An Instructor’s Guide to Less Panicking and More Planning at Term’s End

March 12, 2019 Diane Rubino

Luckily, I had napkins stashed in my purse, because Tara (a pseudonym) spent half the time with tears streaming down her face. What began as a tutoring session quickly degenerated into an unhappy conversation. There are certain times of the year that are more difficult for educators and students such as the road between Thanksgiving and the end of the semester and Spring Break.  

Instructors may also find tension ratcheted up by extra demands on their time. For example, we typically have more paperwork and more meetings. In the past, when I’ve found myself in the rough patches of midterms and finals, I’ve fantasized about walking out and never returning, trading my classroom for any beach anywhere.

These days I’m less likely to get caught in the tangle of student struggles and heavier workloads. Now I use the closing weeks of the academic calendar to ensure my house is orderly to reduce course-related Sturm und Drang.

Support Yourself with Self-Evaluation

Fortunately, the classroom is a metrics-laden environment, providing ways to assess your status and figure out what, if anything, could be done differently. Even if you’re exactly where you need to be, it’s wise to double-check to ensure a calmer semester or quarter’s end.

A key question I ask myself is: am I on schedule in terms of assignments, content covered, grading, and learning outcomes? If not, I could spend the last weeks cramming content into sessions and grading into every cubbyhole of my free time. In my case, that’s even included a Spring Break morning or two. Here are a few things I now do to avoid such things in the future.

Keep Assignments on Track

There are many reasons your class could be behind in assignments. I give feedback on drafts before grading the first papers. But I’ve had groups who need more scaffolding. For these, I’ll repeat this feedback loop on the second assignment and possibly even the third for classes in which this is the case. But I proceed cautiously down this path because it’s more work for all and knocks schedules off kilter. Sometimes, however, there’s no better solution. No matter how it happens, you’ll want to catch up to the syllabus at some point, and the earlier, the better. It can make for fewer overheated final weeks. 

Manage Classroom Content

I typically have more content to cover than time to cover it. Occasionally I’ll run a few moments short but can use material from previous sessions. I carry a few extra relevant assignments to every class, just in case.

If you’re one of those who regularly blows through lessons with time to spare, you can use Spring Break as an opportunity for reflection to find additional content and reflect on how to revise your preparation process. Where possible, seek lesson-planning guidance from experienced colleagues. I run to my instructor friends and colleagues for help. When I felt my confidence waning in a new environment, I asked a colleague/friend to sit in on my class “off the record.” His insights about what I was doing right, and the subsequent improvement that came out of our conversation, were empowering and helped de-escalate my tension.

I always look for ways to present more efficiently to ensure every necessary topic is covered according to the syllabus. But sometimes the material is harder to keep up with than the neatly laid out plan indicates. Students struggle to absorb the information, and I struggle to teach it. There are plenty of strategies to keep the class “on task.” But when both my students and I are off our game, I’ve distributed my own reading notes and use class time for exercises and conversations to highlight key areas. Providing my notes ensures I’ve covered every subject, even if I don’t speak to every last detail.

Communicate Through Grading

Grades are the classroom’s Early Warning, Alert and Response System. The month or so at the end of the term is the last-chance-to-improve zone and a key moment to signal students about their status. I find schemes that provide students with the opportunity to gain significant points and assignments with different weights make it harder for me to accomplish my grading transparency goal, so I avoid them.

In my classes, students can earn up to 100 points during the semester. Most assignments are worth ten points and are proportional—ten points is an A, nine points is an A-, 8.8 points is a B+, and so on. Recently, fifty percent of those with a C+ or lower on their first assignment contacted me instantly. I reached out to the remaining lower-than-a-C+ crowd before the second homework, highlighting the need to act. A clear understanding of their status going into midterms and finals gives many students who want to earn a better grade the opportunity to do so.

Revisit Learning Outcomes

A Spring learning-outcome review can be sobering, even if the objectives are integrated into the syllabus. There’s a difference between touching on a subject and ensuring opportunities for mastery. This is especially key when teaching a core course or an essential part of a major.

As a courtesy to the colleagues who come after me, and to help students succeed, I recently pulled out my syllabus to appraise outcomes. I realized there were, in fact, concepts I wanted to underscore in an encore discussion or activity and that I had to be conscientious about making time for each. I also hold a related classroom review. This re-focus can help students prioritize their attention in the remaining weeks and reminds them how the course meshes with the rest of the curriculum. Any chance to demonstrate the relevance of my course to the bigger educational picture is useful. The converse—students failing to see the relevance—saps their motivation. 

In the End

Focusing on the big picture in the final weeks can only help. Even though Tara spent half of the tutoring session in tears, she’ll wind up stronger and in a better place grade wise because I had a plan in place to ensure she knew where she stood in the moment, rather than when the final grades are released.

About the Author

Adjunct Instructor, New York University & Fulbright Specialist //

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