I have had only two oral exams, both while defending a thesis. Unlike a gazillion other exams I have written in my life, my memories of these experiences are richer and more vivid. That may be because the thesis presentation was the culmination of protracted research around a single topic. While I remember being nervous before each defence, more so than a typical written exam, I actually enjoyed the presentations and the questions that followed.
In an opinion piece in The New York Times, History Professor, Molly Worthen wonders why oral exams are seldom used in education today, and whether this age-old tradition may be revived. Apparently, Oxford and Cambridge relied exclusively on oral assessments in the 1600s. However, by the mid-1900s, Cambridge had shifted almost entirely to the written format. At Oxford, orals continued a while longer. But as mass education spread and numbers increased, written assessments were preferred over oral ones. Further, the former seemed to signify “rigour, objectivity and modernity.”
Is there a place for oral exams in today’s fast-paced, hi-tech world? Apart from doctoral dissertations, oral exams are not favoured by most Indian or American schools and universities. However, the tradition is more alive in Europe, argues Worthen. The Baccalaureate exam in France includes a 20-minute oral session where a student is asked questions by a panel. In Norway, by the time they finish high school, students have had around three or four oral assessments.
However, a minority of professors, outside Europe, who see merit in oral assessments, are using them in their courses, writes Worthen. At Michigan State University, Ryan Sweeder gives his General Chemistry students the option of either taking a typical written final or an oral assessment. He finds that those who take the oral exam, where students have to speak about anyone “chemical demonstration” that was covered in the course seem to gain more from the course than those who write the finals. He observes that those who take the oral version “prepare more thoroughly,” possibly because it is more embarrassing to perform “poorly in front of someone” as opposed to writing on an inanimate piece of paper.
Further, in an oral assessment, observes Dr Sweeder, students, in response to the professor’s questions, are better able to integrate various elements of a course, revealing deeper understanding. Anne Crecelius, a professor at the University of Ohio, agrees that oral exams allow professors to extend students’ thinking by asking them to expand on a point or provide a different example. The “immediacy of the feedback” is not something than can be replicated in written exams. As oral exams can be graded on the spot, they are not more time-consuming for the examiner, says Dr Sweeder.
In my own teaching experience with adult learners, I gave students assignments that involved oral presentations followed by questions. The quality of the presentations indicated that students had spent time reflecting on the assignment, collecting data and forming coherent, evidence-based conclusions. Besides each student benefiting from their own assignments, they said that they had also gained immensely by listening to each other’s presentations. As each student had to present a case study, the diversity of responses helped them achieve a broader and deeper understanding of the issues being discussed. If students had been asked to provide written reports, the collective richness of the group’s learning would not have been shared.
Of course, educators need to ensure that students are not humiliated or belittled in an oral exam. If evaluators approach an oral exam with the intent of finding out what students understand, as opposed to finding lacunae in their thinking, students are less likely to be overly anxious. Also, they should not be high-stakes, do-or-die affairs. Giving students a chance a retake an oral exam may also allay their fears. Done right, oral exams can be rewarding experiences.
The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at www.arunasankaranarayanan.com