What To Do On the Last Day of Class

January 2, 2018

Robert Frank says any course, but especially an introductory course, can have no more than five big ideas [The Economic Naturalist, Basic Books, 2008] not fifty (and by the way, professor, none of them is your cutting edge research!). He claims trying to cram too much material into a syllabus actually decreases learning: that students acquire knowledge and skills when the menu is selective and they get to actually use the material, not just have “too much stuff” told to them, during the course.

Until a few years ago, I've used the last day of class for a review of the usual sort, skipping through the syllabus in a sort of travelogue lecture mode. But I think Frank is onto something, and more important, I realized I was describing what I thought the course was about, while it actually happened inside the heads of the students, and if I could get them to actively reflect on it, and share with me and with each other, it would be useful. Perhaps even increase retention, inshallah.

During the semester, I try to highlight [my idea of] the big ideas as they come along, and am much less diffident about being repetitious in referring to them in subsequent sessions. I have also completely abandoned the standard “review”, and my current last-day program is as follows:

1. 10 min- Miscellaneous administrivia, due dates for last assignments, etc.

2. 15 min- On a provided form, individually, have each student write down “the five big ideas of this course”.

3. 5 min- Divide the class into small groups in some obviously random way (count off, for example), and then,

4. 20 min- Have each group gather to come up with a consensus version of the five ideas, on a similar form labeled "group". These discussions will be quite animated.

5. 20 min- (assuming a reasonable number of groups) Have a scribe from each group come to the board and write the group's 5 ideas. Depending on board space, 4 groups at a time, and then swap the boards vertically for the next 4..

6. 15 min- Gather everyone around the boards so they can read them, and have a brief discussion of "any surprises? anything especially interesting?"  For example, the last time I did this it was noted that several of the ideas were in the form of questions, not propositions, and I realized that my colleague Eugene Bardach often says my field, policy analysis, is not as valuable to its alums for our great answers as for our useful questions. 

7. Collect the group forms and post them as a PDF on the course web site.

8. Say goodbyes. An improvisatory process: this year (2017) the students wanted to take a class picture, so we all scooted up on the seating risers and said ‘cheese’. 

9. Review the results as you decompress from the semester. Maybe provide them to next year's class at the beginning of the course? 

It's surprising and illuminating to see how varied the responses are (and reassuring that there's a fair amount of overlap); every student in the room actually experiences a different course, and I now have a much better idea of this distribution. The students seem to like this exercise a lot...and they have something to show the family when someone asks "so what did you study at Cal this semester?"