The assessment that my students initially fear often becomes a favorite assignment, for some, by the time we reach end-of-term evals. I first heard of oral exams from UM-Dearborn colleague Amy Brainer years before the pandemic. She mentioned that she was meeting all of her students for 20 minute oral exams in her office. She noted that students seemed even more prepared than they would be for a traditional exam because they would be sitting down with their instructor. This made me realize that even if I didn’t have time in an oral exam to ask as many questions as I would on a blue book exam, my goal of deep student learning would still be met.
While the pandemic made many things harder, it did make virtual communication easier in that you could reliably expect many more people to have experience with virtual meeting tools. I had been teaching asynchronous online courses before the pandemic but had never used videoconferencing and oral exams.
My goal for including oral exams was to humanize my online asynchronous course. I was teaching a Foundations course, which is a required course in our College of Arts, Science, and Letters to introduce transfer and new-to-college students to campus. Because it was Fall 2020, our campus was primarily online. I wanted students to feel connected to me and to know that I cared about their learning. So I created an assignment that I called an Interview, letting them know that another way to look at it was an oral exam.
The students had the questions in advance and the questions were open ended and reflective (see sample assignment). My goal really was to get to know each student. It was so successful in helping the students and me feel connected to each other that I revised the following short exams in the course to allow students the option to take them as written exams or as oral exams (see sample assignment). I was surprised that almost half of my students chose the oral exam option.
Other instructors came to oral exams in the same time period, the early stages of the pandemic, because of concerns about cheating. These two descriptions of oral exams in a math course and in a computer science course both explain that their original motivation was academic integrity. However both instructors realized that the benefits of oral exams go beyond academic integrity because immediate feedback helps both struggling and high-performing students reach deeper levels of understanding than traditional multiple choice exams.
There are a couple of tools that can simplify the process of oral exams. I use a scheduling tool that allows students to pick any available spots on my calendar; the free levels of most scheduling tools would work for faculty meeting one-on-one with students. Another option, already available to UM-D faculty in our Canvas instance, is Canvas Scheduler. Though you need to set aside time slots, rather than have it synced to your calendar, the lack of a learning curve as compared to a scheduling tool, is a distinct advantage. Whatever scheduling tool you use, and whether your exams are virtual or in person, another tip from Professor Brainer is to be sure to schedule in meal and bathroom breaks for yourself.
The classes in which I have assigned oral exams have ranged from 24-30 students which I found manageable for one-on-ones. I think of it as having the grading time already “baked in” to the assessment because in that 20 minutes I’ve provided feedback and I can also quickly mark the rubric before my next appointment.
You might be wondering if you could do this with a larger class. If I had 40 or more students, I would host low stakes (complete/incomplete) group interviews. The Canvas Scheduler can be used to have students pick times allowing multiple students at once. One of the “Appointment Options” is “Limit each time slot tousers.” Faculty can make sure to check that option and choose the number of students, perhaps 3 or 4, that they would like to have for the group size.
Connecting with your students, humanizing online courses, encouraging deeper learning – what’s not to love about oral exams? Feel free to reach out to a Hub Instructional Designer to think through the ways that oral exams might work in your course.