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Avoiding Semester 1 Syndrome

19 September, 2008 (20:22) | Lectures

Let’s do this in FAQ fashion. But first be aware that some generalizations and personal opinions follow…

What is the Semester 1 Syndrome?

Simply put, it is the tendency for students, fresh into 3rd year, to put an inadequate amount of work in, and who consequently don’t perform as well as they wish.

Have you any evidence for it?

Yes from experience. Semester 1 exam results tend to be quite poor, with a high number of students having to resit the exams. Surprisingly, 9 months later, with no further classes in the subjects, students generally improve their marks significantly, sometimes by over 60%. That’s the Semester 1 Syndrome!

As an aside, many lecturers give individual feedback, without the “I’m being assessed” feel to it. Interestingly, in the majority of cases, such feedback correctly predicts whether students would pass or not. I think the moral is, when given personalized and informal feedback well in advance of any assessment, please act on it!

Why does it happen?

This is complex but the probable answer lies in the way that the students have ‘engineered’ exam success up to the point of arrival in 3rd year. Unfortunately the Points System and Leaving Cert. encourage a learn-by-rote model as being optimal for exam success. The first two years in third level can be approached in the same way, but it gets increasingly difficult. The failings of this learning model come to a head in 3rd year when the material that must be known is minimal – extensive exam handouts mean that little memorization is required. Instead, the material must be understood. Simple really, but since this is the first time students may actually have to try understand material for exam success, it poses a real difficulty and a harsh awakening in many cases. And by understood, we mean that the material is second nature and that disparate pieces of information can be assimilated into different coherent forms so that reasonably complex engineering problems can be solved.

Ok, so how can it be avoided?

Well I’ll bet you know the answer to this, in the same way you know that you should eat more fruit and vegetables. For every hour spent in class, at least another hour must be spent at home doing the following:

  • assimilating the material already covered;
  • reading ahead on the new material;
  • practicing examples until exhaustion (!);
  • preparing questions to ask the lecturer in the next class;
  • studying with colleagues – peer-learning is very effective.

Last year a quick class survey noted that over 90% of students had part-time jobs during term-time. In a week, it is simply impossible to spend say 30 hours in class, another 30 hours of home study, and then do a job. It seems that for short-term gain (i.e. some extra money now), the longer-term benefits of performing well in college are ignored. These longer-term benefits include improved employment prospects and the possibility of a higher starting salary for 1st class and 2:1 Honours Degree awards. It’s called full-time education for a reason!

One further issue that can significantly affect performance is the abuse of alcohol amongst 3rd level students. A recent study summarized here and fully reported here shows that use of alcohol is increasing amongst undergraduate students. This can only have a negative affect upon coursework. Whilst certainly the college experience is not all about hard work and learning, going too far the other way is not a recipe for success or happiness. If you or a friend is affected by alcohol abuse you should contact the student counselling service.



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