End of Semester Retention
By Robyn McGee
You’ve seen it: the glazed, exhausted look that sets in on the faces of students as the last few weeks of the semester loom. The initial weeks of a semester are usually so full of excitement and hope, but as the semester wears on, students often lose their way, finding it more and more difficult to attend class and study.
This common scenario often plagues our classrooms and can really affect the moods of students and teachers alike. In most cases, these students commit to finishing the semester and do so successfully. But for others, the semester overwhelms them, and they resign to the withdrawal or failing grade, thinking they might try again the following semester.
As instructors, we sometimes feel helpless to get these students to the finish line. Those third attendance roster submissions can leave us wondering “why hasn’t so-and-so been coming?” or “this student began the semester with such high hopes and then dropped off the radar.” And we might ask ourselves, “Could I have done anything more that would have helped them finish?” In some cases, that answer is “no,” but for others, just a few strategies can keep them coming back each week in throughout November (or April) and into the last couple of weeks of the semester.
- At the beginning of each semester, I ask students to write for a few minutes about what their goals are for the class, for the semester, for their academic careers, and for their lives. They usually reflect and write excitedly, for it’s the beginning of a semester and, for many, the beginning of their college education. But by mid-semester, after homework assignments and midterms and late-night essay writing, those beginning-of-semester reflections have faded and they’ve forgotten why they’re there. I keep those writings and, around November, pass them back out to the students as a reminder of the excitement they once felt, of the goals they once had, and of the dreams they imagined for their futures. And it works. I think. Some of them are embarrassed by their early semester writing, but in general, most of them remark something along the lines of “Wow. I had forgotten about that.” Sometimes, simply reminding them of why they’re there can really reawaken their drive.
- During the Thanksgiving week break (or spring break), I send out announcements to the class via Blackboard. These consists not only of reminders about what’s coming up on the schedule for the week they return, but also simple messages letting them know that I’m looking forward to seeing them the following week. And that I’m sure they WILL be returning to finish the semester.
- I find that students who build academic relationships with their peers in the same class tend to complete the course more often than those who isolate themselves. Thus, I try to help them build those relationships early on in the classroom. This consists of group discussions, Blackboard discussion groups that allow them to ask each other questions about the class without my interference, peer workshops on essays, or any other activity that requires them to interact with one another. Some semesters, students form carpool groups on their own or exchange numbers in case they have transportation issues and find themselves needing a ride to school.
- This is very simple but effective: remind students weekly how little time is left in the semester. I will often walk into the class during the last few weeks exclaiming, “Wow, you guys! Can you believe we ONLY HAVE four more weeks of the semester left? This is going to FLY BY!” Sometimes they just need a reminder that the end is near.
- If a student has performed poorly in the beginning of the semester, that student usually feels that completing the semester is futile. And sometimes it is, depending on how low their grade it. But for those who can still succeed, they might not realize it. For my D students, I will often shoot them a message or speak to them after class about what they can do to pass the class. I outline very specific strategies for them and go over all the scenarios that would have them passing the class and not having to retake the next semester. I’ve often had students come very close to withdrawing just before the withdrawal date, only to find out from me that all hope is not lost and that it is still mathematically possible for them to pass. You may have just one or two students on that fence, and it’s really satisfying to see them successfully complete the course.
- Finally, make sure students are clear about what is expected of them as the end of the semester draws near. Remind them of upcoming assignments, have them review their syllabus, go over the final exam date/time/location. Remind them that the last few weeks can often make or break their grade. Finishing strong can help strengthen their confidence in themselves and set them up for success for in future semesters.
Of course, even if we employ all of the strategies we can in an effort to save a student’s semester, there will be some students who don’t pass the finish line in December (or May). But even if we can turn around the semesters of one or two students, it’s absolutely worth it. And those students are usually incredible thankful that they weren’t allowed to give up.