Here are some tips for finishing out the semester–it is almost that time!
End Notes: Distinctive Ways to Wrap-Up a College Course
By Margaret Walsh, Keene State College, New Hampshire
The ending of a course is worthy of greater attention than it typically receives. Endless time and energy are expended on crafting beautiful syllabi complete with assignment descriptions, an outline of topics and readings, and due dates. We have thoroughly ritualized the start of a new semester, but, typically somewhere between weeks 11 and 14, what seemed like reasonable plans are regretfully sidelined and we launch into catch-up overdrive. It is a time of high stress for teachers and students.
However, if you want students to remember your words, the influential ideas reflected in carefully selected readings, and the work they did to earn their grades, keep these tips in mind when considering the end of a course, whether you are creating a new course or revising an old one. They are ideas easily adapted to courses of different size and in different disciplines.
1. Catching up, reflections, and new directions
Avoid the end of semester crunch problem by putting an “open” date on your course outline. Building in time for catching up about two-thirds of the way through a course takes the pressure off at the end. If it turns out that you do not need the time, enrich the content with a lively discussion, a guest speaker, an in-class reading and writing session, or a timely film clip. Set aside time in the final class or two to reflect and connect knowledge learned through the entire course.
2. Class presentations: puff or powerful?
I overheard a student talking on his cell, saying that his classes were “done” except for presentations. His comment got me thinking. Ten-minute presentations by everyone in class can be an exciting time for the student presenting, but they can be a bore fest for the rest of the class. What are students doing while they are not making their own presentations? Make sure they are engaged listeners, interacting, taking notes, and genuinely learning from the experience.
There is nothing worse than sitting through amateur PowerPoint presentations. Give the students guidelines and resources for making effective presentations, show them by example, and reward creativity as well as content. Also, consider spacing the presentations so they don’t happen all at once. This makes it easier to thoughtfully integrate them into the readings or class content.
3. Class “products” may be suitable for public viewing.
Consider the possibility of creating a larger audience for student work. If students are producing new knowledge, are there others who might benefit from what your students have learned? Your campus outreach office might have ideas about audiences interested in the knowledge produced in your course. Set up a blog, compile an electronic newsletter, design an informational pamphlet, or find another low-cost alternative for sharing key findings of course research. Consult the institutional review board at your institution for approval. Involve students in all aspects of this work and ensure that they earn credit as authors.
4. Motivate students to keep a portfolio.
Portfolios are commonly used in graphic design, film, writing, and education. Other fields can adapt this way of preserving progress and showcasing representative work. Lead your students (especially advisees) to think about their papers as having a life beyond their immediate purpose. Crisp position papers can be used as writing samples for graduate school admission. Long after graduation, they are evidence of a student’s best work and serve as welcome reminders to professors asked to write a letter of recommendation for a new job prospect.
5. Plan a celebratory event with a take-home message.
Successfully completing a challenging course is a terrific reason to celebrate. When I was an undergraduate, one of my chemistry lab professors invited her class (about 20 students) to her home for dinner. We were treated to a delicious formal dinner, complete with china plates and crystal water glasses. I remember the entire evening, now more than 15 years later. Over the years I have tried to follow this shining example (OK—minus the crystal) at least once a year. We have celebrations in and out of class, and the conversation is as important as the food.
6. Suggest readings and resources for the future.
On the last day of class, hand out a list of suggested readings from your own bookshelf, along with a brief commentary on why you’re recommending them. Keep the students’ background and abilities in mind when making these lists. Give students books you cherish but no longer use (feel-good recycling). Distribute a carefully compiled list of campus or community organizations that will support their desire to learn more or do more. Create a blog where students can share their own suggestions, and keep it open awhile after the semester ends, to see if there is sustained interest in continuing the discussion. Last semester my students took the initiative to begin a book club, and they are reading new nonfiction on social inequality—some of which I may include next time I teach the course.
In sum, when you plan your courses, think about the last days as much as you think about the first days. Work to create memorable experiences that will stay with the students and fuel their continued learning like a good source of protein.
Contact Margaret Walsh at firstname.lastname@example.org.