Oral Exams in a Midlevel History Class

This semester, I’m teaching for the last time my History 240: The Historians Craft. The class has run for close to 5 years, every semester, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The class usually runs about 30 students, most of whom are sophomores or juniors, and is required for all history majors. 

The first part of the class surveys the development of the discipline of history from Homer to our own post-modern, digital era. The goal of the course is to familiarize the students with the broader intellectual context for the development of history while refining their skills as student historians. Generally the first part of the consists of lecture and discussion of primary sources. This segues into the second half of the class when I emphasize formal writing and some of the disciplinary practices common to historical argumentation, style, and format.  

Since teaching the course this way, I’ve been moderately pleased with my students willingness to take on the challenges associated with understanding and interpreting the complex history of our discipline, difficult and foreign texts, and unfamiliar concepts. In general, their performance on my essay based tests has been good enough, but only scratched the surface of what they were willing to do in class discussions or on shorter assignments. The exam was timed and consisted of two essays. One question asked the students to identify and contextualize a quote from a primary source that we read during class. The other essay asked the students to explore the intersection of an issue like nationalism, professional history, or philology within the narrative of the class. In other words, one essay asks the students to go from the specific to the general and the other asks students to go from the general to the specific. This is fairly standard stuff in my class.

This semester, I only have 10 students in the class, probably because I scheduled it late in the afternoon. The students are good and conscientious. So, I’ve decided to experiment a bit and off an optional oral midterm exam. It will be one-on-one, in my office, and run for 20 minutes in two, ten-minute sections, each of which will begin with a single question that is not fundamentally dissimilar to the questions that I will ask on the written midterm. My plan is to use this question as a point of departure for a conversation that probes the extent of a students familiarity with a particular topic.

I’ve decided to experiment with oral exams for three reasons.

1. Discussions are good. My students have not been entirely comfortable discussing primary sources and complex issues like historiography and the philosophy of history in a classroom setting. Prompted in the right way or painted into a corner, they tend to respond in ways that demonstrate a much greater understanding of issues than they would in a  typical classroom conversation. The idea of an oral exam is to draw the students into a conversation about a complex topic and to give them confidence to engage challenging material.

At the same time, some of my colleagues have experimented with oral responses to written papers and exams. These are recorded in our Blackboard course management system and appended to the student paper. While I haven’t done this yet, my colleagues report that oral comments seem to have a significant impact on the students and work to establish a stronger relationship between teacher and student as well as communicate more effectively the strengths and weaknesses of student work. 

The spoken word can be more engaging, transparent, and familiar than the written.

2. Exams are fake writing. As much as I liked the challenge of taking an exam, I have come to see essay exams as a kind of fake writing. Fueled by anxiety, misguided strategy, and the relentless ticking of the clock, in-class, essay tests are a catastrophe of compromises that almost always produce disappointing results. While all student writing assignments are in some ways artificial, essay tests are among the most problematic with time constraints, handwritten answers (in an era where most students type their work), and bodies of evidence limited by student memory (rather than the abundance of the internet). 

3. The class is small. Oral exams will take about 30 minutes per student (that’s 20 minutes of conversation and at least 5 minutes of note taking afterward). Even for 10 students, this will be close to 5 hours. Fortunately, a handful of students will opt for the traditional written exam so it will probably only 3 hours of student exams. It is hard to imagine doing this in this class if it was even the standard size of 30 students.

There are drawbacks to oral exams, of course. Some students might be intimidated by being in a faculty members office and the oral interview will certainly benefit students who think better “on the spot”. I’ve also wondered whether male students might be more at ease in an office conversation than female students. 

A small class that is due to for revision is the perfect place for experimenting with some new techniques. I think I have most of the variables sorted out in the class, and I have a robust sample of past written exams carved in my memory.  I’m not sure that oral exams will become a major part of my pedagogical toolbox, but a little experimentation right before sabbatical can’t hurt too much.


  1. Are there other possible locations that would be less intimidating? As an undergrad I had an oral exam in a coffee shop.


  2. Cindy,

    Yeah. Someplace that would strike a balance between relatively distraction free, private, yet comfortable.



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