Mid-semester Advice from Dr. Tadros

This article was originally published in October 2018, but we are running it again because Dr. Tadros provided invaluable advice!

Billie Tadros, Ph.D., teaches poetry and first-year writing at The University of Scranton.  She has completed bachelor’s degrees in creative writing and in music at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, a master’s degree in writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and a doctoral degree in English and creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.  She previously taught at universities in Alabama and Louisiana. This is Dr. Tadros’s second year teaching at Scranton. In addition to teaching, she is also a published author.

What are some helpful tips to avoid a mid-semester slump?

Make sure you’re taking care of your body, not just your brain. Eat real food. Hydrate. Sleep. (Do as I say, not as I do.) And, as far as your brain goes, be sure you’re addressing your mental health—not just your grades. Take advantage of the resources available to you on campus, including the university’s Counseling Center, and recreational sports and the fitness center.

If you’re having a hard time motivating yourself, or if you’re stressed out, talk to your friends about it. Though people often present a façade that suggests they’ve totally got it together (especially on social media—some of y’all still use Facebook too, right?), the likelihood is that you’ve got friends who are stressed or struggling too. Sometimes just knowing you’re not alone in that can helpful, and what’s even better is when you’re able to support each other—maybe just by chatting and checking in, or maybe by having accountability study sessions where you sit together for two hours in the library or in DeNaples and work separately on what you need to get done in each other’s company.

Remember the things you love about this place—there’s so much to love! Take a break to take a walk through campus. Allow yourself to be present for your favorite class without spending the whole fifty minutes worrying about the next ten things you have to do. Go to a sporting event. Or, if you’ve got a lot of work to do, get a nice hot tea and go get some of that work done in your favorite quiet spot outside or in the library.

How can someone best pick up their grade in a class when the semester is already half over?

Every class is different, of course (pun intended!), as is every instructor, but I would encourage students to talk with their instructors about their concerns as early as possible (even if that is as far along in the semester as mid-term). I can only speak authoritatively for myself when I say this, but I’m much more inclined to consider extra credit opportunities, for example, when students come to me with their concerns and goals, when they take the initiative to start that conversation. More importantly, though, having a one-on-one conversation with your instructor allows him/her/them to offer you specific advice unique to you as an individual learner, something that instructors are rarely able to do during a regular class period in the classroom itself. (If you’re having trouble keeping up, or if you’re not sure why your study habits or your writing habits aren’t earning you the grades you want, a one-on-one conversation with your instructor might also yield helpful insights and new work strategies.)

The simple, unspecific advice I have if your grade is lower than you want it to be is this: do something differently. Maybe that means talking to your instructor. (I think it probably should mean this.) Maybe it means asking a friend who’s progressing comfortably in the course for study tips. Maybe it means changing the environment in which you complete course readings, write papers, or study for or complete exams. Maybe it means sleeping more. Maybe it means visiting the CTLE to work with a tutor, or visiting the Counseling Center to talk about outside pressures or stresses that may be influencing your work in your classes. But change something; be proactive.

What is the best way for first year students to adapt to the college workload?

Moving from a high school schedule and workload to a college schedule and workload is definitely an adjustment, so, first off, I’ll say this: don’t beat yourself up. If you’re struggling, it totally makes sense that you’re struggling. Here are three pretty concrete productivity tips I didn’t encounter until I was in graduate school but that I definitely could have used as a college student:

  1. This tip I steal from David Allen’s productivity guide Getting Things Done: Think of your projects and tasks in terms of “next actions.” This means you should break your to-do list down into the smallest possible discrete steps. If I write on my to-do list “Work on research paper,” or “Study for chemistry exam,” or “Work on group project,” of course I’m going to get overwhelmed.Those “to-do’s” don’t actually mean anything. Instead I need to break them down into discrete tasks like these: 1. Read Article X, and annotate it, identifying themes. 2. Reread Article Y and copy, paste, and cite quotations/data to use in research paper. 3. Review and annotate Chapter 3 in textbook. 4. Respond to open-ended questions on Instructor B’s study guide. 5. Email Doodle poll to group members to set a meeting time.

If you find yourself overwhelmed, there’s a really good chance you haven’t yet broken your task down into the next actions, so try this. (And if you’re not already in the habit of keeping a calendar and a list of tasks—whether you do this electronically or on paper—start doing this and figuring out what method works for you. I use Google Calendar so that I can set myself reminders, and I keep a Google Keep list of individual tasks attached to that calendar. When I’m rushing during the day I keep Post-it notes on my desk, and then I transfer my reminders to my calendar later on.)

  1. Think of your work time as “A time,” “B time,” and “C time.” “A time” is when you’re working optimally—you’re alert, you’re enthusiastic, you’re energetic. This is probably the time to be getting some pages of that research paper written. In “B time” you know you’ve got to work and you’re ready to do so, but maybe writing that one-page reflection you’ve got to do is daunting. Then, instead, maybe you can use this time to complete your reading assignment for tomorrow, annotating the text and making note of one or two passages you might reference in class discussion, and/or one or two questions you might have for your instructor. When you’re in “C time” and you hate yourself because you know you should be working but can’t seem to do anything but scroll through Twitter, don’t despair! Use this time to do the less intensive, but equally important, tasks on your to-do list (and by that I mean your “next actions” list). Maybe that means proofreading your section of the lab report before you pass it on to your partners. Maybe that means looking for additional research sources in the university databases in your room in your sweatpants. Just do something that you feel you can do—eventually you need to do all of this stuff anyway, so it’s not a waste of time to be doing it now.
  2. Take advantage of small blocks of time—especially if you’ve got a lot of demands on your time. You can probably do a lot more in 15 minutes than you think you can. There are LOTS of apps you can download on your phone or use online to aid you with this. One of the most popular techniques for taking advantage of small blocks of time is Pomodoro technique: the writer works for 25 minutes and takes a 5 minute break. After (s)he/they repeat(s) this three times, (s)he/they get(s) a 15 minute break. (So, during your 25 minutes you work with total focus and no distractions—no text messages, no social media, no Netflix, no talking. During your breaks you do whatever you want—check your phone, take a walk, go get a snack.) You can use your own watch or kitchen timer to track your intervals, or you can use apps that will disable Facebook or other apps/sites while you work to eliminate your distractions.

College classes involve a lot of reading.  Do you have any tips to help students retain a large amount of information?

THANK YOU FOR ASKING THIS. (Yes.) Very few people can simply read information and retain it instantly, so I can almost guarantee you that none of your instructors expect that this is how you’re studying. I highly recommend annotating your texts—with highlighting, marginal notes, etc. (I typically also dog-ear pages on which I’ve highlighted information or on which I’ve made notes for myself.) If you’re renting your textbooks or plan to sell them back later and can’t write in them, then use Post-its, or write or type yourself notes, indicating throughout which pages of the text you’re responding to. This may seem like a lot of extra work if it’s not the way you’re used to reading, but what you’re going to find is that it saves you a lot of time later on when you’re going to study for a test, write a paper, or prepare a presentation because you’ll know exactly where to locate the parts of assigned readings that you need to reference.

You may be wondering what kinds of things you should be marking or paying attention to. Here’s a good resource from the University of Washington’s Odegaard Writing and Research Center that offers some tips on close reading: depts.washington.edu/owrc/Handouts/Close%20Reading.pdf.

If you’re reading to review or study material for an exam, or to consider using a source for a paper, my additional advice would be to make notes in which you’re writing claims in response to the text you’re reviewing (on index cards, or in a Word document, or on a notebook page). In other words, write brief responses to the material you’re reading in which you’re forming what could become thesis statements—this forces you not just to memorize material, but to actually engage with it. (For example, if I’m making flashcards to study nineteenth and twentieth-century poets, on my flashcard for Edgar Allan Poe instead of just noting “Poe wrote the essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’” I might write myself a note like this: “In his essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ Poe argues that poetry is more ‘perspiration’ than ‘inspiration’ and outlines his process for crafting the poem ‘The Raven.’”)

What are some tips for preparing for finals?

Plan ahead. It’s likely that a lot of your final course deadlines are going to coincide—or nearly coincide—so you might want to outline these on a calendar (maybe a big one, so you can see everything at once) and then begin a list of “next actions” for each of your final projects so you can start tackling them one by one when you’ve got stretches of time. (What you don’t want to do is wait until the last two weeks of class and then try to complete all of your final papers and projects. Trust me; I speak from experience.)

Is there any other advice you think is important to pass on to students?

Do your best, of course—that’s what you want for yourself, and it’s what we, as your instructors, want for you. But recognize that you don’t have to be perfect. (Spoiler alert: none of us is perfect either, so it would be pretty unreasonable for us to expect for you to be.) You will not always perform as well as you hope you will—in class, on your assignments, in athletics or other extracurricular activities. And other times you will far exceed your own expectations. Both of those realities are okay. While the stakes are definitely high in college, you have plenty of opportunities to make up for the disappointing performances.

And remember that most problems have solutions, so when you find yourself struggling with one, take a deep breath and take advantage of all of the resources you’ve got here on campus to help you.

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