Student talks to professor in hallway

This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on October 1, 2017. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved. 

In face-to-face courses, learning is compartmentalized into blocks that meet a prescribed number of times per week across the term or semester. It’s a format that’s simultaneously efficient and inhibiting. It effectively facilitates sequenced and accretive design but regularly loses opportunities to maximize deep learning between class units. To some extent technology, with the use of texting, email, blogs, and wikis, makes it possible to sustain the learning that started in class. Even so, much of the learning that happens after class or between class sessions is left to chance.

I’d like to share one way to encourage more learning between class meetings. I’ve devised something I call “afterthoughts,” and they’re ideas pertinent to any aspect of the course that anyone can share. I typically don’t describe the idea in the syllabus. Instead, in the second or third week of class, I introduce and explain the concept. I talk about how an afterthought can take many forms and follow with examples such as these.

  • The follow-up that returns to an important point: “For the past few classes we’ve discussed how Shakespeare often employs double plot structure in his plays. Well, yesterday I was watching a TV program that uses exactly the same technique …” I then play a cut from (or describe or outline on the board) a double plot structure from a current TV show that is similar to what we’ve been doing for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  • The intriguing idea that can link learning over a weekend (as well as demonstrate how much student comments can matter): “After our last class I was thinking about Jake’s comment on the emotional power of words. And it occurred to me that while our culture manages quite well with words that wield bold power—for instance, we defend freedom of all kinds of speech, even the offensive—we grant far less value to words of subtle emotional power. Do you agree? Why or why not? What examples would you give from our readings or from pop culture or media sources? What are some of the consequences of the loss of subtle expression in literature or in life?
  • The chance to correct, adjust, or extend: “In thinking about our last class, I had an afterthought: During our lively discussion of Gatsby in the last class, we didn’t consider how the narrator’s point of view might affect the characters’ ethics. Before we take on ethics in the reading for today, let’s go back and take a look at that.”

Student afterthoughts fit—less tidily—under these same examples. Their afterthoughts emerge in peer conversations after class about a topic broached in class; from connections to TV, film, music, and the Internet; out of references to similar topics or readings from their other courses (or from high school); and from their own thinking about something they’d like to discuss more.

Once students understand what qualifies as an afterthought, I invite them to contribute theirs. I use this strategy to encourage them to think metacognitively. Perhaps they haven’t considered that academic insights and learning are not confined to the limits of a class period, and that much learning occurs between classes—even between semesters and across disciplines. Afterthoughts are a way to capture and share these new insights and connections.

Students are free to email or text me with an afterthought—to avoid losing it, or in case they want to run it by me first. If they choose to bring it directly into class, I urge them to write it down so that they’ll remember it. The only requirements are that they (1) describe what they encountered and thought about and (2) explain how it relates to something we’ve been learning. I also make clear that afterthoughts definitely count toward quality participation points.

Occasionally (but regularly), I’ll start class by asking if anyone would like to share an afterthought, pausing for a moment to see if there are any volunteers. The pause is important because it reminds students of the opportunity, validates thoughtfulness, and creates an incentive vacuum. On the other hand, if someone has emailed me beforehand, I’ll begin class by asking that student to share the afterthought. Regardless of what students contribute, I can usually turn their ideas into an important point from a prior class or segue into the agenda for the day. Occasionally I make afterthoughts a warm-up exercise, asking everyone to write a one-minute paper about something from last week’s classes that they would like to return to, and to briefly explain why. Their papers give me insights into the ideas that had staying power and what might bear returning to as the course moves forward.

In addition to serving as a discussion starter and an incentive to connecting ideas, the technique of afterthoughts encourages independent student thinking, as they link course-related ideas and connect them to the world beyond. For those who don’t volunteer, the technique at least models such behavior. And for everyone, the strategy cultivates the skills of description, comparison, and analysis, any of which a teacher can further develop in the subsequent discussion. Finally, it honors recent research into the neuroscience of learning, providing a self-generated opportunity to learn through repetition, significantly enhanced through students’ (and peers’) own intellectual connections and emotional engagement.

Ed.’s note: End-of-course evaluations are an ongoing concern for faculty, even those who have tenure and long years in the classroom. All of us aspire to have good ratings, although we don’t usually specify what merits that qualification, and we all struggle with those written comments that don’t make sense or point out flaws so egregious they keep us up at night. Two articles in this issue explore constructive ways of dealing with ratings and the written comments they include. Both suggest helpful actions that faculty can take.

Ed.’s note: Two articles in this issue describe recent work on student study habits. We often assume there’s nothing we can do about them or that responsibility for developing them lies with those in our learning centers. Both of these analyses take issue with that position. Teachers can influence the decisions students make about studying. Our influence will be most effective if both we and students accurately understand what’s involved when students study. Both of these articles are helpful in developing that understanding.

Julie Empric, PhD, is a professor at Eckerd College.