Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Uh-Oh I'm in Trouble Phenomenon

This is the time in the semester when all of us begin to see a lot of new faces in our offices.  First-time appointments happen more often than we would wish.  For most of these students, the realization that they have too much to do in the days before exams and paper deadlines has created a sense of worry - and for some, outright panic.

In fact, some of these students are in pretty good shape and just need a pep talk combined with structure and organization to show them how to produce maximum results.  Unfortunately, there are other students who are seriously behind in most aspects of their studying.  For those students, the ASP task becomes containing the damage rather than fixing all of the problems.

If we give a true reading of how poorly prepared the students are at this point in the semester, it just increases the panic and sinks any hope or motivation.  So, the strategy has to be working with the student to implement the best strategies for the time available and encourage the student to "come see me at the beginning of the next semester so we can avoid problems by implementing early strategies." 

What are some steps we can take with students who are very far behind to help them make the best of a bad situation?  Here are some possibilities:

Take stock in each course as to the status of the student's studying:

  • How many topics/subtopics/chapters/pages have been covered in the course up to this point?
  • How many topics/subtopics/chapters/pages will be added over the remaining class periods?
  • Are the course topics discrete units or do they build from week one through the end in a cumulative effect or some combination of these two?
  • What information has the professor given about topics not on the exam, topics to expect on the exam, or strategies for exam study?
  • How far along are the student's outlines: not even started, started but many weeks behind, just 3-4 weeks behind, or almost up to date?
  • How many weeks out of the semester's material does the student understand well already: none, less than 5 weeks, 6-9 weeks, 10-13 weeks?
  • How much of the material has the student memorized rules/definitions/steps of analysis for already: none, less than 10%, less than 25%, less than 50%, less than 75%, more than 75%?
  • If an essay exam will be given, how many essay practice questions have they done for the course material already: none, 5 or less, 6-10, 10-15, more than 15?
  • If a multiple-choice exam will be given, how many multiple-choice practice questions have they done for the course material already: none, less than 25, 26-50, 51-75, 76-100, more than 100?
  • What is the order among the courses as to difficulty for the student: hardest, next hardest, etc.?

Use the information that has been gathered to determine for each course how easily the student can get "caught up" and move forward in studying.  The idea is to prioritize the order in which the student wants to tackle the courses.  Consider the following items to determine the possible strategies:

  • Which partial outlines can be caught up with the least amount of work and in the least amount of time?
  • Which un-started outlines lend themselves to making condensed versions because there is no time to do full-blown proper outlines?
  • Which unstarted outlines may by default need to be "other people's" or commercial outlines because there is no hope of developing an outline of any kind in the time remaining?
  • In which courses does the student have the best grasp on the concepts and just needs more memory time?
  • Which courses does the student feel fairly clueless in and will need significant time to understand?
  • What type of exam will be given in each course: closed book, open book, take-home, essay, multiple-choice, combination of these?
  • When is the exam for the course scheduled during the exam period?
  • Are there any papers or other assignments also due in the courses?
  • How many credit hours is each course and are the courses required to graduate, bar courses, and/or elective?

Now that the information gathering is finished and priorities have begun to emerge, it is time to lay out a plan of action.  The specifics of the student's situation and courses will make all of the difference.  However, there are some general thoughts that can help in the weighing of strategies within the plan:

  •  Some students overreact to the pressure they are feeling and initially feel in trouble in all courses.  As the questions above explore the status of each course, do a reality check with the student.  Is the situation as bad as it seemed when the student crossed your threshold?  For example, is the student in solid shape in one course, good shape in two others, and really panicky about two more?  By pointing out the true status, the student will hopefully calm down some, regain perspective, and be ready to remedy the situation in the two courses that are the stressors while continuing to make good progress in the other three courses.
  • Students need to use their time wisely to get the most results for that time.  A student may be behind in five outlines, but knows that two of them could be caught up quickly.  It is usually more desirable to knock those two otlines out first rather than slog through three outlines at a snail's pace first.
  • Some students feel better if they front-load one day on exam review for each course early on so that they feel progress on all courses.  Then they have less overall stress and can more realistically parcel out study through the later days as warranted by each specific course. 
  • Days have three parts: morning 8-12, afternoon 1-5, and evening 6-10.  By taking a monthly calendar and dividing each day into its natural thirds, a student can plan out when to work on different courses.  During a class week, some of the thirds may be crossed off because of classes or a part-time job.  However, the other thirds are potential study times.  On the weekends, students will take some down time, but still have 8-12 potential hours to consider for study.
  • By adding deadlines for papers or other assignments and exam dates to the monthly calendar, it becomes obvious for at least certain days where one needs to focus on which courses.  Other days have more flexibility and can be divided among multiple courses. 
  • We all know the traps of open-book exams.  Students do not have time to look everything up.  They need to know the material well before the exam.  However, if a student will be able to take a code book into an exam, it does diminish somewhat the hours on memorization of multiple sub-parts.
  • Ideally we would like students to take every course equally seriously in their studies.  The reality is that a course required for graduation has a different weight than an elective for a 3L in the last semester.  A student is likely to focus on credit hours and quality points: a 4-credit course that will garner them a C grade versus a 3-credit course that could garner them a C grade.  Whatever the decision about a course, there will be some practical things to consider.

Each student's strategies will have to be tailored to the situation.  By helping students weigh the pros and cons of strategies, we can contribute to their being able to turn around some situations.  Where medical problems, family emergencies, or other special circumstances have led to the student's academic dilemma, there may be other options available and referrals will be needed.  (Amy Jarmon)  

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