Potential Drawback to Oral Exams
Time: Oral exams require an instructor to set aside anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to meet with each student. Finding this time, not mention the bureaucratic hassle of signing students up to individual slots, can be very difficult.
Towards a solution: All exams consume considerable instructor time and effort. While administering and grading oral exams certainly demands more time than a generalized short answer or multiple choice test, the rewards yielded from testing at a higher cognitive level can finding the extra time worthwhile. The hidden benefit of oral exams is that the heavy time demands are front-loaded. Unlike written essay exams, oral exams are quite conducive to quick and easy grading with the majority of instructor comments delivered orally and immediately following the student's answers.
Instructors can ensure a friendly grading process if they develop a clear rubric with explicit criteria for each grade level. In most cases, enough time can be found by canceling two class meetings and using weekly office hours for the other necessary slots. While some instructors may wince at the idea of canceling classes, that time directly benefits the students through sustained one-on-one interaction.
Another possibility is to design oral group exams where three to five students take the exam together. For this type of exam, it is crucial to create rotating roles that each student gets a chance to "play." For example, one student can assume the role of primary respondent while a second student is responsible for making a cogent counter-argument. Other students could be responsible for asking questions, synthesizing the two sides into a new third position, or providing additional warrants for the original arguments.
Those teachers unable to find necessary time could consider a small 10 minute oral component to a larger exam. When scheduling time slots, though, remember to include enough time for the student's answer, one or two follow-up questions, and a few minutes of feedback.
Student resistance and inexperience: Public speaking can cause considerable anxiety for students. Tests, of course, can be nerve wracking. Especially considering the relative novelty of oral examinations, the two experiences combined can create dread-ridden students with little idea of how to properly prepare.
Towards a solution: Mix plenty of other speaking situations into the curriculum (both informal ungraded opportunities and more formal presentations). Consider handing out the questions a week or two in advance. Allowing some student choice over which questions they answer can help considerably. Devoting class time to clearly explaining grading criteria, as well as walking through examples of excellent and insufficient answers, can give students a concrete idea of your expectations. Many instructors also find it productive to talk with their classes about how the demands of this type of exam and the preparation necessary for it contrasts with those test formats students are more familiar with.
Here are some excellent resources for addressing these issues, including a sample test assignment and handout on how to prepare.
Also, it is generally a good idea to avoid using this format for the first time during a final. If possible, allow students to gain some experience during an earlier exam where the grade can carry a lower weight.
Subjective grading: Compared to usual formats like multiple choice, short answer, or problem solving, oral exams require more discretionary judgment when grading. They can even seem more subjective than essay exams since no written record of the students answer exists. This can make grading a headache for the teacher and make students more willing and likely to challenge grades.
Towards a solution: Develop clear grading standards that you share with students well in advance of the exam, perhaps even disseminating copies of the official evaluation sheet. Decide whether or not presentation and delivery will count and to what extent. Give students examples of answers representative of each grade level. Consider videotaping or audio-recording student answers so that a record exists.
Inadequate coverage of material: Since oral examinations are generally limited to very few questions, some instructors worry that students will not be tested on all important concepts. Towards a solution: Write questions that require students to synthesize and critically compare course materials. Design questions so that students are first responsible for identifying and explaining appropriate concepts. If necessary, combine an oral examination question with other desired exam formats and questions.