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For the past four fall semesters, I have taught a first-year honors seminar to help talented incoming students establish purpose in college, take responsibility for their own education, and make the transition to college-level thinking and writing. My strategy in accomplishing these goals is asking students to analyze the systems through which youth in the United States are processed into college students. We spend fifteen weeks studying intersections of youth and student cultures, college honors populations, and U.S. secondary and higher education systems. The objective is to empower class members to become intentional learners who understand the purpose of liberal education and take action to improve the lives of other young people.
Historically, the last class of the semester has not been materially productive. I experimented with giving course evaluations in class and online, and while I strove to make global connections among units in the course to provide an overview of what we had accomplished, I found that in the final sessions I was doing all the work, which was antithetical to the ethos of a course in which students collaborate to construct knowledge for themselves. Two years ago, all that changed.
This article describes a critical thinking assignment that has proven to be so transformative that I have imported it to other courses; graduates of the seminar named it and refer to it as “The Last Class.” It constitutes a metacognitive exercise that requires students to use the critical thinking skills developed in the course to process the educational experience in which they have been mutually and individually engaged. This assignment renders their participation an enactment of precisely the intentional learning we strive to realize all semester.
The course is predicated on the precepts of constructivist learning theory, which posits that learning is best facilitated, or teaching most effective, when students are actively involved in collaborating to make meaning and construct knowledge rather than passively receiving information from a teacher (Marlowe 7). The goals of this educational practice are to foster critical thinking and cultivate motivated, independent learners. Establishing a constructivist learning environment is sometimes a culture shock for students expecting the teacher-centered, authoritarian, passive learning model with which many enter college.
Having class members actively critique the course they have collaborated to construct is thus a theoretically sound endeavor. Further, they understand participation in the Last Class to be an opportunity for student activism; each member contributes to improving the experiences of students who take the seminar after them. It also constitutes a form of teacher research: the systematic study of an educator’s own teaching practice in which educators experiment with methods and analyze the effects in order to improve students’ learning (Cochran-Smith 85).