Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Last Day of Class

I would guess that many readers of this blog have put some considerable thought into what to do on the first day of class, apart from administrative details such as explaining the syllabus. But I often wonder what in the world I should do on the last day of class, besides reviewing for the final exam.

Perhaps I just have some sort of psychological need for closure, but it seems to me that in an introductory course in philosophy or ethics, some conclusions should be drawn about the value of philosophy for human existence by highlighting some of its connections with our daily lives. I, however, am usually unsatisfied with how this goes. My usual strategy is to re-emphasize the idea that philosophy grapples with some of life's biggest and most difficult questions, and that this is part of the good life for human beings (not just professional philosophers). There is something to the notion that philosophy begins in wonder, and I want my students to take that aspect of our discipline with them. I would be very interested to hear what types of things others do on the last day of class.


  1. Mike,

    It's a good question. I tend to get a little bit more on the inspirational side on the last day of class. So I'll talk about the way fairly mundane arguments we've covered in class can lead to real changes in people's lives. I also like to remind them, particularly in intro courses, about how far they've come and what they can do now that they couldn't do before. Particularly in more applied courses like business ethics, I feel like I need to leave them with one impassioned plea for the value of ethical thinking in the world of self-interest.

    So this all basically agrees with your view. To leave them with a sense of how broad the horizon is for future investigation and wonder. I was always quite disappointed by "last days" as a student that worked like any other day in the course.

    Also, if a course has been particularly rewarding or dedicated, I make sure to tell them. Evaluations are done, so perhaps it's even more believable!

  2. Mike,

    In general, I don't think we give our students enough opportunity to digest or reflect upon their learning. So to that end, I often return to the course learning objectives and point to when (and how) we pursued these objectives. This gives the students a sense that they've accomplished something. Similarly, I've sometimes discussed some questions or problems that were not addressed in the class but are matters of current philosophical controversy. This conveys the idea that what they've studied is a possible beginning rather than an ending. Or a slightly different approach: Talk about the course that might serve as the natural follow-up to the course you've just completed: if it's modern philosophy, then Kant or 19th century philosophy; if it's moral theory, then metaethics, etc.

    You can also take the chance to evaluate your course, getting concrete suggestions from students about how to improve it in the future. I like to do this in a way that complements the standard numerical teaching evaluation form.

  3. In intro to ethics, I give a concluding extra credit paper assignment, which seems to help many students conclude the class and look to the future:

    Make a Top 10 List of helpful things to do and/or not do when thinking about moral issues. For each of your suggestions of what to do (or not do), illustrate it with an example (or examples): explain why your suggestion is a good one. The goal of this assignment is for you to critically reflect on what we have done and develop a list of helpful ideas that you can use in the future (and help others use) when thinking about moral issues.

  4. I've tried a number of different things for the last day of class, which have all worked fairly well.

    (1) In my Intro to Logic and Critical Thinking class, I've recently been ending the semester with in-class debates, in which student groups pitch proposals to address a real-world problem, and we vote on one to send to the appropriate person (e.g., the governor). It's a fun culminating activity, although it consumes the last two weeks of the course.

    (2) I've tried Mike's suggestion of discussing what courses would be a good follow-up. I try hard to include non-philosophy courses in that list.

    (3) A synthetic overview of the course, which ties everything we've covered together. This brings closure, helps review the material, and shows how much we've covered.

    (4) Tell them that they don't need to take any more philosophy because we settled all the big questions during the semester.

    (5) Try to sell them on the idea that wisdom (the 'soph' in philosophy) is not a set of truths, but a disposition to think carefully about difficult questions and recognize that the answers are hard to find.

    (6) Ask them to anonymously write down one thing they liked about the course and one thing they would like to change. I seal it in an envelope and open it after I turn in grades.


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