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Are oral exams a more effective way of assessing students' level of knowledge than written ones?

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 12/4/2017 Category: Education
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 904 times Debate No: 105523
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (4)
Votes (1)




An oral exam is taken in the form of a dialog between the examiner and the examinee, when the latter can be given time to prepare for answering a question in advance or required to provide an almost immediate answer. Written exams are taken in the form of a test (open or closed) or an essay with the interaction between the participants limited. While both forms of examination have their own advantages and disadvantage, I'd like to defend the statement that oral exams are the more effective means of assessing the students' knowledge of the two.
Advantages of the oral form for students:
- practising of social skills and ability to react to questions;
- stimulation of coping with stress within the interaction as a valuable experience for future activities;
- opportunity to recognise and correct major misconceptions;
- thinking out loud as a means of better development of ideas in the circumstances;
- prospect of public speaking as encouragement of better preparation;
- the result is immediately known.

Advantages for examiners:
- the opportunity of clarification of questions and answers;
- reduction of students' chances to guess the correct answer;
- opportunity to assess one's knowledge in greater depth;
- reduction of chances for successful cheating;
- opportunity to assess not only the level of knowing (i.e. amount of text learnt) but also of understanding of the material.


First off, I am not coming from a position totally against oral exams. Especially for certain subjects, like language courses, I can see obviously the necessity. However in general I do favour a focus on literacy and would be hesitant to support shifting more weight towards oral exams. You raise some interesting advantages in your opening round (stress as positive for example, I suspect going to have a hard time selling that to parents and teachers when exam stress is already a worry). I am not going to be able to drill down into all of them right away, but I'll start my opening statements with my initial instinctive concerns after reading your introduction.

My main problem is with the dynamic nature and increased flexibility, which you highlight benefits of being challenged for clarification, reacting to questions etc. However it has the trade-off that it is harder to compare students. And that is the purpose of exams, to assess students and to rank them, both for positioning them in the best place for current development, or marking them as suitable for future career prospects. Written examinations (typically) involve the same questions for everybody, and thus it's very easy to directly compare the metrics. With dynamic oral exams, an element of randomness is naturally introduced, or alternatively whatever subjectivity there is on the part of the examiner(s), and what part that could play, providing more opportunities to favour or challenge individual students.

Of course we could run through all the equivalent long list of all the questions for everyone, to be both fair and thorough, but then we lose the benefits you're pitching. And we run into the problem of efficiency, a problem that's already there even with brief oral exams. Even a short oral exam is time consuming for the examiner beyond very small groups. Common classes of 20-30 students would be more efficiently examined in a shared written session which can cover a lot broader subject matter than in a chat.
Debate Round No. 1


Thank you for your argument, I'll try to address its points in turn.

I cannot but agree that exams are stressful for a number of parties. However, I would argue that this part is due to the general feeling of importance of the event and its potential consequences, which is the usual characteristics of things we feel nervous about, so nothing to be done about it. On the other hand, repetitive exposure to the experience trains the individual to be more resistant to this kind of stress. In other word, you are most afraid only the first time.

As far as the point about comparing students is concerned, I'd like to point out that such comparisons are only necessary on the certain transitional stages of the educational process, while exams are present in it much more often than that. Understandably, exams of the transitional stages need to have a more complex and sophisticated character than common ones. Moreover, educationalists now claim that the only way a student should be compared is his or her own previous academic performance. Written examination involving the same questions for everyone, on the other hand, bear the high risk of assessing students' knowledge one-sidedly, i.e. since all students think in different ways, a fixed list of questions on a written examination might not allow the breadth of understanding to reveal itself. Also, while some written examinations require the examinees to provide the answer only, and not show the thinking process, it can lead to a negative mark, even if the way of solution of the problem used by the students might have been correct, with the mistake occurring at a later stage. In an oral exam this could result in a partial amount of points at least.

Subjectivity of oral exams is a valid concern. However, it has to be understood by the examiners and examinees that exams are an important and responsible part of the educational process, therefore possibilities for there existing subjectivity need to be combated. This could be done by ensuring that both parties do not know each other, that the examiners are more than one, that the process is recorded, allowing the student to appeal for a reexamination in case he or she is convinced of subjectivity, etc.

Addressing the point about the amount of time an oral exam would take, this point remains disputable. Written answers would still take a considerable amount of time to check and assess in complex, as long as they are detailed and extensive coverage of a question and not simply one or two word answers or, worse still, a multiple choice test. In combination it takes less time to pronounce and listen to the same amount of text than to write it and then read.


I do not necessarily disagree with your argument that exposure to stressful situations can train people to deal with it, though I have doubts whether exams are common enough events to be easily normalised as not stressful by students. What I would like to point out is that this argument is not specific to oral exams as far as I can see. Therefore I would continue to consider written exams as a better option for an overall reduction of stress over exam periods, with equal opportunity to grow accustomed to them and find them less stressful over time. Compared to written exams, I would say public oral exams in particular have a lot more potential for stress. It brings comparison of student performance into the spotlight. It could be embarrassing for the students who do not well, their results plain for all to see. Alternatively some students may be merely upset by how much better they perceive others doing.

Comparing a student to their past history is all well and good, and I would agree it is important to predict and praise based upon the progress from where they"ve started. But I do not see it as an argument against comparing students amongst themselves too. It is essential as long as the world on the whole remains the meritocracy it is. People are evaluated differently and rewarded in the real world based upon their relation to others. Knowing how students are doing is important, for knowing if they"re keeping up with their peers and to sort and support them in their studies.

You consider the advantages of being able to explain oneself in oral situations, but this also has the disadvantage of time pressure. It may lead to students not being able to explain themselves in time at all. A written exam with space to show work allows attempts to be made in students" own time, if they know something, they will be able to dig it up and present it similarly for partial points. Also they can freely move on to other questions to leave it for later. Written examinations can offer flexibility on the students path to take their own course within the bounds of the exam, even if only in the order they like to tackle questions. Also in an essay for example, they can structure their thoughts in the order of their choosing, and highlight the depth of understanding in the areas they are most comfortable in. In an oral situation, students may be able to direct an oral exam to an extent, but with the examiner in the position of authority they may not encourage exploration of discussion as students may prefer.

In response to your suggestion of picking examiners that do not know students, it then makes it harder for the course leaders to maintain control over what they are examining if they cannot directly partake in the flexible exams themselves. Smaller institutions are where this is feasibly impossible without bringing someone from outside in. Equally you could say the same small institutions will recognise students" handwriting and be biased there, but it is more economical to transfer written papers to external examiners to act as second markers rather than bringing in blind examiners for oral exams. Recording exams is a good idea, but opening the avenue of subjectivity more widely for appeals would encourage more appeals. More appeals hurts the efficiency of the exam system, opposed to more objective written exams.

I would stand by the efficiency of written exams for common school class sizes or undergraduate university cohorts. While it takes less time to speak something than write it and then have it read, oral exams are less likely to be concisely and exactly spoken. An examiner reading an exam paper gets precisely the information the examinee wanted to convey. And while the most basic exams like multiple choice or simple answer quizzes may not be great assessors of depth of knowledge, the ease in grading them means they can be employed easily and often to get an idea of students" progress.

Oral exams have the hurdle of a decent level of understanding to get over before cohesive discussion can take place. More than that, they require language skills in general, is this really fair for examining students on subjects other than languages? Especially considering high international student populations in universities, oral exams may unfairly discriminate based on oral and aural language abilities opposed to more easily comprehensible written and read questions done on pen and paper.
Debate Round No. 2


I'll not consider the overall "I'm not convinced" point of the first paragraph as an argument, therefor won't address it. As to particular points, I have to call them doubtful and dependent on the situation and the system in general. Exams might come with various frequency in different countries; the idea of getting used to the kind of stress might not be specific to oral exams in particular, but should be the counterargument to the disadvantage of this type of exams as an unbearable stress factor, neutralise it, and even give the benefit of public speaking skills. Similarly, oral exams don't have to be public, and in most cases they aren't; if other students are present, they are usually occupied with their own questions meant to answer; students can see the difference between their own performance and the others' one simply in class as well, and get upset about their marks for written exams; therefore these disadvantages can't be attributed to oral exams as a differentiating factor.

It is true that people are always compared with each other. However, oral exams do not eliminate the ability to do that to students. As you yourself have pointed out, students themselves can witness how they and the others can be performing in the exam itself; moreover, they can see mark and example to try and achieve themselves. That is, even if the oral form of examination might not show the smallest variations in one's academic performance, it is more than enough for the purposes of seeing how students keep up with their peers and whether they need help. As a matter of fact, taking into account that exams are the control mechanism employed at the end of the course, oral ones do not mean all kinds of assessment during the course would be also oral; there always remain written assignments, intermediate tests, continuous assessment, etc.
The world remaining a meritocracy is a fully valid point which might suggest that the world is calling for means of comparison between everyone. At the same time, the world also remains a place where it is essential to able to make a good impression, appeal to the listener(s), be able to speak convincingly and manipulatively. It looks like the current situation is also calling for development of these sort of skills. That is to show that the argument about what the world demands can be turned both ways.

I fail to see how time pressure can be a significant factor at an oral exam. I don't suppose anywhere such exams involve timer clocks with the seconds audibly ticking away. To add to that, examiners are in their majority responsible, inclined in the students' favour people. They don't aim to flunk a students, they don't send them off after the first mistake or stumbling. Conversely, what they do is try and find out the knowledge that students do possess, i.e. asking additional questions, offering hints to lead the examinees to a particular train of thought, letting them express themselves in the very least. In this respect, I can see the situation of a written exam as potentially more time-pressing, the possibility of arranging the order of questions to their liking being just a minor structural disadvantage. Oral exams, in contrast, are conducted in a somewhat less formal manner, which can actually reduce the pressure and stress.

Addressing the issue of course leaders maintaining control over the exam topics when they're not present can be done through the established programme/content of the course. On the other hand, the nature of education, especially higher education, presupposes that students need to know not only what they're told in class, but possess broader knowledge, for when they are out in the world, they're going to need that exactly. Alternatively, the course leaders can be included in the board of examiners and be present after all. As to smaller institutions, I still fail to imagine one with every potential examiner knowing every particular student/group of students. If it is the case, I expect they have to resort to bringing in external specialist often enough anyway. However, I do not expect appeals to be an appealing prospect, for a person has to be absolutely sure of the subjectivity to hope to win the case and be prepared to go through the otherwise embarrassing process of trying to prove what isn't.

There doesn't seem to be a new argument in the efficiency paragraph, different from what has already been discussed.
However, efficiency-wise, written exams would also require more resources than oral ones, i.e. the time of the numerous supervisor keeping track of order, potentially technical means of preventing cheating, etc.

Language-wise, I'd like to point out that an exam does not require great oratorical skills or perfect language knowledge; what is important is getting the message across, communicating the information. As far as international students are concerned, if they don't possess enough language competence to be able to express themselves on the subject they are studying, how can they be expected to successfully master the content of the course conducted in this language? In fact, taking the decision of undergoing a course in a foreign language a student must be prepared to tackle it in that very language and not expect any special treatment.

All in all, considering the issue of the two forms of examinations, I would like to make the conclusion that oral exams obviously have a number of indisputable advantages over written ones, while the disadvantages are mostly subjective and can be turned different ways. Besides, for diligent and successful students the form of examination should not matter much on the personal level, i.e. from the point of view of which one is easier/less stressful. A lot of the advantages of written exams seem to aim at the other category of students. While it is important to take their needs into account, they shouldn't be the main factor, since it would lead to lowering of standards. Examinations are one of the mechanism of screening students, it is understandable and inevitable that some would do better than others, therefore such form of examination has to be chosen which would ensure the most possibly objective and beneficial ways for assessing the knowledge.


(Sorry about all my apostrophes changing to quotation marks last time, hopefully I have rectified it this time.)

First I would like to take on your comment about oral exams improving public speaking ability. This is obviously true, in speaking ability in general we improve with practice. However, human speech and dialogue is always in natural use socially, it is natural for us to develop it in our social groups. On the other hand, literacy rates, specifically abilities to read and write in this case, are considered important markers of education in developed countries. Surely any shift of weight towards oral methods of assessment is naturally going to negatively affect literacy? An acceptable command of the ability to read and write is essential for the average modern job, thus any slippage in literacy rates could be harmful. Literacy requires training and testing, reading and writing examinations test it by very nature, in the way oral examinations simply cannot.
You discussed the balanced nature of having both oral alongside written as part of a course structure. It therefore makes sense to me that oral exams would play the lesser role, and written exams would serve as the main milestone exams. They can be more detailed, and more easily compared and analysed.

On oral presentations, be they alone or in a group, these are not uncommon methods of assessment. I had hoped to discuss them a little, beyond your suggestion that present students are too occupied with their own problems. The very point of presentation is sharing and dissemination of knowledge. If your experience suggests the audience is not interested or even paying attention, it is not a very convincing argument for them as useful experiences on any side. Additionally I attributed public embarrassment to the public branch of oral exams specifically because it is clearly a system where confidentiality cannot exist, therefore it is most definitely a differentiating factor.

You brushed off the issue of public presentations as embarrassing, but then call challenging oral assessments embarrassing. Challenging results can be a private process, and in essence is no different from written exam challenges if recordings are involved. Not being absolutely sure of the subjectivity as a reason why someone would not appeal does not make sense for less appeals in an oral setting. If oral exams induce more uncertainty, uncertainty draws the need for clarification or verification.

Time pressure in oral exams is perhaps not quite to the extent of loud ticking clocks ominously hanging over students' heads, but it is not unusual where there are unified exam regulations and guidelines across an education system. And the ticking is still there in the pressure time brings even if it is not made visible, or panic can be induced when flashed with a card notifying that time is running out in the last few moments. The time constraint is a restriction, and a tighter one than typically in place for a written exam. It is not nearly so feasible to assess orally over a couple of hours with a single student digging into all the valuable wells of knowledge, yet a couple of hours of written test where a student can express it all is a reasonable and accepted setting.

My new contribution on efficiency in my prior round was the flexibility for basic simplistic testing that can be done very quickly if necessary opposed to individual oral engagement. More physical resources are involved, it can be said, but time of the trained professionals is the all-important resource being preserved through such provisions. A single invigilator can monitor an ordinary class size for a written exam, and they need not be experts in the field at all. And if they are numerous supervisors as you suggest, that only means improved efficiency, not less. Several would only be necessary in large exam halls where students all doing various examinations can be efficiently bundled together in the same conditions.

I appreciate your point about the importance of foreign students being prepared for courses in other languages, but demanding competence in what can be challenging oral debates for studies of technical subjects need not be so. It is understandable foreign students would have to work harder and longer to get through whatever language barrier remains, but you make it tougher than it needs to be, discouraging international cooperation. There can be a softer line drawn than that. Getting the message across and communicating the information is equally important in the direction of towards the student. Written questions that can be reread and understood at a comfortable pace, and along with visual aids such as diagrams, form a more forgiving environment.

In your conclusion you do me something of a disservice claiming a number of indisputable advantages. While I have not disputed absolutely everything you have brought to the table, I have challenged those of the focus of our discussion. A fairer conclusion would be the advantages we have discussed do naturally present merit for either side, and that there are grounds for both. What is obvious is the suitability of oral exams for subjects wherein language and conversation is actively trained, whereas a test of practical science skills obviously would not fit. What is more in question is the middle ground with more general subject matter, and that is where I have favoured oral exams taking a minor role.
Moreover your closing line I am finding hard to find grounds for. You may have made arguments for reducing the added subjectivity involved in oral exams, however there was not valid reason given for increased objectivity in oral exams over written. As such, I would conclude similarly. The need for a level playing field demands a balanced and controlled environment, and it is written examinations which are the fairer option for objective and comparable measurement of students.
Debate Round No. 3
4 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 4 records.
Posted by BryanMullinsNOCHRISTMAS2 2 years ago
@Masterful Pro won by default!
Posted by Masterful 2 years ago
No, me and a friend had to do a joint oral exam in school and I couldn't keep a straight face due to being an immature kid and making jokes.

I got an E :(
Posted by Litara 2 years ago
Thank you too. It was a highly educational debate in more senses than one.
Posted by Kovu 2 years ago
Thank you for the debate @Litara. You raised a lot of points I had to think about before I could tackle.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by BryanMullinsNOCHRISTMAS2 2 years ago
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Total points awarded:70 
Reasons for voting decision: Pro by default!

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