Oral examinations

Posted by Natasa Brouwer, on Oct. 5, 2021, 3:04 p.m.
Assessment OralAssessment


Oral examinations also referred to as viva voce, have been used by universities to evaluate students’ learning for centuries. The exam takes the form of a ‘conversation between master and pupil’. However, due to the low objectivity associated with this approach to evaluation and the staff time needed to conduct such examinations, its use has become less frequent in recent times. At some universities it is now no longer used in undergraduate education and is only found in the defence of a doctoral or master’s dissertation.   
Oral exams test students’ reasoning and communication skills, including their use of scientific language and can be used as an additional “test” to probe whether the results obtained in written examination were a fair reflection of the candidates understanding or not. Here, the role is primarily one of validation rather than assessment. This remains common practice in the UK, where external examiners routinely hold oral exams for borderline candidates in bachelor programmes. An oral exam can also help to reduce the risk of making an award to a candidate who has had his/her thesis written by a third party.  The examiner’s task in an oral exam is to provoke thought and assess the depth of understanding. A written test is likely to be much more efficient for evaluating the basic knowledge of a candidate. Oral exams can also be a useful learning tool, especially when students are initially asked for some self-evaluation and are provided with detailed feed-back at the end. It is particularly important to identify clear assessment criteria before embarking on any oral evaluation (see for example). https://assessment.trinity.duke.edu/documents/OralExamEvaluationCriteria1.pdf )

Proper conduct of an oral exam requires:

  • The presence of a third person, a witness, in the room in which the exam is being carried out is always to be recommended. Often, this can be achieved by having another student in the room, preparing his presentation while his colleague is having his exam.
  • All candidates must be given a comparable set of questions, with each student being asked to respond to questions of varying difficulty. This can be achieved e.g. by asking candidates to draw a certain number of questions from sets of questions with similar difficulty e. g. one corresponding to each category from Bloom’s taxonomy.
  • Memory is fallible so the examiner should record brief notes based on the student’s responses. Such notes can both help the examiner to provide the student with detailed feedback on the performance, and also enhance the objectivity and transparency of the process, making it easier to justify the marks awarded.
  • The examiner must display considerable patience and sensitivity. Students usually find oral examination even more stressful than other assessment procedures that tend to be more anonymous. This may adversely affect their ability to present their knowledge and skills effectively.

An oral exam can be offered as an alternative to a written assessment for students with learning disabilities, such as: dysgraphia, non-verbal learning disorder etc.
Even the best prepared and conducted oral exam is likely to be less objective than a written one, with the mark obtained being influenced by a number of effects (e. g. the halo effect http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halo_effect ) and it may also be impacted by the student’s appearance, behaviour, gender, ethnicity and visible disability.

Useful links

Original author: Iwona Maciejowska
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