In college and graduate school the middle point of the semester provides a critical time of reflection and celebration for both students and professors.
The Built-In Opportunities of the Mid-Term
I recently finished Spring Break (or as our school appropriately calls it, “Reading Week”) and mid-term examinations. While I wish the break was longer and I don’t relish the hours and hours of studying for tests, I do appreciate the exercise of reflecting on the semester while still in the midst of it. Such moments give me the chance to synthesize what I’ve learned so far and plan ahead for the rest of the semester.
As professors look to the middle of the term they should consider using the following three practices to capitalize on the moment.
1) Conduct a Mid-term Review
The middle of the term each semester offers an excellent opportunity to summarize and review the learning up to this point. Professors often feel the pressure to constantly give new content in each class session because they have so much material to teach. But less is more. It is often time well-spent to pause and consider what has already been introduced rather than giving even more new information. The last class before a mid-term or Spring break, is a good time to conduct a comprehensive review of the notes, books, and lectures from the first half of the semester.
This review can take many forms. It could be done in class with the professor leading or with students dialoguing with each other. It could be done through an assignment that requires students to search their notes and readings for answers. Or it could be conducted in the form of a reflection that asks students to summarize points of their learning so far.
2) Give Mid-Term Grades and Progress Reports
Every airline pilot makes periodic, almost constant, checks on their progress in the air. They want to know if they are on the right course to reach their intended destination. This is especially important given the fact that the slightest deviation in direction can take the plane hundreds of miles off course.
In the same way, students need frequent, almost constant, feedback on their progress in a class. The primary responsibility for these progress reports rests with the student. He or she should take ownership of their performance in a course and proactively ask their professors about their test, quiz, paper, and participation grades. Yet the professor who genuinely cares about his or her students will at least use the mid-term point in the semester to give students an update on their progress. These progress reports could include: current overall grade, missing assignments, qualitative strengths, areas of improvement, and more.
A mid-term update will encourage students in one of two ways. Either they will be encouraged to continue working hard because they have a solid grade. Or they will be encouraged to work harder and seek help because they aren’t performing to their full ability.
3) Consider Assigning a Take-Home Test
Context affects performance. Some students can come into class for test day and do very well in that environment. Other students walk into that same environment and suffer paroxysms of performance anxiety. Take-home tests can allow some students a better opportunity to perform because of the setting. They can listen to classical music in the background, sit in a comfortable chair, work outside, or do whatever is most conducive to their concentration.
But professors should take considerable precautions when giving a take-home test. First, the instructions have to be exceptionally clear. Students won’t have the professor nearby to answer the question. Second, a professor must contemplate how to ensure accountability. Honesty on an exam ultimately lies with the student, but the professor should be forthright about consequences for cheating on a take-home test. Third, the test must still be rigorous. Students should not get the impression that a take-home test is easier than in-class assessments.
Celebrate the Learning Process
Finally, professors and students should remember that the middle of the term is a chance to celebrate. Learning takes effort. It takes effort on the part of the professor to prepare the material and present it. It takes effort on the part of the student who labors to memorize, describe, write, and converse about new information. And learning is a privilege. There is joy in broadening minds and adding to understanding. Therefore, mid-terms should not only a be a prime opportunity to catch up on content, but to celebrate the entire learning process.