By the time the end of the course rolls around, it's hard to think creatively about what to do on the last day. Depending on the course, the last day may be accompanied with feelings of joy, sadness, relief, or all three.
In her “admittedly unscientific” but still fairly comprehensive look at literature about the last day of class, Barbara Burgess-Van Aken found far more research on the first day. In the ERIC database, it was 10 hits to one for the first and last day of class. She agrees that the first day is critical in terms of tone setting and expectation clarification, but she thinks we underestimate the importance of the last day. It's the day best suited for helping students recognize their progress and all they have learned in the course (p. 130). Metaphorically, the first and last days can be thought of as the bookends that hold the course together. And as Burgess-Van Aken notes, covering new material or conducting a review for the final does not accomplish the larger goal of connecting what's ending back to where it started.
In her look at the literature, Burgess-Van Aken found that what's been published is mostly devoted to what teachers do on the last day. While there's nothing wrong with looking at all the options, she thinks the “why” questions should come first: “Shouldn't we think about the last day as a destination akin to a commencement ceremony that makes students feel prepared to move on?” (p. 130). Last-day activities should promote student reflection about course material and the future: “We teach students to emphasize the ‘so-what' factors in their arguments in the conclusions of their papers and to end oral presentations with elegant and memorable closings that underscore the messages of their talks” (pp. 130–131)—shouldn't we wrap up courses in a similarly impressive way?
Burges-Van Aken organized the activities found in the literature into three categories: professor-centered strategies, activity or event strategies, and student-driven strategies. Here are some examples of possible activities for each, most from the article and elaborated in more detail there.
Activity or event strategies
- The Knute Rockne send-off—an inspirational speech filled with advice for the future, or a congratulatory send-off, offered by the professor
- Distribution of awards on the last day, for students who regularly helped the discussion, who asked thoughtful questions, who made the class laugh, and maybe two or three awards to those who always listened well
- The sharing of a digital photo album of the course, featuring students engaged in various activities, snippets from discussions, celebratory milestones, shown as the professor narrates the story of this particular course
- A game or quiz, with teams and maybe prizes, using questions that reinforce key course concepts and their relationships to one another
- Various presentation activities or student project reviews, with students voting for the best and justifying their choices
- A link back to something that happened on the first day; an activity that's now repeated, such a revising something written on the first day, like a first definition of the field or a first response to a key question
- A course critique where students discuss aspects of the course, such as the readings, activities, exams, advice, favorites, recommended changes
- Students write letters or prepare podcasts offering advice to others who will be taking the class: how to do well in the course, mistakes to avoid, how to get along with the professor, what was hard, what was easy
- Students bring a creative representation of what the class has meant to them or an artifact that represents what they've learned over the semester
- Students write on notecards and then share for discussion three to five things they learned in the course that they anticipate remembering in five years, or they posit what they think they'll do differently in the future as a result of taking the course
There are numerous options. As Burgess-Van Aken notes though, the best time to plan them is before the course even begins. Left to the end, it's hard to summon the energy needed to mastermind an event. But when a course ends, something important is over, and that needs to be appropriately recognized.
Christopher Uhl rings a bell on his last class day. “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” (p. 166).
Burgess-Van Aken, B. (2017). Knowing where you're going: Planning for meaningful course closure. College Teaching, 65
Uhl, C. (2005). The last class. College Teaching, 53