As September concludes and October commences, the ebb and flow of Princeton’s academic calendar pulls students along to their next destination: midterms week. Princeton students are already busy preparing for written, in-class midterm exams, which dominate the University’s examination structure.
Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. By “it,” I mean that the current structure of midterm and final assignments — the old combination of papers and multiple choice or short answer tests — isn’t the only, or even the superior, method of evaluating student learning. And it’s for this reason that I propose something new: an oral examination system in which students verbally respond to questions from course instructors.
To be clear, I’m not calling for the elimination of papers or written tests. They remain valuable pedagogical tools. But it is problematic that we rely on this combination alone when other effective assessments exist, as well. Princeton should offer oral exams, an evaluation system with a particularly strong track record.
Oral exams, long-used and common in countries like Germany, are beneficial for students — not just because they mirror the type of tasks required in academic settings, but also because they apply to a multitude of career fields and have functional implications beyond graduation. You might not draft a 20-page research paper or take a three-hour test in your life again, but regardless of your profession, you’ll definitely interview for jobs, hold presentations, host meetings, or simply talk to people — aspects the oral exam imitates and addresses.
Thus, the oral exam, by virtue of its configuration, allows students to hone their communication skills in a manner that papers or written tests cannot, while still testing what they would cover in terms of content. Speaking in an oral exam is quite similar, after all, to preparing an essay or short answer — except now, you need to say it aloud. The ability to speak lucidly and persuasively while engaging with diverse sources is just as important as the ability to write in such fashion, and oral exams enable sufficient practice of the former.
Another major benefit of oral exams is that they make it harder to cheat: You walk into the room, and you either comprehend the material or you don’t. This feature also makes it difficult for students to slack off on readings — anything listed on the syllabus could be fair game on an oral exam, letting students demonstrate how they’d relate their broad conceptual knowledge to distinct posed scenarios. As a result, implementing oral exams may serve as a motivator for students to study carefully and avoid embarrassing themselves, while reducing instances of academic dishonesty.
A third advantage of the oral exam is its versatility: It can be applied to a range of disciplines without much trouble. Initially, the oral exam seems most favorable for the humanities or social sciences — areas like politics, history, or foreign languages. But oral exams can be easily applied to STEM fields with slight modifications, e.g., providing for a chalkboard or necessary software, so that, besides merely answering questions, students can draw or show their processes when solving problems, as when proving a math theorem.
Oral exams even have some precedent at Princeton. As is the case with most American universities, they are administered at the graduate level for everything from computer science to philosophy, and even exist in some form on the undergraduate level with senior thesis defenses in departments like SPIA and History. So if anyone wanted confirmation of oral exams’ feasibility, the University has already provided it by putting them into effect.
Granted, oral exams aren’t perfect. They’re often criticized as subjective; different students are asked different questions. That’s a valid concern — would graders fairly administer the exam? The good news, however, is that the issue of subjectivity can be mitigated through a committee system, with panels composed of two or three course instructors, both professors and preceptors. This design minimizes the risk that a student’s grade depends on a single grader’s opinion, and it ensures a more representative faculty sample.
Another objection to oral exams is that they potentially disadvantage students who are nervous when speaking. I recognize that fear personally — I’m hesitant, on occasion, to contribute to class discussions, because I imagine I have nothing valuable to say. But oral exams would not be a wholly new burden, on this count. Most Princeton courses already have significant “participation” components that encourage students’ engagement.
Though imperfect, oral exams have merits that papers and written tests don’t, from promoting greater academic integrity to fostering greater scholarly conversation. We shouldn’t be locked into believing that papers and written tests are the only — indeed, preferred — way to conduct midterms and finals. Rather, we should expand our view of academic assessment. Implementing oral exams as an option opens up another avenue for Princeton students to demonstrate their critical analysis and communication skills, without sacrificing rigor.
It’s time, then, for Princeton to give undergraduate oral exams the chance they deserve.
Henry Hsiao is a first-year contributing columnist from Princeton, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.