Using Oral Exams to Assess Students’ Understanding
Oral communication assignments can serve multiple purposes in a course but there are two major qualities that can be evaluated through such assignments. First, you may use an oral exam in order to directly assess students’ oral communication skills, such as in a foreign language. Second, you may want to assess students’ understanding of content as demonstrated through the oral communication (Joughin, 1998). For many faculty members who use oral exams, it is the second quality that is of most interest. That is, they choose oral exams as a way to evaluate students’ understanding, not as a way to evaluate their communication skills. Being clear with students about what you are evaluating in the oral exam can help them best prepare. For example, an oral exam in Russian will necessarily evaluate the student’s ability to speak clearly and correctly. An oral exam in mathematics may be far less concerned with how fluidly a student speaks but more focused on the thought process underlying the statements made.
Benefits of Oral Exams
Regardless of your focus, oral exams offer many advantages such as:
- Instructors can probe students’ understanding to better understand the limits of students’ knowledge (Sibbald, 1998)
- Students can get immediate clarifications or nudging to point them in the right direction, reducing the frustration of not having a starting point for answering an essay question or working a problem. As one study participant said, "There is someone to talk back at you — in a written paper if you don't know it — you just sit there but here you prompt me. That's a lot better.” (Simper, 2010 p. 429)
- Cheating may be curbed as the instructor is asking questions based on the student’s response (Burke-Smalley, 2014)
- Conversation is more authentic to what many students will experience post-graduation compared to some other types of assessments. For example, one study participant noted “You are not going to meet an employer and say (to them) here's an essay” (Simper, 2010, p. 430)
- Students with certain accommodations or perceived gaps may feel more comfortable speaking about concepts compared to writing. For example, one study found that students who had dyslexia or otherwise struggled with reading and writing preferred oral exams (Huxum et al., 2010)
- Students may be more motivated to prepare as they will have immediate feedback from the instructor about their understanding (Boedigheimer et al., 2015)
There are many approaches to oral exams. The following options are not all mutually exclusive but can provide ideas of how the exams can be structured. Regardless of your choices in this area, enter the oral exam with a clear plan and set of questions. Standardized questions/protocols are usually perceived to be more equitable (Johnson et al., 2018).
- Arrange questions hierarchically, starting with the simplest requirement or question before moving into more complex questions or concepts. (Westhoff & Hagemeister, 2014). As students correctly answer questions, you will move them to increasingly complex questions.
- Provide students with a set of potential questions that they should prepare to answer. Tell them you will randomly select questions for them to answer, and they will have a set amount of time to answer (e.g., you will ask them to answer 2 of the 6 questions; each response should be no more than 5 minutes). Roll a di or pull slips of papers from an envelope so you clearly show that all questions had an equal chance of being asked. Follow up the prepared responses with some clarifying questions or further probes. Work with a time limit for how long you will spend discussing a question with the student.
- Assign one or more problems that students should prepare to solve (e.g., on a whiteboard) in the oral exam. The first part of the oral exam is the student working the problem and narrating the steps they are taking (e.g., “first I’m going to write out what we know from the problem…. Now I’m plugging in the value….”) and why they are making those choices (e.g., “Because I have X and Y information provided, I’m going to use this formula.”). Students should practice explaining the problem ahead of time. The rest of the exam time can be spent on follow-up questions (e.g., “How would this problem be different if you made this change to your assumptions?”). You can also have them answer other conceptual questions. One variation on this approach is to give students multiple problems and either let them choose the one they will work ahead of time or randomly choose that for them when they come in.
- Conduct group exams as a discussion. Students are given a list of potential questions and asked to prepare to answer any of those questions as a group. Students can then work as a group to identify relevant information and to craft thoughts. During the exam, one member of the group draws a question and the group discusses it until they feel they have appropriately covered the topic. Then, they move on to another question. Set a total time for the group’s exam. Students can be evaluated both on their individual contributions and for how they work to scaffold information with others (Mackey & O’Brien, 1978).
- Conduct oral exams of a group. Have multiple students in at the same time, though each is being evaluated individually. One student is asked a question (can be randomly done as above). Then a second person is asked to supplement the first response. The other people in the room can then add anything else. Generally the responses will be exhausted after the first two. Then, rotate through to have a different person take the first try at responding, rotating roles. (Morrisett, 1958)
Assessments of student learning can benefit from a framing in terms of the learning outcomes you are trying to achieve. Identifying where your goals land in terms of a framework such as Bloom’s taxonomy can give you a starting point. Anderson et al. (2001) updated Bloom’s original taxonomy to include these six levels, in order of increasing difficulty, with sample questions:
- Remember (“Define X.” “Label the parts of this diagram.”)
- Understand (“Explain what is meant by…” “What does this graph suggest about…?”)
- Apply (“What do you predict would happen in X situation?” “Solve this equation.”)
- Analyze (“What does the author use to justify their point of view?” “What theorem is relevant given this information? Why?”)
- Evaluate (“What inconsistencies do you see in X’s interpretation of the problem?” “Make an argument for which response is more valid.”)
- Create or Synthesize (“How would you test that assumption?” “Propose an alternative explanation.”)
Generally, questions should be at the higher level of the taxonomy. However, the taxonomy can also be useful for scaffolding the questions into a hierarchy as previously suggested. For example, you might ask the students to explain a graph, then apply their understanding to make a prediction. They might then be asked to synthesize by explaining an empirical approach to evaluating their prediction.
Using a rubric promotes consistency and allows you to know what to record as you listen. Think ahead of time about descriptors you might use. For example, Sayre’s (2014) rubric placed students’ responses as fitting into one of four categories that roughly correspond to letter grades A through D. At the highest level, a student “raised ideas spontaneously and discussed them fruitfully.” At the lowest level, a student was “unresponsive to prompting or could not discuss ideas.” You can record where a student’s response lands for each question you ask and then your final assignment of a grade is a culmination of the individual questions (which may or may not be equally weighted).
Helping Students Prepare
Just as there are many approaches to oral exams, there are many approaches to helping students prepare. Generally, providing students with as much information as possible about the structure and grading of the oral exam is ideal to help reduce anxiety. Here are some other features often considered:
- Give students a clear sense of the time and your expectations. Let them know that you will be following up on their answers so they will not be caught off guard. If applicable, you can also let them know that part of your goal is to determine the limits of their understanding, so you may push them beyond what you actually expect them to know.
- If you are providing questions to students in advance, encourage them to prepare answers to the questions, but not to memorize the answers. They should be able to talk through the responses, hitting their key points as a form of practice.
- Consider allowing students to use a small notecard or other reference that they can bring with them into the session. If you restrict the size, they will not be able to include full answers, but they will be able to put reminders to themselves of key ideas, formulae, etc. Research shows that the creation of these sorts of “crib sheets” can be highly beneficial to students’ learning (Settlage, & Wollscheid, 2019).
- Alternatively, if you would normally provide them with a formula sheet during a written exam, you can provide the same resource for the oral exam.
- Encourage students to use their resources. You can allow them to work with each other to prepare initial answers. You can also encourage them to use the Oral Communication Center to practice answers. They would be working with a peer who understands how to structure oral responses and how to articulate ideas. These sessions are especially helpful in getting students to clearly articulate a main point and to be succinct.
Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrick, P. R., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M. C. (Eds.).(2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.
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