David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Resisting the Post-Thanksgiving Doldrums

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Spring break — at least at the University of Iowa, where I teach — falls smack dab in the middle of the semester, a nice dividing line between the first and second halves of the term. The Thanksgiving break offers no such symmetry: We return to the classroom for two measly weeks, the calendrical equivalent of a student’s hastily written conclusion.

At this point, you’re tired, the students are tired, and everyone’s mind has already moved on to other things. The temptation — for instructors and students alike — is to let the semester peter out, fulfill the administrative necessities (collect final papers, handle evaluations), and sail off into the sunset.

But the end of the fall term is actually quite an important time for student learning. It’s a chance for you to complete the work you’ve been doing all semester, to finish up in a way that ensures your students will retain the knowledge and skills you’ve worked so hard to impart. They’ve learned a lot this term; now’s the time to make sure it sticks.

Think about what you want your students to take away from the course and how you want them to integrate what they’ve learned into their broader studies. You want students to think about those things, too. Much of our end-of-the semester activities should involve metacognition — the “thinking about thinking” process that helps ensure long-term retention of knowledge and skills. To accomplish that, you’ll want to come up with ways to get students to look both backward (to reflect on what they’ve learned) and forward (to think about how they’ll continue their learning).

To look backward, start from the beginning. The syllabus is a vivid snapshot of everything you wanted the course to be at the beginning of the term. Take a look at that document, with your students, and see what jumps out at you. Review the course goals and have the class evaluate whether they’ve been achieved. Ask students to think back to where they were at the beginning of the semester and reflect on how they and their thinking have changed. A good exercise for this is Kimberly D. Tanner’s “retrospective postassessments,” in which students compare their previous and current understanding of various subjects.

Review sessions shouldn’t be used only to prepare students for the final exam. When they review what they’ve learned, they cement some of that learning for the long term. Provide students with a list of topics, readings, or skills you tackled throughout the semester. Ask students to choose which was the most important, and then make the case for it in a paragraph. Depending on your class size, you can either have students present their paragraphs one by one, or break into small groups to share their views. Either way, the activity gets students thinking about what was most valuable to them in the course, and reminds them of the breadth of material covered over the semester.

To look forward, show students how they might use what they’ve learned. I like to have students brainstorm ways that the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired in the course will serve them in the future. When it goes well, such an activity often feeds into a class discussion about the purpose of learning, about the very reasons they have come to college. I want students to think about their college education in more expansive ways than just as training for a career. This is my chance to prompt such thinking.

Remind students that college courses aren’t really discrete entities — separate from each other and from the rest of our lives. What we learn in class should be part of a life of learning, a concentrated blast of instruction that sparks further curiosity going forward. In the final class sessions, suggest ways that students can continue learning after the course is over:

  • How can they keep practicing the skills you worked on in class?
  • What resources can they consult if they want to learn more about the subjects you covered?
  • What other courses should they consider taking?
  • Try to get them to see your teaching as a model for the ways they might teach themselves in the future.

None of this is earth-shattering, I know. But end-of-term exhaustion is real, and I hope some of these ideas can help you fend it off.

It can be easy, in the midst of post-Thanksgiving doldrums, to forget your lofty aspirations from the beginning of the term. It’s easy for students to forget, too. Use the final weeks of term to remind them, and yourself, that what we do in the classroom is important, and that the students have learned much that will help them after they leave your classroom. You’ve come so far this term — don’t give up now!

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