Steve Volk (May 1, 2017)
(Note: This is a revised and updated version of and article written on April 24, 2014).
“I must finish what I’ve started, even if, inevitably, what I finish turns out not to be what I began” (Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children).
The end of the semester, like the first week, poses specific classroom challenges. Most faculty are rushing to make it through the course syllabus (you remember: the one that looked perfectly well planned in January). And you still have to hand out evaluations (see: “Set for SETs? Student Evaluations of Teaching”), prep students for their final exams, read drafts of their last papers, squeeze all the students who want to present into the available time; and don’t forget the note from the dean’s office asking for fall book orders! The end of the semester is also a time when both student and faculty energy levels have bottomed out, even more so in the spring semester.
All of this can crowd out another important part of the teaching semester: marking the closure of the semester in a way that acknowledges all you have accomplished in the class, all the ground you’ve covered. It goes without saying that the best way to end the semester is the way that works for you. But here are some suggestions that have come up over the years from my own practice and some that I’ve taken from other teaching and learning centers.
Revisit the course goals in your syllabus with your class.
Two aspects of teaching have always struck me as curious, if inevitable. The first is that students are often frustrated at the start of the semester because they do not already know what they will only know by the end of the semester. The second is that students often lose sight of just how far they have come, how much they have learned, over the course of the semester. We can’t deal with the first point, but this is a good time to emphasize just how far you have traveled together. You can synthesize the main points covered in your course by way of a discussion of the goals you established at the start of the semester and what the class was able to accomplish. It’s yet one more way to help students reflect on the design of your course, why you structured it as you did, and how the assignments they have completed (along with the final assignment) were there to help the students achieve the course objectives. The review allows students to step back somewhat from the course content in order to examine the path they have jointly traveled on a broader level.
After you have revisited the syllabus and the course goals with students, allow time for student reflection and self-assessment, encouraging them to think about how they have achieved the learning goals set for the course and what they still need to do before taking a final exam, writing their last paper, preparing for recitals, or completing a final project. You can extend this by asking students to write a short (anonymous) self-evaluation that will allow them to reflect on their performance and behavior in the class. Such an exercise goes substantially beyond the self-assessment questions on the Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) forms which they will be getting shortly, and can help them think about their own learning, the next classes they want to take, or how they can apply their learning more broadly. One instructor (Ted Panitz, a math teacher at Cape Cod Community College) asks his students to think about the following questions:
Has your approach to math changed during this course or compared to previous courses? How?
Have your attitudes or feelings about math changed?
How do you feel you performed in this course?
What would you do differently if you had a chance to do this all over again?
One question you might want to consider, particularly for a class in which there has been a substantial amount of discussion, is to ask students to reflect on their own participation in the discussions and whether they thought they intervened in a way that supported (everyone’s) learning in the classroom or whether it had the effect of isolating or silencing other students.
If you want, you can also add questions to encourage students to suggest ways you can improve class procedures or ask how they feel about particular teaching approaches you have used that semester and would like to hear specific feedback.
- Have students create a concept map of the course they are just completing (for tips on how to do this, see here, and here.)
- Student presentations often occur in the last few weeks of the semester. I know of one instructor who has her students present a short lesson for the class on the issue, topic, or theme that they found most difficult or challenging during the semester. It is an excellent way for students to prepare for exams, since we all know that teaching a subject is the best way to learn it. (And don’t forget to re-read Cortney Smith’s article on “Emphasizing and Evaluating Student Speaking.”)
- Encourage your students to revisit earlier assignments in the course as a way to measure their own learning in the class, to assess what they have learned and the areas in which they still feel unconsolidated. If the assignment was a paper, you can ask students to bring those papers to class and then break them into smaller groups where they can discuss their work with peers, focusing on what they learned through the writing of that assignment as they look back on it now.
- In a similar fashion, you can have students in small groups discuss how their thinking has changed over the course of the semester. They can take notes for themselves (and/or for you). This can include new appreciations for the content covered, for their own strengths and weaknesses, or for meta issues as they reflect on their own learning.
- Encourage your students to discuss what they consider to be the critical moments in the course: insights they have had; content that they have found most surprising; highlights in the course.
- By way of course review for exams, you can group students to collaborate on one or two typical exam questions involving analysis, synthesis, application, etc.
Learning from the Semester
In “Learning from the Semester” (November 25, 2013), I offered some ways for faculty to look back and learn from the semester that just ended. Here (once again) are some questions to think about:
- What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?
- Why do you think that happened? Link outcomes to your teaching methods.
- Do you think you achieved your learning goals for the course? This, of course, should lead you back to your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.
- What do you think basically didn’t work in the course? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about? What left you thinking: next time, I just won’t do that?
- And, as with the strong points, why do you think you weren’t able to reach your learning objectives? Link outcomes to your teaching approach.
- Getting concrete: what do you want to at least think about doing differently next time? Jot down some notes to yourself to return to when you have the space to think about revising your syllabus. Points like: “Don’t even think about assigning that book again!” or “Student presentations went really well; leave more time.”
- Very briefly: If you are not sure what to do to change the results, who are the people you can talk to, and what are the resources you can consult, that can help?
Stress and Anxiety
While we all know this at some basic level, it is useful to keep in mind just how stressful the end of the semester can be for for faculty as well as students. We all have a lot to do, and there are many crunch-time challenges. In terms of students, we all notice a general increase in their tiredness, some more-than-usually bizarre behaviors, increased illness. But we should also be aware of times when stress turns into anxiety and when our usual techniques for helping students regain their footing and confidence could use extra support. As I noted in last week’s article, the number of students seeking mental health services at college and university counseling centers increased by nearly 30% between 2009 and 2015 (Center for Collegiate Mental Health). More than half of the college students who visited their campus counseling centers during the 2015-16 academic year reported symptoms of anxiety (Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors).
Stay attuned to your students and don’t forget that we provide a lot of support services for students in need. If you are not sure whom you should be talking to, always start with the student’s class dean.
And don’t neglect yourselves, either: easier said than done when the work piles up, but exercise (even if only a quick walk), a good meal, sleep (ah! sleep!), and talking to colleagues, even if only to moan and complain, all are important.
.… can be a lot harder than you imagine, and it’s not unusual to feel a sense of loss (along with relief) as the semester and the year (and for your seniors and for some of you, a college career), all come to an end. Even after many years teaching, I’m often still amazed at how hard this can be. After all, they get to move on and you stay here!
So, don’t be afraid to share some parting thoughts with your students even though this might sound cheesy. If you mean them, your students will appreciate them.
I often tell my students that, once they have graduated, I’m happy to have them as “friends” on Facebook and that it actually means a lot to me that they keep in touch, let me know how they are doing and what they’re up to.
And, of course, this is the time for any end-of-semester ritual that you may have developed, from donuts to a highlight reel. I’m not going to go all cultural anthropologist on you, but we develop rituals to serve a purpose, and, at the end of the semester, saying goodbye to students you’ve worked with, whether for a semester or over four or five years, is an important ritual and deserves to be observed. OK, before I get all verklempt, I’ll exit on a (maybe) humorous note. This is the lead graph from a piece by Trish Suchy that recently appeared in McSweeney’s.
Following Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s statement that ‘The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think,’ [which, indeed, she did] the department, nervous that our student indoctrinations were insufficiently ominous, hastily formed a committee charged with investigating the matter and making recommendations at an emergency faculty meeting. To our horror, we found that indoctrination ominousness(ity) is not even measured in our assessment rubric! After a long debate over the existence of the word ‘ominousness’ (some arguing instead for ‘ominosity’ — which does sound like it might be a board game) we opted for the hybrid compromise ‘ominousness(ity)’ and propose the following rubric to measure how ominously we are indoctrinating our students. [You’ll find the rest of this delightful piece here.]
The “Article of the Week” will now saunter off for its traditional summer hiatus of travel, reading, and, even some work. May your summers be filled with seemingly endless hours, pleasurable reading, inspired thoughts, rewarding writing, ocean swims, and whatever it is that makes you happy. See you in August.