The Risks and Rewards of Oral Exams
by Maureen A. Nolan
It’s your first year at Hamilton and you’re in a professor’s office about to take an exam, but you have no pen, no paper, no blue book. The professor requires you to answer the questions out loud, and when you do, she impassively probes your responses and takes many notes. A fat drop of sweat drips off your nose. You turn away from your professor, bend down in your seat and speak your answers to the floor. Which would be OK. It happens.
On the up side, your succinct and well-formed answers, synthesis of complex material and opinions backed by specific readings delight your professor. The two of you glide into a scholarly conversation in which you hold your own. A relationship is deepened. That happens, too. Oral exams combine risk and reward.
Back in 1992 or so, Dan Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology, decided he wanted to up his teaching game. He spent time studying what motivates Hamilton students, talking to former students and scrutinizing his course evaluations. He concluded that one motivator — a big one — is students’ desire to look good in front of their professors or, conversely, their dread of looking stupid in front of their professors. Thus, Chambliss reckoned, a student who would be OK with sliding a lousy exam under a professor’s door would not be OK with stumbling through questions face-to-face.
The way to get people to change their behavior is you get them real worried about what they’ve been doing and then — crucial — you give them a clear path of what to do to fix it.
Across the Hamilton campus, a smattering of professors in a range of subjects — sociology, education studies, computer science, philosophy and others — use oral exams. These are professors from outside the realm of foreign languages, where oral exams are common. Hamilton prides itself on teaching students to be effective communicators, and the faculty officially designate “oral presentation” courses across disciplines. Oral exams are one way that professors build students’ oral chops. The exams aren’t oratorical challenges. Professors are interested in content, not delivery. Emoting and diction can’t save an unprepared student, and nerves can’t sink one who is ready. Oral exams force students to distill the material they’ve learned into relatively short, precise thoughts, to think on their feet and to field searching questions. Those are real-world skills, useful in future job interviews or higher-level academic pursuits, say students who have been through oral exams and, love them or hate them, admit they were valuable.“This is classic social psychology, right?” Chambliss says. “The way to get people to change their behavior is you get them real worried about what they’ve been doing and then — crucial — you give them a clear path of what to do to fix it. So you don’t just get them nervous. You, for instance, hand them a bunch of questions in advance and say ‘You have a week.’” Typically he’d give students six questions, telling them they’d be tested on three. The day of the exam the student would pick a die from Chambliss’ collection (big, small, different colors) and roll to determine which questions he or she would get. Chambliss had hit on something. “They’re terrified of this exam. So they take all that anxiety and pour it into studying so they really learn the stuff of these six questions,” he says.
More potential advantages: Oral exams allow professors to get to know their students very well very quickly. In certain cases oral exams are more efficient for professors to grade, although they take more time to administer. Some professors say students need greater command of the material to do well on oral exams. “It’s a great way to encourage them to talk about the material outside of class, well before the exam. And that is itself probably the most valuable thing,” says Professor of Philosophy Marianne Janack.
In American Society, an introductory sociology course, students are evaluated entirely on three oral exams and classroom participation. “We wanted this to be a really different kind of course, and that was an element that appealed to us. And frankly, there is an element of drama in it that I think appealed,” Professor of Sociology Dennis Gilbert says. The drama comes from the unknown. Most of the students in the course have never taken an oral exam. Michael Kendall ’14, a sociology major, remembers the sweaty palms but prefers oral exams to written ones. That’s one of the things that drew him to American Society. “I guess I’m the kind of person who will jump at that adrenaline opportunity where you can easily fail. I don’t know — it’s riskier,” he says.
If some students blanch at the prospect of an oral exam, others feel a surge of confidence. They think it sounds easy. It isn’t, says Erin Reid-Eriksen ’01, a sociology major who went on to graduate from Harvard Law. At Hamilton she enjoyed speaking up in class and was undaunted by the concept of an oral test. As the exam drew near, however, she realized the enormity (her phrase) of what she would encounter. In a written exam you have a concrete way to show how much you’ve learned from the material, she says. In an oral exam it’s more like one fleeting shot to impress. “You have to think on your feet. You have to synthesize. You have to be succinct and you don’t have the opportunity to write something, look at it, go back and fix it, twiddle with it here and there,” she says. What she remembers most about the exams was prepping for them, trying to find a spot in a dark, inconspicuous corner of Kirner-Johnson to practice out loud. It isn’t as though students work without a net. Professors give them tips about how to prepare, suggest they turn to peer tutors at the Oral Communication Center for help, allow them to study together and otherwise clue them in to what’s to come. By the time they take their third and final exam, the best students articulate their own viewpoints, supported with the findings of the authors they’ve read, and can draw connections among authors, says Jaime Lee Kucinskas, assistant professor of sociology. “You just watch them get so much more confident. They come in so scared, and by the end I think they do leave feeling like it was a holistic learning experience in a way that you don’t get in other kinds of assignments,” she says.
It’s a great way to encourage [students] to talk about the material outside of class, well before the exam. And that is itself probably the most valuable thing.
Pacing — literally — paid off for Chidera Onyeoziri ’18 in her first American Society exam. “I tried sitting down but I felt [that was] stifling the ideas. I thought if I stood up and walked it would flow. And so it kind of did,” she says. Yet the first time her heart pounded, she was afraid she would forget things, and her professor, Kucinskas, usually so engaging, was stoic and gave her no clues as she answered. By the third exam, Onyeoziri had the hang of the format, and once you nail that down, she says, an oral exam is as easy or easier than a written one.
Still, professors say it’s hard to get an A in American Society. “When you’re reading a written paper they get there, right?” says Stephen Ellingson, associate professor of sociology. “There are problems with this paragraph and a tangent here, but the overall — OK, it’s a B paper.” Translated into an oral answer, such poor organization coupled with five short minutes to make points and a professor on alert for mushy answers, that same student may not hit a B.
Like Reid-Eriksen, Daniel Horgan ’18 had no fear of the American Society oral exams. All the same, he was prudent enough to seek help at the Oral Communication Center. Horgan, a public policy major, and Communication Center tutor Lindsay Pattison ’16 did a dry run of all six questions, with Pattison lobbing follow-ups. Some students memorize entire answers for oral exams, or try to. “I didn’t want to memorize a script,” Horgan says. “I wanted to actually know what I was saying. And that was kind of the fun part of it.” He’s now a peer tutor at the center.
Oral exams come in different shapes. Janack, who uses them in Philosophy of Science and Philosophical Perspectives on the Self, tests students in small groups — three is the ideal number. Each group develops three questions it will be tested on and submits them to Janack in advance. She asks follow-up questions to gauge what students know or, at the upper levels, to push them to make connections. Team members study together, and Janack has found the chemistry is usually right.
Last year, in Philosophy of Science, Janack let students choose between an oral or take-home exam and then contacted some of her best students, students she thought would be reluctant to take the oral test but who would get a lot out of doing so, to lobby them to brave the oral exam. One of them was Chris Bousquet ’16, then a junior philosophy major and a strong writer. It took some doing but she convinced Bousquet, and, in the end he was glad he went for the spoken word. Because Janack can ask about anything, preparing for the oral exam forced him and his teammates to bone up on all the philosophers they studied. In the take-home exam, he says, he would have had a tighter focus when he prepped.
Susan Mason, director of Education Studies, has used oral exams in her Issues in Education course for more than a decade. She also evaluates students on group presentations, debate and other work. For their first oral exam, students are given six questions a week ahead of time, and, like Chambliss, Mason has them roll a die to determine which they’ll answer. They have four minutes, and then they roll to answer a second question. For the semester’s second exam, students have five minutes to answer, and then Mason follows up. Let’s say a student uses the term “teaching to the test,” she says. “Either they’ve done the work, and they thought about what that means from the research and the literature and holistically within a student’s learning, or they’ve just picked up the phrase. If they’ve just picked up the phrase, then it’s meaningless.”
She permits students to bring in an index card with notes for the first exam and a piece of paper with notes on both sides for the second. Although content is key, she evaluates students in part on eye contact, so they quickly figure out they need to have their ideas clearly in mind and can’t rely on their written notes.
Computer science professor Mark Bailey gives a variation that is not strictly an exam, but he suspects it feels like one to students in Computer Science 240, an assembly language programming course required for majors. Students meet with him roughly eight times a semester or every two weeks, for 15 minutes, to show him their programming assignments. He gives them a grade on the spot. In general Bailey’s students learn to appreciate the one-on-one: In their course evaluations, the vast majority say they like the face time. Bailey spends a good chunk of the 15 minutes talking to them in detail about their work. That means they are more likely to receive partial credit because they can show him what they did and why.
In his view, oral exams play to Hamilton’s strengths as an intimate liberal arts college. Oral exams or no, he sees computer science students make great strides in their oral communication skills by virtue of their close contact with their professors. “They have an oral exam every time they come into our offices. And that’s across the curriculum, right? They write on my white board, and I ask them questions. They get used to literally thinking on their feet. And so when you see how students interact when they are freshmen and how they interact as seniors within their disciplines, they are really different people,” Bailey says.
Ellie Miller ’19 acknowledges the benefits of interaction and oral exams, as warily as she approached them in American Society. She fleetingly thought of dropping the course when, on the first day of class, it became clear what they would entail. Instead, Miller gave herself a talking to: It was her first year of college, and she should try new things. She stuck with the course. The first exam was the roughest. For the second and final tests, fear of the unknown had eased, and she’d come up with better study tactics. Practicing with a friend helped, and her grade improved. She loved the course, learned great stuff and is confident she can handle oral exams — not that she intends to. “I definitely got something out of it but, at least in the near future, I don’t think that I would take another one,” she says.