How to Use Oral Exams in Any Course Format

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Article Summary

  • Instructors can use common oral-exam methodologies and tailor them to their course needs.|The Centre for Teaching Excellence cites several benefits of oral exams versus traditional ones.|Administering oral exams can be done with a carefully curated list of strategies and considerations.
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Reading Time: 3 minutes

Joseph Ferrantelli is a Professor of Education at Hunter College.


Administering oral exams isn’t something new. If you’re a Language Professor, you often give a section where students have to listen and respond verbally or write down their answers. If you’re an Instructor for Court Stenography, it’s all about listening.

Regardless of your discipline, encouraging students to verbally showcase their aptitude offers dynamic opportunities to keep them engaged. What can that look like for your course format?

Common Oral Exam Types

There are many avenues to explore when seeking inspiration for your students. Keep in mind you can tailor common oral-exam types to your needs. Examples include:

  • The process where a doctoral candidate defends their dissertation while a committee fires questions.
  • Instructors working with students with disabilities. In that case, you’ll often have students who have accommodations on their Individual Education Plan (IEP), which entitles the student to have the exam read to them.
  • Students giving a presentation for a grade is an oral exam. If you think about it, when your supervisor observes you while you’re teaching, it’s a form of oral exam.

Pros and Cons of Oral Exams

A teacher can administer an oral exam to one student or a group of students. According to the Centre for Teaching Excellence, one of the benefits of giving an oral exam one-on-one is the immediate feedback given to the student—as if they are learning while being tested. The Centre for Teaching Excellence has explained that a drawback to offering one-on-one oral exams is the amount of time needed per student.

A teacher can use an oral exam as a formative or summative assessment. Whether you administer a formative or summative oral evaluation in either a one-on-one or a group, both can be done via face-to-face or virtual environments. Oral exams are best for auditory learners, especially if their reading comprehension is lacking.

Strategies and Key Considerations

According to Gordon Joughin (Joughin, n.d.), there are several steps you can take to help familiarize students with the requirements and format of oral assessments:

  • Ask your students if they have any experience taking oral exams. This way, you’ll know if you have to start from scratch or not.
  • Create and provide students with a grading rubric and go over this rubric in class.
  • Practice administering oral exams during class.
  • Use peer evaluation if students are presenting in front of their class.
  • Offer opportunities for students to discuss in front of their class using content vocabulary.

Asking the right questions can help you determine the structure of an oral exam that’s right for your students. As you plan the cadence of the exam, consider:

  • How are students going to respond?
  • Will students be writing their answers out?
  • Is the exam True or False or multiple choice response?
  • Will students be recording themselves speaking their responses?
  • Will you be scribing while reading?

During the exam, there are best practices to keep in mind in order to set students up for success. You can:

  • Explain to students what is going to occur during the assessment.
  • Make sure students can hear you. The last thing you want is students saying during the exam, “I can’t hear you, speak up!”
  • Be sure you are enunciating well.
  • Repeat the question a few times so students can process.
  • Ask before you move on to the next question. Use a signal, such as having students put their pencils down, to show that they are ready to move on.
  • Ensure that students are comfortable with the speed at which you speak; you don’t want students to say, “Hurry up, let’s go!” or “You went too fast. Could you repeat that?”
  • Make sure there is no inflection in your voice that gives away the correct response insinuating the answer.
  • Provide enough time for them to respond.

Lastly, remember a written exam that takes 45 minutes will take a lot longer when reading the exam. Allow for this extra time or shorten the exam.

Inspired by the idea of engaging your students with oral exams? Hear Dr. Della Dumbaugh, author of the Inside Higher Ed article “Revitalizing Classes Through Oral Exams,” as she discusses how they fit into the virtual classroom. View the recording here.



Joughin, G. (n.d.). The University of Wollongong. Retrieved from A short guide to oral assessment

The University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Exam Questions: Types, Characteristics, and Suggestions. Retrieved from Centre for Teaching Excellence