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Author: Tod Outlaw

Oral Exams
As professors, we have all been there—trying to decide the best way to assess students to determine whether learning has taken place. The goal of education is, after all, to get the information into the student's long-term memory so that he or she can draw on it and experience a lifelong benefit. We do not talk all that often about how we're assessing learning. We're not always happy with how we do it, but we keep using the same approaches anyway. I started teaching with the goal of finding the ideal way to administer a test, based on student needs and the class' rigor. It did not take me long to discover that the ideal process does not exist. I opted for an eight-quarter classroom experiment in which I tested some of my graduate and undergraduate students with essay exams and others with oral exams. Our university is on a quarter system, so one quarter I did written exams, and the next quarter I conducted oral exams. Unfortunately, the results were similar and disappointing. In frustration, I asked myself what was keeping students from performing well on the exams and retaining the information? I expect that there are many answers to that question, but it prompted me to redesign how I use oral exams in the hopes of finding at least a partial answer. I experimented further and would like to share the process I developed. It's a new approach, one that helps relieve the anxiety students have about oral exams. Here's how it works:
  1. Create a list of topics that need to be covered during the exam to address course competencies and the applicability of the material.
  2. During the class period before the exam, which is one week before the test in my courses, pass out the list of topics. At this point, the students understand that the exam is oral and that the list of topics is extensive. This often scares them. Step #3 alleviates some of this the fear.
  3. Divide students into groups of five with each group scheduled to come for the exam at a different time. They will work as a group on the exam. Each group is responsible for every topic listed for the oral exam. It's up to them to divide the topics, research them, and prepare collaboratively for the exam. The groups are not allowed to access any material or resources during the exam.
  4. Post links on Blackboard so that during the week they're preparing, the groups can discuss information and issues they have found. I engage with them online during this time.
  5. On the day of the exam, they answer questions from memory. If a student cannot answer a question about one of the topics he or she has researched, someone else in the group can assist, but if no one can answer, the entire group gets a deduction. The deductions incurred are in line with rubrics provided on the syllabus and discussed during the first class meeting. This approach encourages group cohesiveness, a fair division of labor, and support for each other within the group.
  6. The day of the exam—and not before—I hand each student a blank sheet of paper and tell them that they may interact for ten minutes. During that time, they can write down anything they want related to what they think they'll be asked. They are not allowed to consult any outside sources during this time. Almost without exception, they collaborate vigorously and write furiously.
  7. I then tell the students that they may refer to any notes they took during the ten-minute period when responding to the oral exam questions.
  8. Here's what the approach accomplishes:
    1. For all practical purposes, students already took the test on Blackboard during the week.
    2. They took the test again in written form when they recorded all the information in their heads so they'd have a crutch if they needed it.
    3. They explained their answers orally during the test itself.
    4. Essentially, students are taking the exam three times in three different ways.
    5. The week following the exam, I ask them the questions again, and they calmly answer the questions from memory to a much greater degree than if they had done an individual brain dump on a written exam.
Lessons learned? Students appear to do better when they share the pain of an exam. They also do not realize that I am basically getting them to deal with the test material multiple times. They believe the method is easier, and the process removes much the fear students have of exams generally, and oral ones especially. While preparing for and taking the exam, the research-supported view that students listen more to other students than they do the professor is put into action to their benefit. Finally, I have more students coming closer to accomplishing the competencies that contribute to their success in the course. It's still not a perfect way to test, but it's closer than what I've used previously.