and feel as though you know no one. Go through the online class discussion boards and think about whose comments you consistently gravitated to, and reach out to them via email, Snap, Instagram, etc. You can exchange ideas and notes and study together. Discussing the material is a helpful way to learn it better. 

Try to participate in online offerings sponsored by student life. These are meant to give you a break and may provide some enrichment. 

Find and do what brings you joy and stress relief. Remember the puppy petting sessions, the chair massages, and the pancake breakfasts typically offered to relieve stress during finals week? Invent your own fun at home! Spend time with your pet if you have one, exchange massages with someone in your bubble, make waffles for dinner, try a new recipe, take a hike on a nature trail, go for a bike ride, plan and fantasize about the first road trip you want to take when the pandemic is over, etc. 

Try to be open about what is being expected of you and what you hope for. The more clearly you can communicate with your family members or whomever you live with, the more understanding they are likely to be if you need quiet, a different space, acceptance if you're keeping wacky hours, or if you want to look forward to something special when you're done. Remember—they're likely not used to you being home, either, and this isn't what they bargained for. Plus, they may be concerned about if you have been making good choices while away and if you could be ill. 

Consider the future. Have you met with your advisor and registered for your spring courses? When you are done with this semester, try to set aside a little time to reflect on what worked well and why, and what didn't and why not. Then, consider how you might change things up. 

A pandemic semester is different than a regular semester because it's less about the sprint to the finish line in a marathon. This is more like an ultra-marathon requiring different stamina, surrender, resilience, humor, grace, and a sense of the world as so much larger than we are. It's one grade at a time. It's one class at a time. It's one semester at a time. As I tell my own students, it's not about the grade you earn that you will remember in years to come; it's the process you'll remember and what you learned about yourself and the world around you. Tomorrow is a new day.