An oral exam is an interview between the lecturer/examiner and a student or small group of students. The goal is to determine the degree of competence in a given field.
In a classic oral exam, the examiner asks questions about a certain subject which the student needs to answer correctly. The lecturer assesses to what degree a student masters the study material.
Which levels can you assess?
Within Bloom’s Taxonomy, the oral exam assesses all levels, so: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analysing, Evaluating and Creating.
When it comes to Miller’s Pyramid, the oral exam mainly appeals to Knowing and Knowing how.
Prerequisites for this assessment method
- The oral exam is mostly suitable for individual students or small groups who have worked together.
- The assessment can be taken both on campus as well as online.
- In terms of question types, the oral exam uses open questions that evoke a response from students.
Points of attention while taking the assessment
The duration of the assessment depends on the goals that need to be assessed and practical considerations. Allow for a maximum of about 40 minutes to account for the workload of both the examiner and the student.
In general, it is recommended that an oral exam is administered by two examiners who are preferably not involved with the students. This is to strive for objectivity. The examiners need to have substantive expertise, since they will also carry out the appraisal.
Students may be nervous for an oral exam, which can negatively influence the reliability of the assessment. As an examiner, it is important to make sure of a relaxed setting so the student is allowed to perform optimally.
If there is only one examiner, it is advised to make a video or audio recording of the oral exam. This can serve as proof if a student objects the final judgement. Additionally, it might be handy to take notes of answers and other details during the conversation. This creates input which you can use to give feedback to the student and for evaluating the assessment method.
As an examiner, you guide the conversation by asking questions. These are open questions that evoke a response from the student. How the conversation is structured may vary:
- Fully structured: based on a fixed set of questions that are asked in a fixed order;
- Semi-structured: based on a fixed set of questions, but the order may vary;
- Unstructured: based on fixed subjects, but when and how these are addressed depends on how the conversation goes.
If several examiners administer the same oral exam, make sure there is a prior agreement on the approach and the desired level. This creates comparable situations for the students.
With an oral exam, the appraisal takes place based on an appraisal model with assessment criteria. In case there are two examiners, the examiners first independently appraise the student’s performance. After that they coordinate in order to reach a mutual final verdict. The result can be expressed in the form of a grade or as a more general judgement, such as ‘insufficient, sufficient, good’.
If several examiners administer the same oral exam, calibration sessions can help to align what required performance level is expected of students.
Feedback to the student
What feedback do you give?
The feedback involves communicating the end result, preferably with an explanation per assessment section.
How do you give feedback?
You can communicate the result immediately after the assessment or at a later moment, for example in writing or via a grade registration system.
Evaluating an assessment method
What do you evaluate?
- Does the assessment tool appraise the level that you want to appraise?
- Does the assessment tool discriminate sufficiently between performances on different levels?
- Are the questions clear, and what is the difficulty?
- Is the answer model clear and well applicable?
How do you evaluate?
A video or audio recording and notes of the oral exam help during an evaluation. They can give insight into the difficulty and clarity of the assessment questions and they offer a good basis for adjusting the questions.
A quantitative analysis of an oral exam is pretty much ruled out, since every conversation between an assessor and a student is unique.
Additionally you can make use of calibration sessions when evaluating the assessment. The process for this is:
- Beforehand, independently appraise the same performance. This needs to be a recorded performance.
- Together, discuss the similarities and differences.
- On the one hand, this discussion will lead to mutual agreements on how to apply the assessment criteria and, on the other hand, it will give input for adjusting/honing the assessment explanation, assessment criteria and/or other aspects of the assessment tool.