When to Begin the End: The Role and Use of Summary in Course Design

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How do you approach the final weeks of your course? Most of us include some sort of summation activity: a final review, a course evaluation, sometimes a reflective paper.

Recently, I have begun to incorporate these kinds of activities much earlier in my courses, with good results for learning and for those final teaching evaluations.


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This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of The Teaching Professor.

How do you approach the final weeks of your course? Most of us include some sort of summation activity: a final review, a course evaluation, sometimes a reflective paper.

Recently, I have begun to incorporate these kinds of activities much earlier in my courses, with good results for learning and for those final teaching evaluations.

Here’s an example of what I’ve been doing: About halfway through my literature course, I come to class and ask the students to generate a list of all the things they think I will include in my discussion of the day’s assignment. If we are reading, for example, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, I would expect students to list things like the significance of the title, the use of irony, symbols like Ivan’s Respice Finem medallion, the importance of minor characters, the relationship between Ivan and his wife, Christian symbolism, and the reference to light in the ending. Students work in small groups, and I give them about 10 minutes to come up with their lists. Then, as a class, we put the lists on the board, talking about each element of the story as we go. They never disappoint me. Their lists mirror my own, and sometimes expand my thinking in interesting ways. At the end, I congratulate them on becoming informed readers of literature. I remind them that the lasting value of any literature course is to prepare them to read effectively and intelligently on their own, for the rest of their lives.

I use an activity like this to remind students of the goals of the course (to learn to read carefully and insightfully) and to assure them that they are achieving those goals.

Here’s another in-course summary activity I use: Partway through the course, I ask students to list the concepts that they have learned, or that have been reinforced, or that have been challenged so far in the course. This can begin as an individual activity that directly leads to group discussion. I also like to ask individuals to write two or three concepts in these categories, then I collect and collate them anonymously. The next class session, we spend 10 or 15 minutes assessing how the course has affected their learning. We can compare their responses to the goals and objectives listed in the syllabus and see (hopefully) some congruence. An activity like this conveys the idea that all courses ought to change us in some way, either by deepening existing knowledge, introducing new perspectives, or challenging us to examine preconceptions.

In still another midterm summation, I challenge students to think about their own activity in the course so far. Sometime during the third or fourth week of the semester, I ask them to report the average number of hours they are spending per week on the course, including reading, writing, and studying. I collect their estimates (anonymously) and report them on a spreadsheet. (This could also be done immediately in class with personal response technology.) When we look at the results, we talk about the idea I call “value in, value out”: increased effort at a task generally yields better results. I invite students to compare their own amount of effort to the average. If they are spending lots of time with little result, I meet with them individually to try to sort out the problem. On the other hand, if they see that their effort falls on the low end of the class average, this can help them see why they are learning less and not doing as well as they would like.

My goal here is to remind students that the real responsibility of learning new material is theirs, not the professor’s, and that by investing time they increase the worth of any class experience.

The value of reflective and summative activities before the final days of a class derives from the way these activities encourage students to look at the big picture, to assess learning in meaningful ways, and to take ownership of their own learning. Doing these activities early in the semester increases satisfaction with the learning experience. That satisfaction shows up on our end-of-semester teaching evaluations, which ask students to comment on how well their professors helped them to do these very things.


Barbara Mezeske taught in the Department of English at Hope College from 1978 through 2011.