Faculty Club / Assessment / Oral Assessments: How and Why They Are Worth the Time

Oral Assessments: How and Why They Are Worth the Time

When Dr. Martin St. Maurice replaced written tests with oral exams, he gained new insight into his biology students—and built stronger bonds.

When Dr. Martin St. Maurice replaced written tests with oral exams, he gained new insight into his biology students—and built stronger bonds.

Martin St. Maurice, PhD


Associate Professor of Biological Sciences,
Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

PhD and BSc in Biochemistry

Considering all the data and detail associated with science courses, a comprehensive written exam might seem like the best way to assess students’ overall understanding. But Dr. Martin St. Maurice, associate professor of biological sciences at Marquette University in Milwaukee, found that these traditional tests allowed for too much anonymity.

“I had seen enough students slink into the back of the room, write a bunch of stuff on a piece of paper, hand it back to me, and slink out of the room,” says St. Maurice. “In an exam setting, they’re never held accountable in a direct way.”

When St. Maurice researched alternative testing methods, he discovered that oral exams might help address some of his concerns. So he decided to give them a shot. The benefits were obvious right away.

For starters, oral exams allowed him to redirect students if they misinterpreted a question—or were trying to vamp on what they did know to hide what they did not. It also showed him clearly who was struggling, so he could dole out praise and support appropriately. But it had what he calls a “huge, unexpected benefit,” too: He was surprised by how quickly and how much better he got to know his students and their mastery of the material.

“I get to go through every individual in class and talk to them,” he says. “I have no other opportunity, unless they come into office hours, to get to know them as people. It’s a connection with students that you just do not get in a written exam. I get a much clearer sense of the depth and breadth of their knowledge. I can immediately see their misconceptions and, importantly, I can try to clarify those misconceptions on the spot. The ability to give direct and immediate feedback, to seek clarification and to redirect for each and every student, gives me a clear and immediate sense of each individual and of the class as a whole.”

Today, it is his favorite approach to assess students. Below, St. Maurice offers some surprising and practical guidance for other educators who want to give it a try.

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“When a student gets something wrong on a written exam, there’s no direct feedback. In an oral exam, if they’ve gone the wrong way, you can actually both assess and teach Socratically at the same time, because you have their undivided attention. There’s no substitute for that.”
-Martin St. Maurice, PhD

Course: BIOL 3101 Biochemistry and the Molecular Basis of Biology

Course description: Major themes in biochemistry are examined in the context of mammalian physiology. Topics include: protein structure and enzyme catalysis, carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in relation to energy production, protein and nucleic acid synthesis, and the nature of the genetic code.

St. Maurice’s 8 tips for effective oral exams

St. Maurice developed an oral exam strategy that attempts to offer testing in an intimate setting, while minimizing student anxiety. Here are some of his ideas:

1. Ease students fears before starting the process

In the first week of the semester, St. Maurice informs students that he gives oral exams. He reassures them that these are not designed to ferret out every fact but rather to allow students to demonstrate that they can analyze and apply what they have learned. “I tell them that I won’t grill them on a lot of specific stuff,” he says. “Rather, it’s ‘Here’s a question, and let’s work through it together, and if you stumble, I will put you back on track.’”

2. Use a four-question model to simplify test-making

For each oral exam, St. Maurice restricts the questions to four broad topics, though he tells students that he reserves the right to follow up on their answers with additional inquiry. “The questions are just a launching point,” says St. Maurice. “The beauty of it is, I have an initial question, and I can follow up with any question that’s relevant.” And if they misinterpret a question, he can say, “That’s not what I’m trying to assess,” and ask it another way.

3. Go easier on students in the first oral exams

To further ease his students into the format, St. Maurice begins with easier oral exams and increases the difficulty over the course of the semester. (The final is still written—partly due to the time constraints of final exam week and partly because, as St. Maurice is careful to point out, some students do perform better on written assessments. He believes it is best to offer this variety of assessment formats over the course of the semester.)

4. Test students in pairs to reduce in-test anxiety and to encourage study-buddies

St. Maurice tests the students two at a time. He will assign partners if needed, but he prefers them to partner up on their own (often they choose people from other small-group assignments). “I’ve found they study very closely with their partners,” says St. Maurice. “It’s like they’re going into battle, and you want to know the strengths and weaknesses of the person who is going to be there for you.” (He also notes that paired assessments provide the only practical way to test some 70 students over four days of scheduled oral exams.)

5. Alternate back and forth

During the test, St. Maurice alternates back and forth between the two students. He asks the first student a question, then asks the second student if they have anything to add.

If one student is dominating—due to personality or preparedness—he becomes more direct with the other. “I use follow-up questions to try to draw out the student who is kind of hoping to ride the other person’s coattails,” he says. “The trick is to be able to assess each student individually, while giving them some safety in allowing them to have a partner to back them up.”

6. Create a testing timetable, and give yourself breaks

St. Maurice allocates 30 minutes for each oral exam. Typically, he conducts three of them in a row, takes a 30-minute break, and then starts up again. This structured timetable helps prevent burnout. Though St. Maurice admits that this may sound time-consuming, he says that grading written tests takes almost the same amount of time, but without the academic benefits of face-to-face interaction.

7. Take notes during the exam—and do the scoring later

St. Maurice grades on overall performance rather than on any one question. “I want to know, ‘What was their overall ability to analyze, extrapolate, and convey the information efficiently?’” he explains. To gauge this, he takes notes during the oral exam, then uses those notes to help him fill out each student’s rubric later on.

8. Close the quiz with some words of support

“This approach really does allow you to get a better sense of where they’re doing well and where they’re not,” says St. Maurice. At the end of each oral exam, he looks each student in the eye and gives them a bit of verbal feedback. If they did well, he says, “Good job, you knew your stuff.” For those who did not do well, he believes it is the time to let them know they have not met his standards. “If they’ve blown this off, it’s appropriate to hold them firmly accountable,” he says, adding that he is encouraging about their ability to change direction. He also gives them suggested action items that can help them improve: “I try to focus on strategies they can use to approach studying in a more effective way. In those few minutes of forced connection, they may realize that you are there to help them.”

In fact, St. Maurice has found that his students’ response to the oral exams is highly positive—at least by the time the semester draws to a close. “Students say, ‘At first, I was petrified of taking oral exams, but by the end of the year, I was so thankful. It held me more accountable to the material, and it gave me a way to show what I know in a way that a written exam doesn’t.’”

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