My Scoffable Final Exam

student collaborationJan Miyake, Associate Professor of Music at Oberlin Conservatory Discusses Building a Student-Centered Final Exam

I can tell I’m getting older.  I used to scoff at all sorts of ideas that I thought were simply too lax (Pass/No Pass grading, redos, singing on neutral syllables, journal writing). But, as I accrue gray hairs, I’ve adopted many of these formerly laughable ideas – with my own twists, of course. I think (I know!) they effectively help me reach my course goals.

So, one 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.

My fears:

  1. The exam would be too easy
  2. No one would need to study
  3. Some students would earn higher grades than they really should, which would be worrisome if it significantly impacted their course grade
  4. Class time would be better spent on review and answering questions
  5. A few voices will control the entire exam

The reality:

  1. The exam was fine. It absolutely tested what I needed it to test
  2. The people who needed to study did.  And the studying that 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. The way we handled class time allowed for all voices to have an opportunity to contribute to the exam.

Here’s how I set things up:

On the Monday of the last week of classes, my students and I put together a review sheet in about 15 minutes. We divided the sheet into two lists: 1) content; and 2) skills. Students took the lead on the content part; I took the lead on the skills part. Here is 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.  We also did course evaluations.

On Thursday, our final day, we were supposed to have our normal Thursday quiz.  I forgot to write it. This actually turned out well.

I had the students 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 (I kept our running list of questions projected onto the screen at the front of the classroom).  After each individual made a contribution to the exam, I gave that person 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.  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 the students’ suggestions and posted them to Blackboard.

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. I did this 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 of the exam reflected their 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, and no one had a perfect score (63.5 to 99 was the range).

What was my biggest takeaway?  I think the process worked because I had students study skills, not content, as they prepared for the exam. They performed well on the content section because they had a thorough understanding of the skills they needed.

This blog post has been adapted from a post which originally appeared on Jan Miyake’s blog, Teaching Matters, on December 22, 2013.
Jan Miyake
Jan Miyake is an Associate Professor of Music Theory at the Oberlin Conservatory. Her pedagogical goals include cultivating the skill of asking musical questions that lead down paths of inquiry requiring nuance, concentration, and attention to detail. Her current research explores issues of sonata form in late 18th- and early 19th-century works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. She has presented her work at numerous regional, national, and international conferences, and is published in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, Theory and Practice, and Essays from the Fourth International Schenker Symposium.

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