Mid-semester or mid-quarter can be a reality check for many students.
Sometimes, classes are going well and they can congratulate themselves, but other times things may not be going as planned.
This is a good time for a check-in conversation with your student, and also a time when they may need some extra support. There is still time to shift direction.
Why Do Midterms Matter?
There are many differences between high school and college, but one of the biggest is that students may not receive as much feedback on their work throughout the semester. Some classes may even have only a midterm and final exam.
At midterm, your student can reflect on whether their study habits are working, or if they need to make changes for the second half of the semester. Studying for midterms is a chance to solidify their grasp on material covered so far in a course and check for any gaps in their understanding.
Midterm exams and grades provide an opportunity for students to explore options, make decisions and get back on track if necessary.
But reality checks, course corrections, options and decisions can also come with a great deal of stress.
The Stress of Midterm Exams
Mid-semester, and the exams, papers and projects that come with it, can be a stressful time for most students.
Having to take a big exam that covers half of the semester’s material is still a new experience for many students. Some assignments may have been on the syllabus since the beginning of the term, but forgotten. Students now realize that exams are around the corner, chapters are still unread, or a forgotten paper or project is soon due.
Some students thrive on stress and seem to take it in stride, but for many students, this stress can feel debilitating.
Your student needs to find their own ways of dealing with stress, but you don't need to feel helpless — there are ways to provide guidance and support.
Acknowledge your student’s stress.Listen a lot. They may just need to vent about how much they have on their plate.
Leave them alone a bit more. They're busy right now. Let some conversations wait until midterms are over.
Don’t take it personally if they don’t have much to say right now. Although some students want to vent, others don’t want to talk about everything they have to do — they just want to get it done.
Remind your student that this is part of the rhythm of the academic year. This will pass and things will get better.
Point out that, although midterms are important, they're only one part of a full semester’s class. Most students won’t fail a course because of one exam. There is other work in the course and the semester is only half over.
Support self-care. Remind your student how important it is to sleep, eat wisely and get exercise in order to do well.
Remind your student to do what they can to stay calm.Meditate. Exercise. Talk to someone, perhaps in the counseling center. Steer some mental and physical energy into other, productive directions as a needed break from the library.
Try to stay out of the way. Recognize that your student needs to figure this out. If they fail, it will be part of their learning process and they will be stronger and wiser later.
At some schools, that’s it. It will be up to your student to look at grades on exams or papers and figure out where they stand. Some schools will give an informal indication of where your student stands (perhaps Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory), and others may post formal grades. These midterm assessments are meant to give the student feedback about their work so far.
How do you help your student make sense of the information that midterm grades can provide?
Remember FERPA. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act gives students ownership of their academic information. All academic information goes directly to your student, not to you. Ask whether they are willing to share their grades and talk about them.
If your student has great midterm grades, congratulate them. Don’t take good grades for granted!
If your student isn’t clear about their midterm standing, or questions a grade, encourage them to talk to their professor. Midterms are the ideal opportunity for students and professors to connect.
Remind your student that midterms often come at the calendar midpoint but not necessarily at the midpoint in the coursework. The semester often begins slowly as everyone gets their bearings. There may be more than half of the work left — and that means more opportunity to raise their grade by doing well.
Midterm is an excellent time to take stock. This is the time for your student to think about whether they need to make changes. Encourage your student to think about all of their courses together. Are most grades solid with one poor grade? Focus on that course. Are there several poor grades? Think about the amount of time spent studying or approaches to studying. Help your student interpret what midterm information is telling them they need to do.
Remind your student to take advantages of all of the resources the college offers: Professors and Teaching Assistants, tutoring center, writing center, counseling, advising.
Suggest your student meet with their advisor to discuss options. Is pass/fail an option? Should they consider withdrawing from a class? Should they think more carefully about which courses to take next term based on difficulties and successes this go-round?
Time to Move Forward
With the stress of midterms over, it's a good time for your student to think about what’s next.
Keep the emphasis on moving forward. And then, once again, it's time for you to step back and allow your student to use their lessons learned to plan their next steps on the college journey.
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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
When your college student starts their first semester, it’s not just a big deal for them. It’s a big deal for you, too.