May 8, 2014

The Last Class: A Critical Course Component

By: in Effective Teaching Strategies

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There has been significant and well-deserved attention paid to the first class. This class is critical in setting the tone and expectations of the course. Unfortunately, the same amount of attention has not been paid to the last day of class. To us, this class is as important as the first. It is the class where the professor has an opportunity to celebrate the learning of the students. Unfortunately, this day is usually saved for final exam review, finishing up projects or dealing with logistical details like date, time, and location of the final or where to pick up graded term papers. The course ends with a whimper instead of a bang.

We want to challenge professors to make better use of what this last day affords. We have some suggestions, but the intent of this article is not to prescribe a structure to the last class but rather to encourage faculty to think about how they might still review, if need be, but also how they might use the day to celebrate and reflect with students. It can be helpful to connect the first and last class together. In our first class we have the students fill out expectation cards for the course. Students write out their own expectations and objectives for the course on index cards that we provide. We mix up the cards and have each student read one card (presumably not their own) either to the entire class (if the numbers are under 40) or to each other in groups of five. We then compare their course objectives and expectations to our own, and discuss similarities and differences. The cards are then gathered and used again in the last class as part of a review exercise. Again, we have each student read a card, and after each one we discuss whether the expectations stated were in fact met or whether this would be an area for further study or subsequent classes (sometimes we have a short discussion of the topic at that time).

The last class can be structured in many ways. In addition to the review exercise based on expectation cards, we regularly have the students group to review and discuss the course content based on the syllabus. We may have them discuss practice exam questions we provide, or have them develop potential exam questions. It is an interactive class, with the students taking ownership. A review session structured like this can include a time when students share their most significant learning in the course. What they report learning adds another dimension to the review process.

Having students share what they have learned leads naturally to a celebration of that learning. This can be done in many ways. For example, the professor can provide treats, show an inspirational video, play music, or have a guest speaker—perhaps a student who took the course a number of years ago and who can reflect on important “learnings” then and now.

The last class should be one of the most important classes. It is an opportunity to bring closure to the course in a way students will remember. The class can review the course and celebrate learning. What happens on that last day gives professors a unique opportunity to gauge the success of the course. Students can offer useful feedback for the next time this or a related course is taught.

We want our students to use their learning to contribute something to society. They may not remember course content in 20 years, but maybe they will be more critical in their thinking, challenge social norms, be respectful of difference, and influence others to do the same. Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “What we teach will never ‘take’ unless it connects with the inward, living core of our students’ lives, with our students’ inward teaching.” (p. 31) We want our “teaching to take”; used effectively, the last class can help us achieve this.

At the time this article was written, Dr. Vianne Timmons was vice president of academic development at the University of Prince Edward Island. She is currently president and vice-chancellor of the University of Regina. Dr. Brian D. Wagner is a chemistry professor at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 21.1 (2007): 2. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

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