oral exams


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“This is going to be very casual,” I tell each student at the beginning of their neurophysiology oral exam. “I’m going to ask you some questions; feel free to take your time and reference your notes.” My experience with oral exams began in high school. As a student in an International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, I was required to complete a series of orals in our literature, language, and art courses. I remember sitting in a tiny office across from my English teacher, who smiled warmly as she asked me questions about a passage from Othello. A recording of that exam would then be sent abroad to be evaluated by external reviewers. I remember some stress from the experience, but more so, I remember the feeling of accomplishment. This was different from a traditional exam in that it stripped away all the layers between me and my teacher and truly laid bare what I knew. There was also an element of immediate feedback. As one point, I started down a line of discussion that wasn’t correct and remember vividly how my teacher locked my eyes and every so subtly tipped her head to suggest I was on the wrong track. I immediately corrected, and at the end of our session, my teacher’s silent thumbs-up told me that I had done well.

As I embark on a journey of ungrading in my college-level classrooms, I have returned to oral exams as a means to acquire a more holistic view of a student’s knowledge and understanding. The real-time format and short feedback cycle of an oral exam allow me to see directly how a student is thinking about and applying the material. I find this particularly useful in scenarios where I am trying to identify where students may be struggling or where additional support may be needed. Here are some tips for incorporating orals into your courses.

Set the tone

At the beginning of each oral exam, I find it important to restate any expectations or requirements. If a student is allowed to reference their notes or a crib sheet, I take a moment to remind them before we begin. I make a point to smile warmly and use a casual tone and indicate in every way possible that I am on their team and want them to succeed. I also welcome my students to ask clarifying questions throughout the exam. It is my goal to calm students’ nerves and give them confidence. Studies show that students perform better when they believe they are capable and knowledgeable about the course material. Therefore, I typically transition from introductory formalities to asking actual questions with a “You ready? You’ve got this!” or “OK, let’s do this, show me what you know!”

Be deliberate in how you conduct your exam

However you conduct your oral exams, it is important to show up with a plan. In my sophomore- and junior-level biomaterials and physiology courses, I pull questions from a question bank that spans the material for the entire course. I usually start with a question that touches on fundamentals to build students’ confidence and allow them to demonstrate basic competency. I then progress through the material, building up the difficulty. If a student does not answer a question completely, I ask probing follow-up or clarifying questions to allow them a second chance to demonstrate their knowledge. If their answer is far off base, I may attempt to lead them to the right answer or give them direct feedback that they are incorrect. I may also allow them the chance to offer the material they feel they know best. After several incorrect answers, I ask the student how they studied for the exam and suggest that they have not prepared sufficiently to complete it successfully. If time allows, I may allow students to schedule a make-up. One caveat: While I often allow students to reference their notes, I have found that they can sometimes become a crutch. It seems that when students do not have access to their complete notes, they arrive more prepared.

Protect your time

One of the loudest concerns I hear from colleagues about oral exams relates to time consumption. To imagine a lengthy individual meeting with every student enrolled in their course is enough to make any professor’s head spin. But the reality is that a well-constructed oral exam can be extremely time effective and even save time spent on grading. For small to moderate class sizes (50 and under), I allot approximately 20 minutes per student per exam. While nearly 17 hours (20 minutes × 50 students) spent giving exams might sound exhausting—and don’t get me wrong, it can be—I consider the total amount of time I might spend on a traditional exam (proctoring and grading), and it’s not far from that amount. With an oral exam, you complete the grading in real time and give feedback immediately. Once you end the meeting with the student, you are done handling their exam.

For larger courses, where enrollment is in the hundreds, individual meetings might not seem feasible, but they are! For the large class scenario, I suggest reducing the time spent on the exam to three to five minutes (5 × 200 is still about 17 hours) and structuring the exam to be less of a conversation between you and the student and more of a rapid-fire exercise: you ask a question, they answer, you move forward. If you have dependable teaching assistants, you might work to calibrate your scoring with theirs and divide the examinees among you to minimize fatigue.

Leverage your virtual space

While oral exams are well suited for in-person interactions, I have also found success in conducting mine in the online space via Zoom, Teams, or some other videoconferencing platform. When I conduct my exams online, I can use the record feature with the option to go back and revisit any portion of the exam retroactively in case something comes up later. Working virtually also allows me to maximize my time and more efficiently adjust if an exam runs ahead or behind.

Use oral exams as a “redo” opportunity

When I administer traditional exams in my Introduction to MATLAB Programming class, I ask students to write code that meets a list of increasingly difficult specifications. Students who struggle to accomplish the more challenging tasks tend to panic and submit code that lacks any functionality at all. I use oral exams, or live-coding sessions, to parse out exactly where their skills suffer.

Following an exam, if a student is unable to write functional code, I give them additional assignments and time to prepare. I then meet with them for an hour (this can also be done in groups sized up to 10 where an instructor navigates from student to student) and give them increasingly complex tasks that allow me to see in real time what they can do. If they get stuck, I give them some time to think things through without me breathing down their neck. If they remain stuck, I ask them to talk me through their logic. Where a traditional exam allows me only to see the final product of a student’s efforts, these live-coding sessions give me great insight into a student’s skills. Suddenly, I become privy to their speed, confidence, problem-solving approach, troubleshooting ability, mastery of syntax, and ability to assemble functional code.

The outcomes of these live-coding sessions have been widely divergent. In some cases, I have replaced a failing first exam with an A; in others, I have advised the student to drop the class after seeing them incapable of accomplishing tasks fundamental to the course material. Regardless of the outcome, I emerge confident that the student’s grade reflects their true knowledge and skills.

Score your oral exam using the bucket system

Because of the real-time grading nature of an oral exam, it is sometimes challenging to be nuanced in grading. When assessing oral exams, I have found that using buckets or categories for performance is efficient and fair. Doing so allows me to be consistent across exam sessions while still listening to and engaging with each student. Sticking to a generalized rubric or a “no-pass, pass, high-pass” system has been highly effective. Students generally agree with my assessment of whether they “didn’t know,” “did know,” or “really knew” the material, and I am able to avoid those difficult discussions regarding grades as a result. This system also tends to help with student buy-in to the oral exam process in general. Once students understand that their scores will be somewhat binary (often including a chance at redemption) and their knowledge assessed holistically, they seem to be more accepting of an oral exam.

At a time when artificial intelligence software, such as ChatGPT, is dominating the academic discourse, the oral exam lays bare, without question, what is truly inside a student’s brain. When I conclude an oral examination, I am confident that I have seen an accurate snapshot of the student’s knowledge, thought processes, and level of comfort with the course material. I find the exercise to be time efficient and effective at measuring learning outcomes, and it often leads to interesting conversations with my students that would never be possible with written exams.

Emily Dosmar, PhD, is an assistant professor in the biology and biomedical engineering department at Rose-Hulman Institute Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. You can find her on Twitter @emdosmar.