Steve Volk (April 28, 2014)
(Note: This is a revised and updated version of “Topics in Teaching and Learning” written on May 9, 2011).
“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, yeah,” Semisonic
The end of the semester, like the first week, poses specific challenges to teachers. For most of us, it feels like we’re in a head-long rush to complete the syllabus, hand out evaluations [Check back to the “Article of the Week” from December 8, 2010 for tips on how to read your Student Evaluations], and prepare students for final exams or papers, all the while trying to achieve closure on the semester. It’s also a time when both student and faculty energy levels have bottomed out, even more so in the spring semester. It probably 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 written in your syllabus with your class. This is a good time to 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 you, in fact, were 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 accomplish the course objectives. The review allows students to step back somewhat from the course content in order to examine what they have accomplished on a broader level.
- After you have revisited the syllabus and the course goals with students, you can open time for student reflection and self-assessment, encouraging them to think about how they have achieved the course’s goals, what they still need to do before taking a final exam or writing their last paper. You can extend this by asking students to write a short (anonymous) self-evaluation. This allows 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, and hopefully will help them think about their own learning and the next classes they want to take. One instructor (Ted Panitz, a math teacher at Cape Cod Community College) asks his students the following:
- 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 sections which 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 completing. (For tips, see the “Article of the Week” from March 14, 2011.)
- 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.
- Encourage your students to revisit earlier writing (or other) 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. One way to do this is to ask students to bring their papers to class and then break them into smaller groups where they can discuss their papers with peers.
- 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.
- Students can be encouraged 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 an “Article of the Week” from November 25, 2013, I offered three ways for faculty to look back and learn from the semester that just ended. Here (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?
- As above: Why did you (or didn’t you) 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?
- Very briefly: If you are not sure what to do to change the results, who are the people and what are the resources that can help?
Stress and Anxiety
While we all know this at some basic level, it is useful to keep in mind how stressful the end of the semester can be for students – and for faculty. 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 and, often, 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 some extra support. Don’t forget the help that can be provided by the Dean of Students’ office, the Counseling Center, the Dean of Studies office or Student Academic Services. If you are not sure whom you should be talking to, always start with the class deans. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, some 40 million college students suffer from an anxiety disorder and 75% will have an anxiety episode by age 22. For more on coping with student stress, see my “Article of the Week” for September 2, 2013.
.… can be a lot harder than you imagine, and it’s not unusual to feel a sense of loss as the semester (the year and, for your seniors, a college career) come to an end. Even after many years teaching, I’m often still amazed at how hard this can be.
So, don’t be afraid to offer your students some parting thoughts even though this might sound really 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 (donuts, sing-a-longs, poetry reading, etc.).
From Josh Eyler’s blog (“A Lifetime’s Training: Thoughts on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education”), a post that I included at the end of the Fall 2013 semester, “The Final Class of the Semester”:
On every final exam I have ever given, I have written a note expressing my thanks to students for their work over the course of the semester. In this note, I also include quotes from two movies. The first is from Back to the Future, one of my favorite comedies. Towards the end of the film and after many hijinks have ensued, Marty McFly says to the 1955 versions of his parents, “It’s been…educational.” I use this quote to inject a little levity into the generally high-stressed atmosphere of the exam and hopefully also to emphasize the ways in which we have all learned from each other.
The other quote that I use is from Dead Poets Society. Love it or hate it, the movie has some powerful things to say. The quote that I borrow from the film is not the over-used ‘Carpe Diem,’ but instead the line that follows it: ‘Make your lives extraordinary.’
Most of all, this is what I hope for each of my students, and I wish them all the very best.
And two end-of-semester haikus from the blogger at “Confessions of a Community College Dean” (Inside Higher Ed.com):
temper tantrums fly
yet are mercifully brief
who has energy?
amazed at colleagues
miracles on a shoestring
take a bow, people