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Oral exams can have various pedagogical benefits in certain circumstances, but can also make some students feel anxious. After watching several students nervous-sweat their way through such an exam, I'm looking for ways to help them.

How can an instructor help students relax and feel less nervous during an oral exam?

  • 47
    My stats teacher used to have a bottle of Schnapps on his shelf for that purpose, but I guess this is not what you are looking for. – xLeitix Jan 3 '17 at 8:43
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    @xLeitix Is the schnapps supposed to be for the student or the instructor in that situation? Or both? ;) – ff524 Jan 3 '17 at 8:44
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    Originally the student, but the prof apparently also needed calming down on occasion. – xLeitix Jan 3 '17 at 10:02
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    Just for the record, offering alcohol to students to calm them down could be tricky in countries with strict alcohol policies. I am fairly certain that it would make headlines on the local newspapers in Sweden, if a professor were offering shots prior to an exam, maybe even national media if the institution is of a high status. – posdef Jan 3 '17 at 13:14
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    I'm fascinated that you actually care. I come from a country where essentially all (95+%) university level exams were oral (as were many high school level exams) and the general approach of the teachers was if you know what you're talking about why would you be anxious and if not you should have studied more. At the same time I believe an oral exam is the only type of exam that actually allows an examiner to properly find out if a student knows what they should and even for anxious students a good examiner can get a mostly precise read. – DRF Jan 4 '17 at 15:36

12 Answers 12

67

The following assorted suggestions stem from standard procedure at my department, which has a long-lasting experience with oral exams, and positive experiences reported by fellow students suffering from anxiety.

  • The exam begins with the student giving a brief elaboration of a topic of their choice (within the subject of the course). They can talk uninterrupted for a while, and then the exam gradually shifts to question-and-answer mode on this subtopic, probing whether the student actually understood what they are talking about. This has several advantages:

    • The student knows how the exam will begin and they can prepare the first few minutes. This avoids anxiety due to uncertainty.
    • The student is not dropped into interactive mode instantly, but gradually.
    • The student knows which topic will be examined first, they can prepare for this, which boosts confidence.
    • Not related to the question, it allows the examiner to estimate how well the student can structure the chosen topic (which usually goes hand in hand with understanding) and put it into the context of the course’s subject.
  • Do not ask questions that require long and elaborate answers, but go step-by-step, guiding the student if necessary, but only if necessary (so they have room to shine). For example, do not ask:

    Please tell me about [central result of course].

    Instead ask a chain of questions, allowing the student to answer each of them, and adapt them depending on mistakes the student makes or similar. For example, the questions could be as follows:

    What does [central result of course] state?

    Why is it so important?

    Under which conditions does [central result] hold?

    Why is [some necessary condition] necessary?

    Why does [some sufficient condition] suffice for [central result]?

    In a typical case, these questions are raising in difficulty with the first questions being something that every serious candidate should be able to answer without much thinking. This allows the student to get some confidence and get tuned to the topic before the questions become more difficult. Also, this avoids the impression of time pressure and the student knowing that they have to get to that bit which they are not confident about, even if they can score by explaining a lot of basics before that.

  • If you ask questions where the student shall apply their knowledge and which require some thinking time, do this after they succeeded with some simpler tasks and announce that this is a advanced task and that they have some time to think. This avoids fear of failure and gives an extra boost of confidence if they succeed.

  • Give positive feedback whenever you can. This does not mean that you should be drowning the student in praise, but rather avoid fuelling their anxieties by forgetting to let them know that they are correct when they are.

  • If the student makes a mistake in their elaborations, let the student finish first, assert what was correct and then remark or possibly ask about the mistake. For example, if the student is elaborating on some equation and made a sign flip, do not remark upon it right away, but let the student finish. Then praise what was correct and ask them to elaborate their reasoning for that sign again. This has the following advantages:

    • It doesn’t break the student’s flow by interrupting their elaborations and lowering their confidence due to the mistake.

    • It gives the student an opportunity to detect the mistake themselves, e.g., by detecting it due to a follow-up problem.

  • Announce the examination mode beforehand as much as reasonable, to reduce any uncertainty due to an unknown situation as far as possible.

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    This is all very good, but I wonder if it happens that students complain that the mark that they received is not as good as all f the praise during the exam indicated it should be. – Carsten S Jan 3 '17 at 12:30
  • @CarstenS: See my edit. – Wrzlprmft Jan 3 '17 at 13:14
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    @CarstenS In my alma mater, the student can raise it with the head (head of department, if this is the examiner, the dean). The student gets 3 attempts in total, and can request the next attempt to be performed in front of a committee. While not perfect, it helps in a way. Also, IIRC once the students were able to prove that the examiner was unjust and biased, that was a "thin ice" case for everybody involved (the school, the students and the examiner). – yo' Jan 5 '17 at 22:40
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A few assorted suggestions that come to mind:

  • Having a good, supportive relationship with the student prior to the exam will make a huge difference. If the student knows you as someone who will make an effort to listen and understand rather than make snap judgements, they will be encouraged to be more forthcoming.
  • Try to hold the examination in a situation that is familiar to the student. E.g. it could be held in the same office where they have attended tutorials or office hours in the past.
  • Related to this, a mock exam could be very helpful if it is feasible (though I realise with large numbers of students this could be impractical). Anything that makes the exam seem routine, rather than unusual, will be of benefit.
  • Build plenty of slack into your timetable. There's nothing worse than waiting outside an exam room for ages for building up nerves.
  • Start with an easy question. This allows the student to build their confidence and gets them talking.
  • If you need to make notes during the exam on the student's performance, practice doing this while looking at your notebook as little as possible. It can be distracting for the student if the examiner rarely makes eye contact, and lots of scribbling draws their attention to the fact that they are under close scrutiny. It is very unsettling if the student gives an answer which is met with silence and lots of writing, they are bound to try and second-guess what the examiner is writing about them. Ideally, record the exam and mark it later, though again, this has disadvantages in terms of the time required.
  • If you feel it is appropriate, remind the students that they don't have to answer right away. If you ask a tough question and the student looks panicked, it is worth explicitly stating "you can have a minute to think about this if you like".
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    If the student panicks and gets stuck on a tough question you can also try to reword the question, to help overcome the friction that panick creates on the brain's wheels... – Bakuriu Jan 3 '17 at 15:59
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    Body language can help, too. Directly facing someone across a table is more intimidating than being at a slight angle, for example. – enderland Jan 3 '17 at 22:05
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    As for starting with an easy question; subsequently giving positive feedback (as simple as "that's right!") also helps greatly in building confidence. – Servaes Jan 4 '17 at 1:28
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Here is a method for extreme cases, that I actually witnessed being used.

At my school, there was one young lady who was absolutely one hundred percent incapable of answering any question in any verbal exam. She would just freeze, and there was nothing she could do about that. Since there was one oral examination that had to be taken as part of the final school exams, nobody had a clue how she was supposed to ever pass. (Apart from this quirk she was absolutely fine and doing quite well at school).

As her exam time approached, she sat outside the exam room waiting for the previous student to finish and to be called in. Some teacher sat down besides her and asked her if she had been preparing well, whether she had looked at this part of the subject, and that part, and they just talked about her preparation and what she had been learning for about 20 minutes. Then he asked her if she was worried about the oral exam, she said yes, very much so, and he told her that there was no need to worry, because she had just passed.

So one method to calm a student's anxiety: Don't tell them they are in an exam.

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    What a wonderful story. – aparente001 Jan 5 '17 at 0:14
  • This is actually the best possible answer for extreme cases. – Maria Deleva Jan 5 '17 at 12:05
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Here are my tips (some of them present in other answers already). I divided them into tips that you can apply in advance and which help all students, and tips you can apply during the exam if you notice that the nervousness hinders the performance of the student.

  • For all students:

    1. Use a part of a lecture to show how an oral exam can look like and feel like. This is something different from telling how an oral exam goes! Really show what you are going to do in the exam, e.g. put a paper/slide under a projector and write down a question exactly the same way you would write it down in the exam. Then discuss what possible reactions of a student could be, what would be a good answer, what one could do if one does not know the answer (e.g. asking for clarification, asking if one understood the question correctly…). Show how an answer of a student may lead to a follow up question.
    2. Announce a fixed a first question of a set of first questions that you will definitely use. This way you can ensure that proper preparation by the student will lead to a good start of the exam.
    3. Start the exam with some small talk just to get the student into "talking mode".
    4. Explain what the purpose of the oral exam is; stress that it is not to judge the students, but to "examine their progress". I sometimes announce something like "The exam is more like a conversation about the topic in which I try to assess how much you learned".
    5. May sound silly, but if your university allows: Allow students to use their own equipments (pens and paper). In fact some students are more comfortable writing with their own pen.
  • For students with special problems with nervousness: This is more difficult because people can react differently to different things - what helps for some group may not help for another. So you need to develop a sense for this… But here goes:

    1. Give time to think or calm down. I had exams where students sat quiet for minutes (I looked at the watch) but then came up with an answer. It is not always helpful to try to rephrase the question when the student does not response. I would say that giving more time at first is usually better than rephrasing the question if you sense that the student is indeed very nervous. Don't forget to say "take your time".
    2. In contrast to the previous tip: Make the question simpler. If you do so, add that you make the question simpler just to make is easier for the student to say something, and that this does not necessarily implies that the students performance was not good (up to now). Be careful with this because there are many students who will not be calmed by this approach but get more nervous (thinking "Oh no, I could not answer th first question and now the examiner thinks I am stupid.").

    3. Ask if some the student understood the question. Sometimes it is just that…

    4. Acknowledge the nervousness and try to convex that this is both normal and not necessarily a bad thing. Say "You seem to be very nervous. This is quite normal in your situation." Indeed, some people perform well although they appear very nervous.

    5. Ask the student if he or she has a favorite topic or even a favorite question and jump to that topic or even ask this very question. This may sound unfair, but it really is a way to get the student back to working mode again - if the student is up and running again, you can go back to the normal exam.

    6. Have a short break. Say "Let's make a short break so you can take a few deep breaths." Sometimes an announced break of just 30 seconds works like a charm (sometimes don't).

    7. Make students aware that there is professional help available for extreme cases. My university has something like "psychological counseling" and, whenever it happens that some student tells me they have extreme anxiety for oral exams I mention this possibility, adding that "they are there to help" and that I know of cases where professional counseling worked like a charm.

9

I would like to add to the other excellent answers, by saying that anxiety is often precipitated by a perceived lack of control, therefore if you wish to help calm students' nerves, you need to let them feel that they have some degree of control over the exam.

There are a few ways you can go about this (and no doubt there are more, depending on the specific situation):

  • Inform the students of the date and venue of the exam as far in advance as possible, to allow them plenty of time to prepare. If the room is free a few days beforehand, encourage them to use it to practice asking and answering questions with each other, to allow them to get used to the environment.
  • If possible, show the students the mark scheme you will be using before the exam.
  • Allow the students to choose their own time slot for the exam. Some may prefer to get it over and done with in the morning, others would rather have their slot later in the day. I would suggest using a tool like Doodle to make scheduling this kind of thing easier.
  • Explain to the students why you have chosen to set them an oral exam and why you feel it is beneficial for their learning.
  • During the exam itself, sit facing the student if you can, without a desk in between you. This will help them to feel more like they are having a conversation and less like they are being examined.

Finally, related to what @user2390246 says in their penultimate point, the student taking the exam will pick up on your body language. If you are closed, serious, unfriendly etc, it will only increase their nerves. Remember to be friendly; smile, give encouragement and open the conversation with something basic.

5

I've done my undergraduate studies at a university where oral exams were the norm. Or rather, at the end of each course, it was first written, then oral.

The thing that helped me most was having questions in advance. As in, some professors would give us an enormous list of questions - essentially covering all the materials - and we knew we'd get a set of three at the exam.

At the exam itself, we would draw our questions while the previous person was still answering theirs, and we'd have time to compose some notes and think about what we want to say.

That is all.

Thinking back to the most stressful exam experiences, it was when the question (which I would get on the spot) contained wording that was different from what was used in the textbooks. And then I didn't know if it's something I missed and don't know at all, or if it's simply a synonym... I didn't know if showing my ignorance would lead to a fail or not. Thinking back, both times this happened it was with professors who were known to pose trick questions, and who failed students easily. So clarity of communication is vital, as is an openness to figuring things out on the spot. (I would start out broadly and watch for subtle cues from the professor and then eventually figure out the right direction, but I still find the memory distinctly unpleasant.)

  • Nice way to save time by letting the next student start to think about the question before taking up staff time. – Ian Jan 8 '17 at 18:56
4

Oral exams can have various pedagogical benefits in certain circumstances

First, I would make this statement stronger: for many reasons, I consider oral exams an invaluable tool in teaching, and I require them whenever the size of the class is compatible with the time constraints set by the university exam schedule.

but can also make some students feel anxious.

True, but I also think that this anxiety, if sufficiently controlled, can also have a positive effect on the student.

Here, I probably cannot add too much to the several excellent answers already given, but I would like to stress that one can, and possibly should, adapt the different strategies to the exam type and duration. I'll give a couple of examples from my experience. To better understand the context, a few country-specific remarks (I teach in Italy):

  • Exams are public, and anyone can attend and listen to the exams. Even in case of scheduled oral exams, many students want to listen to their friends, classmates or simply listen to what kind of questions come up.
  • We don't have university guidelines on how to run oral exams, and every professor has its own way: type, duration and evaluation can vary.
  • As a student I took most of my oral exams at the blackboard, but nowadays we mostly sit at the desk with the student: it's definitely less stressful for them.
  • I'm currently teaching in English to international students and the oral exam is in English, which is a second language for virtually all the students (and me, indeed), and this certainly adds stress.

Depending on the course, I can either divide the exam in a written part and an oral part or just have the oral exam (as I said, I rarely require written-only exams):

  • In case of a two-part exam, the oral part has a duration of 20 to 40 minutes, with 2-3 questions, depending on the relative significance of the two parts. The oral exam usually follows the written part by a few days (the time needed to grade the written part), and the students can take the oral part only if the written part reaches a minimum threshold. The results of the two parts can be combined in various way, e.g., weighted average or increment/decrement. Passing the written part is by no means guarantee of passing the exam: the student can be failed at the oral part.
  • In the case of an oral-only exam, the duration is usually 1 hour.

For a two-part exam, I usually start the exam in a soft way by discussing with the student the results of the written part: the student can read my comments, ask questions on the solution and can clarify its doubts. I can also use the written part as a starting point for the first question. In my experience, this is a good way to relieve a bit the stress.

For oral-only exams, whenever the course allows, I try to divide the oral exam in two times. In the first half, I ask the students to discuss a paper that they had to choose during the course; they can come with notes and use them during the discussion. It seems to me that students like this type of discussion -- as much as they can like an exam, of course -- and this helps to warm them up for the second half, which is more canonical and specific on the course content.

After warm-up, the exam continues with broad questions. Admittely, here, I don't follow Wrzlprmft's advice, "do not ask questions that require long and elaborate answers", but I think it's important for the students to learn how to arrange the presentation of longer arguments, with shorter time available with respect to lectures. Many students respond well to this kind of question, and if the student is able to present the argument without hesitation, I let them go on, and I interrupt them only to discuss critical points. If, instead, the student stops, I start suggesting how to divide the topic in smaller portions.

In the few occasions in which a student really panicked, to the point of not being able to speak, I suggest them to have a walk, go to the bar, speak with a friend and then come back to continue the exam if they feel ok. And I recall them a few points about grades.

3

Adding one point to the brilliant existing answers: it might be a good idea to point out to people who are inclined to become nervous during exams that an oral exam is in fact to their advantage. In a written exam it is almost impossible to distinguish nerves from incompetence. In an oral one, you notice how nervous the candidate is, and can help them overcome that. Furthermore, you can decide to attribute all their initial blunders to that nervousness, and not see them as proof of insufficient knowledge of the subject.

During the exam, you can acknowledge their nervousness in order to calm them. “I see you are very nervous, and making silly mistakes due to this. But I think (or even know?) you can do better than this. So stop worrying about the mistakes you made so far, take a calming breath and start from the beginning.” Obviously this should happen early in the exam, after a few minutes, so you don't loose too much time and you can benefit the most from the calmer situation. Just as sufficiently many silly mistakes have been noticed to warrant such a reaction. And “start from the beginning” can really mean that the student should present again all the valid answers they have given so far, in a calm and well-structured fashion and without the silly mistakes interfering. That way they will start by talking about stuff they already tackled, which should be a lot easier and therefore boost their confidence.

3

Some excellent answers already. One thing that I always do when giving oral exams is to explicitly tell the student that it can be fine to say "I don't know".

Before I ask my first question, I tell the student that we are trying to find out how much they know, and the only way to do that is to find out where the limits of their knowledge are, and so we will almost certainly be asking questions they don't know the answers to.

Especially for graduate students, who may be used to being the top student in all their courses, saying "I don't know" can be very stressful, and I feel that reassuring them about it can be helpful.

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    I wouldn't buy that when I was a student, and neither would my students when I was a teacher :-) – einpoklum Jan 6 '17 at 21:52
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Another suggestion:

Have additional, earlier, oral exams which count less (or not at all)

Nothing reduces anxiety like controlled exposure. So, if, say, the final exam is an oral one, or part of it is oral - have an oral part of the mid-term exam, which counts for a smaller number of points and is easier. Or have the TAs arrange a mock oral exam after the last recitation session; perhaps even make it mandatory - but so that the grade doesn't count.

1

When asked:

How to help reduce X’s anxiety in an Y?

The normal answer is

Get X do to Y more often starting from the first weak they are at university.

  • So you could give a 5 minute oral exam on each item of course work you ask a student to complete.
  • You could students to take turns explain somethink thing to other students in a group.
  • You could have an oral exam of student each year, not just in the final year.
  • You could in the first year say the exam is so you can learn what students are finding hard to understand, so you can improve your teaching.
  • You can have a grading system where the oral exam can only increase a student’s grade, and only effects students that are borderline between grades.
  • You can use oral exams as a way to calibrate the marking of all written exams, but the oral exam in the 1st and 2nd year does not directly effects a students grade.
0

Wonderful answers have been contributed.

There is one important aspect that I didn't see covered.

There should be multiple options designed around different people's learning styles. For example, I myself am a visual thinker, and have trouble processing spoken language. If you want to make me really nuts, write down a complex sequence of equations on the board, and then, before I've had a chance to copy them into my notes, stand in front of them while speaking about them.

I think for some people, it's helpful to hear an idea or a question, and seeing it doesn't have as good an effect. Some people are most comfortable talking while writing and drawing on the board. Some people need to set up a salt shaker and a pepper grinder, and move them around on a table while explaining a complex idea. Some people will be most comfortable talking while pacing or strolling around the room, or playing with some silly putty. Some will need to doodle while listening to the question. Some do best with some combination of styles.

It can be helpful to think about not just different modes of understanding, but also different modes of demonstrating what one has learned.

protected by eykanal Jan 8 '17 at 18:32

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