The Reverse Bell-Curve of the Average Semester

This is likely the closest thing to a scientific article you will see in this blog. I am going to try to explain my theory of the reverse bell-curve of effort during an average semester. This is in no way an encouragement to fulfill the hypothesis. My theory has been supported through not-so-clinical studies, testimonials and personal experiments.

It is the first week back from vacation. Let’s say it is winter break. This works well because New Year’s resolutions help best illustrate and explain the beginning of the reverse bell-curve. For your resolutions you have committed to working harder, going to the gym and maybe getting a 3.5 GPA. 3.3? 3.0? Sound familiar? It’s because we all do it. This isn’t just reserved for New Year’s resolutions. Just before the beginning of any semester (high school, college, what-have-you) we all say to ourselves, this time I’ll do better.  Better at school, better at being fit better at Super Smash Bros … To be better in those regards it takes effort, time and often it is not fun while we are getting better (except for the last one).

In the first couple of weeks in the semester you ride that motivation momentum built up over a break and time removed from previous low-effort periods. Boosted motivation pre-semester can come from a number of sources. Perhaps you didn’t do so well last semester and this semester you want to do better. Perhaps last semester you did really well and that makes you want to do even better this semester. Maybe you shared a moment with your cat over break and you could swear when he meowed and looked at you he was saying, “(Insert Your Name Here), I believe in you.” Whatever the case, you pledge to work harder and for the first couple of weeks it seems so easy to fulfill that pledge.

Then reality hits. You have friends that need hanging out with, going to the gym isn’t as fun as eating Chanello’s cheesy bread, the new season of “New Girl” comes out on Netflix and that extra-credit essay needs to be put on hold until you find out if Schmidt and Elizabeth get back together. Just like that, the extra effort you were putting in stops. Like your heart when your favorite “Game of Thrones” character gets killed.

Effort inexorably fades during the semester until motivation matches necessity. Rather than working hard for the feeling of moral absolution upon completion of said hard work you find yourself compelled to work hard in order to maintain the grade. Now the grade might be an A or a B or a C depending on your ambition, but regardless of the GPA goal, you’ll find procrastination to be a much more compelling word the further into the semester you go.

Here’s the formula (this is in no way mathematical):

Effort=(Necessity+Motivation)-(Distractions * Weeks into the semester)



The problem with the formula, and the explanation for the reverse bell-curve is that effort always increases at the very end of the semester. I like to call this “The Finals Week Effect.” I’m no psychology major, but I have reason to suspect that the fear of finals week can eliminate the value for W.  As you get close to finals week and desperation sets in, one either puts in extra effort to salvage the semester or, if they have been successful, to protect their potential for a good semester.

In summation, effort is at its highest at the beginning and the end of each semester, but effort generally dips in the middle portion of the semester when the pre-semester motivation and fear of finals week is at its lowest.

Are you capable of disproving this theory? Can you maintain a high effort all semester long that never falters? There are plenty of people who are capable of beating the reverse bell-curve. Those who beat it are usually quite successful year to year. If you are aware of this phenomenon then perhaps you can avoid the trap and come out at the end of each semester as a true champ.

Good luck.

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