last day of class

The Art of Ending Well

“Last impressions can be lasting impressions.”
—Donald Redelmeier (Lewis, 2017 p. 236)

Have you worked with students for months to create a learning community only to have the final interaction take place in a sterile room where students silently write and then slip

Read More »
Archives

Get the Latest Updates

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Magna Digital Library

Does your class end with a bang or a whimper?

Many of us spend a lot of time crafting the perfect first day of class to ensure we set the right tone and build community. We then pay close attention to how we structure and script each class session, whether for the 20–30 times we have our face-to-face classes or for weekly modules in our online courses. As the end of the term or semester draws near, we are tired. During fall term, teaching the last few weeks of class seems especially exhausting. We may have been teased by a Thanksgiving break only to turn around and get back in the saddle to finish the class. Too often, our endings are rushed. We end when the content is covered. Whimper.

As the end of term looms, take a moment and ask whether your last day is as memorable as it can be.

For me, last days of class are perhaps just a short hop behind the first days of class in the big scheme of challenging days of teaching. This itself may come as a surprise, and if the last day is all roses as you stand poised on the edge of a break, maybe you have not thought about it enough. A last class needs close examination. There is the sad reality that evaluations are often done on that last day. For too many faculty, that single evaluation score will somehow be taken to represent all the hard work that went into the preceding weeks. This prospect used to make me experience extra performance anxiety; my demeanor on that day or how I taught in that class might skew their evaluations (what if I was tired and it showed?).

There is also the fact that I will miss the students whom I have gotten used to seeing multiple times per week for so long. Endings are always tough for me. Psychoanalytically inclined readers may think of it as termination anxiety, or the fear of closing a relationship. Yes, flexible days and a drastic drop in email traffic await during the break, but it is also time to say goodbye. One of my favorite undergraduate classes was on the psychology of endings (Neil Lutsky, Carleton College), and much of the material covered applies to ending a semester, quarter, or school year. The psychological literature says it is natural to dread endings. One way I cope is also important for pedagogical reasons: by planning to finish strong.

How do I do so? I start with three main design elements that you’ll want to consider for your last day of class.

First, of course, is finishing content. Some years or semesters, I leave more for the last day than others. When I go short, I can always go slower on the next component. If I go long, I can go faster on the next. At semester’s end, if you have fallen behind, it is sometimes better to not stress students by cramming in all that is left. Be judicious about what material you can leave out. Your students will probably remember what you do cover better than what you don’t.

Second is review for the final exam or culminating assessments or assignments. I think that students are more comfortable when the instructor does at least some review in class. I do not do in-class reviews for all exams as it is not always the best use of class time (I opt for optional sessions or online office hours), but for the first and last exams—the ones with most student stress—taking some class time to review is important. I like the reviews to be upbeat and fun and use some game show format and try and do a little group competition and work for a prize. Yes, this is much harder to do in a 400-member class than in a 120- or 25-member class, but it still works. It is always a pleasant surprise when many students know the answers.

Third is the course summary. This is key. I spend time thinking of the main ideas students should leave class with. What are the big themes? What are the skills they can use in daily life? With 10–14 weeks of content, it is easy for the students to lose sight of the course’s purpose. The summary spans the entire semester and is meant to remind students of the scope of the class and its applicability to life. A capstone experience to even an introductory class is vital.

Optimally, you review the course learning outcomes, the assignments that you used to assess them, and the utility of the material. For me, this takes the form of going over the syllabus—yes, again on the last day of class—to show students the map of the journey we have taken together.

Then and only then come the evaluations. I believe that giving out evaluations on the last day is really the best. The class is over. Now evaluate. On the second-to-last day or a week before, the class is not truly over. Faculty have different rationales for why they do evaluations early (e.g., not as many students will show up on the last day, students are too stressed), and at some level, perhaps they fear that such factors will drive ratings down. Remember that giving students time in class to complete evaluations also increases your response rate, especially when online-only evaluations are the norm.

By orchestrating a great last day, you not only give your students a holistic view of the course and reasons to process the material in a deep fashion but also provide yourself with time to reflect on the course. Before you ride off into the holidays, set aside time to assess how you liked the course. What worked? Which assignment generated the most confusion? What can you do about it?

Endings are the best time to set the stage for better next beginnings. End with a bang. Your class will almost definitely be more memorable.


Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. His latest book is Study Like a ChampFollow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.