How to Navigate a Mid-Semester Slump
Dear reader of this article, we are strangers, so I can choose how to introduce myself. I might summarize my educational trajectory as follows: I have been a high-achieving student since first grade; I took an absurd number of APs; these enabled me to earn two majors in college; I got a master’s degree; I am now a PhD student who teaches writing and critical reasoning at a major university. Along the way, I helped hundreds of Applerouth students achieve their goals. Though not a lie, this introduction would be a half-truth.
Those efficient semi-colons breeze past paralysis, procrastination, an absurd number of Netflix shows, scrolling, self-doubt, requests for extensions, honors program suspension, and panic. But enough with the doom and gloom. October serves up plenty of scary stories—your school experience doesn’t have to be one, and mine hasn’t been either. I want you to know I’ve been there so that you’ll believe me when I say, you can get through this!
There’s light on the other side of a slump. Here’s how to reach it:
1. Admit That You’re in a Slump
This step is easier said than done. Everything in us wants to believe that disappointing grades, late assignments, or difficult concepts will just get better or go away. Deep down, however, we know that closing our eyes doesn’t make what’s in front of us disappear—thus, in my case, the tv shows and Twitter scroll to distract my gaze in another direction. Yet, Step One is quick, like ripping off a band-aid, if you’re brave enough to do it.
2. Break a Daunting Goal into Manageable Pieces
Whether your goal is passing a class, getting a B, or an A, or completing a term paper, that goal proves scarier when it remains vague and amorphous—much like the monster in a horror movie.
To make it out of a slump, you’ve got to add details to your looming goal. Everyone is different, so perhaps it will be most helpful for you to start at the end—the day grades come out, or the day of your final—and work backwards.
Personally, I get less alarmed when I start with what’s right in front of me. What would it take to begin changing my trajectory in this class tomorrow, or next week? What assignments would I need to complete? What chapter, that I have been putting off, would I need to read? You’ll feel more in control of the situation with each small step that you write down.
3. Ask for Help
If you’re being honest with yourself, some of your steps will involve asking for help. This can be scary, because it means admitting a slump to others—typically people you are afraid of disappointing, like parents or teachers.
As a student, I often felt that teachers preferred students who just got it, and that they’d think less of me each time I did poorly on an assignment or didn’t turn one in. As a teacher (and I can speak for many teacher colleagues), I do not expect my students to immediately understand everything, turn in every assignment on time, or not need help. The whole point of my job is to help students when they don’t understand.
Often, the best parts of my week are when a student reaches out to tell me that they found a reading confusing or that they don’t know how to begin a paper. I recognize those students to be brave, honest, and willing to learn, and it’s a joy to partner with them in that endeavor. If your teachers are worth their salt, they feel exactly the same way. Parental figures, tutors, and peers can also be invaluable resources!
4. Develop a Growth Mindset
I’m fudging by making this its own step. If you have named your slump, mapped out a plan to move forward, and asked for help, then you are already putting a growth mindset into action. I want to emphasize, however, that a growth mindset takes regular practice.
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck developed this term in contrast to fixed mindset, the belief that your talents and abilities are already fixed, making new challenges risky. Growth mindset means believing that your abilities can always further develop through hard work, good strategies, and input from others.
It’s not the case that some people have a fixed mindset whereas others have a growth mindset. (That would be a fixed way of looking at things!) All of us have triggers that can revert us to a fixed mindset, but you can choose to respond to these with growth-minded self-talk.
If your brain tells you that you just aren’t good at math, or that it’s too late in the game to catch up on trig, talk back to those lies. Remind yourself that you are a student, which means your job is to learn, not know everything from the get-go. With patience, effort, help from others, and effective strategies, you can always improve, first a little bit, then a little more, and so on.
5. Be Kind to and Patient with Yourself
It doesn’t help to be self-punishing, internalize shame culture, or equate your value as a person with the work you produce. Instead, be patient with your progress, take breaks, reward yourself when something goes well, and tell people how excited you feel when stuff clicks.
Yale psychologist and founder of The Happiness Lab Laurie Santos has found that actively naming what you’re thankful for, helping others, and exercising are three of the main actions that result in long-term happiness. Incorporate these small things into your game plan, and you will feel more motivated to persevere.
The Light on the Other Side
Finding your way out of a slump will not just mean passing that class or finishing a paper. All of these strategies help strengthen your growth mindset skills for life.
I used to have a sticky note on my computer with a quote from Anne of Green Gables that read, “Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it.” This was my childhood, adolescent, and early adult mantra, but it needed to evolve.
Rather than an error-free life, what we want our students to strive for is continual growth and new challenges, which means doing things you haven’t mastered and, inevitably, making mistakes. Nowadays, I rely on a quote written by Michelangelo when he was 87, “Ancora Imparo.” Translation: I am still learning. If you can say that about yourself, you’re already on your way out of the slump.
For students who need extra support at this stage of the semester, we have tutors with expertise in everything from elementary school education to college subjects. Learn more about academic tutoring or speak with a member of our team at 866-789-PREP (7737).