Unlocking Deeper Learning: The Benefits and How-tos of Incorporating Oral Exams into Your Teaching Practice

Credit: iStock.com/sturti
Credit: iStock.com/sturti

“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.

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