Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Note 5: Coping With the Semester Doldrums

If semesters were measured like clocks, it would now be about 2:30 pm.  Not quite time for finals, but definitely after midterm, this period in academia has been referred to as the doldrums – students’ energy ebbs, and they, just like professors, begin to experience cognitive overload.  Once-diligent students can become less so, and even highly conscientious students can have trouble keeping up with all of the work of their courses.

Interestingly, there is not much literature on this subject.  (Teaching Within the Rhythms of the Semester, (Duffy & Jones, 1995) is a rare exception to this.) All of us as learners experience an initial high when encountering a new intellectual, physical, and/or emotional challenge, and there is a great deal we know about how to help students succeed at the beginning and end of these endeavors.  But even without much empirical work on this arc of a course, it is still possible to offer a few thoughts about how to navigate these waters, to help students focus well, and to help you feel more effective in your work with them.

For example:

· Ask students to switch their usual seating arrangements, literally offering them a different perspective in class.

· Change the format of a class session; begin what you had planned for the end, for example.  Ask students to contribute in a way that they do not usually do (e.g. talk to someone else, highlight a particular passage from the assigned reading that they took issue with).

· If it is a beautiful day, call class over 5 minutes early – and tell students why you are doing that – or call attention to the weather in another way – maybe just by opening the windows.

· Is there a way to shift the schedule of topics to align with something that is happening in the news, or in the wider disciplinary community in which you participate?

· Can you add a brief discussion of a relevant news item to the first five minutes of your class?

· Is it time to begin (or continue) to discuss the final exam/paper/project, answering students’ questions, perhaps allaying some of their fears?

· Finally, you might simply ask yourself why you have scheduled particular topics or materials at this point in the semester.  There may be nothing you can do at the moment, but writing yourself a note to think about changing something that is not working now may be helpful for the next time you teach the course.

None of these suggestions may suit you; merely acknowledging the existence of this time period may be enough to reinvigorate you and your students.  Soon enough, final exams and papers will be upon us, though, and so perhaps a little calm right now is warranted.

I’ll be writing this coming week about several upcoming meetings for our cohort that may be of interest to you.  In the meantime, I wish you well as you and your students continue working together.

With warm regards,

Nancy S. Niemi, Ph.D.
Director, Faculty Teaching Initiatives

Supplementary Materials and Resources

Contact Information 

Contact Dr. Niemi via email Nancy.Niemi@yale.edu or phone 203.432.8644 with thoughts about the collection and/or to receive these notes in your inbox.