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Planning for Course Endings, the 2016 update

6 Dec wrap

…Or, Planning for Course Endings Is Distinct from
Planning Final Exams and Projects

Summer.  It was so long ago.  

You likely spent some time – hours or days or even weeks – planning that perfect first day of class.  You wanted to hook the students in, get them as excited as you were, and dazzle them with your teaching skills.

Here we are in December.  There is only a week or so left until finals – for which you, like me, likely formed a plan at the start of the semester.  Our students are counting down the days until the end of the semester.  We and they may be tired.  We may be existing minute-by-minute by counting down the days until winter break. With all there is to do in these last few days of the semester.

And, yet, there is still one important question to weigh: How do we actually bring the class to a graceful, thoughtful – and not exam or product oriented – close?

In other words, the key question for right now is this: How we can help students synthesize what they’ve learned so that when they think back on our classes, they think more than “Oh yeah, I took that class.  I don’t remember much about it though”?

To help in shaping a response to that question, this post will address three key questions:

  1. How, then, can we part ways academically?
  2. How can we wrap up learning for the term?
  3. And why should we?

Let’s Begin with the “Why?”

It’s obvious, right?  We’re busy.  Therefore, isn’t it enough that we simply make it through the course calendar and impart that last little bit of information before they walk out the door for the final time? Or, maybe it’s not so obvious why – much less how – to plan for parting.  Interestingly, Eggleston and Smith (2002) found that 90% of students feel that their instructors do not offer enough closure for a course.  And they wouldn’t mind that wrapping up, or at least statement that conveys a goodbye.  On that point, Eggleston and Smith found that only 42% of faculty say goodbye in some form to their students. But closure is more than saying good-bye.  We do that at the end of every class.  Closure in this sense is not a shutdown or termination, synonyms of the word.  It’s an act, a process that brings a course to its conclusion and when done well, sends our students out the door with something more than a final grade.  Eggleston and Smith (2002) note that effective end of the course activities can:

  • provide students with a memento of the course, something they may enjoy looking back on.
  • provide an opportunity for closure, especially in a class where a sense of community has been developed.
  • provide a feeling of achievement and culmination.

What do we, the instructors, get?  The same things.  A feeling that we’ve ending ended on a note that’s as strong as the one we began on, that we’ve achieved our learning goals for the course, and that, hopefully, we’ve gotten our students to think more deeply about whatever it is we covered in the course.

Great, Now What?

Now that you’re convinced that planning for the parting is important, here are a variety of activities to consider.

3-2-1: A personal favorite 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.  The posters can be used by you later on to reflect on what students got and what they didn’t.

And, for the new ideas…

Portfolio creation: Walsh (2009) suggests recommending that  students save work fpr 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, also from Walsh, 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.

Share what you’ve learned through teaching the course:  Our students aren’t the only ones learning in class.  By sharing what you’ve learned through teaching a particular course or a particular group of students, you could very well end up inspiring your students to become more active and engaged students.

Don’t forget yourself – still more new ideas

When wrapping up the semester, allow yourself some time to reflect on how the semester or course has gone.  Volk (2014) offers the following 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 about doing 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?

So before you cross another day off your calendar,  go to your calendar to schedule in 30 minutes to come up with a plan for your own courses.  Take these few moments and consider how you can plan for the parting and help students synthesize what they’ve learned.   Then schedule in another 30 minutes or so to reflect on the semester.  And finally, give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back.

For Further Exploration

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