Sound and Music oral exams

The most authentic assessment technique I’ve ever used is oral exams. By authentic, I mean that I can really get to know what my students know. I can dig through their misuse of vocabulary and their bluster to find out if they understand the concepts and how they interrelate. Of course, due to their logistical issues, I’ve only ever used them with small classes. That changed this semester. Last week I devoted 10 hours to oral exams for the 40 students in my non-science-major class, physics of sound and music. I thought I’d capture some of my thoughts here about the experience.


I canceled class and lab, and cleared  three more hours from my schedule (on Monday morning). That added up to 10 hours, so I used the awesome Google Calendar Appointment Slots to get my students to sign up for 15 minutes each. I was able to hold all of them in the lab room, because there is no other class using that particular room this semester. If that hadn’t worked, I would have just used my office, but I like the big chalk board (yes, chalk) in that room, plus it had room for an audience (see below).

There were a few students who had trouble signing up, and a few who waited until the last minute, but, in the end, all but three students signed up, two of whom never come to class (I’m not sure why they haven’t dropped). Given that this is a standards-based grading class, there’s no real penalty for the students who miss, since they can always reassess via screencasts whenever they like.

I didn’t leave any time between the exams, but that ended up working just fine. What’s really interesting is that I didn’t really get tired. They were (mostly) fun conversations and my energy stayed up.

Typical conversation

Students would come in and I’d try to put them at ease with easy banter about the weather or the football game or whatever. Then I’d ask them if there was a particular standard that they wanted to talk about. I’d warned them ahead of time to prepare up to five minutes on any standard they’d like. A colleague of mine suggested this compromise approach between me picking random standards and them dictating which standards they’d like to reassess. They were allowed to bring in notes for that portion, though, interesting, none of them really used their notes. I would ask them if they wanted to just start talking/writing on the board/show me their notes or if they’d rather I just ask them some questions about that standard. Nearly all picked the latter, which was my preference. For those few who wanted to present, I interrupted them pretty early anyways.

After that standard, I’d usually draw a close connection to another and just go seamlessly into that one. The most common thing I did was to ask a bunch of questions and then note scores for two standards before moving on. We had a hard quiz on our interference standard a while back, so a lot of them wanted to talk about that. The most common question I asked way “what happened to me in Burger King?” This was an allusion to a story I told in class the day we talked about interference. Basically, when I used to work there, I’d find that certain places I put my head would be quieter for the annoying french fry beeper. Often it was in a position that was difficult to stand in all day, but it was worth it. Back then I had really good attendance in class (that’s dropped off to about 75% now – ugh) so most had heard the story and could repeat the salient points. Then I’d ask them questions like “would it still be a quiet point if I moved? if the frequency changed? if it was no longer a pure tone? if it was louder? if the speed of sound in the room changed?” After all of that, they’d get a score for both interference and for the relationships among wavelength, frequency, amplitude, and speed.

For the rest of the time (usually ~7 minutes), I’d roll the 12-sided die that my son lent me for the week (we have 12 standards for the whole semester so far). I’d start asking questions about whatever came up and they’d get a score for each. Every student had at least 3 scores when they walked out. Probably over half had 4, and none had 5.


I gave a lot of good scores in this exam. The average score for any given standard must be really close to 4 (my highest score – see the rubric). While it took a while for some to show me that they understood the material, most were able to show it! I was asking all kinds of questions that they hadn’t really heard before (there’s no homework in this class) and they were able to stay with me. Those that didn’t get 4’s agreed with me that it was too much of me “pulling teeth” and I don’t think many thought their scores were too low. It’s a nice boost to give them heading into midterm grade reporting season.

It’s possible I had too low of expectations, which then led to higher scores. But, as I sit and think about it, I think they demonstrated to me a deeper understanding of material than I’ve seen in this course in the past, so I’m pretty happy. My favorite example was how well they understood the fipple mechanism for creating a sustained note on a flute. Very cool.

Changes for the future

I told them that my students in previous classes have really appreciated being a silent witness to the examination of others, since they see that it’s really just a conversation about the content. I told them they could come and watch others, though some requested a private audience. Regardless, very few had an audience, so I’m hoping that changes in the future.

I guess I’m not sure whether I’ll let them pick one of the standards to do in the future. I guess it helped them feel comfortable, especially since they would be mad if I force them to redo a standard they’re already doing well on.

I think I’ll have higher expectations next time, and I think I’ll really think about which aspects of the standards I’d like to focus on. One example where I failed to be consistent in that regard this time around was with the standard “I can explain sound.” I’ve blogged before about how that’s a standard that is evolving throughout the semester, but for some I held them to the (pretty low) standard of simply explaining propagation. Later in the week I added the notion of the original source of sound to that. Next time I don’t want to be so inconsistent throughout the week.

One thing I’m excited about for next time is the lowering of their anxiety. I think many of them were surprised by how informal and informative the process was. I’m looking forward to having a short conversation about that in class this Tuesday.

Any questions?

Some comment/question starters for you:

  1. I loved my oral exam. I thought _____ but really ____ happened.
  2. I hated my exam. I thought ______ but really _____ happened.
  3. Why do you like an audience? What are you, a narcissist? For real, though, what’s the benefit?
  4. I like how you did this, but I don’t do SBG. What would be different?
  5. I can’t believe you cancelled class and lab to spend just 15 minutes with a student. What a waste.
  6. You still have chalk boards? Do you use opaque projectors too?
  7. If you’re only getting 75% attendance, you must really suck.

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in syllabus creation, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Sound and Music oral exams

  1. Libby says:

    I did like the oral exam. I did freak out before/during it (TEST ANXIETY) but appreciated your patience and ability to rephrase questions when they weren’t clear. I also liked how we were able to choose one standard for the first 5 minutes.

  2. Joss Ives says:

    I’m very impressed that you were able to pull a 10-hour day. I think last time I ran Advanced Lab I did 12 45-minute oral exams in a week, but never a 10-hour day.

    BTW, my nerdy students delight when I refer to dice as analog randomizers.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      no, it was just 10 hours spread through the week. No long days. The longest was Wednesday with 4 hours. When I talk about losing energy, I just mean that it could be interpreted as just having the same conversation over and over, but that didn’t happen.

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