The ending of a course deserves greater attention than it typically receives. While we have thoroughly ritualized the start of a new semester often somewhere between weeks 11 and 14, what seemed like reasonable plans are regretfully sidelined and we launch into catch-up overdrive.
Keep these tips in mind when considering the end of a course.
1. Catching up, reflections, and new directions. Avoid the end-of-semester crunch problem by putting an “open” date on your course outline. Building in time for catching up about two-thirds of the way through a course takes the pressure off at the end. If it turns out that you do not need the time, enrich the content with a lively discussion, a guest speaker, an in-class reading and writing session, or a timely film clip. Set aside time in the final class or two to reflect and connect knowledge learned through the entire course.
2. Class presentations: puff or powerful? I overheard a student talking on his cell, saying that his classes were “done” except for presentations. His comment got me thinking. Ten-minute presentations by everyone in class can be an exciting time for the student presenting, but they can be a bore fest for the rest of the class. Make sure the students who aren’t presenting are engaged listeners and are genuinely learning from the experience.
You also want to give students guidelines and resources for making effective presentations, and consider pacing the presentations so they don’t happen all at once.
3. Motivate students to keep a portfolio. Portfolios are commonly used in graphic design, film, writing, and education. Other fields can adapt this way of preserving progress and showcasing representative work. Lead your students (especially advisees) to think about their papers as having a life beyond their immediate purpose. Crisp position papers can be used as writing samples for graduate school admission. Long after graduation, they are evidence of a student’s best work and serve as welcome reminders to professors asked to write a letter of recommendation for a new job prospect.
4. Plan a celebratory event with a take-home message. Successfully completing a challenging course is a terrific reason to celebrate. When I was an undergraduate, one of my chemistry lab professors invited her class (about 20 students) to her home for dinner. We were treated to a delicious formal dinner, complete with china plates and crystal water glasses. I remember the entire evening, now more than 15 years later. Over the years I have tried to follow this shining example (OK—minus the crystal) at least once a year. We have celebrations in and out of class, and the conversation is as important as the food.
5. Suggest readings and resources for the future. On the last day of class, hand out a list of suggested readings from your own bookshelf, along with a brief commentary on why you’re recommending them.
Create a blog or use Twitter as a place where students can share their own suggestions, and keep it open awhile after the semester ends, to see if there is sustained interest in continuing the discussion. Last semester my students took the initiative to begin a book club, and they are reading new nonfiction on social inequality—some of which I may include next time I teach the course.
In sum, when you plan your courses, think about the last days as much as you think about the first days. Work to create memorable experiences that will stay with the students and fuel their continued learning.
Margaret Walsh is a professor of sociology at Keene State College.
Adapted from End Notes: Distinctive Ways to Wrap-Up a College Course. The Teaching Professor, May 2008.