A Strong Finish to the Semester

I don’t know about you, but the end of the spring semester seems to be even more draining than was the case in the fall. Maybe it’s the weather finally turning nice (I began to suspect we’d never see the sun again). Maybe it’s the accumulated weight of the whole academic year, as opposed to just August through December. But whatever it is, I tend to reach the last week of spring classes feeling just about brain-dead and with most of my energy reserves long past depleted. In fact, I find the last week of classes in the spring to be my most difficult time as a teacher.

Is it finals week yet?

But I also know that, while there’s never a good time of the year to mail it in, this week is probably the worst of all. It would be a shame to end a course by essentially punting on everything we’d done throughout the semester. Just as the first day of class is so crucial in setting the tone for our courses, the last week-and certainly the last day-is equally important for reinforcing that tone, to concluding on a note that affirms and celebrates our students’ learning. Having a plan for the last few classes, one which creates the opportunity for students to assess and reflect on their learning, is an essential part of finishing a course well. To reverse T.S. Eliot’s well-known phrase, we should find ways to end our courses “not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

There are a number of ways in which we can finish strong at the end of the semester. A common thread among the most effective of them is the creation of the opportunity for student-driven summarizing, synthesizing, and reflection on the course themes and material. For those who use these sessions to review for the final exam, activities that involve the entire class are worth their weight in gold. One tried-and-true review exercise that many of us have had success with is a “Jeopardy!” question-and-answer contest. Students, or teams of students, can compete against one another to answer course-related questions, employing the heightened attention that competition can sometimes instill to create an active and fun review session. It’s relatively easy to build a Jeopardy board in PowerPoint, but it’s even easier to download a template that’s already built and ready for you to add specific questions-like this one, from the University of Hawaii (note-clicking the link will begin an automatic download of the .ppt file).

Beyond just reviewing for the final, though, we ought to have our students engage in meaningful and intentional reflection about what they’ve learned, and how they’ve changed, as a result of taking our course. No matter what they’ve done throughout the semester, students need the opportunity for metacognitive activity to cement their learning, as well as develop their abilities to apply that material in new and different contexts. Well-designed reflective prompts can get them engaged in that type of work, and reflective writing or other forms of reflective activity are an excellent way for students to begin summarizing and synthesizing the work of a semester.

Thinking about the progress they’ve made as learners is a vital part for any meaningful reflection by students about a particular course (it’s also the thing that our IDEA student ratings of instruction are designed to measure).  What that looks like can vary, of course, and there are a number of approaches to take when designing opportunities for reflection. One interesting and compelling activity that can prompt this type of meaningful reflection is to have your students compile advice to those who will follow them-i.e., the students who will take the next iteration of your course. Or, in a bit of a twist, have them write letters to their future selves about their significant accomplishments and challenges during the semester. Then, have them address a stamped envelope, collect the letters, and drop them in the mail six months from now. Both of these letters-to-someone-in-the-future activities (described in more detail in this post) are ideal for getting students to reflect not only on their development in your course, but on how this class fits into the bigger picture of their academic career.

As all of the above suggests, designing an end-of-the-semester experience that creates and reinforces meaning for our students is an important way to finish a class as strong as we started. Reflection, metacognition, and the chance to tie things together are all components of successful end-of-term activities. However we decide to approach the last week of our courses, thinking about making it a finale, as opposed to a fizzle, is a worthwhile endeavor indeed.

Soundtrack for this post:

And if you need a moment of tranquility amidst the chaos of the week, here are some dogs who have lost the fight against sleep for your viewing needs.

This is the last regular weekly post for the CETL blog this academic year. We will be posting sporadically over the summer, and resume our weekly updates in August.

Please let us know if there’s anything CETL can assist you with as we close out another academic year.

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