Thinking about oral exams

The best assessment I ever gave was an oral exam. It was a small AP Art History class, and I needed to come up with a creative solution to the fact that our assigned 3-hour final slot was after the date of the AP exam:  I wanted our exam to come first, so it would serve as preparation for the AP and not feel anticlimactic, but that meant I had to fit it into a regular 45-minute period.

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This is what Google gave me when I searched for oral exams in schools. Hm.

For each student, I projected a work of art that was typical of its era but not likely to be familiar to the students and gave her five minutes to talk about it, starting with as full an identification as possible (time, place, style–a guess at the artist if warranted). By and large, I simply listened without interrupting, but if a student made a significant error in identification (placing a Renaissance work in the Classical period, for example), I would let her talk long enough to understand her thinking and then redirect her (“If I told you the date of this work was 1510, how would that change your analysis?”). I also reserved the right to ask follow up questions, usually to press for more specificity, but it was rarely necessary. Students worried beforehand about how they could fill the five minutes, but, in fact, all were still going strong when I called time. With this particular small class of senior girls who had grown very close, I felt comfortable holding the conversations with everyone in the room together, which made it a much more useful review. Some students were, inevitably, much crisper and more sophisticated than others, but everyone rose to  high level for her own ability. The result was that we all walked out uplifted by a keen sense of just how much they had all learned. I have never seen students feel as energized or positive about an assessment.

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This isn’t much better. Not what I mean by an oral exam.

There were a lot of great things about testing this way. I came away with more confidence in the results, because I could find out on the spot whether a glaring error was the result of misspeaking or a fundamental confusion, whether a superficial comment was a student b.s.ing to cover ignorance or not telling me everything she knew. Feedback was immediate, and something about the oral format made students better judges of their own performance, as well. Maybe it helped that they got to hear and compare themselves to their classmates in a way they don’t on a written test. I took brief notes after each student spoke and sent them a formal note later in the day, but it was almost unnecessary:  it was clear from our conversation after the exam ended that everyone had a realistic sense of the highs and lows of her own performance. Students stressed about the unfamiliar format beforehand, but they felt great about it afterwards, proud of themselves in a way I don’t usually see after a written assessment.

Oral exams are rarely seen in high school classes, and I think that’s because they can be tricky. There are logistics to work out:  it’s not as easy to contemplate giving oral exams to 54 freshmen as to 9 seniors. Unless they are carefully scaffolded, oral exams can increase instead of decrease student stress, because they don’t know what to expect. And examining a student orally can feel socially tricky:  if the student truly fails, there is no comfortable space of time separating the two of you–instead of reading a terrible essay in privacy three days later, you’re sitting in front of her, needing to respond on the spot to an unacceptable performance. It can be overwhelmingly tempting to lead the witness. I would submit, however, that that very social discomfort is the chief advantage of oral assessment:  it offers us a chance to sit down, one-on-one, with a student and have an honest, mutual, face-to-face conversation about what she knows, understands, or can do, something that we all know is valuable but that I, at least, don’t do as often as I know I should.

I’m not about to give up written tests altogether in favor of oral ones, but I’m thinking about ways to build some oral component into my 9th-grade classes next year. If you’re thinking about it, too, here is my advice for a successful oral exam:

  • Demystify the process by practicing on no-stakes occasions. My art history kids were so successful partly because we had been having similar conversations about unknown slides all year;  they knew how to do it.
  • Create a clear structure for the conversation and share it with students beforehand. They need to know what to expect, and structure will help keep you from inadvertently being unfair by, say, watering down the experience for a weaker student.
  • Plan as much as possible ahead of time. Oral exams are not just conversations. The more prepared you are with a format, a list of questions, and planned responses to predictable situations like complete or partial factual errors, the less likely you are to walk away with unanswered questions about a student.
  • Be prepared to go off script. What makes an oral exam powerful is that it’s a genuine conversation about a student’s learning, and the format shouldn’t be so rigid that the real conversation doesn’t happen.
  • Don’t let a student dig herself deeper and deeper, but be sure she knows when you’re throwing her a lifeline. For this format to work, you and the student need to walk away with about the same sense of how the conversation went. That won’t happen if you listen in silence while she goes on and on about something patently wrong, but it also won’t happen if you prompt her so tactfully that she doesn’t realize her error or if she thinks she is being offered a do-over and later finds she was penalized for it. Stop, make the error clear, and then give the student a solid place from which to begin again.

Oral assessment is tricky, but I think it’s worth the effort.

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About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
This entry was posted in Assessment, classroom culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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