Riding off Into Teaching Sunsets: Endings

Posted on Posted in Faculty Development

Endings are always tough for me. Psychoanalytically inclined readers may evoke terminatsunsetion anxiety.  Twice a year we reach the end of class and I face it with ambivalence. Yes, flexible days and a drastic drop in email traffic loom on the horizon, but it is also time to say goodbye. One of my favorite undergraduate classes was on the psychology of endings (Neil Lutsky, Carleton College) and much of the material covered applies to ending a semester.

Last days of class are perhaps just a short hop behind the first days in the big scheme of stressful days of teaching. This itself may come as a surprise. If it does, your last class may bear close examination.  Yes, I bring it on myself to some extent.  To some extent it is the sad reality that the evaluations done on that last day, that single number, will somehow be taken to represent all the hard work that went in to the 14 weeks that preceded it.  This aside, there is the fact that I will miss the students who I have gotten used to seeing (or not for some) twice a week for so long.

Not many faculty pay enough attention to the last day.  Many of us cannot wait to be done with grading and move on to break. Break is great but tarry a moment. I try extra hard to make sure the day is cohesive but even more so, I ensure that I bring students to the big picture.  End strong I say. I like to link to many elements of the course, and most importantly, I have a summary statement.  This is not a day where if I run out early I just stop.  I have three main elements to the day.

First of course, is finishing content.  Some years/semesters I leave more for the last day than others.  When I go short, I can always go slower on the next component.  If I go long, I can go faster on the next. At semester’s end, if you have fallen behind, it is sometimes better to not stress students by cramming in all that is left. Be judicious and make the call on what material you can leave out. Your students will probably remember what you DO cover better.

Second, a review for the exam.  I think that students are more comfortable when the instructor does at least some review in class.  I do not do in class reviews for all exams as it is not always the best use of class time (I opt for optional sessions or online office hours), but for the first and last exams – the ones with most student stress- taking some class time to review is key.  I like the reviews to be upbeat and fun and use some game show  format AND try and do a little group competition and work for a prize.  MUCH harder to do in a 260 class than in a 120 or 25 member class, but it still works. Always a pleasant surprise when many students know the answers.

Third part- the course summary.  THIS is KEY. I spend time thinking of the main ideas students should leave class with. What are the big themes? What are the skills they can use in daily life?  With 14 weeks of content it is easy for the students to miss the big picture.  The summary spansFigure1.1 the entire semester and is designed to be a reminder of the scope of the class and its applicability to life. A capstone experience to even an Intro class is key.  In fact, in a recent paper on strengthening the Intro Psych course, colleagues and I suggest even Intro course needs an Integration component to bring different areas of psychology together (Gurung, et al., 2016).

Show students how behavior is complex, how different approaches help explain what is going on. Optimally you review the course learning outcomes, the assignments that you used to assess them, and the utility of the material. For me this takes the form of going over the syllabus–yes again on the last day of class, to show students the map of the journey we have taken together.

Then the evaluations. I think that giving out evaluations on the last day is really the best. It makes intuitive sense to mimagese.  The class is over.  Now evaluate.  On the second last day or a week before, the class is not truly over.  People have different rationales for why they give it early (e.g., not as many students will show up on last day, too stressful on last day, etc.).  At some level perhaps the fear is such factors will drive numbers down.  Some years ago I decided that I would face the numbers what ever they were. I like to stress how important they are and I think people take it more seriously if they know what you do with evaluations critical. I share that I take comments seriously and modify my teaching. The data on student evaluations is mixed. There are strong advocates for them, large studies showing their effectiveness (e.g., Spooren, Brockx, & Mortelmans, 2013), and others decrying timgresheir shortcomings (e.g., Clayson, 2009).

One of the biggest benefits to orchestrating a great last day, is that you not only give your students the big picture and reasons to process the material in a deep fashion, but it also provided you with a time to reflect on the course. Before you DO ride off into the summer, set aside time to assess how YOU liked the course. What worked? Which assignment generated the most student confusion? What can you do about it?

Endings are the best time to set the stage for better next beginnings.

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