Helping Students Prepare for the End of the Semester

The end of the semester can be a stressful time for both students and their teachers. Graduate student instructors who are themselves taking classes have to worry about finishing their own assignments even as they cope with anxious students and end-of-semester grading. If you make sure your students are well informed about what is expected of them, you may be able to ease some of their anxieties and minimize later complaints and grade challenges.

Take time in class to clarify final exam and final paper procedures and to answer questions. Make sure your students understand how and where they should turn in final papers if they aren't being collected in class. If you plan to accept papers by email, specify what types of email attachments you will accept (for instance, Microsoft Word documents only) and how you will confirm receipt of those papers. If your students use a Rutgers account to send their papers, they can request a delivery receipt that will send them a message when you read the email. You can also tell students that when you receive a paper, you will reply with an email that reads "received." Of course, you need to open any attachments and make sure they contain readable documents before you reply. Setting up a clear system in advance can prevent later claims that your students sent papers which you never received. Let them know that email problems are not a legitimate excuse for handing in a paper late, so they should have a back-up plan for getting their papers to you. Consider carefully before you agree to accept papers by email—you may end up having to find a way to print out hundreds of pages.

Try to relieve test anxiety by giving as much information about the final exam and its format as you can, and consider scheduling an in-class review session. Most students benefit from studying in groups, in large measure because it gives them a chance to talk through concepts and teach material to their peers, in addition to allowing them to share notes and get feedback about how well they are learning the material. You can facilitate group formation by passing around sign-up sheets for interested students and giving them a few minutes at the end of class to set up meeting times and places. While you may need to meet with some students one-on-one, you can also schedule group office hours for material review and to answer questions about the exam.

In addition to giving students information about the exam and final paper procedures, you should also make sure they understand the standards for assessment. Let students know how grades will be calculated, and tell them what they need to do to succeed on final assignments. There should be clear grading criteria for both the course as a whole and the final exam or paper. Students are less likely to feel that the grading is arbitrary or unfair if you can show them what it takes to earn a given grade in the course.

When you talk about final exams and papers, it's a good time to remind students about standards of academic integrity. Make sure students understand what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it. Let them know that if you have any suspicions about their papers you will follow up on them. Warn them that you will take measures to prevent cheating during the final exam, such as giving different versions of the test that vary the order of the questions. Some students cheat because they don't think faculty members care, or because they think that everyone else does it. If your students know that you do care and you will enforce the rules, they may resist the temptation to cheat or plagiarize.

Finally, don't neglect your own needs. Your primary commitment is to your graduate work. You need to meet your program's requirements to keep your appointment as a TA. Try to schedule some time for exercise and relaxation to help keep your own stress in check. If you need help, talk with your faculty adviser, your graduate director, or a dean.

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