In various fields of higher education, oral exams are used to check whether students have achieved the predefined competences of a given programme component. However, lecturers more often opt for written exams – not only for practical reasons, but also because the objective scoring of an oral exam requires extra attention. In this ECHO teaching tip, we will first list the main benefits and challenges of oral examination, and then turn our attention to a written exam with oral commentary: to what extent does this combination offer the best of both worlds, and what points should be kept in mind?

Oral exams: benefits and challenges

Oral exams have several benefits

  • ​Compared to written exams, they can give lecturers a clearer picture of the student's level of competence through interaction. This makes it relatively easy for you as a lecturer to find out whether a student has simply memorised the learning content, or actually understands it.
  • ​Lecturers can give students a nudge in the right direction if necessary, so that a question does not necessarily have to remain completely blank when the answer does not come spontaneously.
  • ​Any ambiguities in the phrasing of a given question can be clarified by the lecturer before the student responds.
  • The prospect of an oral examination often encourages students to study harder, because they don't want to appear unprepared when faced directly with the lecturer.
  • Oral examination forms are often better suited to the needs of students with disabilities.

However, besides these benefits, there are also some difficulties and challenges associated with oral exams.

  • ​An often-cited concern is that social bias, involving factors such as gender, ethnicity, religion, or the personal relationship with the student, can influence a lecturer's assessment (Isaacs et al., 2013). To avoid social bias, it is important to establish criteria that are not influenced by a student's immutable characteristics (gender, ethnic background, socio-economic status, etc.).
  • Organisational problems may also arise. It can be quite an undertaking for lecturers to organise individual oral exams for a large group of students. Often, only a limited number of questions is used, which may jeopardise the validity of the assessment.
  • Students who are shy, who have little experience in public speaking, or who have language/communication difficulties will experience more anxiety during an oral exam than during a written exam. 

​​Written exam with oral commentary 

By adding an oral component to awritten exam, you can combine the best of both assessment methods (i.e. written and oral). This combination makes it possible to achieve a level of testing that is sufficiently broad and sufficiently deep. The breadth of an exam, on the one hand, increases when more questions are included and a wider range of topics is explored, which has a positive effect on the reliability and validity of the assessment. A sufficiently broad examination is one with a written component where students don't have to explain every single question orally, so more questions can be asked. The depth of an exam, on the other hand, can be increased by asking oral follow-up questions so the student can elaborate on a written answer. Including both a written and an oral component also allows students to play to their strengths: some are better at written communication, others are more at ease orally.

Some tips for safeguarding the quality of a written exam with an oral component 

  • Communicate your expectations to students in advance. 
  • Use an answer model and/or evaluation criteria/a 'rubric'. 
  • Spread out the questions. 
  • Write down an indicative mark after each exam, but only award final marks after all exams have been taken.
  • Use multiple assesors. 
  • Strive for a well thought-out planning.
  • Reassure students. 

Are you interested in more concrete tips? Read the full teaching tip here (click on the botton below).