Friday, April 16, 2010

Spring Fever

Man, oh man. The school I teach at has been overrun with a devastating epidemic of spring fever. The weather is gorgeous and the frisbees, hackey sacks, and revealing clothes are in full force. Since spring break ended, I'm down to about 40% attendance per class. I'm getting my ass kicked by good weather, and I don't know what to do about it.

I suspect that spring break itself is a major contributor. Like most schools, we are on a semester schedule, which means that spring break is a week-long interruption in an ongoing academic unit. I have found that for many students, it is extremely difficult or impossible to regain their prior focus on their studies. Many students physically do not return from spring break; many others return physically but not mentally.

I was once involved with a school that operated on a quarter system. At this school, spring break was located between quarters, so you would finish one set of projects and final exams, take a week off, and then start a new set of courses. It seemed to me to that students could focus on their classes after spring break much more easily. And this seems to me to be a very good reason to adopt the quarter system.

Another idea I had was to abolish spring break altogether. That way, you'd end the semester a week earlier, and thereby extend the summer by a week. Why not do that?

Of course, switching to quarters would fuck up a lot of other stuff, and spring-break abolitionism is completely unlikely to catch on.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

I work for an institution with no spring break, due to the requirements set forth by the state for the number of hours CC students must spend in classroom each semester plus the requirements for faculty summer scheduling in the bargaining agreement. We get a 3 day weekend for Easter, and I teach in a land of perpetual summer, so the presence of lovely sunshine filled days is not a seasonal thing.

And my attendance is *still* always miserable for the last month of term.

I suspect this is all mostly due to the impending glory of summer, with all the long sunny days of lounging at the pool, pretending to read whatever's in front of me, drinking a mojito, smoking a spliff, getting a tan that makes all those crazy people who don't get summers off jealous, all followed by no-shower-happy-hour...

...Yeah, I'm just as guilty of it as that 50-65% of class that are checked out mentally. Oops.

Anonymous said...

Another idea I had was to abolish spring break altogether. That way, you'd end the semester a week earlier, and thereby extend the summer by a week. Why not do that?

I think this is a terrible idea. It's like taking from the poor to give to the rich. Summer break is plenty long enough already, an extra week isn't going to be that noticeable. On the other hand, a week off in the middle of the semester is like cool water to one who's parched (I've got a million of these similes). If anything, it'd be better to extend winter break by a week instead of summer break. Still, though, spring break is awesome.

As for quarters vs semester, I think even in a semester class one can only cover a little bit of material (if it's to be done well), so I'd only go for quarters if there were a lot of two-quarter courses.

Anonymous said...

I have the same attendance problem. I don't remember this happening when I was an undergrad though. Is it a recent trend?

Xenophon said...

Why don't we just adopt a draft and rookie salary cap? It would make applying for jobs much easier.

We could even have a combine in Indianapolis where they take out everyone's brains and weigh them for departments that are hung up on measurables?

Not a spring break post, admittedly, but an April one.

Anonymous said...

Uh, how about instead of cancelling Spring break you just have an attendance policy?

gwern said...

I went to a school that was on the quarter system. They've abolished it.

It may work for spring break, but what about December?

Anonymous said...

Where I currently teach at I cannot assign anything that is due the day after spring break, like a paper or something (not that I want to ever, but just if the schedule required that). A good portion of students would just turn it in late. Where I was an undergraduate, the students *really* cared about their grades and I remember having assignments due then and doing them. I just think it is the B-B+ average students at my university that makes this happen, since they're not driven for high grades. I don't know how to change this.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the business model of higher education. The clients have paid for their education. You are compensated to provide it. Their participation is irrelevant beyond that contract.


Anonymous said...


If most of your students are happy getting Bs or even Cs, there are only two ways I can think of to get them to work harder:

1. Be such an awesome teacher that they'll do it for reasons unrelated to the grade.
2. Start giving them failing grades early on so they realize if they want to pass at all they need to work hard.

The first one doesn't seem realistic: even if you were super awesome (and you might already be for all I know) it's hard to believe most of them would both fall in love with philosophy and work really hard. The second has its own issues (e.g. they'll hate you, they'll get discouraged, many will fail and have to pay for the class again). The plus side is once word gets out you'll have lower enrollment and so less papers to grade (if the administration doesn't kick your ass because of it).

So, in other words, I don't think you can do anything to change it. But if anyone has any ideas I'd love to hear them, since this problem is nearly universal.

BunnyHugger said...

My undergrad school was on a trimester system (not quarters, but only because they had no summer term). Our spring break was between semesters, and our Christmas break actually started before Thanksgiving and went through New Year. Fifteen years later I still miss that schedule. I have never really gotten to like semesters. We got as much material in per term because the classes met more often or for longer than the equivalent classes do at my current school.

Anonymous said...

I don't know...
I think abolishing Spring Break would be equally bad, because students would burn out at some point. I think the break is well-deserved. Getting them back into the groove is difficult, sure, but I don't think ending Spring Break would work.

Anonymous said...

I'd agree with Anon. 12:41 - an attendance policy is probably the best medicine at this point. Something liberal, not too harsh, but with a harsh enough bottom end to scare the bejeezus out of them at a certain point.

In my large MWF 240-student sections of Intro to Logic (where the TAs take attendance and we have ca. 42 meetings per semester), I allow 4 absences, to be 'spent' as they would prefer, without penalty. After that, each absence, excused or unexcused (I don't distinguish) is 2 points off the final grade. More than 10 absences is a big fat F for the course. This usually works.

I find once they get to the 11, 12, or 13 absence mark, they are failing the tests and quizzes anyway, so that even if I didn't fail them for absences, I would be failing them for other reasons. I've never failed anyone on absences alone (but of course I don't tell them that). So we get reasonably good attendance.

Just make sure your department will back you on such a policy before it's put in the syllabus. Mine does.

Anonymous said...

5:01: I don't think there's anything too much beyond what 8:52 suggests that can change motivation with respect to whole classes. The only other thing that I have seen work out is when circumstances are such that a group of "philosophy friends" arises. In these cases, you can see lower performing students motivated socially to perform better--the shared interest and discussion outside of the classroom tends to bring the whole group up. To some extent, one can attempt to provide something of a community atmosphere in the classroom such that students get to know each other and push each other towards involvement, but I have never found this so effective as to motivate all students in a course. Things like a philosophy club can provide a context that adds a social dimension and source of motivation for students, but, once again, this doesn't cover everyone.

In terms of how you assess yourself with respect to motivating students, it may be helpful to adjust your perspective in this way...while it seems only right to consider grades of A as indicators of excellence and motivation, for your own sake, take a look at your grade books and notice the extent to which failing and barely passing students have improved their grades in your courses. In an important sense, if your instruction is such that in your classes many students have made improvement from failing and low grades to Cs and even Bs, this counts towards your ability to motivate students. There will always (I think) be students who aren't motivated (stay in a holding pattern), but your teaching effectiveness is marked by not only the A students, but also those who made substantial improvements (even if their grades are not A).

Anonymous said...

Another idea I had was to abolish spring break altogether. That way, you'd end the semester a week earlier, and thereby extend the summer by a week. Why not do that?

Well, some students really need the break, and not just for the sake of booze parties in the sand. The rate of student suicide would rise without a break. In fact, I know that some schools imposed a week-long fall break and, consequently, found that there were fewer suicides among the student body.

Anonymous said...

School during the spring is one reason I am glad I am at a Canadian University. Our Winter term is over except for the marking. The terms in Canada are usually equal in length:

Fall: Sept Oct Nov Dec
Winter: Jan Feb March April
Spring or Summer: May June July Aug

There is a week break at the end of Feb, and some schools have a break end of Oct too. So there is less of a problem with Spring fever.

CTS said...

I do not think we can do anything about Spring Fever: it was not named for the behvior of college students but for a condition that affects anyonw who lives where there are hard winters.

I have found that I just pump up the energy level after SB. I have the advantage of teaching in a small place and can get to know the students; this makes it much easier to communicate that energy to them than it would be to do so with 240 students. (Yikes.)

In fact, to an extent, I find the end of Fall term to be worse: everyone is both worn out AND depressed by the weather. At least Spring provides an emotional lift.

Anonymous said...

I must say, I hate teaching in a quarter system. In essence, I have a 24 week quarter, since I spend spring break between quarters grading finals. And, really, I don't find that my students in the spring quarter are really any more mentally back in class than they were when I taught at a semester school. They simply blow off a whole quarter rather than half a semester.

Just add an attendance policy.