When Semester Fatigue Sets In and What I Do About It

The first two and a half weeks of a semester are the stuff that dreams are made of – attentive students eager to learn and teachers excited to teach. A sense of hope prevails amongst students and teachers alike. Hope that this semester will be different than the others; the promise of a new semester is the promise of a clean slate.

At the three-and-a-half week mark (or roughly a quarter of the way though the semester), things begin to change. The change is often gradual, almost imperceptible. The students that used to get to class early arrive just as the class is about to begin. The students with a penchant for arriving late show up even later and sometimes they don’t show up at all. Students have assignments due in all of their classes, including mine. The quality of their work begins to decline and they are resentful of all of their professors, including me.

This is semester fatigue and it plagues us all. It is particularly toxic to history courses because students seem to find it easier to justify their poor performance. They begin to think “just doing the readings” or “just preparing for discussion” is not as important as problem sets or studying for one of the forty-five chemistry midterms they have to take (it always seems like there are forty-five damn chem midterms). Worse yet, students decide that writing a paper for my class is easy and that they don’t have to put in much effort because they “always” get A’s on their papers in other classes.

This fatigue is not unique to the end of the first quarter of the semester. It happens again right before midterms, at the three-quarters mark of the term, and then again at the end of the semester. This cycle is exhausting because it makes my job harder. For a long time, I didn’t know how to cope with this problem. I tried commiserating with my students. I also tried begging my students to do their work and threatening them if they didn’t. I used to lecture them on time management. No more. I’ve developed a solution.

My solution comes with a few caveats. First, it is not a guaranteed cure-all. While it is effective, it does not work on all students. Second, it is preemptive. It has to be in the syllabus when the semester starts in order for it to work.

I have decided to combat semester fatigue with content. Course structure permitting, I put the most interesting, most exciting content right at the points of the semester when it is hard to hold students’ interest. For example, the students in my freshman seminar are reading about steamboat explosions this week. The lecture and discussion in my medical history class are on autopsies. Most of the students are looking forward to those classes.

I have talked up these topics all semester and the students have been anticipating them for some time now. I will do the same for the content leading up to the midterm, at the three-quarters mark, etc. This is not a perfect remedy as we will never be free of the curse of the chemistry midterms. This is simply my attempt to make sure my students value the work they are doing in my class.

What do you do to combat semester fatigue?

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