The Last Five Minutes: Class Endings and Student Learning

Steven Volk, April 20, 2014

A recent article by David Gooblar in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s on-line “Pedagogy Unbound” section reminded me how important it is to end a class well, both individual classes (today’s topic), and the semester as a whole (which I’ll turn to soon). We spend a fair amount of time thinking about how we start a class: perhaps summarizing material from the past class, highlighting written responses to the readings that students have posted, offering a snapshot of what the day’s class will cover. But the ending is often less planned, particularly as we rush to get through the topics we had intended to cover that day.

Why is that? Probably a lot of factors are to blame, but the most common one I’ve encountered is that faculty try to put too much into the 50 or 75 minutes we have in a regular class session; we try to cover too much. Many, myself included, particularly when I was a bit newer to the game, are worried that we will run out of things to say before the clock signals the end of the class. As a result, we over-prepare … just to be sure. Of course, we never actually run out of things to say. Rather, we run out of time in which to say them. Now, when we look up at the clock, we find that there are five minutes left and we have 15 minutes worth of “stuff” still to deliver. What to do?

Usually we try one of these strategies:

  • We talk faster in an attempt to squeeze it in;
  • We continue to talk even as the students put on their coats, anxiously lean towards the door, and we spy next instructor assigned to the same classroom peaking into the room;
  • We carry over a the “untaught” material from that class on to the next (which only seems to exacerbate the problem if it happens every day);
  • We drop that part of the class where the students are asked to synthesize and share the main conclusions from the small-group discussions they had just finished.
Bud-Collier-Beat_the_Clock_1958

Bud Collyer as host of “Beat the Clock” (1958) – Wikimedia Commons

None of these strategies, obviously, is optimal for student learning, but I’ve employed each of them enough times (and observed others doing so as well), that it seems reasonable to offer a few suggestions from my perch at the back of the room. Now, some students may be so deeply engaged in a class that they don’t notice the time…but that usually isn’t the case. Because they need to be in another class in 10 minutes or simply expect the class to be ending, any observer can see them closing down, as it were. They start to pack their bags, put on their coats, close their computers, or just look at the door. The key point is that they are not listening (or learning) any more, and going past the time the class is to end by more than 1-2 minutes only makes them more anxious and less able to hear. We may feel that we were able to squeeze in everything we wanted to say in those last few minutes…but they probably didn’t get it. Production but no reception.

Too_Much_Johnson

Too Much Johnson, William Gillette, 1895 (Public Domain).

This can be even more of an issue when teachers sacrifice some of the most important lessons of the class because they have run out of time. This will often happen when students have broken into smaller discussion groups and you had planned to bring them back together both to share their observations and to have them (or you) synthesize the key points you wanted to cover. Not every small group discussion has to be shared or synthesized, and you can develop other ways to do this without re-forming into a group-of-the-whole (see Tips for Capturing Small-Group Discussions below), but if you count on that moment to raise the cognitive level of the class and you have to forgo it because of lack of time, you’re passing up an important moment of student learning. There’s no question that this will happen from time to time: issues might come up in discussion that are just too good to sidetrack. And you can always start the next class with a summary of the last discussion (although, usually, students aren’t as able to return to that discussion two days later as you would like them to be).

Why Are We Doing It This Way?

As I suggested above, we often over-prepare a class for fear of being caught with our critical pants down: we have come to the end of our useful knowledge for that day and have nothing more to say. Besides the fact that I think we can always find something to say or to have the students do (and it does get easier as the years go by), I think the tendency to put too much into a class often reflects the fact that we haven’t thought enough about what our specific goals are for that class session. As a history teacher, I know that my “goal” was often only to cover a given chronology. If I was talking about the origins of the Cuban Revolution, I knew I wanted to end up in 1959; 1956 just wouldn’t do, so I’d speak faster to get it all in before class ended. But as I continued to think about what I was doing and what the students were getting out of it, I realized that more is not always more – quite often it is less. You think the students have understood something that you squeezed in at the end, but they haven’t.  As I tried increasingly to get at the central analytic issues involved in any particular class, I realized that I could plan a class that didn’t have to cover all the material I was delivering (after all, they have readings and other resources), but could focus on a few exemplary moments to help them work through the central concepts (in this case problematizing the question of what revolutions are, what we mean by “revolutionary origins,” what was it about the specific history of Cuba that gave rise to the events of 1959). This extra planning hasn’t meant that I never run out of time in my classes, but at least the main part of the learning that I want to happen occurs sometime before the last few minutes of the class.

How to Make Use of those Last Minutes?

There is an additional benefit to class planning: you can now use the final minutes of class in an activity that not only can hold the students’ attention, but can help you significantly in understanding what they got out of the class and how you might want to begin the next class. Use the last 2-3 minutes of class time to have them write. They can write a “muddy-point” commentary, noting something that they didn’t understand or would like further discussed in the next class. They can focus on the 1-3 points that they learned from that class. Or they can look ahead: what are their preconceptions of the next class. (I have posted a very short article on this topic, “The Final Three Minutes with 100 Undergraduates,” by Robert Hampel, on CTIE’s Blackboard site. It appeared in the most recent edition of College Teaching 62 (2014): 77–78.) These short exercises have the advantage of focusing student attention on a very defined task for the last few minutes of class rather than on wondering when you will stop talking, giving you an important idea of what they learned (or didn’t learn) in the class, and allowing those who have more to say (and who have the time to stay) to spend a minute or two more than the others with their comments. (Of course, there’s still the next instructor assigned to the class looking through the door wondering when she’ll be able to get in!)

Tips for Capturing Small-Group Discussions

Often, in discussions, I use one of two techniques as a way to help students develop and hold onto their conclusions. If I have 6-7 different small groups working at the same time, either on the same or a different set of questions, I have them to come up to the board towards the end of the time I have set aside for discussion and write down the conclusions, answers, or questions their group arrived at. If there is no time to bring these different “conversations” together, I take a picture of the board with my phone and post it to Blackboard. The students can refer to the image after class and I can start the next class with the image of the last class’s board projected on a screen. (You can do the same thing with post-in notes, having them write on the notes in their groups and then sticking them under appropriate headings.)

Dictatorship

Partial image of chalk board after discussion (Steve Volk)

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The other technique I use is to make sure that someone with a laptop is a part of each group. Before class, I have prepared a Google Doc with the same number of columns as there are small groups (add more columns if you’re not sure of the number), assign numbers to each of the discussion groups that has formed up, enter the email addresses of the student with the laptop into an “invitation” to join the document (all of which takes, literally, about 2 minutes), and then have them write conclusions, answers, or questions in their assigned column as they are discussing the material. I project that Google Doc onto the screen and can see each group’s discussion develop in real time. Again, if there is time to pull everything together, we do that at the end of class when we all look at the document that is projected; if we have run out of time, I save the document, post it to Blackboard for them to read, and (if I want) pull it up at the start of the next class.

Dirty-War-Google-Doc

Google Doc example from class (Steve Volk)

Google-Doc-Example

Google Doc example from class (Steve Volk)

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