When preparing to teach a course, we typically spend considerable time thinking about the first class and how we will present the course to students. The first class is crucial in setting the tone and expectations for any course, and for this reason, educators have paid significant and well-deserved attention to it in the literature. Unfortunately, the same degree of attention has not been paid to the last class, which can be as significant as the first one.
The last class provides an opportunity for the professor to celebrate and learn from the experience of the students. Too often, however, the last class is reserved for final exam review, finishing up projects, dealing with logistical details, such as the date, time and location to pick up term papers or write the final exam, and student course evaluations. The course ends with a whimper instead of a bang.
But a course shouldn’t – and doesn’t have to – end with a whimper, and we want to challenge professors to make better use of the potential that the last class affords. Although we present some suggestions, our intent is not to prescribe a structure to the last class, but rather to encourage faculty members to think about how they might still review course material if need be, and also use the last class to celebrate, reflect with students and bring closure to the course.
It can be helpful to connect the first and last class together. As an example, in our courses it is common practice on the first day to ask students to write out their own expectations and objectives for the course on index cards. The cards are then mixed up, and each student is asked to read one card (not his or her own) either to the entire class (if there are fewer than 40 students) or to each other in groups of five. This activity provides the opportunity to compare their course objectives and expectations to our own, to note and reflect upon similarities and differences. The cards are gathered and saved for a review exercise during the last class.
During the last class, we redistribute the cards and ask each student to read one aloud. After each card is read, we engage the students in a discussion on whether their original expectations were indeed met, or whether this would be an area for further study or subsequent classes. If time allows, sometimes we have a short discussion of the topic at that time. Through this process, students can reflect on what they are taking away from the course, and we receive feedback on how to improve our teaching and develop new content that is relevant to the students.
This is only one of many ways in which the last class can be structured. Another is to have students divide into groups to review and discuss the course content based on the syllabus. The professor may ask them to discuss practice exam questions already provided, or have them develop potential exam questions themselves. Such a review session can include a time when students share their most significant learning in the course, since what they report that they have learned adds another dimension to the review process. In all of these examples, the last class has been designed to be an interactive one, with the students taking ownership.
Having students share what they have learned leads naturally to a celebration of that learning. This sharing can be achieved in many ways. For example, the professor or students can provide food, show an inspirational video, play a significant piece of music, or have a guest speaker – perhaps a student who took the course a number of years ago, who can reflect on important learnings then and now.
The last class should be one of the most important classes because it is an opportunity to bring closure to the course in a way that students will remember. What happens on that last day also gives professors a unique opportunity to gauge the success of the course, beyond the standard student course evaluations. As students review the course and celebrate learning, they offer useful feedback for the next time the course is offered.
We want our students to apply their learning and contribute something to society. They may not remember specific course content in 20 years, but they may be more critical in their thinking, challenge social norms, be respectful of difference, and influence others to do the same. Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “What we teach will never ‘take’ unless it connects with the inward, living core of our students’ lives, with our students’ inward teaching.”
We want our teaching to “take.” When used effectively, the last class can help to achieve this.
Vianne Timmons wrote this article with Brian Wagner when she was vice-president for academic development at the University of Prince Edward Island, where he is a professor of chemistry and 3M Teaching Fellow. Dr. Timmons is now president of the University of Regina. It is adapted from a paper published in The Teaching Professor, January 2007.