To harness metacognition as part of reflection – getting learners involved in understanding their own cognitive process, and to use that new understanding to engage in effortful learnings – we can develop course closure activities that ask students to reflect, individually and with classmates, about ways they’ve grown as learners, about new understandings they can claim related to course content, and about new practices they’ve learned and now practice to support effective, effortful learning. These are the basic questions we might ask:
- How has your knowledge and skills grown over the term?
- What actions, strategies, changes, effort, confronting of difficulties made that possible?
- Where are you now versus where you started as a learner?
- What are the most important insights you have gained over the course of the semester – related to content, to learning, to interacting with others? How do these insights connect together?
- Do you regularly ask yourself these questions about your learning practices: What am I doing now? Is it getting me anywhere? What else could I be doing instead? If yes, what are some examples of how you’ve been helped as a learner by reflecting on learning in these ways? If not, what do you currently do – or what might you do in the future – to develop new, appropriate and helpful, learning practices?
As a Stanford Teaching Commons writer notes, such reflection is most effective for learners when incorporated throughout a course; however, for teachers who want to begin incorporating learning-to-learn practices into courses, the last day of class presents a great opportunity for such reflection: As the term ends, students can draw on several weeks of learning experiences in responding to teacher-generated prompts. In this, the Stanford writer explains, “Reflection exercises can reinforce students’ sense of the value of the class and can also give you useful feedback about what concepts might need better explanation next year.”
Four basic questions that encourage students to “analyze, reflect, relate, and question” with course materials in mind can serve as a basis for a term-ending activity that engages students in reflecting on learning. Dietz-Uhler and Lanter note in their research that these questions can enhance students’ retention related to course concepts and learning practices. Bearing this in mind, teachers might incorporate the reflections into the last full week of class, ahead of final projects and examinations. Dietz-Uhler and Lanter offer four core questions:
- Can you identify one important concept, research finding, theory, or idea that you learned while taking this class?
- Why do you believe that this concept, research finding, theory, or idea is important?
- Apply what you have learned from this class to some aspect of your life.
- What question(s) has the class raised for you? What are you still wondering about?
The next three sections of this post share ideas for class closure, a theme we return to each year; the first section offers a new set of ideas, each one focused on metacognition as part of wrapping up a course; the next sections are collections of “classic” closure activities we’ve suggested for learners and for teachers.
Course Closure – Metacognition Focused
What is [name of your discipline, course focus]? Trios of students work together to write a clear, compelling, concise response that would be shared with a specific audience that you or they select (parents, administrators, critics, funders). You could add a second component to this by adapting one of these ideas:
- ask students to frame their response for an audience of future students, adding a second brief section to describe 2 or 3 “aha!” learning moments (what provoked the aha, what cleared up because of the aha);
- challenge students to articulate several ways to use/apply knowledge they’ve developed as learners in the course to “real world” contexts beyond the course; or
- invite students to acknowledge how they could make a difference in the world with the knowledge they’ve gained – related the cognitive/content and affective/interpersonal learning they’ve experienced.
Generate a metaphor: While the idea of generating a metaphor for the course/subject as a graphical or verbal presentation isn’t exactly a new suggestion from us, the option of capturing this metaphor via a food that students can share in the class is somewhat newer. In our Teaching in Higher Education courses, we often ask students to find or make a food that conveys the essential components of their teaching/learning philosophies. Asking them to bring just enough of this food creation to feed a few of their classmates, we assemble a wonderful semester-ending potluck that becomes part of sustaining our closing conversation about principles and practices of teaching and learning.
Have students reflect on their learning approaches: Ask students to reflect on how they approached learning in this course and set goals for subsequent courses. What did they discover about themselves as learners? What were their greatest successes, and what would they have done differently? You could even have students write this in the form of letters to themselves; have students self-address envelopes for you to mail out near the start of the next semester (or figure out a way to do this via e-mail). An activity like this helps students see your course as a step in their larger academic careers rather than something that is done and to be forgotten. (Ball State)
Focus on “Lessons Learned” Reflections: The following suggestions, from the Faculty Focus post, seem especially fitting for end-of-the-term reflective writing and discussion – perhaps via an “individual write, trio talk, whole class share new understandings” process:
- Identify the three most important lessons you learned, say how you learned them, and what those lessons will contribute to your success in subsequent courses and in your chosen profession.
- If you were to take this course again, would you do anything differently? What and why?
- Which course has been the hardest for you so far? What study strategies did you use that didn’t work? If you were to repeat that course or take another one like it, what other study strategies would you try?
- You are applying for your dream job. The interviewer says, “I see you’ve taken a course in ____. What were the most important things you learned in that course?” How would you respond?
- How quickly do you give up on something? Say it’s a problem. How long do you work on it before you decide you can’t do it? What strategies do you use when you’re stuck? Take a problem on a recent test (or the homework last night) that you couldn’t do and list all the things you tried. If you could ask three questions about the problem (other than how do you solve it), what would you ask?
3-2-1: A personal favourite of mine, have your students write down three key concepts they’ll remember, two ways they can apply what they’ve learned, and one burning question they still have. If you do this with a week or two to go, you can try and work in the answers to those burning questions. You can see what students thought were the most salient aspects of your course and how they might use them. Summarizing all of these for the class can also serve as a review if you are giving a cumulative final.
Headline: Ask you students to write a headline, using just six to eight words, to summarize what they’ll remember most from your course. Collect these to see what themes emerge and to frame a final discussion. These can also be used to verify that your main message for the course was on track.
Letter to future students: James Lang asked readers of The Chronicle for suggested activities. One contributor recommended having students write a letter to future students, giving them advice on how they can do well in your course. This can give your students a chance to reflect on what they’ve learned and you a chance to see what they think is important. With permission, you could share these letters with future students. You could also consider, as Stephen Brookfield does, asking current students if they would be willing to come back at the beginning of the next semester to share these thoughts personally with your new class. Brookfield notes that former students, especially those who were initially resistant, often have more credibility with their peers and that current students will buy into what they have to say with much greater ease.
Fortunes: Eggleston and Smith suggest giving students fortunes at the end of the course, each with a summary of a key lesson from the class or a quote that reflects the course content. I’m betting students would all want to know what each other’s fortunes say, with the result being an expanded review of course content. It also allows you to restate the key lessons you hope students take home.
Class closure cards: In their article “Building Community in the Classroom through Ice Breakers and Parting Ways”, Eggleston and Smith suggest having students get into small groups. Each group draws a card and has 10 minutes to discuss and then each group reports back to the larger class. Questions could include:
- What was the big picture of this course?
- What information was most surprising?
- What areas need further research?
- How did your view of the subject change over the course of the class?
- Have you changed your opinion of the course topic as a result of this course? If so, how? If not, why?
This is an activity that could also be done via an online discussion board. Reviewing these as a class, with follow-up discussion, can serve as a gauge for what was learned, what was missed, and what captured student attention.
Carousel-Style Review: Post sheets of paper around the room, with a key concept or topic written on each. Have small groups of students spend a few minutes at each paper, writing down what they remember. Students can question or even challenge each other over what has been written and a class discussion of what has been written can supplement the review. Pictures or summaries of the posters could then be posted on the course website. In the short term, this activity allows students to review and synthesize what they’ve learned as well as fill in any gaps. You can later review the posters to reflect on what students “got” and what confusions, misconceptions, or difficulties linger.
Portfolio creation: Walsh (2009) suggests recommending that students save work for a portfolio. This could be work that they are especially proud of, work that shows progress, or work that they can use in the future for job interviews or graduate school admissions.
Recommended reading: This suggestion involves giving students a list of suggested resources or readings for the future so that they can continue to learn about the topic. You would also use a class-specific Twitter hashtag to continue the discussion using social media.
Don’t forget yourself:
new and classic ideas
Share what you learned teaching this course: Students aren’t the only ones who learn during a semester: As teachers, we also gain new insights about our subjects or about teaching through long-term and ever-shifting interactions with students. In sharing this experience, we model lifelong learning and that we learn from other learners as well – an empowering view of students that may work also to encourage our students to be more active learners in the future.
Here are some teacher-reflection questions:
- What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?
- Why do you think that happened? Link outcomes to your teaching methods.
- Do you think you achieved your learning goals for the course? This, of course, should lead you back to your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.
- What do you think basically didn’t work in the course? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about? What left you thinking: next time, I just won’t do that?
- As above: Why did you (or didn’t you) reach your learning objectives? Link outcomes to your teaching approach.
- Getting concrete: what do you want to at least think aboutdoing differently next time?
- Very briefly: If you are not sure what to do to change the results, who are the people and what are the resources that can help?
Annotate Your Syllabus: Gather up paper copies (yes!) of your course syllabus, calendar, and LMS pages, along with your favorite writing instrument, and begin annotating those sheets of papers with markers, post its, charts, diagrams, arrows, and drawings: What do you recall of pivotal class sessions? Of moments when students were “stuck” or had a break through with a key idea? What readings generated the richest discussion? Why did others not work? What have you realized about overall course organization? Are there ideas, activities, teaching practices, lecture sets, experiments/ or assignment that you are ready to move out of or into the course?
- Stanford Teaching Commons. School’s Out! Almost. Strategies for the Last Day of Class. Blog post.
- Dietz-Uhler, Beth, and Jason R. Lanter. “Using the four-questions technique to enhance learning.” Teaching of Psychology 36.1 (2009): 38-41. Article.
- Faculty Focus. Prompts to Help Students Reflect on How They Approach Learning. Blog post.
- Ball State University Office of Educational Excellence. Ending a Course. Teaching Tip.