This week marked two big finales in the entertainment world. The Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones aired their final episodes last week and looking through my social media feeds, the two finales were definitely received differently. Being a fan of both, I’ll save all of you from my geeky musings on how each of these beloved series could have ended. Instead, I think this is a great time to stress an important instructional axiom: Endings matter.
As educators, we tend to focus a lot on how we start a class at the beginning of a semester. We want to build rapport, outline the course expectations or communicate an appropriate level of rigor to motivate students. I know colleagues who create syllabus scavenger hunts and stage trivia-style games to make sure students know the expectations of the coming semesters. We invest a lot of creative energy making sure the semester starts well. But, what about the end? Do we approach the end of the semester with the same level of thoughtfulness and creative planning? In a 2002 issue of APS Observer, Eggleston & Smith discuss how faculty “part ways” with their students. They write:
“Our recent survey of college faculty from a variety of disciplines at two different institutions demonstrated that faculty members typically end their courses with final projects, papers, and review sessions. Some faculty did more: approximately 42 percent reported that they took the time to say good-bye to their students, and 30 percent responded that they tried to leave their students with some final ‘words of wisdom.’ We also surveyed students at the same institutions: 90 percent reported that they would appreciate more closure on their courses.” (Eggleston & Smith, 2002)
Like fans who are craving for more closure as their favorite television shows come to an end, some students want more closure from their collegiate classes. In a 2017 article in College Teaching, Burgess-Van Aken reviewed the literature on course closures and reported a “dearth of attention to the issue.” Course closures are important, she writes, because they “engage students in reflection not only about what they have learned but also how they will use these ideas in the future.” The last day of class doesn’t just mark the end of a course, but an opportunity for students to look back and to look forward.
Burgess-Van Aken categorizes “meaningful course closures” as being professor-centered, activity-focused, and student-driven. Take Christopher Uhl, a biology professor at Penn State University. Uhl uses the last day of his large lecture class to have students explore themes of gratitude, acceptance, integrity and hope. In a 2005 issue of College Teaching, Uhl writes:
“I use my last class to celebrate the shared humanity of our classroom community. There is no hiding behind platitudes. Students speak and tell their stories of failure, hope, gratitude, and intention. With the final sounding of the bell, I ring students out into the world, not as an assembly of letter grades, but as beings of intellect, heart, and spirit.” (Uhl, 2005)
That’s a far cry from using the last class to review for the final exam!
While we debate the success or effectiveness of the last episodes of our favorite television shows, let’s use that same scrutiny to examine how we end our classes. Let’s look for ways to make our course closures more impactful and to part ways with the students with whom we’ve spent a semester before we send them off to the next stage of their academic lives.
Burgess-Van Aken, B. (2017). Knowing Where You’re Going: Planning for Meaningful Course Closure. College Teaching, 65(3), 130-136.
Eggleston, T. J., & Smith, G. E. (2002). Parting ways: Ending your course. APS Observer, 15(3).
Uhl, C. (2005). The last class. College Teaching, 53(4), 165-166.