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It’s Finals Week, Not the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

10 strategies for successfully finishing the semester.

Key points

  • Rereading the syllabus can help you see the class you took as more than the sum of its parts.
  • Think about what you’re asking of your professors, what position this puts them in, and how you want to be remembered.
  • It's good to celebrate and to create rituals that mark the end of one semester's experience before transitioning to the next.

As we move full-swing into December, it’s mind-boggling all that needs to get done in less than a month. As a professor, I feel this acutely as the semester is about to end and there’s the rush to the finish line at school and everywhere else. It’s hard, but it’s absolutely essential, to regain the necessary momentum from before Thanksgiving break in order to successfully complete the semester. To this end, I’ve been thinking about what students should consider doing, and what they should not do, at the end of the semester.

Tim Gouw/Unsplash
Source: Tim Gouw/Unsplash

1. Make a list of what you need to do for each class in the order in which the due dates will occur.

2. Review the syllabus for each class. This may seem an odd time to do this, but it can really make a difference. A good class is like an intricate puzzle, and while each piece contributes to the whole, it’s not typically obvious at first what the purpose was of a particular unit, assignment, text, film, etc. When you reread this document, the rationale for how the course was constructed can become clearer and, in turn, you can begin to see the class you took as more than the sum of its parts. Doing this might even help you with your final exam in terms of how materials come together.

Class policies and your professor’s teaching philosophy typically make more sense and feel friendlier after participating in the course for the semester. You may begin to see how your professor has been on your side wanting you to succeed. In reviewing the syllabus, you also give yourself an opportunity to see if you’ve fulfilled everything.

3. Make a commitment to care for yourself even during stressful times. Stress won’t be lessened on no sleep, bad food choices, no exercise, and too much Red Bull. Performance anxiety, junk food, and caffeine overload can really do a number on your stomach. Take it from me—I guzzled diet Mountain Dew at 3 a.m. in college and it left me feeling gross, a bad mix of wired and tired. When you get good rest and eat real food, you’re likely to feel better in your gut. Occasionally staying up late to finish a project can be OK, but too many nights of that in a row and you wind up feeling depleted, depressed, out of sorts, and almost broken in your body. As we’ve all become increasingly mindful of illnesses post-pandemic, it’s also the case that a lot of poor choices can leave our bodies even more vulnerable to illness.

4. Find study buddies. These may be people enrolled in class with you, and you can share notes, discuss materials, and quiz each other. You might also seek out study buddies who aren’t in your classes but are friends with whom you can easily, quietly, and respectfully share a space and study together to keep each other accountable and motivated.

5. Mix it up. Consider studying in a new place like a coffee shop. Another idea is to see if the classroom in which you take the class is open in the evenings, and you might consider studying there. Some research shows we perform better in the same space in which we learned the material. You can visualize more of how you were taught things.

6. Try to avoid catastrophizing. When people are stressed, they tend to worry about the worst possible thing that could happen. Perhaps you’re earning a B- or a C+ in a class and then submit a paper and worry you’ll now fail the class. Think about how to keep this situation in proportion and perspective.

7. Consider how and when you contact your professors. I’m still floored by the young man in my class who texted during the Thanksgiving weekend to ask questions about the class. Evidently, he had saved my number from a phone appointment we had several weeks earlier. Numerous students do text me—once they’ve finished my classes and graduated. In fact, I have former students, now friends, who text me regularly. I welcome that. In fact, I love that. But, in no way can I manage 110 or so students texting me random questions at all hours of the day or night on my personal cell phone as they’re freaking out about grades. I told the student he’d need to email me.

8. Think about what you’re asking of your professors. I’m amazed—and not in a good way—by the sheer number of students who email me asking for second chances to redo their papers and retake tests or who want extra credit or who simply want me to add “just a few points” to boost their grades. They’ve been told, “Well, it can’t hurt to ask.” I’m here to tell you that, to the contrary, it most definitely can hurt to ask. When students do this, they signal that they believe they should be treated in a special way. My reply is always the same: “If I offer this to you, I’d need to offer it to everyone.” So, think about what you’re asking of your professors, what position this puts them in, and how you want to be remembered. And rather than email professors only about grades, talk with them about how you can improve for the future with other classes and as you move further along on your path.

9. Every semester has to end. As I tell my students, the ride must come to a complete stop. Students want the semester to be over, but they don’t want it to end until they get what they want grade-wise. Often by that point it’s too late, and they don’t want to take “no” for an answer. I can’t even begin to count the number of students who are MIA and blow off assignments all semester and then want the chance to go back and redo everything.

There was the student this semester who failed to show up to any online discussion boards, which was 20 percent of her grade, and she neglected to submit papers, and then, in mid-November, asked me for extensions so she could complete the work. This was a student I had reached out to multiple times, starting in September, expressing concern for her absences and seeing if she needed resources. Generally, problems like these present themselves early on, just like in this case; so, the pattern of no engagement with the course and no communication with me had persisted for months. This wasn’t a student for whom an incomplete would be reasonable, nor would extensions. I suggested mental health counseling and a medical leave and expressed that I hope she could take classes when she had the ability to focus on them. She wrote me back nasty messages thanking me for failing her and telling me not to respond since she wouldn’t read what I had to say anyway. She hadn’t understood how she had failed herself and cheated herself out of an opportunity to connect with someone who cared.

10. Visualize the finish line. Think about how good you’ll feel when you finish the semester. Envision what your body and mind will feel like when the term ends. How do you want to celebrate? Perhaps you want to plan an evening with friends, a day trip with someone special, or a hike in a beautiful place. It’s always good to have something to look forward to, to take stock of what we’ve accomplished, and to create rituals that mark the end of one semester's experience before transitioning to the next.