The Beginning of the Semester: The perfect time to talk about the end of the semester

Posted August 30, 2018

By Robert Biswas-Diener


Students often don’t seek help until it’s too late. Encouraging “preventative problem solving” may help.

Anyone who has been an instructor for even a single term can point to specific formative moments that influence their teaching. It may be the first time you catch a student cheating or a time a student gave you a thank you card. Perhaps it was the first time you said “I don’t know” in answer to a question or a time when an activity went perfectly. In my tenure as an instructor I accumulated many such moments.

One of them stands out acutely. I was teaching Social Psychology at Portland State University. Because of classroom constraints the course was held in the school’s old and uncomfortable movie theater. There were, of course, no windows, the seats could not be moved, and the projection of my class slides was of preposterous proportions. Despite these challenges my class was engaged, curious, and enjoyable. One young man—a foreign student from Kenya—attended regularly and paid attention. Then, toward the end of the term, he just quit showing up. I didn’t see him for the last two and a half weeks, including the day of the final. As I left the movie theater that last day with my bundle of completed exams in hand, the young man approached me on the sidewalk. It turned out that his brother had died several weeks before and he was grieving. The sudden loss has interfered with his studies and he pleaded—in a way that will be familiar to seasoned instructors—for “extra credit or any way to make up missed assignments.”

This episode revealed two insights to me. First, that students often view courses in terms of credits and points. This might sound obvious, but I—myself—never thought in this fashion. I always thought of my college courses in terms of the volume of learning; a yardstick for educational success that had only a modest correlation with test scores, grades, and extra credit. The second insight-- and the more important one—was the idea that students tend to deal with academic problems too late to be effective. This hypothesis was proven time and again as students came to me after missing huge amounts of class and assignments. I’ve had students show up on the last day of class, after missing virtually the entire course, pleading for consideration in order to save their scholarships, their GPAs, or their on-time graduation.

Person crossing out the word “Problems” and replacing it with a word “Solutions” in chalk on a blackboard.
Solutions Focus [Marco Verch.]
As a result of my experience with this young man, I changed my first day policy. Like most instructors, I use the initial class session to cover the syllabus. My students and I discuss norms and expectations, course content, technology and grading policy. And I throw in this piece of advice:

“There are 100 of you in this course. I know from past experience that some number of you— perhaps 10—will suffer some hardship this term. Maybe it will be a prolonged illness, or the death of a family member, or some other unforeseen event that legitimately interferes with your ability to study well. For some people, getting a little behind can be paralyzing. Then, the further they get behind, the more powerless they feel. I know that it is easy to feel guilty and crushed and desperate. Instead of that, here’s what I want you to do: I want you to remember this conversation. When some set back happens—and it might—please come see me immediately. You and I both want you to succeed and this is the best way to do that.”

I cannot, of course, generalize about the effectiveness of this policy. I can, however, tell you that, in my experience, it appears to be fruitful. Students routinely seek me out in the middle of the course for additional help. Their stories vary from the practical (I had to sell my car to pay for school and getting here is difficult for me) to the emotional (I got divorced). In each case, however, it is encouraging to see the students take charge of their educational destiny and I do my best to accommodate this effort.

One final note on the potential wisdom of preventative problem solving. It can also be used to effectively convey self-care information at the beginning of the term, before it is needed. We know that during the stressful period of mid-terms and finals, student health behaviors fall apart. They drink more coffee and alcohol, exercise less, sleep less, and engage in personal hygiene less. Pretty much exactly the opposite of what you would recommend for effective learning. The beginning of the term is the best possible time to encourage good diet, sleep and exercise. It reinforces information they are already receiving from other campus offices. Unlike many of those materials, however, your words can be more impactful than an e-mail or a poster. The students have a relationship with you, respect you (hopefully), and have frequent contact with you. Your encouragement also arrives before they need it and when they are most likely to be able to hear the message and build the health habits required.

Summary of preventative problem-solving advice I give to students:

  • If a major setback befalls you, come see me IMMEDIATELY so that we can address it together
  • Build health habits now so that they will be in place during the more stressful parts of the term
  • Don’t let exercise or sleep be the things you give up during exam periods; they are likely as important to your grade as are study sessions


Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is the senior editor of the Noba Project and author of more than 50 publications on happiness and other positive topics. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side.