Giving Oral Exams in an Undergraduate History Class

This past week I decided to try our oral exams in my history 240 class. This class is required for all majors, and the first half of class is basically a survey of historical thought from Herodotus to the digital age. I explain my rationale for trying oral exams here, and I promised to report back with the results.

The exam was 20 minutes with two 10 minute questions. Many students took about a minute to think through the question and to compose their answer with many using a notecard to organize their thoughts. Then they general declaimed for 3-5 minutes before running out of steam. At that point, I prodded them to clarify points, to expand on particular ideas, or, most frequently, 

Here are my observations.

1. Different format, same issues. My greatest fear with an essay exam is that the question itself worked to obscure the best possible responses. In a traditional written exam, I knew that the student’s solitary struggle with an essay made it impossible for me to intervene and correct a possible misunderstanding, set them gently on the right path, or encourage them to dig just a bit deeper. My idea was that an oral exam would allow me to intervene to fix potential problems, probe the limits of what students understood, and gently guide them through a historical problem.

After sitting through 4 hours of oral exams, I feel much better that my written exams work. The same issues arose. The best students were able to explore the connections between primary sources, individuals, and events. The less good students struggled with the most basic recall of names, dates, and evidence. Even with my gentle nudges and prompts, some students struggled to support even the broadest generalizations with specific details. If anything, the oral exam environment was more frustrating than mediocre exams because the students lost a bit of autonomy in how they could obfuscate what they didn’t know. In the oral exam environment, I tried to nudge them to disclose information that I considered basic and vital rather than allowing them to craft an exam that papered over or simply avoided challenges.  

2. Nerves.  I was shocked by how nervous the students were and how much the nerves inhibited their performance. This is a small class – 10 students – and the classroom is comfortably relaxed. In the one-on-one environment of an oral exam, however, the relaxed classroom environment turned to darting eyes and nervous fidgets. I held the exam in a student lounge which I hoped to be a neutral venue. The sun was out and the weather warm enough for me to open a window. I tried to chat a bit with the students to break the intensity of the mood. I thought I did everything I could to defuse test anxiety.

Despite my efforts, even the best students struggled to relax for the first half of the 20 minute test. I was heartening, however, to see some students get into a groove by about the 10 minute mark and answer their second question better than their first. If I do this in the future, I have to find a method for getting the students to relax (at least some) prior to the most rigorously evaluated part of the oral exam.

3. Facing the Students. Perhaps the most valuable part of the oral exam is facing the students as they struggle to articulate answers, look for evidence, and respond to my prompts and challenges. There was something deeply humanizing about the oral exam experience. 

Some of my colleagues have taken to providing oral feedback on papers and exams using our course management system software. They feel that this helps them to connect with their students in ways that written responses do not. While I haven’t experimented with this particular technique, I think the oral exam shares some obvious similarities. It reminded me how foreign the concepts that I am trying to teach are to the students. The idea of evidence, specifics, and argument are so fundamental to how historians approach the world. It was revealing to see students struggle to articulate arguments, marshall evidence, and piece together causality.

This experience has reminded me to slow down and to model more explicitly and clearly the process of using evidence to support arguments, being specific, and finding connections. 


  1. Did you find that the gender of the students made any difference, as you were wondering before? I’m trying to decide if I would have preferred one form of testing over the other.


    1. Sarah,

      Only one of the three women in the class opted to do the oral exam. So my sample size was a bit small…



  2. Interesting ideas, Bill – oral feedback w/ course software and an oral exam.



    1. Dallas,

      Some of my colleagues swear by the oral comments on papers. It must be nice to be able to start to think about teaching in a practical way rather than simple “in theory”. Congrats again on the job.



  3. Hi Bill,

    Interesting to see this. I found myself teaching someone else’s class once, where an oral exam was part of the deal. I sometimes think about returning to it. I wrote it up years ago, just found it online here:

    In my former online teaching life, I sometimes tried oral feedback rather than written. It *felt* like maybe I stood a better chance of getting through to those particular students, because it at least forced them to listen to me if they wanted to find out what the grade was…


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