Folks interested in teaching and learning invest quite a bit of time and energy on the first day of courses. Symposia here at SMU regularly feature a session on “making the most of the first day of class,” rightly, I think, pointing out that the first day sets the tone for the rest of the semester. Coming across the finish line of a long-distance cycling event the other day got me wondering, though. Shouldn’t we also be concerned with that last day? How should we mark the end of a collective 14 weeks of effort?
In the world of endurance athletics, there is a finish line. Simply getting to it is generally the goal. We stagger across, receive some applause and maybe a medal, and then go home to recover and ride, run, or swim another day. In academic work, however, I find that I don’t want students to see my classes this way. Yes, it takes endurance and grit to finish that paper, those exams, that last book. But I tend to see these things as training, not the race.
This is where some well timed words on the last day can make a difference, I think. On the best last days, in the best classes, I have reminded students how much they have learned. Then, I ask them to use it. Not to do so, I point out, means that they are wasting their education, not to mention a whole lot of time, money, and effort. In classes where we are rushed, or where we have not managed to craft a sense of community, I often fail to make some kind of last statement, and walk away feeling a little incomplete. Students, I suspect, may feel the same.
If the first day of class is about the how – how the class will run, how students will earn their grades, how they can expect a professor to interact with them – the last day of class is about the why. Why did they learn this stuff? Why is it important? I don’t think we can answer these questions for all of our students, but I do think that we can remind them, in those last minutes, that questions of purpose are important questions; that we care how knowledge gets used. We can remind them that they are just starting the race.