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4 Ways to Help Your Student Reflect on Their Semester

Jennifer Sullivan


Once final exams are over your college student (and you) can breathe a sigh of relief that the semester is finished.

Instead of rushing headlong into the “next thing,” whether it be looking for a part-time job or thinking about next semester’s classes, it's important for your college student to pause and spend a few minutes reflecting on their wins and losses of the previous semester.

Here are a few conversation starters that can encourage your student to think critically about (and give themselves credit) for the semester they just completed.

1. What was your favorite and least favorite part of learning this semester?

Parents have a tendency to go right for the "million dollar question" — “What were your grades?” But there is so much important information that can be gained in having your student reflect on their learning process.

Asking about their learning experience allows your young adult to think about the entirety of their academic experience not just their classes. For example, your student may really enjoy learning virtually but not enjoy being graded on their virtual participation. Your student may like the content of their classes but not like their professor’s limited availability and office hours.

Equally important is to ask your student to identify areas where they excelled. I frame this question to students that I coach by asking them to share one strategy that worked for them or one strategy that helped them feel confident in their learning. Learning from the past must include learning from strategies that your student did well — and remember to praise and celebrate these successes, big or small!

2. Which academic supports did you use this semester?

Whether or not your student has a learning difference, they should be aware of the academic supports their college or university offers. I'm surprised by the number of new college students who utilized writing support in high school but don't know where the campus writing or tutoring center is located (or even know if their college has one)!

Asking your student about academic supports can open the door to follow-up questions such as, “Was there an academic support staff member that you connected with this semester?” or “If you didn’t use any academic supports last semester, is there one you can begin using next semester? Let’s look into it together” or “Tell me about your most challenging course this semester. What supports would you use if you had to do that course over again?”

Colleges offer a variety of academic supports. Some are available to all students and some supports are eligibility based and require medical documentation. Use this time between semesters to research the college's academic supports. Here are some to explore:

  • Writing Center
  • Tutoring Center
  • Learning specialists
  • Disability Support Services
  • Academic coaching
  • Peer study groups
  • Peer mentors/Teaching Assistants (TA's)
  • Academic support groups (such as study groups for students with ADHD)
  • Online 24/7 tutoring programs

3. What did you think about your food plan/dining options this semester?

This question won't apply if your student was learning at home, but for students who were learning virtually or in person on campus, it's just as important to reflect on lifestyle habits as it is to talk about academics.

Be sure to examine and have a conversation about your student’s spending habits as it relates to food every semester. How much did they spend on food delivery such as Uber Eats or DoorDash? How much did they spend on vending machine snacks? Did they utilize all of the meals on their meal plan? Did they keep their room well stocked with healthy food as well as less healthy snacks?

Asking questions about meals and nutrition can help parents identify their student’s typical eating patterns and spot red flags when/if these patterns change.

4. Tell me about your mental health this semester.

Academic grades are only one indicator of your student’s success and overall well-being during a semester.

I have worked with students who received A's at the conclusion of the term only to suffer from anxiety and mental health challenges because they were working 10 hours per day on assignments. Likewise, a student who receives poor grades may be struggling academically with the transition to college or virtual learning but may have improved their confidence because of a roommate switch or other success that isn’t reflected in their transcript.

Incorporate talking about mental health into conversations with your student throughout the year to create open lines of communication. Many college campuses are intentionally creating programs to support students’ mental health and remove stigma around emotional health. College can be a stressor, schools know this, and student self-care is important.

If your student expresses feelings of anxiety or depression, encourage them to connect and talk with a mental health professional during the break or once they return to campus. There are also numerous apps that your student can use for support such as Headspace or Calm app. Even if your teen isn’t struggling right now, asking in a non-judgmental way about their mental health can leave the door ajar for future conversations.

Asking your student to reflect on their past semester not only helps them practice critical thinking skills but helps you gain insight into the things that are working or not working and can lead to conversations about self-advocacy, self-efficacy and congratulating them for a job well done.

It's normal for a student to take their semester in stride and not want to look back. But helping them pause, reflect and think about the choices they made during the semester is an important aspect of your role as a supportive college parent.

Jennifer Sullivan, M.S., has over 17 years experience in both higher education and K-12 schools as an academic advisor, instructor and former Director of Parent Programming on a college campus. Currently she is a private college coach/tutor supporting students with learning disabilities, autism and anxiety. Jennifer enjoys writing — and connecting with parents of college students! Visit her website: www.fastforwardcollegecoaching.com.

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