Pros and cons of oral final exams for undergrad courses?

Posted by Brian Cody, community karma 156312

I'm curious if anyone has experience with an oral final exam in place of written final exam?

I'm curious because many graduate degrees require an oral defense, as did my own undergraduate thesis required an oral defense, and I was curious about the pros and cons of integrating oral exams into undergraduate teaching.

I can imagine some students protesting because an oral exam would privilege "performance" or "on-the-spot" thinking, but it strikes me that these are important skills to test and improve, and that students with stronger aural communication might benefit from an opportunity to put the pen down and explain what they've learned, and that students who are master writers might benefit from being pushed to communicate in a medium they aren't as comfortable in.

Other than public speaking course, I don't know of any subjects or disciplines that routinely use oral exams, so I'd love to hear about any experiences you know about, or techniques you have used to integrate oral examinations into your teaching.

almost 12 years ago


Andrej Bauer, community karma 57

At our department (Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, University of Ljubljana) the norm is to have a written exam and an oral exam. The oral exams are quite time consuming, I need 30 minutes per student. I think the oral exams are a very good idea. They test for a different kind of knowledge than written exams, and allow you to interact with the student. There are some pitfals though. For example, I think that it is quite hard to be objective about assigning a grade at an oral exam.

almost 12 years ago
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Lawrence Bowdish, community karma 347

When I served on an Undergraduate Teaching Committee, courses that offered oral exams often raised the heckles of some of the committee members, primarily because of the lack of objectivity in the exam itself.

I think for gen-ed level courses at large universities, oral exams would present more problems than they solve.  Scheduling times, which can be nearly impossible with busy students, enforcing a more tangible rubric, and the requirements for paper trails for everything would probably kill this in the water.

If oral exams were offered for upper level courses or as a graduation requirement, they may serve a good role, but more often than not oral examinations in these situations are rubber stamps for already completed written work. 

Shifting to a more oral-exam based model would require significant, radical (therefore nigh impossible) changes to how we teach undergraduates.

almost 12 years ago
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