Capturing Thoughts About the Semester

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By Sophie Sparrow from University of New Hampshire School of Law

As the end of the semester comes into view, it’s easy to focus on end of the semester exams, papers, grading, wrapping up fall projects, and looking ahead to spring. Before the semester ends, though, consider taking a few minutes to capture your thoughts about this fall. What has gone well? What, in retrospect, would you change? These notes can provide valuable insights for the next time you teach those courses.

I have learned this lesson the hard way – many times. At the end of each semester, I feel as if I am at the end of a long run, panting heavily as I seek to cross the finish line without stumbling. And in the fall, it feels even more of a challenge. In the spring, even though there are similar demands, there is a bit of time to recuperate after graduation, and summer vacation to look forward to. The end of the fall semester, however, presents holidays, AALS, and spring courses immediately following. It always feels like a rush to finish grading and then spin around to be ready to help a new group of students learn.

Toward the end of a course, I always feel that I should have done more for students. I should have given them more chances to engage in active learning, improved the active learning assignments I used, provided them with more opportunities for practice and feedback, and more effectively connected them to what lawyers do. I feel that I should have helped the students learn more skills, values and doctrine, and I wish I had taken more time to get to know my students better as individuals. “I’ll do things differently next time,” I tell myself. But as the spring semester approaches, I rarely take the time to capture my thoughts about what, exactly, I want to do differently, and how I will make that happen. And I forget that as I engage in spring teaching and projects, the present will crowd out my memory of the fall.

As I turn to preparing fall courses over the summer, I remember that I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do differently, but I can’t recall most of the specifics. Sometimes I am lucky to find cryptic notes in my syllabus, course materials, class notes or teaching journals about what I wanted to change and how I was going to do it. Usually, however, the notes are insufficient to help me truly revise to help students learn. I come across notes to myself that say things like, “have students spend more time on proximate cause,” which provides some guidance, but doesn’t tell me what didn’t go well and offers suggestions on ways that I might try to improve student learning.

This fall I plan to take my own advice and take some time to capture my thoughts about what went well and what I want to change. I know that my memory will again be flawed, and if I try to keep all my ideas in my head, I will be sure to overlook many of them. If I succeed in capturing these thoughts, I suspect I will have a new challenge: finding the file. My hope is that even if I can’t locate the fall semester file, by writing down my thoughts and ideas, more of them will stick.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning