A Memo to Students about Course (and Life) Challenges
Note to readers: Be welcome to make this note your own. Use it as a template. Delete or revise what doesn’t fit, add more sections or examples, and change the voice so that it sounds like you and aligns with what you would like to see from your students.
As a new academic term gets into gear, there is a good chance you are a little intimidated by all that needs to be done before you get to take your next vacation. You are not alone in feeling the stress and the accumulating weight of multiple academic and life challenges. Here are some considerations and tips for the weeks ahead.
You may feel stressed by how much you have to do and study. Most college students take between three and five courses at a time. That translates into many assignments and then numerous final exams (many of them cumulative). Every week, the number of pages you are responsible for knowing adds up. This is the time to make sure you have a good planning system in place. Find the app or paper planner that works best for you. Also make sure you plan in time for fun as well. Then stick to your plans.
Of course, it would be nice to know exactly what to study. I bet you would love a comprehensive study guide that tells you everything you’ll need to know for an exam. You may wish we faculty only asked questions from the study guide or about material explicitly discussed in class. That seems fair, but as most juniors and seniors may know by now, things are different in college. Something many faculty (and some first-year students) forget is that some recalibration of expectations is needed in the move from high school to college.
In college there is more responsibility on you the student. College classes are more challenging. Faculty expect you to read more and remember more. In general, you are responsible for the material covered in assigned readings. All the material. Although faculty vary in their expectations, it is good to clarify whether you need to know an example mentioned just once or every little term. Some faculty like to include a question on something from the book not discussed in class. That may irritate you, but look at the other side. They are drawing attention to a novel finding or even rewarding you for reading the book. This said, for most of us faculty, the goal is for you to remember high-level concepts that you can take into your daily life. We care about your learning and are working hard to help you.
Yes, many of us have high expectations. Both for you and ourselves. Caring instructors give each class they teach their full attention. We pour energy into selecting materials, designing class, planning sessions, sharing content, and giving you all you need to learn successfully. Know this: We very much appreciate the efforts you put in. Know this: We see you struggle. We see you work hard to learn. We see those who do not and aim to motivate and inspire them to learn too.
Many of us share the benefits of repeatedly testing yourself and spacing out your practice. We love it when you do it and share these study tips because we sincerely believe they will help you and not to add busy work. In fact, testing yourself on material contributes more to your learning than taking that time to reread the book does. Practice testing is sometimes uncomfortable (rereading is easier), but these are the tips we harp on to help you learn. Know that we are monitoring your efforts, whether it is time you spend online in the course management systems and textbook practice tests, and hope you recognize this from our detailed emails to you, or in the face-to-face conversations we have with you. We respect your efforts to learn and celebrate them.
Know that we work hard to be fair. Was an exam question too picky? We are paying attention to the test scores. Did enough students get it right to suggest it was a fair ask? Was the material students struggled with on the exam covered well enough in class? If not, most of us are ready to give points back. If you feel a test question or assignment is ambiguous or unfair, come talk to us right away. Don’t wait till the end of class or, worse, until after class ends to vent your frustrations or share your concerns. We are also open to hearing about things going on with you that may make your attending class and learning difficult.
We are aware of the challenges many of you face. Over the course of the term we hear about students’ personal challenges—with mental health, stress, or unexpected hardship. We know that many of you combat financial hardships, struggle to make ends meet, and juggle multiple jobs and responsibilities. We strive to make sure we can address your learning needs whether it be in how we structure assignments or being open to help you evaluate and modify how you study or take exams. We can help. Use us. Use your faculty more!
Graduating college brings great rewards. Getting through college can be tough. Often, college is painful. To paraphrase the Dread Pirate Roberts’s comments about life (from the movie The Princess Bride), life is pain, and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something. This does not mean you have to grit your teeth and just bear it. There are ways to cope.
One tip: Try changing how you view things. While “I am so stressed” is an easy refrain, try reframing things as challenges. Yes, there are a lot of challenges in the weeks ahead. Be clear about what specific challenges you have and when each is due, and have a specific plan for dealing with it. Viewing things as challenges rather than “stressors” seem like simple wordsmithery, but it can make the world of a difference. Plan well. Then KEEP to your plans.
There is a set time between now and the end of the term. Assign your time well. Spend more time on assignments that count for more. Missed some due dates or having trouble finding time to study? It is not too late to learn skills that will serve you well beyond this course, term, and college. When you are balancing the stress of college with a challenging nonacademic life, it is particularly important to keep hydrated, eat and sleep well, and communicate with friends and love ones (social support can buffer many stressors).
No, college is not easy, but you do not have to face it alone. Your faculty are here to help you to compliment the many resources on campus. YOU HAVE THIS. Onward.
Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is a professor of psychological science, the director of the general psychology program, and interim executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.
An earlier version of this article appeared on Dr. Gurung’s blog, Pedagogical Pundit.