Wednesday, December 16, 2009

‘Tis the Season: For Engaging Our Students in Taking Stock

The December holidays are soon upon us and we are finishing up our academic terms with our students. What an unfortunate combination of the most intense of academic calendar pressures combined with all the cultural pressures that the holiday season evokes. Studying for exams, shopping, gift buying, going even more into debt, indulging in even more social activities; this all piles up. In this case, we did have a much better idea back in the 60’s when most academic terms ended in January so that students could study over the December holidays and return to college in January with a few more weeks to get it all together before finals without the distractions of the December solstice.

This raises a question, and an opportunity, for those of us who work directly with students. The question: how can we work with our students to use the end of the term/end of the calendar year/the emotional holiday period, to take stock of their lives? The opportunity: this is a fine time to take stock; help them benchmark their lives with December’s past, set goals for the New Year and the spring academic term.

I always urge my students to remember that it is not too late to try to pull the term out, that magic can occur in the final grading process. I urge them not to make major life decisions, like whether or not to return to college, change their major, terminate a relationship, during this most emotional, irrational, time of year.

The opportunity: this brief window of end of term time with our students, post Thanksgiving, before the late December celebrations, to think through with them what is going to be a plan for support of them for the coming year. Many of us higher educators who work with new students have disproportionately invested in student support interventions that last the first term only, for example, a first-year seminar. How are we going to replace that support group which will be ending when final grades are submitted in December?

So December is not only a time for final papers, final exams. It is a time for final, year-end reflection on the year we and our students have had and how we can help them next year. As higher educators, the more intentional we can be about taking advantage of this question and opportunity, the more likely we are to give our students a December gift that really matters and lasts.

-John N. Gardner

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