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End-of-the-Semester Shenanigans

A professor reflects on the last week of school.

Key points

  • How we exit interactions and relationships reveals a lot about our emotional intelligence.
  • College students and their parents can benefit from thinking through and talking about appropriate communication and behavior with professors.
  • Students will be more effective when they communicate respectfully about the educational enterprise and avoid excuse-making.
Priscilla Du Preez/ Unsplash
Source: Priscilla Du Preez/ Unsplash

Having taught college for 27 years, I’ve come to see that the way students communicate and behave during the last week or so of a semester is revealing and worthy of discussion. This is because the way we exit a relationship, or any connection really, tells a lot about who we really are, what we’re capable of or not, and how we’ll be remembered.

With the academic year behind us, I’m taking stock here of some of the more egregious student actions, in addition to the more mundane yet annoying, that occur in the last week of classes, with the hope that students may re-evaluate their m.o. and so college parents may support their students to handle things in a better way.

Consider how best to reach out to professors. For example, a student was unhappy with the final grade she earned in my class and was worried it would prevent her chance of admission to the nursing program. Distraught, she called me six times on my personal cell phone, left three voicemails, and sent two text messages and three emails, all within two and a half hours. I gave the students my cell phone number because I was teaching asynchronously online, and I wanted them to still find me available and accessible. When I finally spoke to her, I identified that her behavior constituted harassment. Her actions demonstrated that she had poor judgment, no boundaries, and lacked the ability to respond to a problem, let alone a crisis, that is part of nursing training. Unfortunately, many students believe we will cave if they wear us down enough. This student earned a D in the same course the previous year with a different professor. Yet, she still did not seek help earlier in the semester.

If at first you don't succeed, try again but differently. If a student does poorly in a class and has to retake it, the student should make an appointment early on with the professor to create an improvement plan. I’ve had students earn failing grades twice and have to retake the class a third time, and even when I’ve made overtures to help those students, they most often neglect to follow through.

When a professor contacts a student, there’s usually a good reason. I make contact to try to be helpful and provide resources and support for improvement. It makes sense for students to respond and make an appointment. When students struggle during the semester, it’s important to reach out to the professor for guidance immediately. It’s useless when students contest a final course grade, having neither appropriately responded to a professor's initial concerns nor sought help.

Make the most of meetings with professors. It’s important to come prepared with questions, a sense of purpose and focus, and a willingness to interact. Too often, I have spoken with students staring into their phones as I’m trying to help them, or when I ask a question or expect some modicum of engagement, they seem catatonic.

The syllabus is designed to be your friend. At the end of Fall 2021, a post circulated on social media about a professor who had stashed $50 in a locker, and in his syllabus, had provided the locker combination; at the end of the semester, he returned to the locker expecting to find it empty of the money yet the bill was exactly where he left it. Most of us bemoan that students don’t appear to read our syllabi despite our best efforts. At the beginning of every semester, I explain that the syllabus is like a GPS for success and that students who read it thoroughly do much better.

I adapted that professor’s idea. Rather than offer money, I inserted a line in my syllabus indicating that if students emailed me in the first few days of the semester with a response to a question I provided, I would give extra credit points toward their first assignment. Out of 70 students enrolled in the course, do you want to guess how many did this? Four. But many more than four students emailed me during the semester, especially at the end, asking for opportunities to do extra credit. They weren’t even aware it had already been offered.

Grades are not given; rather, they are earned. Asking for individual, special extra credit to try to get a grade bumped up asks a professor to be unethical. No student would want to discover that their professor offered extra chances for improvement to only a select few and not the rest of the class. When students ask me to make an exception just for them, I remind them of this and the larger lesson of my sociology classes, which is that the world is larger than ourselves.

Think about what you're asking. Every semester, I have students who email me wanting to make up missed assignments due weeks and even months before. In desperate emails, they ask what they can do. Related to this, I have students who’ve never shown up to a single class or submitted any work whatsoever but have emailed me in the last few weeks of the semester to try to salvage things. I’d love to tell them that this is only possible if they have access to a time machine.

In my online classes that involve discussion boards where students post and respond to peers, I have students in the last week of classes asking me to open up boards from past weeks and months so they can catch up and make posts. I try to explain that that defeats the whole purpose of spirited discussions. In the same way, I ask students to post multiple times during the week because in an asynchronous online class with deadlines at 11:59 pm, it doesn’t make sense for students to rush in and post at 11:57 pm, when no one can see it or respond. I try to explain that it would be like enrolling in a face-to-face class that meets at 10 am and ends at 11 am and dashing in at 10:55 am to blurt out a comment and run back out the door.

Consider how your email sounds. I had students this past semester who emailed to tell me they missed an exam so they could attend a birthday party or that they’d be missing a week of a three-week summer class to travel to the Bahamas.

The impact of cultural messages and the point of college. The thing is that in a cultural moment of seemingly few if any consequences, and at a time when education is marketed as something convenient with a customer-service ethos saturating much of higher education, I see how some students don’t grasp how offensive much of this behavior really is.

Many of them “just want to be done” and have college behind them, and many believe they pay and therefore deserve good grades. In a society that hasn’t valued education enough, I can appreciate that students are hard-pressed to see value in the process of learning, and I get that the cost is staggering.

In the end, higher education should be built around fostering student integrity, nurturing curiosity, providing various ways for students to strengthen their ability to communicate orally and in written form, and participating in constructive ways as a citizen in a community. And it’s often what happens in that last week of school that is a litmus test for how well all of that is really going.