December 10th, 2012

When the Semester Ends, It Isn’t Really Over


Figuring out final grades feels like closure. It’s the last time we think carefully about each student we’ve had in this set of classes. Some of them have done so well, and if they are students we’ve had in multiple courses, we feel such satisfaction as we watch what they are becoming. They make teaching worth the work. But then there are other students—the ones who failed because it just wasn’t the time in their lives to learn this content, the ones who didn’t have the skills they needed to make it, and the ones who passed the course but never connected with the content, the teacher, and sometimes, not even with their classmates. These are the students who some days make us wonder why we even bother.

With courses ending so definitively, it’s easy to think that whatever impact you or the course might have on students is over. But learning doesn’t always end when the course does. Some insights and understandings are iterative and cumulative. Students arrive at them after repeated exposure, as the evidence mounts and their skills and experiences deepen. Other intellectual development happens when students are finally ready to learn. Most of us can recall one of those serendipitous student encounters in the mall. “Dr. Weimer, Dr. Weimer, do you remember me?” Sometimes I want to say, “How could I forget? You have a prominent place on my failures list.” Occasionally, one of those students hands me a gift. “I didn’t learn much in your course, but I didn’t sell the book back and just recently I read it. And as I was reading it, I remembered all sorts of things you said in class.” Perhaps I can cross that student off my failures list.

Some students can be very hard to read. It isn’t always easy to determine what effect the course is having, or will have. Recently, while out shopping, I ran into a former student whom I didn’t recognize at all. “You don’t remember me, do you?” she asked. I looked more closely. “No, I don’t.” “I was in your speech class at Berks,” she explained. “Oh, that could be,” I said. “What’s your name?” She told me and that didn’t trigger any recollection. Then she said, “I learned three things in your course that I use pretty much every day.” She listed them off and I started smiling. She had a solid grasp of what I hoped every student would take from the course. When I got home and looked in my grade book, I discovered that what she’d learned was worth far more than the grade she’d earned in the class.

Because course endings give us a false sense of closure, we can end up feeling more discouraged about our teaching than we should. There really is no way to know how our content, our teaching and or the experiences in our classes have affected students or may affect them in the future. Students can be profoundly changed by a course and the teacher may never find out. I have a colleague who loves classical music. It’s not his academic area, but his knowledge is expansive. I once asked how he got interested in music. “Oh, I had a music teacher—that’s how it started. You know, I’d always intended to thank him, to tell him how his introduction to music has resulted in a lifetime of pleasure. But I got there too late. I had to say my thanks at his grave.”

Teaching is an act of faith, not something we always readily acknowledge. I like the Biblical definition: “faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not yet seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Sometimes we do see the evidence; students excel and we share their success. But many times there is no evidence. A student passes through the course without appearing to have been touched. But faith is a substance, it’s something tangible to hold onto in the absence of evidence. As the current courses end and the year concludes, the influence of both continues. In this season of peace, hope, joy and love, may your faith be renewed and strengthened. What you do for and with students does matter. It makes a difference and that makes it so worth doing.

  • Nellie Sheppard

    Just the encouragement I needed today.Thank you!

    Nellie Sheppard

  • David Williamson

    Great advice and encouragement. Thanks.

  • David Mount

    Yes, thanks! I'm planning on sharing this with my department. I felt saddened as I read, though, because it's very common among those who push "measurable outcomes" as the answer to everything to ridicule this very point of view, which you express so movingly. I was just at a conference in Eugene, OR, about the "Degree Qualifications Profile," written by three members of AACU (Am. Ass'n of Colleges & Universities) and sponsored by the Lumina foundation. One of the authors of the DQP, in his Powerpoint, held this idea up as one of the common objections to focusing course design strictly on measurable outcomes; that is, the idea that not at all learning is measurable, but rather crystallizes after the course. He openly ridiculed this as the height of unscientific, naive, and wishful thinking. And yet I know that not only have I seen it in my students, but my own most powerful learning has happened in exactly this way. Maybe I'll email this to him, too.

  • Steve

    Powerful statement: "Teaching is an act of faith." Thanks.

  • Julia

    Thanks for the timely reminder!

  • Corinne Sadowsky

    Thank you!

  • Linda

    Thank you! I really needed to read this today. Tonight is the end of my first semester teaching a new course. Some of these students didn't do a thing in class. Others never missed an assignment, participated in every discussion, had perfect attendance. I hope both sets carry something positive from this course with them for the rest of their lives.

  • cmunic8

    Thank you for sharing these ideas at this busy, final-exam-time of year! Very encouraging! Even though I was in school more years ago than I care to admit to : – ), I still have aha moments as a result of learning I received from an instructor long ago. On a separate note, I was somewhat dismayed at the information noted in David Mount's comment about the conference presenter who " openly ridiculed this as the height of unscientific, naive, and wishful thinking" and encouraged by David' follow up with "my own most powerful learning has happened in exactly this way. Maybe I'll email this to him, too." Please do, David. In fact, perhaps several of us should!!

  • Eminence Grise

    I'm sorry, I fail to see how this is supposed to inspire faculty whose annual reviews are based on student evaluations filled out now, not posthumously. Teaching may be an act of faith, but in these economic and corporatizing times, it's also a skidge too close to martyrdom for this article to be anything but disturbing.

  • Margaret Welty

    I so appreciate this article — it very aptly states the things that I mull over at the end of every semester. It speaks to teaching and learning that can't be measured in the space of a class session, a mid-term or a final, or in my case, in a single drawing or a stack of drawings and designs. The effect of a ripple from a stone cast into water or a crashing wave or waterfall cannot be measured always in present time. We do our best. That is what satisfies me. I often think that what looks like the worst performance in the student may actually be their best at this point. How are we to know for sure?

  • Sharon Long

    This hits home. Thanks for the wonderful thoughts and comments.

  • Dr. Ishrat Rahman

    Thank you for this insightful writing. I needed to see this in writing especially this semester …… this was one of those semesters that is making me think about what is it about teaching that matters to me most…. In my entire teaching career, I have never had a section with such poor performance. I am having a hard time processing it. I am begining to think that all those good feelings that I have when students do well doesn't necesarily mean that 'I' have made an impact, all it means is that the students did well and that's it. I find it more meaningful, when students come to me later (when they don't have to) and tell me they how they're doing well in a different class by using a strategy that they learned in my class. This semester, I feel that I have learnt a lot more from the poor performance of my one sections than my students. I am planning on adding a section in my welcome note next semester to share my experience as a teacher and a student. I would love to have your thoughts on how to anaylze this and how to share it with my future students that would be a learning experience for them.