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SPRING, 2008


Surviving finals 101: Positive parents can help students pull through exam week

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The University of Iowa

Surviving finals 101: Positive parents can help students pull through exam week

Anyone who ever attended school remembers those final exam nightmares—the ones where you show up naked or realize you sat through an entire semester in the wrong class. Finals can be stressful: for many students, those test scores determine a large percentage of their grade. And finals week comes on the heels of final projects and presentations, upping the stress even more.


With a little help from my parents...

While many on-campus resources exist to help students deal with the stress of finals, Sam Cochran of University Counseling Service offers the following suggestions to parents who want to help students who may be struggling:


Respect their independence but stay positively curious and
concerned by asking questions throughout the semester, such as “What classes are you enjoying?” A heavy-handed and authoritarian approach (“Well, just stay home and do your homework!”) isn’t helpful.

  Listen for clues to problems: Do they sound disorganized? Perhaps using an academic planner would help. Do they sound like they’re getting enough sleep and eating well? For more indicators, see the Counseling Service web site.
  Sometimes just one or two changes can make the difference. Perhaps studying at a coffee shop is too distracting, for example. And Cochran notes that attending class is key: “The difference between skipping class and attending regularly can account for a letter grade.”
  Above all, remember to stay positive. If a student doesn’t do well, avoid
punitive questions and statements of blame, and strive for a more constructive tone. “You’ve been a good student in the past. You just need to keep doing the right things and we know you’ll do fine.”

While there’s no avoiding the frenzy of finals, parents can help students cope by providing a bit of perspective and understanding. The University of Iowa offers numerous resources to help students, as well.

“Getting anxious about tests is not uncommon,” says Brian Corkery, senior associate director of the Academic Advising Center. “But good preparation can help reduce and control that anxiety.”

Corkery says that message is shared with students during orientation, throughout the student advising process, and in the College Transition course.

“Many students leave high school thinking that studying for an important test should begin two or three days in advance of the exam,” Corkery says. “We teach them that good preparation starts at the beginning of the semester—going to class, taking good notes, making flash cards, and doing all the reading will make finals seem much more doable.”

Preparation is just one element of a three-pronged approach to coping with finals stress, Corkery notes.

“Time management is a challenge for many students,” he says. “We encourage them to be aware of when and how they procrastinate, and address it before it becomes a big problem.”

Finally, Corkery adds, students need to maintain balance.

“We remind students they need to get regular sleep, eat right, and engage in exercise, which can be an effective stress reducer,” he says. “It’s easy for students to say, ‘I don’t have time to do those things,’ but hard for them to produce their best work if they don’t have some balance in their lives.”

Balance is something that residence hall staff members are trained to help students achieve. During finals, resident assistants may schedule sessions of stress-relieving yoga or craft activities.

Whitney Warne, a junior from Johnston, Iowa, and a resident assistant (RA) in Slater Hall, takes a low-key approach.

“I like to study alone but some people do better studying with a friend,” says the art and journalism major. “I’ll talk to them about possible options. I also serve as a role model of sorts: they can see that I’m not perfect—my room is a disaster—but I still get things done. I make sure to invite them in to see a completed art project or point out when I have an article published in the Daily Iowan.”

RAs are trained to take note when students’ struggles seem excessive and to direct them to appropriate resources, such as Academic Advising or University Counseling Service.

“A little anxiety is actually good because everyone wants a bit of an edge in a test-taking situation,” says Sam Cochran, director of University Counseling Service. “But when students who have done well on their homework lose focus and find that their minds are racing with worrying thoughts during a test, they should come and talk with us. It’s a very frustrating feeling, and we can often help them manage it with a session or two.”

University Counseling Service also offers advice on time management, overcoming procrastination, and preparing for exams. Health Iowa, a division of UI Student Health Service, posts online suggestions for stress management and a blog where students can ask a health educator about specific, stress-related issues.

But what if a student still doesn’t do well on finals?

“Parents shouldn’t go into a punitive mode,” says Cochran. “Ask questions that will help you determine what went wrong and help them try to learn from that. Be positive. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding out that a student isn’t attending classes regularly or needs to use an academic planner to be more organized.”

According to Corkery, students really do want to please their parents. And A.J. Lutz, hall coordinator for Slater Hall, notes that contact with parents is vitally important to students.

“Trying to remember what it was like for you during finals is helpful,” says Lutz. “And it will help you understand if you don’t hear from your student as often during finals. Parents can use their own life lessons to help guide students.”

While college has changed considerably since parents were 18, there’s a low-tech method that still lessens student stress: a care package or letter from home.

“A package or letter that says ‘We’re here for you’ means so much to students,” says Lutz. “I love watching students when they see they have mail or get to pick up a package at the desk. It really brightens their day.”

by Linzee Kull McCray



Published by University Relations Publications. Copyright The University of Iowa 2004. All rights reserved.

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