I Gave a Final Exam at a Restaurant

Disclaimer: This post is part confessional and part epiphany.

Here’s the context:

I’ve recently made an effort to schedule the work that I require in some of my courses so that the weightiest assignments are not the last assignments. In other words, I’ve been thinking of ways to create a schedule where what might typically be considered a ‘term’ project is due one or two weeks before the traditional final exam week. Then, I schedule a lighter, reflection- and/or application-oriented assignment that’s due during the exam week. I’ve got several reasons for doing this – but, the most obvious are (a) to try to avoid loading the heaviest work on the students in my course during their most busy/stressful/hectic time of the semester and (b) to try to allow for more time during which I can provide substantial feedback on the ‘term’ project for the students to think about/discuss prior to the end of the course.

Here’s how it happened:

We came to the time in the course when folks are scrambling to get their schedules for the last couple of weeks settled and the inevitable queries about time, place, and requirements arose: “Where’s our final exam, what room?” “Which day is it again, when?” “What exactly do we need to turn in?” etc. etc. Once we established the basics – a weekday night, the same space as where we typically have class – I reiterated to the students that the project that was due at our final exam time was relatively ‘light’ as compared to the ‘term’ project they had just completed. I had planned on using the final exam time for this particular course for brief presentations of the students’ final projects (syntheses of materials on a topic of their choosing). Another thought also came to mind, that recently, a colleague of mine had hosted a class event at their house and was very happy with the results. And, after thinking about that…  I simply suggested that we could perhaps hold the final exam event someplace other than the same classroom that we’ve inhabited for the past 16 weeks. As you might have guessed, that seemed to be a somewhat appealing option to everyone (note the sarcastic tone in this font). We decided that everyone would present his or her final work in a quasi-formal manner during dinner and we left it at that.

Here’s what I think:

First off, I must admit that I was skeptical of the idea that an academically rigorous final exam could take place in a social setting such as that typically found in a restaurant. Granted, the assignment in question was not a traditional final exam – but, still, I wanted the students to have high standards and to take their work seriously.

However… once the evening began and the conversation started to flow, I started to think about what might be going on… …I started thinking about important professional social situations I had been in over the past 15 years (meetings with students’ parents, meetings with administrators, meetings with school board members, meetings with new colleagues, interviews, conferences, meetings with donors, etc.)…

We didn’t jump right into the student presentations, there was no ‘start’ or ‘stop’ for the evening and with the exception of a couple of awkward segues put forth by yours truly to move along here and there, the evening was organic.

I was ultimately very pleased with the work the students had done and I think the students were pleased with each others’ work as well. However, what became especially apparent to me was that the students needed to draw upon several skills that I don’t typically see them use, but are quite valuable in academia and professional music education settings in general. In essence, they had to speak intelligently, competently, clearly, and deeply about a topic they were interested in without ‘ripping’ the social fabric of the night. We all had to be able to sit and talk face-to-face about important and valuable ideas while also making small talk, munching on appetizers, ordering entrees, talking with the waiter, and generally getting to know each other as human beings. There was essentially no difference between any of the professional-oriented social situations I described above and this particular “final.” All-in-all, the students presented interesting works, fun was had, and it may even have been an opportunity to ‘practice’ some skills that will come in handy outside of the classroom in the future. I think I might try this again.

…or maybe I’m just rationalizing an evening out a restaurant 😉 As I said in the beginning, this is part confessional, part epiphany – I’d love to hear your thoughts one way or another.


Recent reading related to this post (albeit tangentially): Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar – Cathcart & Klein  (a brilliant book of jokes)