What Will They Remember?

Planning to Wrap Up

After this turbulent fall term, when we’re just trying to hang on until the holidays, it may be hard to remember the aspirations we had for our courses, back in August. We wanted to impart valuable knowledge and insights, to help students gain concepts and skills they could carry with them into the future; we wanted to help them develop into adults who make sound decisions and act as educated and compassionate people. But in a semester characterized by disaster and tragedy, the disruptions could easily be more memorable than the learning.

If you have four minutes for a laugh, SNL’s Father Guido Sarducci reminds us that, even in the best of times, students often forget much of what we—and they—thought they learned in college courses, especially when they mostly memorize material and “parrot it back” for exams. Amnesia isn’t inevitable, though. We can help students consolidate and strengthen their memories with wrap-up activities that prompt them to reflect on and make meaning of their learning. An effective closing activity will help students recognize how much they’ve learned this fall and consider what they want to keep on learning; it can reinforce the value and relevance of the material they’ve studied; it can also acknowledge the sense of loss they (and we) may feel when our time together comes to an end.

The closing of a course is a time for synthesis. Students need to reflect on how their understanding has changed because they took the course; since learning must build upon prior knowledge, they need to solidify the connections they’ve made between old ideas and new. August probably seems like a lifetime ago to most of our students, so it may be useful to revisit the syllabus, asking them to evaluate their attainment of the learning goals, or summarize the central concepts of the course. You might encourage them to speculate on future questions or challenges related to what they’ve learned. You can ask them to write course cover letters explaining how they’ve grown. They might compose letters of advice to future students of the class, reflecting on the course, how they studied, and the effectiveness of their methods. (Some faculty actually share these letters with the next semester’s students.)

As Boettcher (2012) points out, “a well-designed ending of a course provides opportunities for reflection and integration of useful knowledge. It is also a time to wrap up positive social and cognitive experiences.” Especially after this obstacle course of a semester, students need some positive associations with their classes. To emphasize the social element of class closure, some faculty thank their students for their effort and openness in the course; some shake hands with each student. Some classes make mementos of their learning or their community. Kevin Dougherty at Baylor creates a celebration of his students’ learning. We can also celebrate our persistence this semester, and encourage our students to take pride in their own determination to learn.