Earlier this summer, my son graduated from bartender school. Not a career, he assures me, but a way to bring in the cash a college-age kid always needs. So I said okay (besides, I directly benefited from his homework assignments, if you know what I mean). Just to be curious, I looked at what he was doing in this week-long class, and how he was learning.

First – the location. Not a real bar, but a simulated bar, right down to the loud music, dark lighting, rickety bar stools, and real brand-label liquor bottles (filled with colored water). “So where’s the classroom,” I asked. “Surely you must have a place where you give lectures about how to make drinks, punctuated with slides and perhaps some cool videos, right?” “Nope,” the instructor replied. “The bar is the classroom; we do everything here.” Not a computer (except for the simulated cash register), or a projector, or a DVD player, or an Internet connection in sight. Total immersion in the simulated environment – impressive!

But if there are no copies of slides, what else could possibly be in the “student guide?” Answer: the student guide is primarily a set of drink recipes that students complete in class. Some information is provided and some they add as they go along. Minimal spoon-feeding. I won’t get into how concerned I was that there are no instructional objectives. Okay, not concerned at all; somehow all the students know exactly why they are there and what they are going to learn. I think it has something to do with motivation.

From a Martini to a Tom Collins to a Long Island Ice Tea; there must be 100 different drinks in the student guide. How can they learn them all? Memorizing the ingredients for the most popular drinks is important, I learned, so the course uses memory aids. For example, the memory aid for a Bay Breeze is “Very Cool Place” (Vodka, Cranberry, Pineapple). You get the idea. But in case their memory fails them, each night the students create note cards for each drink, according to a template. By the end of the course, they have their own bartending job aid.

And then there’s practice – lots of it.

Apparently, mixing drinks correctly is only half the job. Since time is money, making them fast is the other half. So each day, and usually more than once a day, the students are asked to make several drinks in a specified amount of time. Speed and correctness are both important and students make the drinks for each other, and for the instructor. They don’t know in advance what they will be asked to prepare, and, every once in a while, a drink can be sent back to be done over. Actual practice under realistic conditions; imagine that!

Now for the final exam: no “six-item multiple-choice quiz and then you’re done” here. Yes, there’s a written test on the legal and common sense issues of bartending, with a pretty high cutoff score, but the real test is performance-based. The students must make at least twelve drinks correctly in seven minutes. Don’t succeed?  Okay, try again, but the drinks may be different the next time. The evaluation is criterion-referenced: a demonstration-based performance assessment for would-be bartenders. What a concept.

Here, in this little bartending school, we have high-level simulations, an interactive student guide and student-created job aids, simple and fun memory aids, substantial realistic practice, and a competency-based assessment. So I’m thinking, there must be an instructional designer behind all of this. “Can I meet your instructional designer?” I asked. “What’s an instructional designer?” was the response. I explained, but was quickly interrupted. “We don’t have anyone like that,” she replied. “We just have lots of experience in what works, students who really want to learn, and me – totally into teaching what I know.”