My Scoff-able Final Exam

So, I can tell I’m getting older.  I used to scoff at all sorts of ideas that I thought were simply way too lax (P/nP grading, redos, singing on neutral syllables, journals). As I accrue gray hairs, I’ve adopted many of these formerly uncomfortable ideas–with my own twists, of course–because I think (I know!) they effectively forward my course goals. So, this semester I tried another scoff-able idea. Co-writing the final exam with my students. I know this is hardly a new idea, but it’s the first time I’ve been brave (or stupid) enough to try.

the fears:

  1. the exam will be too easy;
  2. no one will need to study;
  3. some people will earn higher grades than they really should, especially unfortunate if it ends up impacting their course grade;
  4. class time could be better spent on review and answering questions; and
  5. a few voices will control the entire exam.

the reality:

  1. The exam was fine. It absolutely tested what I wanted it to test.
  2. The people who needed to study did.  And what studying happened was definitely directed toward what the exam was testing.
  3. A few people earned grades that were pleasantly surprising to me.  A few people earned grades that were unpleasantly surprising to me.  This situation strikes me as no different from any other semester. The pleasant surprises often were directly related to someone trying really hard for a stretch (but possible) grade.
  4. I was extremely happy with how we used that class time (described below)
  5. And the way we handled class time guaranteed that all voices took the opportunity to contribute to the exam.

Here’s how it all got set up:

In the last week of classes, we put together the review sheet in about 15 minutes on Monday.  We divided the sheet into two lists: Content and Skills. Students took the lead on the Content part; I took the lead on the Skills part. Here’s our review sheet.

On Tuesday, I gave them the typed up version.

On Wednesday, I saved a few minutes for questions, but there weren’t many.  And we did course evaluations.

On Thursday, our final day, we were supposed to have our normal Thursday quiz.  I forgot to write it (DOH). I had them put themselves into small groups and come up with exam questions based on the SKILLS page of the review sheet.  After 7 minutes, we reconvened and started to write the exam together (yay Elmo projector).  After an individual contributed, I gave them the final handout for the class (a reminder of redo policies, 3 final sessions of office hours, and yet another reminder of the exam time and place). To pass the I-forgot-to-write-it quiz, they had to earn a handout.  Essentially, once they made a meaningful contribution, I handed them the handout. When I had zero handouts left, I knew everyone had contributed.  And, I was stingy about what it took to earn a handout.

After class, I typed up their suggestions and posted it to blackboard.  You can see it here.

I finished grading the exams today. In the official version of the exam I ended up expanding the voice leading portion to three very short progressions because I couldn’t test enough of the content I wanted to test with their suggestion. And, the writing about a favorite spot in the musical excerpt (the opening parallel period to the Clock movement of Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony) wasn’t optional. But the rest paralleled their very good suggestions.

The class averaged a B+ on the exam, which strikes me as too high, but I wouldn’t change a thing.  No one bombed the exam, no one got everything perfect.  (63.5 to 99 were the scores).

My biggest takeaway?  I think my process worked because I had students emphasize skills, not content, as they thought about the exam. They understood how to review the content because they were preparing to demonstrate the skills…

Practice what you Preach…

So, it’s time to really model what I believe in. I’ve been invited to come do a 2.5-hour lecture/workshop at my friend and colleague Jena’s pedagogy class. I’ve thought carefully about what I want to do and feel that it is essential to model as many of my most passionately-held beliefs as possible. On the top of my mind is transparency, movement, honesty, risk-taking, and reflection. Here’s some of the decisions I’ve made: Continue reading

“House of the Rising Sun”: review and reinforce

There are three points to this 5-10 minute activity (in decreasing order of important): (1) review and reinforce use of accidentals in the minor mode, (2) model processing music by ear, and (3) locate by feel the use of the V chord. Here’s my plan:


Continue reading

Acquiring Basic Skills

Do you remember those timed multiplication table tests in elementary school?  The kind where you do the 2s, and then the 3s, all the way through the 9s.  You earned a start on a public chart when you mastered each flavor of multiplication, and mastery was defined by getting a specific number of answers correct within a strict time period (1 minute is what I remember).  Even though today it seems somewhat old-fashioned and a mite-bit draconian, it worked.  It worked. As I’m teaching the first semester of a four-semester course, there are certain parallels with basic knowledge acquisition. So, I’ve been experimenting a bit with this old fashioned model. Continue reading

Skill: Asking Questions

We all know that the job prospects for the 22-year-old Bachelor of Music student are grim.  For most, it’ll take persistance and debt in addition to continued discipline in their practice and commitment to excellence.  My job is to help them understand better/deeper/differently the music that they have committed to. As I think about how best to help my students succeed, I put a lot of thought into other skills they need.  For instance, I try to foreground excellence in my grading systems (see this post).  Recently, I have also been experimenting with the skill of asking questions. Continue reading

Expanding Content

When does content matter?

I ask the question because I’ve been utterly convinced by a mentor and friend that it makes a significant difference in my teaching when I make a distinction between content and skills. Continue reading