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Show intended learning outcomes during oral examination

There are several ways to conduct an oral examination. Below is a description of a method based on modern research. The examination is based on an overall question which is then answered and divided into smaller parts by the student, sometimes with the support of the teacher.

Start with an general question

In an oral examination, a student must be given the opportunity to account for knowledge at a high level of abstraction down to a specific level. According to John B. Biggs and Kevin F. Collis SOLO taxonomy (structure of observed learning outcome) deeper understanding is connected to the ability to relate different knowledge to each other. By opening the oral examination at a high level of abstraction with a question that covers relevant intended learning outcomes for the examination, the student who has understood the entirety of the course can show their knowledge independently. In an oral examination based on a lower level, it is always possible to question whether it is the student who understands the more complex answer / connection or whether it is the teacher's questions that helps the student explain the connection. By reversing the order and starting from an advanced level, there is less risk that it will be the teacher's ability to ask questions that are examined and instead the focus is directed to the student's level. The level of abstraction is gradually reduced to meet the student's level.

Have ready-made support questions

Ready-made support questions are needed to help the student break down the problem into smaller parts. It is important to think through follow-up questions in advance so that the questions do not increase the difficulty of the problem by, for example, dealing with small details. These support questions can be included in an assessment template to make the examination's assessment clearer. When assessing during the examination, the teacher takes into account what needs to be asked and also what the student can supplement their answer with. It can be difficult to determine when a support question needs to be asked. The student can spend time on talking about the wrong things and have to be interrupted, or the student can be silent, needing time to think before the explanation continues. The teacher can ask the student if support is needed before asking the support question. A good thing to help the teacher not to rush, can be to have a clock with a second indication discreetly present.

Conducting the oral examination

The teacher formulates some major general questions with planned follow-up questions and assessment template. At the time of the examination, the question the student is going to answer is randomized. The oral examination begins with the teacher asking one of the big general questions. The student is given a few minutes to think before beginning to answer. The student must first be given the opportunity to talk undisturbed. If necessary, the teacher supports the student with questions. Note that everyone can forget things during a stressful situation, which must be taken into account. The starting point for the assessment of the examination is that when a follow-up question is needed, the level of the problem is simplified. However, the teacher decides according to the student's way of answering the question which grade level is relevant. This approach makes it clear to the teacher and the student at which level the student has understood the content of the course. An alternative way to start can be for the teacher to ask the student what level the student wants to focus on and then more quickly break down the big question with support questions.

Example template for assessment
A - The student can present with a legitimate coherent and nuanced reasoning. C - The student can explain the whole with the support questions. E - With the support questions, the student can account for parts of the whole.
A - How have the theories regarding gravity developed? 1C - What did Isaac Newton believe about gravity? 1E - What is Newton's first law about?
- - 1E - What is Newton's second law about?
- - 1E - What is Newton's third law about?
- - 1E - What is Newton's law of universal gravitation about?
- 2C - What did Albert Einstein believe about gravity? 2E - What is the difference between modern and classical physics?
- - 2E - What is the theory of relativity about?


As not all students can present at the same time, the teacher should plan for some intensive working days for conducting the oral examination. Although oral exams take time to conduct, the "assessment work" is almost non-existent and many teachers who have worked a lot with oral exams experience the total workload approximately the same as for a classical written exam. How the appointments are distributed among the students depends on the nature of the course and the number of students. It can often be easier to let the students book examination sessions in groups, so that there are no gaps in the schedule if a student cancels, but it should be considered whether the examination questions are suitable for the students to listen to each other or answer together. A good starting point for the form of presentation can be the same as the students are expected to work in before the oral examination. If the students have worked individually, it is usually a good idea for them to present individually. If the students are expected to work in groups, the students should present together. For group presentations, when the teacher is the one who distributes who is to talk about what, it is important that the plan is carefully thought through so that the students are well aware of how the exam will proceed. This approach can otherwise be socially uncomfortable.

Here you can (in the Canvas community) read more about how scheduling appointments is done with the help of Canvas.

Other recommendations to keep in mind

As part of preparing the students for the examination, it is recommended that the students receive assignments that are similar to the questions that will be used during the oral examination.

Students have the right to request a reconsideration of grades and for this there must be documentation, for example an audio recording through Zoom. The teacher is recommended to offer the student to also record the conversation. Then both the teacher and the student remember correctly what was said during the examination and by concluding the exam with a discussion of the performance based on the assessment criteria, the number of students who want to reconsider the grade is minimized. When an assessment template, as in the example above, is used in the examination, it may be desirable that the student does not have access to the complete template until after all oral examinations in the course have been completed. Then the level of detail on the issues dealt with during the oral examination can be raised instead of the template during the concluding discussion.

Oral exams

Presenters: Arnold Pears (professor and head of the department of learning) and Ida Naimi- Akbar, (PhD student/lecturer/course designer), 2020-05-06. This webinar was held in Swedish.

This webinar explored approaches to conducting oral examinations (over Zoom) as a potential method of assessing complex intended learning outcomes. Oral examinations have a long established tradition in Swedish higher education and provide a rich basis for assessment. In order to exemplify different ways to work with assessment, the different approaches were discussed in relation to specific learning outcomes as well as fair assessment.

Go to KTH Play for access to presentation material:
Oral exams (KTH Play)

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Last changed: Sep 01, 2021