Mindful Final Exams?

mindful exams

by Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Contemplative & Religious Studies at Naropa University
Reblogged from
The Huffington Post, December 21, 2014—see original here.

Today is Thursday of university finals week, and the air is electric. My twenty students in the Buddhism seminar have just arrived in class to take their final exam, anxious and excited. Christmas break will begin tomorrow. Rather than getting out their pens and pencils, bluebooks, or computers, however, we arrange our desks in a circle and place two meditation cushions at the center of the classroom. I am about to administer what is known at Naropa University as the Warriors’ Exam.

I sit on one cushion, facing the empty cushion in front of me. A student I’ll call George is the first to be examined, and he comes, laughing nervously, to sit in front of me. We sit silently for a moment, then we very simply bow and begin. “According to the Buddha, why do we suffer?” I ask, and we’re off. This is one of the signature forms of oral exam we have been practicing at Naropa University for most of our forty-year history. It has been adapted from the tradition of debate from Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, but is framed not as an adversarial form, but as a dialogue. There are various ways we conduct the examsometimes students question each other and sometimes the faculty member asks the questions. The main point is that students are asked to express their understanding orally, on the spot, integrating their study of a subject with their personal experience and insight.

In the context of the Mindfulness Revolution (TIME Magazine cover story, January 23, 2014), mindfulness has been introduced to many college and university campuses as an element of classroom activities, student clubs, and offerings from wellness centers. Most of the time, students practice mindfulness for a few minutes, and then their classes continue in the completely conventional way, with lectures, written exams, term papers, and grades. From the time of Naropa’s founding in 1974, the intent was to integrate contemplative methods into every aspect of the University curriculum. We founding faculty members endeavored to see how mindfulness and awareness practices might change assignments, discussions, readings, and examinations. Our group of about twelve founding faculty members met weekly in our storefront offices to hatch experiments for our classrooms, and we co-taught in order to see what would happen.

The Warriors’ Exam was developed initially by Naropa’s founder, Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, the innovative Tibetan Buddhist artist, poet, and meditation master, who designed it as a method to draw out the spontaneous insight of his western students. It was adapted for use at Naropa University in the earliest years, and is beloved in many departments and academic programs. Within the varieties of its forms, students find that they can trust not only their knowledge gained through study but their wisdom.

The students received copies of the basic questions a week in advance. Each will be asked one questionno one knows which one they will get. For today, I have selected a specific question for each of them as a place to begin the exchange. They already completed written exams and term papers; this day crowns the semester. They know that the criteria for this exam grade are three: freshness of response, understanding of content, and appropriate examples from their own experience. They have been asked to study the readings and lecture notes, but not regurgitate a pre-prepared answer. Instead, they are to listen to the question, let it land in a new way, and respond with trust in their present-moment insight. Their answers are to include an example from their own experience.

As we begin, I remind the students that we are all doing the exam together. The circle practices mindful listening and compassion practices, supporting and appreciating the examinee of the moment. This creates an atmosphere of respect, kindness, and openness.

As George hesitates in his answer, unsure how to proceed, I ask, “Have you experienced suffering?” “Lots of times.” “How about right now, in this exam?” He lights up. “Yes!” And he laughs, explaining why he suffers now, and we all laugh together. A beautiful answer, fresh and authentic, full of the confidence of his own experience.

The students take turns, each more beautiful than the last, each with the shaky genuineness and truth of a warrior. They show their fundamental goodness, even when blanking out, doubting themselves, or falling into scripted responses. We stay with that, and I encourage them and subtly draw their attention to their inherent wisdom and to their present-moment experience. Their classmates are witnesses and supports, present together with them, silently encouraging them. There is no way to fail if they “show up.”

Afterwards the students are giddy. How was the exam? “A refreshing experience of present-time awareness.” “A great summary of the whole course, but from us!” “Wonderful to hear other students’ answers.” Sal wrote, “You arrive at a Warriors’ Exam needing to be prepared for everything, sit down prepared for anything, and are always guaranteed an original experience, while all your classmates are doing the same.”

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