“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 out? An experience that is the antithesis of the relationship-rich interactions they encountered in the course? Perhaps you have experienced impersonal completions whereby students submit their final projects on an LMS link or under your office door, with no attention paid to the significance of what the learning community shared and created during your time together. More regrettably, students and faculty often end courses feeling tired, underappreciated, and sometimes even antagonistic, unable to acknowledge the growth that has occurred. How sad it would be if these were the impressions that lingered.
What if, instead, you could create conclusions that allow for looking inward and outward to add meaning to the process, consequently bringing more joy? In our recent book (Zehnder et al., 2021), we lead faculty through course design from the first seeds of ideas through the end of the course because we believe every aspect of a course matters; over time we have come to realize that endings matter far more than one might imagine.
How you end a course shapes students’ memories and sense of meaning. None of us wants students to forget about our course shortly after they’ve turned in their final exams. Moreover, if we’ve spent time building connections and community, then we want to enhance those relationships at the end, which means we need to intentionally design course conclusions. We suggest taking a page from Priya Parker’s excellent book The Art of Gathering (2020) to make a lasting impression. According to Parker,
A strong closing has two phases . . . Looking inward is about taking a moment to understand, remember, acknowledge, and reflect on what just transpired—and to bond as a group one last time. Turning outward is about preparing to part from one another and retake your place in the world. (p. 259)
Our goal is to help you envision a variety of possibilities for looking both inward and outward.
A simple option
One simple option is to ensure that the group spends its last 20 minutes together reflecting through both writing and discussion.
- Looking inward: Who were we together? What mattered? What learning are we most proud of? What events, values, and emotions do we want to remember? Were we changed? If so, how?
- Looking outward: “What of this world do I want to bring into my other worlds?” (Parker, 262). What will I remember from this class five years from now, and why?
A grand finale
Consider what it is like to leave a Broadway musical still humming the finale, knowing that the experience changed you in some way and that the songs will pop into your mind at unexpected moments in the future. How can you cocreate with students a magical and memorable course finale?
- If a class ends with a big project or presentation, build in time to celebrate after all the work is done. Ask students to create a party playlist, or collect songs focused on a course theme. Bring in a few snacks. If possible, bring in some fun room decorations. You would be amazed at how positively students respond to small items that can transform a space—like tea lights, balloons, silly party hats, or stickers. Social events that include food and drink and celebrate positive life events, like completing a major project, enhance our sense of social support (Brick et al., 2022).
- Provide students with virtual or actual pictures and have the class create a collage that represents what they’ve learned throughout the semester. Take a picture and send it to each student, wishing them well in the future and acknowledging their contributions to the course.
- In Google Slides, ask each student to create a slide that represents their work from the course with a picture signifying each major activity or topic. Then students can do a gallery walk and admire each other's posters; you can add comments to each.
- Provide students with a reflective prompt ahead of time, then give each student 30 seconds in class to respond. Ask each student to summarize a peer’s response in one word, then have everyone share their words.
End with gratitude
Expressing gratitude can enhance social, psychological, emotional, and physical well-being, and expressing gratitude positively correlates with happiness (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021). Providing yourself and students with an opportunity to express gratitude can connect these positive emotions to your course ending.
- End with a toast! Ask each student to bring in a nonalcoholic beverage of their choice (and have a few extras for anyone who forgets). Then have each student raise their glass and make a toast to the class with a specific mention of a person (not you) or activity who inspired them.
- Use gratitude letters. Invite students to express thanks to someone who has had a positive impact on them.
Final exam tweaks
Sometimes a final exam may serve an important purpose or be required. In these cases, consider giving students an opportunity to reflect on their learning by asking them to complete one or two do-ahead final exam questions, such as the following:
- Create an art project connected to the course.
- Describe two ways in which you’ll use course content, skills, and dispositions in the future.
- Compose a letter to future students providing advice.
- Generate a course-wide concept map.
Post student responses into a last-day-of-class slideshow—with their consent, of course. Or ask students to provide peer feedback (positive comments only) using your favorite electronic sharing tool (the LMS, Google Forms, etc.).
Finally, add a positive, closing message to your final exam that reminds students of the hard work they’ve done and to be proud of their accomplishments.
Does all of this take some time? Of course. What we have observed, however, and what cognitive science experts explain (McDaniel et al., 2014), is that content generally fails to stick when there is no shift in focus. By devoting time to ending well, you’ll be giving learners, as well as yourself, more opportunities for deep and meaningful learning.
If you want to take advantage of every opportunity to make a positive, lasting impression, and you would like students to carry with them the social and academic benefits of a learning community, we urge you to develop your art of ending well. We expect that you will finish with as much joy as students do.
Brick, D. J., Gullo Wight, K. Bettman, J. R., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2022). EXPRESS: Celebrate good times: How celebrations increase perceived social support. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 42(2), 115–132. https://doi.org/10.1177/07439156221145696
Harvard Health Publishing. (2021, August 14). Giving thanks can make you happier. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier
Lewis, M. (2017). The undoing project. Penguin Books.
McDaniel, M. A., Roediger, H. L., & Brown, P. C. (2014). The science of successful learning. Belknap Press.
Parker, P. (2020). The art of gathering: How we meet and why it matters. Penguin.
Zehnder, C., Alby, C., Kleine, K., & Metzker, J. (2021). Learning that matters: A field guide to course design for transformative education. Myers Education Press.
Caralyn Zehnder, PhD, Cynthia Alby, PhD, Karynne Kleine, EdD, and JuliA Metzker, PhD, are the authors of Learning That Matters: A Field Guide to Course Design for Transformative Education and the creators and facilitators of Learning that Matters—the Course Design Institute. They have over 60 years combined experience in faculty development, assessment, and course design.