Talking During the Test

Oral exams shouldn't be reserved for the dissertation defense, write Tom Deans and Jamie Frueh, who use them with their undergrads.

April 2, 2010

When the two of us were students at Georgetown University more than 20 years ago, we noticed that our friends in American studies didn’t study the same way we did. They gathered in clusters of three or four and their energetic conversations — whether about Puritanism or the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair or 1960s counterculture — shuttled between focused inquiry and playful digressions. As they memorized facts, reviewed texts and wrestled with ideas, they seemed to be having more intellectually vibrant exam prep sessions — and more fun — than we were.

The habits of those American Studies majors were, we think, shaped not just by the interdisciplinary nature of their field but by the kind of exams they were preparing for: collaborative oral exams.

Many years later, we both find ourselves making such oral exams a part of the classes we teach. We’re doing so in different fields (English and political science), at different kinds of institutions (one large and public, one small and private), using different tactics. But we’ve both discovered ways to make them work, even within overcommitted schedules, and we’ve stayed with them, even though they interrupt traditional academic rhythms, because we see how small-group, in-person exams encourage a spirit of inquiry and collaboration among our students.

In higher education oral exams are rare but not extinct. They are often required as senior thesis defenses and sometimes woven into some foreign language courses. Occasionally a case is made for them in the teaching journals of various disciplines and at academic conferences. Still, most faculty think of them, if they think of them at all, as the province of graduate school (comprehensive exams, dissertations defenses).

In-class oral reports and group presentations are common enough, but we are talking about something different. Our approach involves sorting students into small groups, giving them a set of challenging questions or texts (along with strong incentives for studying together), and evaluating how they perform in compressed, collaborative, interactive exam settings.

The common perception is that such exams are great in theory but simply too time consuming, subjective, and tricky to grade. The prospect of having to schedule, in the midst of a crowded semester, a series of oral exams rather than a single sit-down test is, on its own, enough to send most running. Moreover, technology is steering us in the other direction: more and more we are asking students to complete tests in the pixelated spaces of course management software, which makes the prospect of holding collaborative exams in faculty offices seem quaint and unrealistic.

Still, we want to argue for the value of collaborative oral exams as a complement to (not a replacement of) more typical forms of assessment. Our two approaches share core values but differ in some significant ways.

In his literature courses, which typically enroll about 35 students, Tom schedules a collaborative oral exam one month into the semester, followed later by a paper and two traditional exams. In a Shakespeare class, for example, the oral exam focuses on the sonnets, which are covered during the first few weeks, and the exam is mainly about gauging how well students can enact the strategies for close, critical reading being modeled in class. Unlike Jamie, who frames his oral exams as the culminating experience for students in a small seminar, Tom schedules his orals at the front end of the semester, both to test foundational skills and get to know students in a relatively large class a little better.

A few weeks before the exam, Tom sorts students into groups of three, asks group members to sit together in class, and has them work together on occasional low-stakes in-class activities. This warm-up period helps the groups gel (and allows for some reshuffling of groups — the chronically absent get clustered together); the trios also make for smaller hubs of engagement in the larger class.

All along students are urged to annotate the sonnets in their books and told that they will be able to use those notes because the exam will be open-book (this is often the nudge they need to start annotating). A week before the exam students are given a list of 20 sonnets, any one of which could be chosen for their exam.

Students are encouraged, though not required, to study together. They’re told that while they will be graded individually, exam teams that study together and play to one another’s strengths typically perform better, individually and collectively. They are also assured that the exams shouldn’t be competitions for airtime; supporting, extending, qualifying and challenging each others’ interpretations are valued more than showing off.

In the days leading up to the exam, nearly all the groups take up the recommendation that they study together outside of class. Most teams meet just once, but some meet several times or blend online and in-person communication.

Exams are 15 minutes but scheduled at 20-minute intervals to allow for quick grading between sessions. Each trio is informed of its sonnet 20 minutes before its exam (right before the group in front of them is going in), which allows a final chance for them to gather in a nearby lounge to review and plan.

The exams tend to be a hybrid of testing, talking and teaching. First we walk through the poem, books open, each student taking the lead on explicating one section. After that, Tom poses questions that students have been told to expect, such as What are the key tensions and oppositions in play? Can you analyze how one or two aspects of form generate meaning, complexity or pleasure? Which strategies from class can you apply to this poem? He challenges them on vague responses but also points them in productive directions when they get stuck.

When filing out of the office, students generally express relief but many also remark on having learned a lot both while studying together and during the exam.

This approach clearly takes some careful planning. Eleven or twelve exam sessions tallies up to about four hours. Even with one class canceled for the exam, this means that most students take the exam outside of regular class time, which is fine for those living on campus but often a problem for commuters (but they get first shot at the exam slots scheduled during the canceled class).

The grading is done immediately after each exam on a simple scale (excellent/good/fair/wanting/failing) and with no comments except the notes Tom took during the exam. And the grading is easier than you might think: after 15 minutes of exchange, the stronger and weaker parts of their interpretations have been hashed out. It’s pretty clear to everyone in the room how each has performed.

In end-of-semester teaching evaluations, most students report that they found the oral exam valuable. More telling is how the last Shakespeare class voted with its feet: for the second exam, when given the option of taking it as a traditional sit-down or a collaborative oral (the same questions would be asked in either case), two-thirds opted to go with the collaborative oral format.

In a first-year course designed to acculturate students to a liberal arts education, Jamie has used oral exams as the course final. About 10 days before the final, he assigns students to groups of three (groups of two are better than groups of four for resolving rosters that don’t divide neatly by three) and distributes nine open-ended, essay-type questions. When students are asked to discuss a question like “What is the relationship between creativity and certainty?” they are encouraged to apply ideas encountered in the course materials and take ownership of their own arguments.

This is the first oral exam for most students, and they are generally eager for advice on how to approach it. While being careful to remind them that each member of the team must contribute to each answer, Jamie suggests that the team designate a point person, one student who bears primary responsibility for developing specific strategies for each question. Studying should be done together, with discussions of each question and collaborative decisions about the arguments to be made if the question comes up in the exam.

The students often find these study sessions the most valuable part of the experience. One student from the first year course remarked in a course evaluation, “I really liked the oral exam at the end of the semester … because I was able to discuss the questions with my group. I found that the discussion that my group had the night before the exam was a lot of fun and really insightful. It was almost better than the actual exam because we were not nervous and we were just talking and discussing the questions and arguing, a little.”

Whereas Tom’s students may get different individual grades despite being in the same exam group, Jamie’s students, if in the same trio, all get the same group grade. Because that system explicitly rewards teamwork (along with ability to use specific ideas from specific texts and explore them in depth), students collaborate and really listen to each other’s interpretations and perspectives. They don’t need to agree, but they do need to fit divergent ideas into a single framework that answers the question.

Exams take place in Jamie’s office and run 25 minutes, which provides enough time to get through two or three of the questions from the list. While the question’s point person may initiate an answer, every member of the group must contribute to the conversation on each question. Ideally, the first words of the answer should be “A text from the course that best helps us deal with this question is …”, but students know that discussion should not be fully scripted. The best answers meander through references, examples and follow-up questions until the conversational thread has run out, at which time another question is examined.

The unstructured nature of this process can be intimidating for those used to exams as tests of packets of information. Because conversations can flow unpredictably and groups often steer their answers toward themes and examples they know best, group oral exams are best at measuring how students work together to connect texts, ideas and experiences. This quality makes them particularly well-suited to seminars, where a group oral exam feels like a natural extension of the shared responsibility for the health of the discussions throughout the semester. As another student wrote in her course evaluation, the oral exam "seems to fit with the class better."

When the group oral exam process works, students build on each other’s insights and create answers that none of them would have come up with in isolation. They work together to make connections and play with the material in a way that they don’t for written exams or prepared presentations. The dual challenge is to prepare well and to adjust to the flows of conversation, both of which demand dexterity with the texts and themes of the course.

We tend to forget before the 20th Century, oral modes of learning and assessment (recitation, declamation, oratory, debate) were dominant in the American college. The role of oral performance ebbed with the spread of the research university ideal, the rapid expansion of higher education, and wider use of testing and writing. Many courses carry on the oral tradition by valuing classroom discussion, but perhaps it is time for us to clear more space for spirited talk, even in our exams.


Tom Deans is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut. Jamie Frueh is associate professor of history and political science at Bridgewater College.


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