The Case For Oral Exams

In Light of AI and Other Technologies, Oral Exams Should Utilized More Often


Photo credit: The Parker Weekly

Over the past few months, AI, specifically chat GPT, has presented something of an existential threat to how schools operate. The response to this, from what I have experienced so far, has been to move towards in class essays. I suggest that in addition to this, oral examinations are used. 

First of all, it addresses the obvious issue of students using chat GPT or other technologies to do their work for them. It also can be a greater display of a student’s knowledge than in class essays. This is because writing requires certain conventions to structure an argument that come far more naturally in speech. Additionally, if the teacher is looking for a certain answer, they can ask probing questions that allude to a certain argument the student may not remember in a moment of stress while having to think about the formalities of writing. 

Second, it allows for a greater rigor of the exam than a written exam. Because the teacher is able to ask follow up questions and probe what appear to be weaknesses or what they would expect from a given answer that they didn’t receive, they can get a fuller understanding of what the student knows and doesn’t. The format also allows for answers to more questions that can span a greater amount of time. For me, for example, it could take me 50 minutes of writing to generate an argument I could articulate orally in five minutes allowing time for exploration of other questions. 

Third, it allows both the student and teacher to have immediate feedback. The teacher can probe not only the student’s knowledge, but skills that aren’t usually tested such as the student’s ability to think on their feet and ability to make connections between various subjects quickly. 

Fourth, it builds important skills. It’s unlikely that one will be sat down with a computer and told “you’ve got 50 minutes, answer this question” whereas interviews and other situations are comparable to the stress experienced during an oral exam. Oral exams one on one with a teacher is undoubtedly more stressful than an in class essay, however, it’s more similar to real life situations and it’s preferable that one does poorly in a high school oral exam and learns than during a college or job interview. Practice the skill while it’s low stakes. 

Fifth, it can be a forum to delve into a given topic in a more open way than in a classroom. Many students may shy away from stating more controversial topics during class for fear of their classmates especially because of increasing fear of speaking in a way that contradicts certain beliefs. This kind of freedom of not having to worry about what their classmates think is becoming increasingly important because of ever shifting rules about what’s acceptable to say. 

Sixth, it doesn’t necessarily have to take more time. I mentioned before that writing takes far more time to think through than the equivalent amount of speaking but even then, it still can take up more class time. Rather than one 50 minute period, for example, if the class has 18 people and if each of the exams are 10 minutes a piece, it would take four periods, however, 10 minutes for a given student outside of class isn’t a huge burden on a student. Additionally, at least in classes like Spanish where I’ve had oral exams of some kind, it seems like it’s faster to grade because teachers don’t need to laboriously go through and edit the essays written by every student. I don’t know if it’d necessarily be a time saver for teachers, but I can’t imagine it’d be too much more time consuming especially if they split up the class and say did an oral exam for one third of the class for unit one and a written test for the rest of the class etc. 

Finally, oral examinations have been shown to be effective for thousands of years. Socrates grilling his students and then them taking his method and applying it to their students created some of the most important thinkers in history. For centuries universities have used oral exams to great effect. In the time of AI and it being easier than ever to cheat, we should look to a time honored tradition as a solution.