The last few days of a course are often hectic for both teachers and students, and it is easy to miss out on a final few chances to wrap up the learning that has occurred throughout the semester. As Maier and Panitz (1996) note, ending a course with only a final exam often leaves students with a feeling of dread or inadequacy, rather than with a sense of accomplishment. A better goal for teachers is to help our students leave the course with a solid idea of what they have learned and how they can carry that new knowledge and skill base into future experiences. Here are a few ideas of how you can end your semester in a meaningful way.

Use the syllabus and stated objectives to review the course
Return to the syllabus and match each objective to tasks the students have completed over the course of the semester. Or better yet, have the students reflect on the semester and make these connections. This approach will both help you review the major concepts within the course and establish a sense of accomplishment for the individual students and the class as a whole. It is particularly useful if you have occasionally reviewed those objectives throughout the semester.

Ask students to reflect on their new knowledge
Ask students to reflect—both individually and in groups—on how their knowledge and skills have grown over the course of the semester.  Where are they now versus where they started?  What are the most important insights they have gained over the course of the semester?  Help them to synthesize large amounts of information and focus on the big concepts rather than on smaller, discrete pieces of information.

Have students reflect on their learning approaches
Ask students to reflect on how they approached learning in this course and set goals for subsequent courses.  What did they discover about themselves as learners?  What were their greatest successes, and what would they have done differently?  You could even have students write this in the form of letters to themselves; have students self-address envelopes for you to mail out near the start of the next semester (or figure out a way to do this via e-mail).  An activity like this helps students see your course as a step in their larger academic careers rather than something that is done and to be forgotten.

Share what you learned teaching this course.
Students aren't the only ones who learn during a semester; we teachers often learn something new about our subjects or teaching because of interactions with students.  Sharing that experience models lifelong learning and acknowledges that students can teach us as well—a far more empowering view of students that may encourage them to be more active learners in the future.

Have students look ahead
One of the worst things students can do at the end of the semester is leave all that knowledge behind, thinking it has no application to their future endeavors.  Instead, have students imagine how they can apply their new knowledge and skills to their futures—both in future classes and beyond.  It may be about the course content, or it may be about how they learn or work with new information.  As a variation, consider asking students to write back to you a few months later with an update on that application.

Have current students write letters to your future students
Have students reflect on their own learning experience by providing useful advice for your future students.  How would they introduce the course to a new student?  What suggestions would they give about getting the most out of the course?  What are the most challenging points for students and how can they best deal with those difficulties?  You can either collect these and create a master list for your course website, or for more dramatic effect, have students seal them in envelopes and randomly give them to students in your next semester's class.  Yes, you do risk passing along an occasional rude comment from a troublesome student, but most students are going to take this task very seriously (and may not believe that you don't intend to read their letters!).

Create a ritual for the last day of your classes
Establish a community-building ritual for ending your courses—something that clearly marks the importance you place on drawing your semester to a meaningful close.  This doesn't mean you have to have an hour-long pizza party—although your students would love you for that!—but it does mean you are taking time to recognize their efforts over the past few months. This could include taking time for some of these reflective activities, or it might involve giving out awards for those who excelled in the class, improved the most, regularly contributed to discussions, etc.  Or have them create awards for their classmates.  If you work hard all semester to establish a learning community, end with a community event.

Make their exit personal
Shake each student's hand on the way out, and offer encouragement for their future efforts with this topic and their future studies.  We recommended a personal greeting like this in our "Starting a Course" tip, and we think it is just as valuable way of ending the course—on a personal and collegial note.  Classy.

Sources:

"A Graceful Close."  Indiana State University Center for Instruction, Research, and Technology.   http://www1.indstate.edu/cirt1/facdev/tips/assessmentandgrading/agracefulclose.html.

Maier, Mark H. and Ted Panitz.  "End on a High Note: Better Endings for Classes and Courses."  College Teaching  44.4 (1996): 145-148.