Wrapping up the Semester Strong

 

What are some ways to conclude your semester and leave students with a lasting and positive impression? As the end of the semester is approaching, plan some meaningful activities to use during your last class session(s) to wrap up the semester strong. Often students struggle to remember even the most important course content that they learned throughout the semester. 

 

In the following 6-minute video, Brokk Toggerson, a lecturer in Physics who teaches very large (300 students) intro courses, shares how he uses digital technology tools and visuals for an interactive recap of the semester. 

 

 

Here are some key takeaways:

  • Come full circle and structure the class around briefly revisiting and reviewing the essential questions explored throughout the semester. 
  • Engage students in interactive reflection activities that provide opportunities for them to self-check their knowledge.
  • Connect what you see from these activities to the brief review of the most important course concepts. 
  • Remind students about remaining assignments and to-dos.
  • Add a personal note, thank your TAs and your students, say good-byes.

 

View Transcript

Here are more reflective thoughts from Brokk.

 

 

What were your goals for designing your last class session using these activities?

I want my students to come full circle over the course of the semester’s story, returning to where we started with a broader picture of the world, like Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings. My last day’s activity provides an opportunity to connect the various concepts explored throughout the semester into a cohesive multifaceted answer to the two, what McTighe and Wiggins call, essential questions of my course: “What is Light?” and “What is an Electron?” 

 

The course’s story thus begins not with physics, but metaphysics. One the first day, I ask students “How do you go about defining something as abstract as light or electrons?”  In face-to-face learning, I ask students to write their answers on small scraps of paper. In the remote environment, I use the free-to-students Vevox polling system, which does not require an account and allows students to anonymously submit 200-character answers. Collectively, we determine that a key part of defining objects far removed from our everyday experience is to consider many different facets of their behavior and how these fundamental objects interact with other aspects of the Universe. 

 

The journey then proceeds as we together explore different aspects of light and electrons in various units: their fundamental natures, how they move and interact with materials, the impact of the electron’s charge, and so forth. In addition to furthering the ultimate questions of the course, each unit seeks to explain something from one of their other courses, such as modeling the neuron as an electric circuit. 

 

Finally, at the end, I remind them of our ontological approach and ask them to answer the questions: “What is light?” and “What is an electron?” Again, I use the Vevox polling app which allows me to construct a word cloud of their responses. Not only is this approach more active, but it is also faster. The students themselves summarize the material from the entire semester in only a few minutes. I simply highlight particularly key points and correct some last-minute misconceptions! 

 

After reminding students of the last few deadlines, I think it is very important to thank both the TAs and the students themselves. TAs, both graduate and undergraduate, are essential for the smooth running of such a large course. They are critical parts of the teaching team and I feel that public acknowledgement of that is only appropriate. It reinforces, one last time, the importance of teamwork in the modern scientific enterprise. Thanking the students, acknowledges that I know that my course is not my students’ favorite subject generally, and that I really appreciate their hard work and their willingness to try learning in, what for many of them, is a different way from which they are accustomed.  

 

The very last slide on the very last day emphasizes that the story continues. I briefly mention how much we do not yet understand and encourage them to continue to be curious and appreciate the world’s beauty. 

 

McTighe, Jay, and Grant Wiggins. Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. ASCD, 2013.

 

 

What do you see as the largest benefits of using these activities?

I think I will let the students speak via four comments from my FORWARD-FOCUS surveys from the last few semesters:

 

“One of the most valuable things learned this semester were the qualities of photons and electrons, where the two act as both waves and particles. More of a comment, I found it incredible that everything wrapped up so well at the end of the semester! Interpreting everything we've learned, bringing it all together to be right back at the start. I think it's so interesting how photons travel and can affect electron movement due to magnetic and electric forces and how everything just makes a little more sense than before.”

 

“Think overall big picture. I learned in this course how to better look for the overall picture of each unit. By breaking down the units and looking and specific things, it helped me to then trace back to the general concepts and put everything together to evaluate how all the pieces interlock and work together to create something bigger.”

 

“How interconnected and important physics is- physics used to be seemingly useless to me as a biology major, but after this course, the way in which it was modeled taught me how it is impossible to study biology without seeing the physics behind the natural world.”

 

“I learned about how we can use a few, simple principles to explain many complex concepts. It was really cool being able to see how our three units on light, the electric field, and the magnetic field could come together and relate to one another! I also really liked how we kept drawing connections between physics and biology/chemistry.”

 

Insights like these are, I think, the biggest benefit and exemplify what I hope to achieve as an educator. 

 

 

What considerations or tips do you have for other instructors?

What story do you want to tell? Five years ago, I was a fellow in CTL’s Student-Centered Teaching and Learning (SCTL) program. The facilitator framed it nicely, “What do you want your students to remember in five years, after they have forgotten all the details of your course?” This was a powerful way of thinking particularly as my course is the last physics class that almost all my students will ever take. Heath Hatch, who had been teaching the course for some time before me, had also already been teaching guided by the essential question, “What is light?” Heath Hatch’s work and my participation in SCTL served as starting points, guiding me to add “What is an electron?” These two essential questions, in turn, helped me structure the rest of the material and decide on what was really important to cover. I would also encourage other instructors to remember to keep bringing the course back to these big questions so that students are prepared to address them on the last day.  

 

My other tip is to make sure to leave time to synthesize on the last day. We as faculty often spend a lot of time on the first day of class: thinking about the culture we want to establish and generating excitement for the material. In contrast, the last day is often neglected: spent rushing through the last bit of content. A lot of material is covered in a semester. Acknowledging their hard work and providing a chance to synthesize can, I think, let students leave with a greater sense of accomplishment.

 

 

What are your next steps? Have there been any challenges or things you might do differently in the future? 

My content of my current course intrinsically makes sense in a “story” format.  The material builds and culminates naturally. I would like to think about how to use a similar technique in my other courses without it seeming “forced.”