Monday, September 13, 2010

The Cycle of the Semester: It's Week Three

After I had been teaching for several years at a community college, I began to notice that there is a fairly predictable cycle that occurs each semester. The first couple of weeks are filled with a nervous excitement and always with the hope that accompanies a fresh start. There is nothing quite like the opportunity to start over. When I stop students in the hallways to talk during the first two weeks of the semester, I can almost guarantee that they will tell me their classes are great and everything is going really well. In fact, some students will say with a big smile that college is easier than they expected, and they are planning to get a 4.0 this semester. When I ask how much time they are spending on their courses outside of class, I often get a puzzled look in return and the assurances that there isn't much going on just yet. Oh,'s the cycle of the semester unfolding as usual.

One thing that experienced students and faculty members know is that those first couple of weeks can be deceiving. While there may not be a test or a major paper due, the first two weeks are extremely important and there is always plenty to do. The first couple of weeks set the routine for the semester. It's the time to get organized and figure out a rhythm for the "invisible" work that 4.0 students know so well - reviewing class notes after every lecture, preparing study materials, and reading text assignments. For classes that require a research paper or several smaller writing assignments, it's the time to break the work down into manageable parts.

So why did I wait until the end of the second week of class to bring this up? At this point, even students who are new to college have begun to settle in. Week three is, in many ways, a "make or break" week. It's a fork in the road - students are either ready to get to work or they continue to wander through their days until the first big wake-up call of the semester cycle. That happens at the end of week four when suddenly there are first tests in three classes, a paper due and a major assignment...all at once. This is a daunting prospect for students who haven't started doing anything yet because "there wasn't much going on". It reminds me of a cartoon I once saw that had four blocks. The first one showed a beautiful sunrise and the caption read, "Everything is wonderful!". The second block was still sunny, with a couple of small clouds mixed in and it read, "Things are definitely very good!". The third block was sunny with more clouds on the horizon and it's caption was, "I think it's still okay!". The final block showed a grand piano falling out of the sky and it read, "A piano just fell on my head!". That cartoon always reminded me of the first four weeks of the semester. Now is the time to dig in - it will keep those pianos at bay next week!