A semester is a marathon effort, and, by the time you reach the end of it, it’s quite possible that everyone—you and the students both—will be exhausted, and perhaps very ready to leave the course behind. But one last thoughtful push can ensure that the course’s conclusion is meaningful in its own right.
Naturally, the final stretch of the course is an important time to reflect on the class experience and the material that’s been covered. Not only is it an opportunity to review material that students might need to revisit as they approach final exams and final papers—or to answer any questions that, for the students, remain unresolved—it’s also an opportunity to underscore the significance of the experience the students have just had, to invite the students to appreciate how far they’ve come in a few months. Class presentations on student projects or student ideas can be one stimulating and celebratory way to do this, or you can bring these reflections out in conversation or student writing.
This is also a crucial time for integration, for drawing connections between seemingly disparate pieces of course material. Probably you’ve been doing some of this work all along, indicating how various course elements relate to one another, but only at the end of the semester are you in a position to pull it all together. Even if you feel that the interconnections are obvious, they are probably not obvious to everyone; research shows that professors’ expertise with the field and its organizational structure allows them to readily see links that students will not find on their own. It’s good, therefore, to get explicit. In a history class, you might highlight throughlines that connect various events you’ve discussed, making causal chains visible or pointing out similar developments or themes informing multiple events; in a math class you might make clear the ways in which earlier, simpler material paved the way for the more complex operations and problems that came later; in biology, if you’ve been studying systems in isolation (e.g., circulatory, skeletal, etc.), it could be a good time to show how they interact with one another; in a whole variety of fields (psychology, literature, philosophy), you can point out how different studies or texts speak to the range of theories at hand, or vice versa.
Reflecting on the semester can also include evaluation of the course. Certainly students will be filling out evaluations—and you can look at our page on Gathering Teaching Feedback for more information on how to make those useful—but they are inherently a kind of summative feedback, which is to say that they’re final conclusions about the course’s success, intended in part to contribute to decisions about promotions or future assignments to courses. Formative feedback, on the other hand, is not meant as evidence to be used in decisions rendered by others; instead, it’s simply information that the teacher can use to improve. To gather this kind of feedback, you can ask students to write down their thoughts in a less formal way, or even to engage in an open (i.e., non-defensive) conversation about the successes and shortcomings of the course as a whole. Possible questions: Which readings were the most memorable? When, during the semester, did you feel most engaged with the material? When, during the semester, did you feel most disconnected from the material? Which in-class activities were most helpful to you in trying to master the material? What additional subjects would you have liked to cover? Again, find more information on all this on our Gathering Teaching Feedback page.
One way to make a course’s ending meaningful is to treat it not as an ending but as a springboard into future endeavors. For some of your students, your course is one step in a longer trajectory in the field; those students will benefit from efforts to connect current material to other, related courses’ material. In this class, maybe you discussed art history up through the 19th century; how would the trends you’ve highlighted continue in an exploration of 20th century art? In a physics class on basic mechanics, how will the scientific theories become complicated in a course in relativity and quantum physics? In what ways will the theories introduced by a class on the sociology of sex and gender remain relevant in a course on, say, the sociology of race? This doesn’t always have to be about future coursework, of course. In a creative writing class, you might ask students to brainstorm ways to keep their writing life going once this class ends. If your own research needs undergraduate lab assistants, this could be a good moment to reach out to promising individual students or to mention the possibility to the class as a whole.
Many of your students, however, will not be continuing in the field. Maybe they took your class as an elective or to fulfill a general education requirement or because of a mild side interest. You still can see the course as a springboard for these students; the opportunity here is to connect the coursework to students’ lives more generally. It’s possible that you did some of this work at the beginning of the class. Knowing that your students were coming from a variety of backgrounds, you may have started by stressing the general importance and relevance of your topic in order to draw your students in. Now that your students are leaving, it’s a good time to return to this theme. How might they use the management principles from your business course in a wide range of future jobs? How and where will the study of Arabic serve students interested in being responsible global citizens?
Finally, if you have a policy on how/when/under what circumstances students should approach you in the future concerning letters of recommendation, this is a good time to lay that out.
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