Oral Assessments: Benefits, Drawbacks, and Considerations

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What is the best way to measure achievement of course learning outcomes?  As modalities for teaching and learning continue evolve, it is important to refresh assessment practices with student success and academic integrity in mind.

Oral exams and assessments are not a new practice, although they tend to be more common in European countries than in North America (Sayre, 2014).  A well-constructed oral exam as one element of an overall-assessment strategy can provide many benefits for the learner and the evaluator. This teaching tip will explore those benefits, weigh potential drawbacks, and finish with considerations for implementing oral assessment in your course.

Note: An oral assessment must be listed as such on the course outline as it is a distinct type of evaluation and student must be aware of its inclusion from the start of the course.

What is an oral exam? Typically, an oral exam is one in which students are provided in advance with topics or questions that cover a set of course outcomes. During the oral exam, which can either involve sitting down with the professor in-person or on zoom or recording a timed video, the student is provided randomly with 1-2 prompts and must explain or reply in the set time. Here is a Danish student explaining about her oral exam experience.

A student’s experience of oral exams.

Potential Benefits

  1. Oral exams are versatile. Orals have been used successfully in a variety of disciplines, including mathematics, religious studies, business, physics, medicine, and modern languages (Hazen, 2020).
  2. Oral exams provide evidence and support for higher order thinking and problem solving skills. A large part of STEM-related learning consists of learning how to problem-solve.  Many written tests make exclusive use of shorter problems so that a student who hits a roadblock is not penalized too heavily. In an oral exam, on the other hand, the faculty can provide supportive prompts so that students overcome any stumbling blocks and both practice and demonstrate more fully their problem-solving skills. This makes an oral exam both kinder and more thorough than a written exam. (Sayre, 2014; Simpson, 2015).
  3. Oral exams can encourage better learning outcomes.  The act of explaining an answer to the examiner adds to the student’s learning, making the test an opportunity for further learning. (Sayre, 2014; Zhao, 2018).
  4. Oral exams potentially alter the way students study.  Students in Iannone and Simpson’s study focused more on understanding and less on memorization when they knew that they would be examined orally. Students may study harder for an in-person test than for a written test. (Iannone and Simpson, 2015; Zhao, 2018, Hazen 2020).
  5. Oral exams help students develop authentic communication skills in their discipline. Sayre suggests that oral tests help her students learn how to talk like scientists. Oral tests allow students to develop the ability to communicate in skill areas they will need later in the workplace (Sayre, 2014; Hazen, 2020).
  6. Oral exams as one examination tool among others can increase academic integrity. While oral exams should not be used solely for the purpose of curbing cheating, it is difficult to cheat for an oral exam, depending on how it is set up (Iannone and Simpson, 2015; Hazen, 2020).
  7. Oral exams provide an alternative for demonstrating achievement of course learning outcomes. Students who are more comfortable with speaking than with writing will benefit from a portion of their assessment grade being allocated to an oral assessment. (Iannone and Simpson, 2015, p. 973). An oral exam component of an overall assessment strategy is therefore in keeping with the principles of Universal Design for Learning.
  8. Oral exams provide an alternative means of expression. Oral exams may suit some students better than written demonstrations depending on their strengths and abilities.

Potential Drawbacks

  1. Time Commitment. Oral tests are less work to administer and mark than essay exams but take more time than self-grading multiple-choice exams (Hazen, 2020).  It is important to make sure that fewer questions are asked in order to retain the benefit of more in-depth responses which oral exams offer (Sayre, 2014).A well-constructed marking rubric will be important to help guide marking.
  2. Potential Bias. Of course, anonymity is not possible for an oral test; however, all assessments contain a potential for bias, and it is unclear whether bias is a greater factor for orals than for other assessment methods. Math students in Iannone and Simpson’s study discussed a perceived lack of fairness when hearing that their fellow students were asked more questions but felt that videos of their oral test performance would guarantee a degree of fairness (Iannone and Simpson, 2015; Hazen, 2020).
  3. Test anxiety. Iannone and Simpson cite studies showing that test anxiety decreases with increased familiarity and understanding of the benefits of oral testing. Their own study demonstrated that math students taking an oral test for the first time were anxious at feeling exposed if they could not answer the questions (Iannone and Simpson, 2015).

Considerations

Have you thought it through? Would you like to add an oral exam to the evaluation scheme in your course outline?  Here are some considerations to bias for best in an oral exam.

  1. Keep it short. Oral tests allow for the examiner to interject with conceptual questions and discussion of a given problem.  This means that there should be fewer questions asked. A good oral test for smaller classes will likely take no longer than 20 minutes and will be structured more like an interview than a list of questions. (Sayre, 2014). Oral tests for larger classes can be shorter, but then should be worth less of the overall grade.
  2. Consider open-book. To deal with pre-exam anxiety, oral tests can be open-book or open-note. This will allow students to check formulas or charts and focus more on their ability to apply relevant information to problem-solving than on memory retrieval. (Sayre, 2014, p. 31).
  3. Weight appropriately.  The time and complexity of an assessment should correspond to its weight in the overall course marking scheme.  For example, an oral test worth 5% may have only one question marked according to one criterion, while a test worth 20% of the final grade should provide the student with a complex opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and ability and should be marked based on multiple criteria.
  4. Prepare for grading the exam.  Grading does not have to be prohibitive; the examiner can take notes during the exam, with a rubric that grades for problem-solving, not just the right answer (Sayre, 2014). With a good rubric, the marks should be consistent from student to student.
  5. Ensure that the marking scheme is valid. To provide students with meaningful feedback and grades, consider a rubric with sufficient levels to capture the range of achievement. The example below is set up for one criterion per question.
Level 0
(0 to 19%)
Level 1
(20%-39%)
Level 2
(40%-59%
Level 3
(60%-79%)
Level 4
(80%-99%)
Level 5
(100%)
1Student was unresponsive to prompting or could not discuss ideas.Student was able to share basic ideas based on extensive prompting.Student needed a lot of prompting to talk about ideas, but was eventually productive.Student needed a little prompting to talk about ideas, and was generally productive.Student raised ideas spontaneously and discussed them fruitfully.Outstanding discussion of ideas and processes.   (This should be very rare!)
A rubric criterion sample based on Sayre, 2014

Setting up Simple Oral Assessments

While oral assessments are meant to be short, they can be more or less formal. For informal formative assessment, one teacher describes 60-second interviews asking students to explain concepts that they may have had difficulty with on a test. You can arrange for 5-to-10-minute interviews with each student in the class, or you can arrange for students to create a video of themselves talking through a question or a problem using the video feature in the eConestoga assignments tool.  Here are suggested steps for setting up an oral assessment.

  1. Align the test with the course learning outcomes and include it in the course outline.
  2. Decide how long the test will be.
  3. Create a question pool with a corresponding rubric.
  4. Prepare students by explaining the test and by providing opportunities to practice.
  5. If the test will be asynchronous, provide a practice opportunity so students know how to use the technology.
  6. Consider recording the test in case of questions later.
  7. For live oral tests, you can test in-person or online using Zoom or Teams. You will need to think about the following.
    • Consider how to assist students in signing up for a time.
    • Consider where students will wait for their turn and how much class time the test will take.
  8. For asynchronous oral tests:
    • Panopto course folders provide a platform for students to record.
    • If you wish to randomize questions, you can set up an eConestoga quiz with random questions and a link to Panopto.

Further Supports

Guidelines on Online Oral Exams for Lecturers

References

Hazen, H. (2020). Use of oral examinations to assess student learning in the social sciences. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 44(4), 592–607. https://doi.org/10.1080/03098265.2020.1773418

Iannone, P. & Simpson, A. (2015). Students’ views of oral performance assessment in mathematics: straddling the “assessment of” and “assessment for” learning divide. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education40(7), 971–987. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2014.961124

Sayre, E. (2014). Oral exams as a tool for teaching and assessment. Teaching Science (Deakin West, A.C.T.)60(2), 29–33. https://doi.org/10.3316/aeipt.203840

Zhao, Y. (2018). Impact of oral exams on a thermodynamics course performance. Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Zone IV Conference, Boulder, Colorado. https://peer.asee.org/29617

Laura Stoutenburg

A college professor and accredited TESL trainer for more than 20 years, Laura Stoutenburg, holding an M.A., has taught and developed curricula for a variety of topics, with her work including language assessment in China and Canada. Before joining Teaching and Learning as a consultant, Laura coordinated Conestoga’s TESL Certificate and English Language Studies programs. She specializes in matters related to Intercultural Teaching and language acquisition, and is available at the Kitchener Downtown Campus.

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