Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Semester’s End: Leaving Your Students with a Positive Impression

Even if your course has gone only so-so, it’s not too late to send your students out with a positive impression.  Psychological findings point the way. The key is to give your students some “peak experiences” and end with a peak experience. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education explains. Here are some excerpts:

A key insight from hedonic psychology and happiness metrics is that the experience of pleasure or pain (how it is sensed in the moment) is largely erased by the memory of that pleasure or pain (how it is viewed in retrospect). The duration of pleasure or pain would seem be key to the experience but actually has little impact on the memory. (For an introduction to hedonic psychology and happiness metrics, see the Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman's 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which offers a retrospective on his career, including some of his pioneering work in this area.)

In other words, we don't remember pleasure or pain by how long it lasts. What we remember, research shows, is a combination of the feeling of great intensity (the moment of "peak" pleasure or pain) and the impression left by the final moments of the experience (the "end," and particularly, whether it is better or worse than preceding moments). Hence, the "peak-end" rule.

For me, the biggest reassurance of this experience is that it's OK to have off days and low points in every course. You can't possibly be always at the top of your game, week after week, and still meet all the other demands placed on college faculty members outside of the classroom. And from the standpoint of having a lasting impact on students, maybe there's no reason to try to be.

Consistency is important, but it doesn't have to be the unobtainable goal of consistency at one's peak. Being reasonably good, or merely adequate throughout a course, while offering students some peak moments and a decent semester wrap-up, might actually make more of a lasting impression upon the students in the class.





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