Using Oral Exams in Political Science

Happy New Year to all.  I hope our collective breaks have been enjoyable and that we are reinvigorated for the start of spring term!  I know I could use a couple of extra weeks, but instead I’m finishing up a paper and getting ready for SPSA next week.

I’m a fan of oral examinations in our field.  One of the challenges students face in a written exam is interpreting exactly what we mean in the questions that we ask.  Language that, to us, appears clear and obvious, to them is vague and confusing.  This is even more the case for multiple choice questions, when there is not only a stem to interpret, but four or five possible choices.  No matter how clear we are, students–even, perhaps especially, those who are very prepared for the exam–can overthink the options and choose the wrong answer.  Another problem with written exams is that its not exactly a skill set that students need after graduation.  I can’t imagine many situations where, outside of formal education and standardized entrance/exit exams, they will be asked to prove their knowledge on the basis of prewritten questions that they do not know ahead of time.  I doubt many of us actually grade students on the sentence structure and grammar, so as an exercise in writing its not particularly useful either.

Oral exams, on the other hand, can accomplish the same goals as written exams–testing students’ knowledge and understanding of the material–but have some additional benefits.  As an interaction between professor and student, they can help us dig through the BS that fills exam answers and figure out whether the student really knows what they are talking about.  It also can help us clarify the question or ask it in a different way to help a struggling or confused student better understand what is being asked.  Finally, its pretty decent training for the post-school world, where you may have to defend a political argument before peers or supervisors in the course of a conversation.

We use an oral exam as the capstone project for our majors, called the Overview, so I instituted a mini-overview in my required methods class.  The Overview requires students to sit a 45 minute oral exam with two faculty members on a scholarly book, and face questions about the authors argument, values, and methodology and are asked to synthesize those with ideas and issues confronted in their coursework.  The mini-overview is a miniature version of that.  It acts as the midterm in my methods class, and students read a book chapter or article that I assign (the same one for each student) and sit a 15 minute oral exam with me.  In the course of the mini-exam, we focus almost entirely on methodology and analyzing the argument and I have students break down the variables, measures, methods, sources, etc.  Students also turn in an annotated abstract of 300 words for the piece, with the annotations noting the X, Y, theory, methods, and findings.

I only had 25 students in this class, so it is perhaps easier for me to do individual oral exams than it would be if I had 100 students.  Most of the exams were held during what would have been class time, so it did not take up too much of my time, and grading occurred immediately. If you have larger classes, you could consider training TAs to give these exams, as we trust them with grading anyway.

In general students performed better on this oral midterm than my previous group of students had on their written exam, and this was at least partly due to my ability to probe their responses for understanding, and encourage them to make vague responses concrete.  My first crop of students that underwent mini-overview take their capstone Overview this spring, so I will report back on its longer-term impact then.

4 Replies to “Using Oral Exams in Political Science”

  1. A really interesting idea – thanks for passing it along. I’m wondering how you prepare students and especially how you evaluate the exams. I would imagine that you would have to keep some sort of record of the exams (maybe an audio recording) in case of grade disputes as well.

    1. True on all counts. They do individual exercises in class and as homework on identifying variables, theories, methods, etc each week as we build to the midterm. We do an example in class where I give them an article and we work on it together. I hadn’t thought about practice oral exams, but that’s a good idea as well. I have a rubric for grading the students that is based off the rubric we use for our capstone Overview, and they see that ahead of time and we talk about it before the exam; they also get that rubric back with my comments when all the exams are completed and graded. As for recording them–you make an excellent point. We don’t get a lot of grade complaints here, and it hadn’t occurred to me that this might be a possibility. We don’t record the Overview sessions, but then, there are two professors there rather than one. I do have a digital recorder for my research; there’s no reason not to record the sessions and keep them as I would any other exam. I’ll definitely do that this time around, thanks for the tip!

      1. Thanks for those details – I’m planning on trying out oral exams in one of my classes this semester, and so this was particularly helpful.

  2. My pleasure Michael. Be sure to let me know how it goes. Oh, and if you want, drop me an email at and I will send you the documents–the assignment, sample questions, rubric, and score sheet, in case they are useful.

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