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There have been a number of other questions about grading oral exams, or about which countries use them, etc., but for those of us who come from places that don't traditionally use oral exams, how do you go about, for lack of a better term, write them? Given the amount of online transitioning for courses lately, it seems to me that oral exams would be a good way to ensure that that the student actually learned the material and didn't get someone else to write their paper or copied answers from some repository.

For example, in a Latin class, would a typical question be to translate a passage on the spot? Or would it be questions about "what are the declensions for X?"? Or something totally different? Does it ever integrate previous work ("on your midterm paper you said X, can you explain why you didn't think about Y?") or is it generally totally standalone? All of them above?

Note that I just use Latin as an example, I'm mostly curious on a generic process level, so it would be applicable to all disciplines.

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  • One small suggestion, inspired by another question here: ask the students to make some rough notes, before they actually reply to the question (maybe these could be typed up online in the same platform you use for examining?..). Having at least some written evidence of what was discussed helps with any subsequent claims of unfair grading. We'd usually have a few minutes for that, after the students get the questions and before they start talking to the examiner.
    – juod
    May 8, 2020 at 5:19
  • Two things you should bear in mind: (1) Oral exams take a lot of time if you want to do them well and have more than a few students. (2) If students are not used to/prepared for oral exams, they are likely not going to go well.
    – Kimball
    Aug 20, 2021 at 12:42
  • Say something about the expected scope. One student? A few? A lot? Huge?
    – Buffy
    Aug 20, 2021 at 12:48

2 Answers 2

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If you do oral exams, and do not make a voice recording (video is a higher risk of privacy violations), always do the oral exams with two teachers. If there is just one teacher I would recommend a voice recording (can be done with zoom or teams with cameras off). Also create a rubric upfront so students can prepare. Maybe have a trial run first for students and teacher to get to know the process of oral exams. And inform students if there are changes in the real exam. Usually I use an oral exam to go in depth for portfolio tests. So students write a portfolio first and I talk with them about it for 15 to 20 minutes to check if they really know what they are talking about. Students prepare for any topic in the portfolio but in the oral exam not all topics will be covered. The teacher chooses what to ask. Be upfront about that. Ask the students to write a reflection on the oral exam to see what they experienced and if it matches what you experienced to improve the process.

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    "I would recommend a voice recording" I think one important point should be added here: Before following this advice, one should certainly check whether this is actually allowed (both by the university and by the jurisdiction where the university is located). Aug 19, 2021 at 12:47
  • @JochenGlueck Do you mean "allowed with consent"? I can't imagine there's a jurisdiction that bans recordings completley. Aug 19, 2021 at 15:54
  • @AzorAhai-him-: Hmm, good question. At least, I wouldn't be surprised if there's a university which doesn't allow recordings of oral exams (I even vaguely remember that such a rule was mentioned in an email by the adminstration of my university last year - but admittedly, I don't recall the details, so I might be confusing something). A jurisdiction banning recordings of oral exams completely might be a bit more surprising, but I would still rather check it (in the past, I've had the repeated experience that laws can sometimes be quite... imaginative). Aug 19, 2021 at 17:50
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I guess there is a bunch of factors to consider.

  1. Compliance with the university policies. I teach at a large public university and our assessment design and administration are subject to the university oversights/policies.
  2. Your university customs, best-practices and student expectations with regard to oral exams. It may be the oral exams are common practice in other schools at your university - talk to them.
  3. When I did my undergrad/master, about 50% of exams were oral. In some, we drew standard questions at random. In many (most?) other, questions were personalized, based on a student written exam and answers you were giving.
  4. As for the best design, I can only refer to my student experience. We did not have much (any?) concerns that some of us might have been asked easier questions then the rest because from our experience we all knew that it is not familiarity with specific questions is tested but the skills in "connecting the dots" and our lecturers were very good at figuring how the flaws in our logic. Most oral exams did not have a time limit per student. We were welcome to tackle exam questions until the end of business and ask for more questions if the grade the lecturer was about to give you was below your aspirations - but then the grade could go either way.

My 2c.

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  • This assumes, and I agree with it, that the student learns their grade by the end of the exam.
    – Buffy
    Aug 20, 2021 at 12:50

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