With final exams and projects fast approaching, this time of year can be very difficult for computer science students, or all students, really. If you haven’t been doing well in class, you probably feel stressed about how you’re going to make it to the finish line. You might even be faced with the decision of whether or not to drop the class before it’s too late. Trust me, I know how frustrating and discouraging this time of year can be. Exam stress can ruin a holiday pretty quickly.
If you’re in the United States, first I would encourage you to enjoy today, spend it with friends, family, whoever you can be around that can help you be positive and take a breather today. If you aren’t able to spend it with friends or family, please still take a break and do something uplifting. Watch a funny movie, read a book unrelated to your studies, play a video game, go out to dinner or order something delicious, spend time outside, do something today to help you relax and relieve some of the stress. Even if you only set aside today and then get back to work tomorrow, I really believe it will help you be more refreshed and able to tackle the hard decisions and work you are facing.
Next, let’s talk about what you can do to address your discouragement. Here are some tips I’ve developed from experience (yes, I was once a frustrated college student myself, too, you know!).
- Calm down. Easier said than done, I know. That’s why I recommended taking at least a day, if you can, to do something fun to reduce those stress levels. Ever heard of chronic stress and how it affects your thinking, emotions, and health? By chronic stress, I mean you don’t have just isolated times of stress, you probably spend most of your time in a constant state of worry and stress. That condition creates a negative feedback loop that leaves you more exhausted and unable to think clearly. Your immune system is weakened, so you might have health issues such as colds, rashes, and inflammation. In such a state, how can you possibly be in the best position to make the best decisions or even to learn the material you need for your class? So take some deep breaths, make a conscious decision to calm down, listen to some upbeat music you love, do something positive that you enjoy to shift your focus and break the immediate panic you might be feeling. True stress-control is a lifestyle change, but for now, let’s focus on the immediate things you can do to feel more relaxed.
- Put the situation into the proper perspective. Are you really doing as badly as you think? Have you figured out what you need to do for the rest of the semester in order to pass? What is the worst that can happen if you DO end up dropping the class? In the long run, a few years from now, will a dropped class really make that much of a difference in your job prospects? Sometimes the class is salvageable, but other times a strategic retreat is the best decision, because you can regroup, figure out what happened, and then come back to the class next semester stronger. Be careful of extreme thinking; dropping or failing a class does not mean YOU are a failure, it just means that this class did not go the way you might have wanted it to.What have you actually learned and done WELL this semester? I know in a seemingly desperate situation, it’s hard to see what you have actually accomplished, but I think today is a good time to look at the wins that you HAVE gained. Surely at this point you can’t say that you’ve learned absolutely nothing from this class. Even if you didn’t learn much about the subject matter, can you identify “triggers” or situations in class that made you feel less confident or that confused you? To paraphrase Thomas Edison, maybe you learned what didn’t work for you as far as learning.
- Schedule a candid discussion with your professor or teaching assistant. I know it’s hard to face, and it’s not always a conversation you want to have, but don’t let pride or fear stop you from taking this important step. Your instructors should be your allies. They can give you a better idea of if the class is salvageable, how realistic your expectations are, and what you need to do to get on the road to recovery. They might suggest resources to help you, or extra credit assignments that can boost your grade. I have found that having a positive relationship with your instructors can also help swing the results in your direction if your grade is on the border between passing or failing, or even a C+ and a B-.
- Identify your learning style. Let’s face it, for some people, sitting and listening to a lecture is not the best way for them to learn or retain anything, especially if you are totally confused about some part of the lecture. You’ll just sit there and get more confused as the class continues. I do better reading the textbook and doing examples. I can go at my own pace, and for some reason, I just absorb information better visually rather than having someone talk to me. Some people work better in groups, but if you’re less confident or perhaps more of an introvert, you might feel like you’re getting steamrolled as your teammates discuss the material. Again, I’m the type of person that doesn’t do as well in group brainstorming sessions where everyone is talking, because I need a moment to think and absorb the material, and the chatty group dynamic is disruptive for me. I’m sure other group members would get frustrated with me for not saying much (or they might not even notice).Not every teaching approach is for everybody, and THAT’S OK. Don’t feel like you’re dumb because this brilliant professor’s lecture didn’t make sense to you. Also know that some experts aren’t always the best at breaking down concepts and making them easy to understand.Now, more than ever, is the time to figure out what approaches have worked for you this semester, and which ones haven’t. Even if you have to look outside of this particular class for times when you learned best, I would encourage you to reflect on it, so that you can craft a suitable approach for your finals study session.
- Start breaking down your material into smaller pieces. A little while ago, I wrote a blog post about a six-step process for solving programming problems. You can find the link at the end of this post, or click here. I would add that you can modify this process for any material or problem. The key point right now is to break the material down into smaller chunks. Staring down a textbook chapter that has been frustrating you all semester? Ok, can you identify what parts you DON’T understand, rather than saying you don’t understand any of it? Can you create a study session that focuses one-by-one on your biggest problem areas? What key concepts, if you were able to really understand them, would give you the most progress if you could finally master them? Focus on those.
- Write down your questions, and then write down your questions about those questions. To follow up on the previous point, yes, I know you’re confused and don’t understand some of the material. Do a “brain dump.” Get a sheet of paper or open up a Word document, and just start writing down your specific questions about the material. As you write down the questions, those might lead to further sub-questions. Get it all written down and out of your brain. You’d be surprised how much mental stress you have when you’re trying to keep track of it all in your head. By writing it down, you’re unburdening your brain, and you can start focusing on answering those questions. If you think about the material or assignment as a puzzle, the questions would be like missing pieces, the answers to those questions would be like you found the pieces but aren’t quite sure where they go, and then once you find more of the pieces, you’ll be better able to see the bigger picture and where the pieces all fit.
- Write down your assumptions and what you DO understand. You probably understand at least some of the material, which can serve as a framework for you. If you’re solving a programming assignment, for example, you might have information that you know. Those facts are part of the puzzle, too, so writing them down where you can easily refer to them can help you see where the unknown facts fit in.
- Use your questions and your known facts to ask for help. If you feel you absolutely must work over the holiday, your list of questions can guide you to some answers. If your professor or teaching assistant is not available, there are online forums, search engines, your textbook, and other resources that you can use. Just start Googling or searching your resources for answers to your specific questions. How much easier is to find answers for “what arguments do I need to supply when I’m creating a map or dictionary,” rather than “I don’t understand this chapter about data structures?”And if you ask someone else for help, be it in an online forum, or an email or session with your professor, if you can say to them “Here’s what I think I understand, here are the assumptions I’m making, here’s what I’ve tried, and here are the questions I’d like to get clarified,” you are helping the instructor or assistant to more quickly and efficiently help you. Maybe your assumptions were wrong, or what you thought you knew wasn’t right. The quicker you figure that out, the sooner you can get to understanding.
The Bottom Line
Okay, so this post is a bit long. As I said, I want you to take some time to relax, so I’ll let you absorb this information. We will speak further about how to implement some of these suggestions, but the bottom line: GET CALM AND GET ORGANIZED. There’s work to be done, but you can do it if you approach it from the proper perspective. Don’t let the exam stress get to you.
For your reference:
Six Steps to Solving Programming Problems
Getting In to the Proper Mindset
Effects of Chronic Brain Stress
Beyond Blue – How to Deal With Stress at Work (these tips are also good for school!)
Become a More Confident Programmer
I’ve compiled a short ebook guide of tips on how to learn programming, improve your problem-solving skills, and become a better, more confident programmer. If you are interested you can download Confident Programmer Study Tips here.