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How nerve-wracking an oral exam can be

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illustration Pixabay

Recently I administered my first oral examination for a student who did not pass their final exam. As the student had also missed the standard resit, I offered to conduct another opportunity to retake the exam but in oral format. 

The student came to my office and I explained how the oral exam would run. I would read each question aloud and let the student take a few minutes to jot down notes before answering. The student could ask me to repeat the question as many times as needed, and the student could take as long as they needed to answer, up to the allotted time allowed for a written exam. I in turn would take notes of the answers for a second examiner in case the student did not pass the exam (and to make sure that there was something written down for reference). So far, so good.

Since I had done an oral exam once in my life, for my doctoral thesis years ago, I forgot how nerve-wracking it can be. There you are, sitting directly across from your examiner with no anonymity, no dawdling, no random digressions that could be edited out before clicking the submit button on a Remindo screen. What happens if the student rambles or says something wrong, only to correct themself but already showing that the answer was not polished or fully formed before the words escaped? Would verbal tics be annotated and graded, including the excessive use of umms or likes? With a written test, we take for granted how much we hide the sausage-making of answers, how often we hit the backspace or delete buttons or cut-and-paste random sentences that make more sense later in a response. Instead, with an oral test, one is fully exposed and there is no taking anything back.

On the one hand, an oral test does require one to think on one’s feet and to recall a term’s worth of information within seconds, perhaps even with some degree of polish. But there are other dimensions that don’t matter in written form but may when speaking out loud. Does it matter how you pronounce an author’s name that you’ve only seen written out (e.g. Alexander Gerschenkron)? Is it appropriate to stare at the instructor while answering when normally you avoid eye contact in times of anxiety or embarrassment? Does it matter if there is a toothpaste stain on your shirt?

Full disclosure: yes, I did notice how much eye contact was made and how articulate the answers were. No, I did not care that the student took long pauses, mispronounced names or words, or wore clothes that they might have slept in the night before. For me, it was fascinating to see (and hear) a mind at work, to witness free association in real time. Would I give an oral exam again? Probably only in exceptional situations, but I see how it tests one’s abilities far more than simply typing words on a screen.