Skip to main content

The Last Day of Class

Students may not realize it, but the last day of class is hard for faculty members. In part, it’s hard because you want to find a good way to wrap up all of the material. In part, it’s hard because most of us really enjoy what we do, so it’s hard to say goodbye to a group of students. In part, there are the regrets of the things that you never quite got to do in the course. (Well, other faculty may not have regrets, but I do.)

Now that I’ve been teaching for a while, I’ve found that I often need to do a two parts to the end of my class, sometimes in one day and sometimes in two days.

The first half is of my design, and reflects on our end-of-course evaluations, which repeatedly ask students about how various things contributed to their ability to learn the subject matter of the course. When the form was first proposed, I was a young and snarky faculty member. So I asked (approximately), I think of one of my core courses as a course in problem solving, data design, and algorithm analysis. However, my students call it The Java Course. How can I be sure that students understand what the subject matter of the course is? I believe that the answer was, You can tell them.

But I don’t teach by telling. And so I began a policy of asking students to make a list of what they learned. (These days, I pair students off and have them work together, and then have them share with the class.) I usually give them big areas. For example, in CSC 151, our first course, I ask them to come up with things they’ve learned about (a) problem solving, (b) computer science (particularly in algorithm and data design), (c) the Scheme programming language, (d) methods of creating images algorithmically, and (e) software design.

However, the learning outcomes of a class are more than these disciplinary issues. So, in every class, I also tell them that every Grinnell course should help improve some general thinking skills and ask them to list those. (For most of my classes, my students improve their skills in collaborating with others, in thinking on their feet, and in dealing with stress.)

I don’t stop there. (Backstory: When I was a college student, my mother said that she was undertaking a project on faculty as moral models. I believe my response was Mom, you may be a moral model to your students (and she was), but I don’t believe that most faculty are moral models. However, now that I’m an old faculty member, I see that we do provide moral models, particularly in how we interact with our students. Those interactions show the kinds of things we value.) I also ask my students to think about what more general lessons they take from my class. (Frequent responses include care about others and there’s more to life than CS.)

The exercise of listing learning outcomes helps fulfill my need to conclude the subject matter of the course. But it’s also not enough. And so I turn to ideas I got from my mother. I’m most comfortable phrasing them as I say them to the class, so here goes. (You’ll find a bit of repetition from above. I apologize.)

We’ve reached the end of our last class. You may not realize it, but ending a class is hard for a faculty member. Most of us really care about what we do, and care about our students, so it seems strange and difficult to conclude something we’ve been working so hard on.

When I was a young faculty member, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I asked my mother. Mom was an award winning Psychology professor. (And yes, knowing that my mother was a psychologist probably helps explain many things about my personality.) Being who she was, she had not only designed a normal ending to her classes, she even had a handout for new faculty to tell them how she ends her classes. (Okay, my memory is foggy. She may not have had the handout when I asked her; but I’ve certainly seen a copy of the handout, so she wrote it at some point.)

There were three parts to her recommendations. I use all three parts, but I clearly filter them through my own sensibilities. Here they are.

Part one.

This class was special. It may seem strange that I say that in every class, but it’s always true (or almost always true). The people who were here made it special, and made it different. Most of you will take other classes. (I hope that none of you have to take this class again.) But they will not be the same as this one. Each student has made it special in a different way. [At this point, I often randomly draw names and suggest how they contributed or affected the class, from asking good questions, to interacting well with others, to sending me email that led to differences in how I teach.] Thank you for making this a special class to teach.

Part two.

The faculty-student relationship is like a less intense form of a good parent-child relationship. That is, we help you grow and learn. But at some point, we kick you out of the nest to make sure that you can fly. Like your parents, your faculty want to see you succeed, and hear how you’ve succeeded. Please send me a note once in a while to let me know how you are doing.

Part three.

Mom then turned to a story. When I was finishing third grade, my third-grade teacher, Sally Sloop, was giving up teaching, and moving on to a new career. (There are two likely reasons for her decision. One is that she thought Wow. I’ve taught Sam Rebelsky. I don’t think I can achieve anything equal to that. It’s time to try something new. The other is that she realized I never want to have to teach someone like that Rebelsky kid again.) Anyway, on the last day of class, mom was bringing her a gift. (Hmmm … I guess that suggests the reason was the latter rather than the former.) When mom gave her the gift, my teacher started to cry. Mom said, I assume you’ve been crying all day as you said goodbye. My teacher replied, No, I’m crying now because I forgot to say goodbye to so many people.

This is a hard time of the year. You are dealing with exams. Many of you are packing up your rooms to get ready to leave. However, you are surrounded by special people. Some of them are graduating. Some may be abroad next semester. And some will be back next semester. Make time to tell them that they are special.

Thank you once again. It has been a privilege to teach you.

That last line is mine, and it really is a privilege to teach our students.

I probably don’t do the rest as well as mom did. But it (plus the what did you learn) helps meet my need to find a way to end most classes.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I don’t feel the same compulsion to end all classes this way. Particularly when I’m dealing with upper-level classes, I sometimes feel comfortable saying that I’ve enjoyed working with this group of students. (So if you’ve been in one of my classes, and haven’t gotten the comprehensive end-of-class spiel, realize that it doesn’t mean that I care any less about you; it’s just that your class felt more complete.)

Version 1.0.1 of 2017-05-04.