The Great Squeeze

No matter how fantastic it feels to be nearing the end of another semester, there is always this other feeling present during the last few weeks. It is a feeling all students are familiar with: the great squeeze.

It begins about three weeks out from the end of the semester. Around this point, the students start to notice deadlines. Dates that seemed irretrievably far away now loom closer. Assignments that would be easily completed with consistent work are now brought to the front of the mind.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. In addition to having assignments due, there are tests that march ever closer. One for each class. Personally, that means three to four “big” tests at the end of the year.

But there is an additional consideration: end of year exams. In the sciences, we generally have three to four tests in each class, followed by a final exam. As such, there ends up being a period at the end of a semester where one needs to not only worry about one test, but two. To make matters even more dire, the final exam encompasses all the semester’s material, meaning students have to “re-learn” the old content in a relatively short amount of time.

This is the reality of the student during these final few weeks. It’s a time of trying to absorb as much material as one possibly can, and be able to demonstrate it during the tests. In short, it’s a time filled with stress.

On the flip side, teachers also have an interesting final few weeks. For them, they usually have to deal with one big deadline: the final day to input marks. The days leading up to this date are filled with frantic correcting, trying to comb through hundreds of students.

Additionally, they must also correct any other assignments and tests that have been finished. Remember the students trying to get their heads around two tests within a short interval in the same class? Those teachers have to get those all corrected and back to the students (particularly for the first test, in order to let the students study for the final).

Amidst the studying and correcting, classes still go on. With three weeks left, there’s still twenty percent of the semester left. That means there is much left to teach the students, despite it being the end of the semester. Therefore, the pressure to cram the rest of the class’ content in the next few weeks is high. At the beginning of the semester, distractions weren’t too big of a problem. However, as the end nears, the amount of time allotted to distractions and tangents must decrease.

Despite the end of the semester representing a well-deserved break, it is a time of difficulty for both teachers and students. The final hump, if you will. What this means is that it’s nearly impossible to really enjoy the end of the semester, because there is always another test to prepare for.

And then, it’s suddenly all over. This is the reality of an end of semester. It’s always a slow build to the end, before suddenly shooting up in stress and work during those final weeks. That is the great squeeze, and it’s a feeling every single teacher and student is intimately familiar with.

Nanometres

Improvement, in the end, is a game of nanometres.

The objective in one’s craft isn’t to become a genius or a master overnight. This is an impossible task. Instead, a more successful approach is to try and improve everything, a little bit at a time. This encourages a mindset of improvement, no matter how small. Sure, you won’t get any massive gains. But over time, the little improvements add up, and create the change you are looking for.

Pointing Fingers

When something goes wrong, it’s easy to to point to reasons why you did not perform to your expectation. In fact, the tendency I’ve seen is that the more you look for reasons, the more you will find them. This is one of our classic mental weaknesses. We search for the data that confirms our suspicions, while dismissing the rest as inconsequential or “noise”. What we’ve done, in essence, is create a situation in which we believe we already know the answer, before we’ve objectively found it.

When we fail, we race to rationalize what just happened. Why did I under-perform? Did I forget to say something, or forget a crucial fact? Did I do things in the wrong order? These questions will swirl around in our minds immediately after we’ve failed. And then, our minds try to find reasons that we didn’t accomplish what was expected. However, we have this horrible tendency to seek external reasons for our failures, instead of going back and questioning what we already did. As soon as the above questions enter our minds, the responses that are generated usually have to do with external conditions, or something out of our control.

Sometimes, this is the case, and we can correctly acknowledge our lowered performance due to these factors. However, we often take this tendency too far, proclaiming nothing was going our way during our performance.

But let’s face it. Conditions are never perfect. There’s always going to be something that’s wrong, or slightly different from the usual. That’s the nature of our world. Nothing is exactly how we expect it to be, all the time. Instead, the average may be like we expect, but day-to-day fluctuations can change this.

Therefore, blaming external factors is a cop out. Unless there was something particularly egregious, there’s no need to blame external factors. Of course, they made a difference. But the largest factor will usually be yourself. That’s the aspect you should be questioning after a bad performance.

When things don’t go perfectly, start by looking at what you did for clues. Often, your search will end there.

Building up the Work

It’s a slow, painful beginning. At first, every day is just a struggle to finish. The number of pieces you’re creating is small, and not particularly good. Essentially, this stage is all about building the habit.

However, at one point, you’ll suddenly find yourself completing the work – not with ease, necessarily – but without the grand effort that was once required of you. Instead, you’ll be more focused on your message, not on just putting in the time. You may even notice your work improve relative to your past efforts. This is the marker of progress.

Then, the objective is simply to work. Building up the work is most important. This won’t be accomplished in days, weeks, or even months. To build up the work that matters to you, the most important factor is time. If you want to see results, you need to be willing to invest the time in years. At that point, you’ll begin to have enough work to show some results.

Remember, building up the work is a slow journey, until suddenly you have enough work to make it meaningful.