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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Subverting That End-of-Semester Exhaustion

Some experiments for creating schedules that may lessen the physical and emotional exhaustion so common at the end of the spring semester.

April 26, 2018
 
 

One of the odder sensations I’ve experienced because I’m not teaching is realizing that it’s nearing the end of April and I don’t feel like I want to crawl into a cave and sleep for a month.

Both instructors and students are well familiar with second-semester burnout, the desperate drive to just get to the end so rest may follow. My Twitter feed is significantly populated with faculty and students, and the expressions of fatigue (from faculty) and anxiety (from students) are nearly constant.

It is as though we are collectively sprinting toward the end, but rather than breaking the tape at the finish line and throwing up our arms in triumph, we run into a brick wall, which we are hoping will at least deliver the sweet relief of unconsciousness, head trauma be damned.

Over the years, when conferencing with students during finals week, the most common sentiment expressed about the “big final project” turned in on the last day of class was “disappointment.”

Not disappointment in the grade, necessarily, but a recognition that the final effort has been inevitably compromised by having to juggle so many other “big” assignments coupled with their steadily depleting stores of energy. Much of our conferences involved discussing what they would have done on their piece if they’d simply had the time, space and energy necessary to achieve their ultimate vision.

Disappointment and regret are inevitable byproducts when it comes to writing. There is an unbridgeable gap between that which we intend for our work and the results, but I longed for students to experience what it is like to exhaust their abilities, rather than have their abilities undercut by exhaustion.

After too many years of seeing this phenomenon as a fixed condition of the academic semester, I finally tried something different.

Looking at a semester with 15 weeks of class, I decided to “end” the semester at week 13, leaving two weeks following the turning in of the “big final project.” Those final two weeks consisted of a combination of large group, small group and individual reflection (short essay/portfolio) where students were asked to consider what we’d done that semester, what they’d learned and what they felt they still needed to learn to keep moving forward.

I expected students would be grateful for turning down the temperature a bit (and they were), but something unexpected happened as well -- they put significantly more effort into the reflection work than they would’ve put into the big final project had we devoted the final two weeks to it instead.

In fact, the short reflection essays were often the best writing students did all semester. Some of the short essays expanded significantly, as students stretched the prompt and explored their own concerns, driven by personal inquiry. Rather than focusing on maximizing the quality of the big final project artifact, we were maximizing the depth of inquiry into their own learning, using that (again, inevitably) incomplete artifact as a vehicle for reflection.

I’d long known that reflection and metacognition are linked to improved learning, but I was so programmed to follow the teaching folklore I’d been immersed in as both a student and instructor, it took me a long time to build this activity more explicitly into the end-of-semester period, rather than leaving it as an afterthought for those final conferences.

Emboldened by this success, I tried another experiment. Hold on to your hats…

I did a course without a “big final project.” We simply did work every day, all semester, moving pieces of writing along through the process, getting feedback when necessary (sometimes small group, sometimes collective), while working toward a portfolio submission of selected work mean to demonstrate what was done and learned that semester.[1]

There were no sudden surges before big deadlines, just work to be done as part of their overall portfolio of academic responsibilities.

This experiment worked also, though I would tweak some things if I were to repeat it, mostly to make the schedule more flexible and more open. Even as I meant to challenge them, I was hesitant to fully upend the familiar patterns of the semester, which resulted in some mixed signals.

What I learned is that while the semester is fixed as a container, I could do much more to challenge some of the problems I’d wrestled over for more than a decade in terms of workflow and scheduling.

These approaches cut both ways in terms of the amount of work. Not having a big final project deadline meant I didn’t have the soul-crushing experience of being confronted with seven to 10 days of constant grading at semester’s end. On the other hand, I had to be more present and prepared to offer feedback and guidance on an ongoing basis. I wouldn’t say it resulted in any less total time worked, but it was spread more evenly over the semester.

The other difference is my assessment time was more likely to be spent collaboratively with students in conference, rather than isolated with their artifacts as I graded. I found that preferable. There was no worse feeling than dedicating a full hour to a student’s big final project only to have them never even pick it up during finals week.

What works for me and the courses I teach may not work for everyone, but at the least, if there’s something that’s been bugging you and you wish was different in this realm, know it’s possible to change things up and live to tell the tale.

My recommendation is to reflect on the emotions of these final weeks and identify the origins of those emotions. When it comes time to plan next semester, consider those things and see if there isn’t some way to short circuit a counterproductive pattern.

 

[1] Along with a reflective piece articulating why the portfolio piece was chosen and what kind of learning it’s meant to represent.

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