This morning I was asked how I deal with the stress of academics and how I manage to keep things together. The answer I initially had was “I don’t know, I just do it”, but being somewhat distracted from my Cognitive Psychology reading (for the 2nd time in 2 days), I have taken some time to reevaluate the situation.
When my due dates are falling upon me and I feel like there are 5 things due at the same time, therefore they are all the same priority, I take time to analyze which ones are really most important and run with them. If I find that I am lacking the motivation for that, then I will pick the one that is the most fun and start there. In the past I have taken that approach and fully expected it to be to the detriment of another assignment, but it ends up being that doing the fun assignment that I want to do helps get me in “academic mode” for the assignments that need to be done. Another thing I do is I will treat my assignment list as a mission (as it presently is), and I will dedicate a full day (or night, as needed) to doing course work and I will get everything done, as well as go back and do anything I may have missed (the occasional small assignment, like a discussion board post, that falls through the cracks).
Instructors do not expect perfection, except in the math department. All instructors, except mathematicians, know that students are human and that it may not always be possible to do everything on time. If you do quality work consistently and you are on time, or ahead for most of the semester, instructors are willing to forgive a little slack, especially around the time of spring break, or towards the end of the semester. The key is to get everything done, and to do your best.
If you have feelings like “I don’t like being a student” (personally occurs to me as thoughts of needing to drop a course), then that is the time to figure out why you are a student and also the time to spend some personal time with your course.
Students who take online courses have to be self-motivated if they want to survive, especially in courses that are true asynchronous (no due dates, except end of the semester). This is especially true for freshmen who have not yet gotten down the pattern of things. I personally had 3 stages of preparation for college. First were the AP courses in which I had to learn college level work in a high school setting, as well as the AP exam, which is basically prep for the worse final exam you will ever have. Second was a set of two dry runs in the form of Early College and Dual-Enrollment in which I made the transition to college with 6 credit hours per semester for 2 semesters. I also had the “joy” of getting to experience the pain of a boring college course during a light semester. ANT 210 (General Anthropology) was a very boring and dry course, and I hated it, but I managed to make it through because of the light load. Those three experiences prepared me for diving into college. For those who have not had those experiences, the best thing to do is be very patient with the course material and take as much time as the material needs, not the perceived amount of time that you have.
I think the general idea that the nervous student should take away from this is that you should stop worrying and just do, and don’t let yourself get stressed, it is counterproductive. During the freshman year a university class will shrink by as much as 20%, but for the next three years, there will usually be less than a 5% additional shrink in class size. Not all students will graduate with their “class”, actually, most won’t. Graduating in 4 years is not something many students do. Some students take courses during the summers and are ready to leave in 3 years, and some take things slower and will graduate in 4.5 years (4 years + 1 semester +/- summer sessions). Either way, shrinkage happens more in the freshman year than any other year, so it is especially important for first-time freshmen (FYI… “transfer freshman” = “transfer student screwed on transfer credit” in most cases) to find their own route to making their education work for them and fit their life. Undeclared students have things the hardest during the first year. In the 20% shrinkage group, between one-quarter and one-half of them are usually undeclared. Retention rates for undeclared students absolutely suck, that’s the reason for so many efforts by universities to reach their undeclareds and get them engaged. If you survive your freshman year, it is very likely you will graduate (unless there is some intervening emotional crisis, or you decide to take a scenic route to education).
Hang in there, it isn’t as hard as it seems. There are rewards at the end of all of this, potentially even the reward of discovering who you are.
*Statistics from this post are approximate and are from my memory of reading the statistics on the subject some time ago (last year). For up-to-date information from the most recent retention studies, please see National Survey of Student Engagement.