In this section, Professor Karen Willcox shares her insights about giving oral exams in 16.90 Computational Methods in Aerospace Engineering. She describes the advantages of oral exams and the tool she uses to provide students with feedback.
Advantages of Oral Exams
I always give oral midterm and final exams when the class size (usually fewer than 40 students) makes it feasible to do so. The typical format of my oral exams is as follows: I provide the student with the questions and he or she has 30 minutes to prepare. Then the student spends 30 minutes to an hour with me and we work through two or three of the questions. Even though I probably cover less material than I could if I were to give a 3-hour final exam, what I learn about the student through an oral exam about how he or she is responding to and interacting with the material is far more insightful.
When students complete a written final exam, they walk out of the classroom and that’s it. I recently read somewhere that 90-95% of graded final exams don’t even get picked up! Students seem to consider turning in a final exam as signaling the end of their learning in the course; they're done and dusted.
But an oral exam is a learning experience in and of itself. When a student gets stuck, I can help them through the problem and they can refine their learning as they’re being assessed. It’s a form of formative assessment.
I divide each of the questions into smaller components and I use a worksheet to record how well students answered each sub-component, keeping in mind the grading definitions. I make notes, such as “answered straight off perfectly,” “answered with a little bit of help,” “needed a lot of help,” “didn’t arrive at the answer,” etc. I also write constructive comments. I give students a copy of the worksheet so they can see the parts of problems where they really flew through, segments where they got stuck, and ways they can improve their problem-solving approaches.