The last day of class is in sight. We are neatly wrapping up the semester's work in all of our courses. Ok, maybe not so neatly. Final exams, projects, presentations, or papers await us. Students are tired and edgy. Evaluations loom. So how do we finish strong, concluding our courses in a meaningful way for students and ourselves?
In preparing for the last day of class this semester, I asked a few students to tell me about memorable endings to their classes. Surprisingly, most said they couldn't remember any final classes in their college career that had an impact on them. One student remembered a writing-intensive course in which students informally reflected upon their learning in a circle discussion. Another student described a class in which the professor gathered anonymous student feedback at midterm. During the final class meeting, this professor summarized the midterm feedback comments and explained the revisions he made to the class in the second half of the semester. Conducted effectively, midterm evaluations and S.G.I.D.s (small group instructional diagnosis) have been shown to positively affect final course evaluations.
Asking my colleagues about their strategies for the final class, many expressed the desire to create opportunities for students to look back and to look ahead. Several professors emphasize the importance of reflective prompts or strategies. For example, they encourage students to write reflective letters online or in class, which could be shared (with permission) with future students. In a "Foundations" course for future educators, one professor shows a video, reminding pre-service teachers that school may be the only safe place for some of their future K-12 students.
Think back to the first class of the semester. How does preparation for the opening day compare to planning for the last class? Maryellen Weimer states teachers probably do better with the first class. That's understandable. We share the optimism expressed in the opening lines of the former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins' "Aristotle": This is the beginning/Almost anything can happen. On the first day, many teachers introduce students to the course content and critical frameworks, generate enthusiasm for the course, and begin to establish an inclusive classroom climate. However, as important as it is to begin our classes on the right note, the tone we set for the last day may have a greater impact on our students.
"The last class of the semester is like a goodbye. It can be cold and perfunctory or warm and heartfelt. For many years, I erred on the side of "cold and perfunctory." No more. Now my last classes are a time of celebration and ritual as I invite students to focus on qualities such as acceptance and gratitude." – Christopher Uhl, Biology Professor
What do we hope to accomplish in the final class meeting? Perhaps we want to highlight the course goals, create opportunities for reflection, connect student learning to future classes or employment, or reveal what we have learned. There are a range of strategies to conclude your last class offered by Maryellen Weimer in Faculty Focus and a compilation "Better endings: what to do in the last day of class."
Of course strategies vary, depending upon the discipline, modality, size, and level of the course, but some factors to keep in mind in preparation for the final class meeting include, but are not limited to:
- Identifying the purpose of the course
- Connecting the course to future coursework or professional careers
- Demonstrating how student learning aligns with the course goals
- Rearticulating your pedagogical approach to the class
- Creating reflective opportunities for students
- Creating predictive opportunities for students
- Applying key concepts to future learning contexts
- Reinforcing long-term learning
Whether it's the last five minutes of every class or the last five minutes of the last class of the semester, planning a purposeful activity can make the last class meaningful and memorable for our students and ourselves.
Bleicher, E. (2011). The last class: Critical thinking, reflection, course effectiveness, and student engagement. Honors in Practice -- Online Archive. Paper 130. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nchchip/130
Collins, B. (1998). Aristotle. Picnic Lightning. Poetry Foundation Website. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/46706
Franse, S. R. (1997). Save the last class for me. Community Review, 15, 87.
Hayward, P. A. (2003). Effectively approaching the first day of class. Communication Teacher. 17(3), 3-16.
Lang, J. M. (2016). Small changes in teaching: The last 5 minutes of class. Chronicle of Higher Education.
Uhl, C. (2005). The last class. College Teaching, 53(4), 165-166.