Warning! It's the Middle of the Term
Posted on October 7, 2010
By Jim Mancall, Associate Dean of Studies, First-Year and Sophomore Class Dean
October brings many things to the Wheaton campus: a few days off to catch our breath and enjoy the foliage, Homecoming and Halloween. But October is also the season of midterms and mid-semester warnings, and thus, as the leaves begin to fall, I’m reminded of my high school geometry teacher, Mr. Merrick.
Geometry was befuddling to me. I constantly struggled to remember the difference between sine, cosine and tangent. I treated proofs as if they were arcane magic spells; they had to be memorized and carefully repeated word-for-word, lest I unintentionally invoke some unknown danger. Despite this, I always looked forward to Mr. Merrick’s classes. Tall and gangly, he resembled a mathematically-inclined Don Knotts, and he brought a great deal of humor, warmth and patience to his teaching. In line with his sometimes unconventional approach, Mr. Merrick did not assign exams or quizzes. Instead, he would announce that we were having a “maxe” or a “ziuq” (pronounced “maxi” and “zeek,” respectively). Mr. Merrick pronounced –somewhat tongue-in-cheek -- that by reversing the names of the dreaded “exam” or “quiz,” our anxiety would be quelled, and we would focus on what we were supposed to learn, rather than madly cramming the night before a test.
I like to apply a similar principle to mid-semester warnings. After October break, Wheaton faculty issue mid-semester commendations and warnings. Commendations recognize students who are performing exceptionally well, providing inspiration and encouragement as the semester proceeds. Mid-semester warnings, on the other hand, indicate that a student is performing below expectations. In some cases, this can be in response to a low grade on a midterm exam, the consequence of poor attendance or a failure to hand in assignments.
Mid-semester warnings can engender something of a flight-or-fight response, especially in newer college students. But it is important to resist the urge to run away. It is certainly not too late to turn things around; in fact, warnings are issued at mid-semester so that students can make the necessary adjustments to succeed.
What should a student with a midterm warning do? First, meet with the instructor who issued the warning. Try to understand what led to the warning. Listen with an open mind. When things are not going well, it can be hard to really listen. We can feel defensive, or look too quickly for an easy solution. But neither of those responses will help us develop a new approach. But talking with a faculty member can help a student see what they were missing before, or help them develop them new study strategies.
This may seem like a very basic step, but it is a vitally important one. Many students will make the mistake of not seeking help in response to a mid-semester warning or a low grade. They may assume that they can take care of it on their own. (“I just need to study harder,” or, “It was just one low grade.”). Or in some cases, they may be frightened off. (“The subject is just too hard,” or, “The professor is too mean.”). But by taking the initiative to communicate with the professor, the student accomplishes a number of things: in the very least, the student conveys the message that she cares about doing well. That in itself is meaningful. But beyond that, the professor can help the student identify areas of weakness and develop a plan for improvement. This does not mean that things will change overnight, but it will go a long way to helping the student learn in the class, and learn to become a better student.
As a second step, talk with your advisor: how are other classes going? What is happening in the big picture? Are you struggling in one particular class, or is there a more global issue, such as time management or personal distractions? What do the current challenges tell us about your long-term academic goals?
Finally, follow up. That is, don’t depend on just one meeting with your instructor or your advisor. Even if things improve, make a plan to meet again. Look at the syllabus, and make sure to check in well before the next major assignment. It may be that you set up regular meetings with your faculty member, or work with the tutors in the Filene Center, or create a study group. Or all of the above.
What can parents do? Ask how your student is doing. Did s/he receive any mid-semester warnings or commendations? Second, don’t panic yourself. Students, especially first-year students, are often reluctant to tell parents about a midterm warning because they worry that family members will be angry or disappointed. But help your student put things in perspective. First-year students often receive the majority of mid-semester warnings. This makes sense, since these students are encountering college-level academics for the first time. The best thing you can do is help your student get beyond the panic and develop a plan. What does s/he think led to the midterm warning? What adjustments need to be made? How can s/he make use of the available resources?
This is where I come back to Mr. Merrick’s reverse logic. We think of “warnings” as dire pronouncements, meant to indicate danger. But in the case of Wheaton’s mid-semester warnings, I like to think of them instead as “invitations.” Invitations are welcoming, a chance to meet and to talk. And that, after all, is the real purpose of a mid-semester warning. They are invitations to the student to re-examine what he or she has been doing, and, if necessary, develop new strategies. Don’t run away from that mid-semester warning, but see it as an opportunity, not only to improve your standing in that particular class, but to build your academic skills and confidence. And if it helps, feel free to think of that warning as a “gninraw.”