Take Stock: Reflecting on the Semester

Debalin Sarangi portrait

Spring’s the season of blooms, and my favorite time to get outside. The days are getting longer, it’s warming up, and—sometimes—it’s hard to focus on work. Still, even if it’s hard to sit down at my desk and get to work, I find it helpful to look back over the previous semester and reflect on a few key points that can help me plan a more successful and joyous next semester.

The graduate school environment is scholarly and social; professional and friendly. Planning for each step is the key to success and maintaining balance between the two. As a graduate student, I review the high and low points from the previous semester so that I can start the next semester well. I reflect on the three main activities that make up my semester: academics, other responsibilities, and downtime.

Academics

As a graduate student, I try to balance my three main responsibilities: my coursework, my research, and my teaching.

Coursework

I reflect on every course I've taken by asking myself: "What were my learning objectives? What did I learn? How did I do?"

I use these questions to improve my study methods and also to prepare for upcoming semesters. If my performance was poor in one class, instead of getting upset, I think about what I did wrong and what I can do to improve. Overcoming my weaknesses next semester could be as simple as finding a study strategy that works or developing time or project management skills.

Research

As a research assistant, my first priority is my research. Doing research, writing research articles, and attending conferences are important activities that make me a successful researcher. To succeed, advanced planning is crucial. At the beginning of each semester, I set my research goals. And at the end of the semester, I look back and check them off as ‘Accomplished’ and ‘Yet to be accomplished.’ This helps me make the next semester’s research plan. I may have to tackle some of the 'Yet to be accomplished' first, or my priorities may have changed. Knowing where I am and what needs to be done helps me use my time well.

Teaching

I'm interested in the overall quality of my teaching and I'm always looking for ways to improve. I usually note key points of my teaching, like problems that I faced, whether my students were engaged in class (and if not, why!), how I can improve my teaching skills, whether my class was focused on the learner, if students achieved the learning goals for the class, and what strategies I can use to create a friendlier, more productive class.

Taking student feedback seriously is always a good way to improve. I use the formal evaluation at the end of the semester and informal check-ins throughout the semester to help me reflect on the quality of my teaching. Meeting with a teaching consultant can help you think through a plan for incorporating feedback.

Other Responsibilities

I've got responsibilities related to volunteering with professional organizations, mentoring graduate or undergraduate students, helping my parents, and writing articles for lab. To help me keep track of these responsibilities, I try to note key dates and deadlines on my calendar.

Extra-curricular activities are helpful because they can enrich my résumé or help me earn some money, but if I have many other responsibilities and deadlines coming up around the same time, I may have to turn some activities down. Proper planning helps me balance my work and everything else! If I've had a particularly busy semester, I look back at my calendar and see if I need to change the way that I schedule those other responsibilities, or if I need to cut down on my outside activities in the next semester so that I can focus on my coursework, research, and teaching.

Down Time

I firmly believe that variety is the spice of life. That means I'm not just working all the time! After I’ve taken time to reflect on my professional experience, I also like to look back at how I’ve relaxed at the end of a busy week. If I haven't made time to relax and recharge, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by work. Keeping tabs on whether I've done something fun not related to my work helps me stay balanced!

These are a few of the activities I schedule during the spring semester. When I look back at the semester, I ask myself if I had an opportunity to do each of these things at least once. This exercise is also helpful because it reminds me that I'm taking breaks and taking care of myself. And thinking back on those fun activities also reminds me to focus on my upcoming work, so that I have time to take those breaks in the coming semester! Here's my checklist of springtime activities for taking a break:

  • Spring blooms: Spring is also the semester of colors. I usually drive around Lincoln to take photos of the flowers.
  • Potluck: Spring is a great time to grill and make new friends at a potluck. There are lots of great parks and other local places to plan a party.
  • Visit new places: Try to visit at least one new place over Spring Break, whether it's in Lincoln or out of the state. Spring Break is the best time to visit somewhere new, go for a hike, or go for a bike ride.
  • See a show: I try to go see an artist perform live at least once a semester. If I have time and interest, I catch a movie at the Ross or at  Marcus Theatres on $5 Tuesdays.
  • Friends and family: Spring is a bridge between what feels like a long winter and a short summer, and it’s a great time to go out with friends and family. Usually I take a few photos that I know will make great memories.

‘Strategy’ and ‘balance’ are keys for graduate student success. By using the end of the semester as an opportunity to reflect on what went well and what you'd like to improve the next semester, you too can take charge of your work and stay in control of your development as a scholar.

Special thanks to Ian Rogers, one of my good friends and an MA student in English, for his help in developing this article.