Oral Assessment

Tired of having students regurgitate the textbook word for word on an exam? Why not try an oral assessment?

Oral assessment is one of the oldest forms of assessing students. It can take a number of forms, such as an interview, involving questions and answers (ie. a thesis defence), a mock-up of a real-life scenario (ie. a doctor-patient discussion and diagnosis for medical students, or a court defence for law students) or a presentation in front of peers.

There are a number of advantages to interspersing oral assessments into your classroom.

  • It can reflect real world situations that students may have to deal with after graduation, particularly in fields where discussions with patients or clients is common.i
  • The meaning of the questions that are being asked can be clarified to avoid being misconstrued.ii
  • It is easier to divine who has read the textbook from who understands the textbook with an in depth questioning.iii
  • It is more difficult to cheat on these tests or plagiarise from other students.iv

Of course, no assessment method is perfect. There are a few cautions to keep in mind when considering whether to use oral assessment.

  • Some students are shy or nervous and have difficulty communicating knowledge coherently in high stress situations, and this effect is often amplified when they must speak directly to the examiner.v
  • For students whose first language is not English, this may be more challenging than a written test, where they have time to carefully consider how to phrase their ideas.vi
  • Depending on the size of the class and the length of the assessment, this can be a time consuming process.vii

Should you decide that oral assessment can enhance your class, there are a few general tips to keep in mind when planning and administering the test.

  • Prepare students in advance by explaining how the oral examination will work, and if feasible, having practice exams in class so that the students are aware of what is expected of them.viii
  • When questioning the students’ knowledge, the questions must be flexible depending on the students answer. Some students may explain something in the initial response that was part of your follow-up questions, or may not include a relevant concept in their answer. You must use your best judgement and change the questions as necessary to establish the understanding of each student.ix
  • Record each assessment as you go through them, so that you can review them later if necessary, and can provide justification for students grades if asked.x
  • Prepare a rubric, or marking guide of some kind in advance. This way, you can do all the initial marking while the student is talking. You can change it later, but it probably will not be necessary. This makes marking quick and simple.xi
  • Oral assessment can work well when combined with a written assessment. For example, have students write a paper and then present on it.xii

If you are interested in learning more about oral assessment, Contact The Centre for Teaching and Learning at ctl@ualberta.ca


  1. Joughin, G. and Collom G. (2003) Oral Assessment. The Higher Education Academy. http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/resource_database/id433_oral_assessment. retrieved: August 30, 2011.
  2. Joughin, G. (2010) A Short Guide to Oral Assessment. Leeds Metropolitan University in association with the University of Wollongong.
iJoughin, 2010, pg. 5.
iiJoughin, 2010, pg. 5.
iiiJoughin, 2010, pg. 8.
ivJoughin & Collom, 2003, pg 1.
vJoughin, 2010, pg. 7.
viJoughin, 2010, pg. 15.
viiJoughin, 2010, pg. 7.
viiiJoughin & Collom, 2003, pg 3.
ixJoughin, 2010, pg. 11.
xJoughin, 2010, pg. 16.
xiJoughin, 2010, pg. 16.
xiiJoughin, 2010, pg. 12.

Oral Assessment: Question and Answer

Q: Why use oral assessment?

A: There are a number of advantages to using oral assessment. Only a few will be listed here.

i. When you interview someone in an oral assessment, it is much easier to gauge whether they understand the material in depth. Many students just regurgitate the textbook on written exams, but on an oral exam, the line between knowledge and understanding is much clearer and you can mark appropriately.i

ii. Questions can be clarified by the examiner. On a written exam, there are often ambiguous questions, and this problem is easily solved during an oral examination by having the student ask for clarification.ii

iii. It is significantly harder to cheat on an oral exam. Plagiarism is difficult to pull off, and many other memory cues (ie. notes written on the arms) are impractical for the student to get away with.iii

iv. It can reflect real world scenarios and situations where students need to think on their feet. Particularly in fields where the students will eventually have to deal with patients or clients, an oral exam can be very beneficial.iv  To see how to use this, refer to question 2.

Q: How can oral assessment be used in the classroom?

A: There are several different ways that oral assessment can be used.

i. You can recreate a situation that a student may face at some time in their professional career and then have then act it through and act appropriately. For example, a medical student could interview a “patient” and based on the symptoms s/he displays, make a preliminary diagnosis and voice the appropriate course of treatment(s) for the patient. Another example would be for a law student to defend a “client” at court, presenting evidence and following all of the necessary rules that would be present in a real court situation.v

ii. You can conduct the assessment like an interview, asking the students questions and using their answers as a gauge of their understanding. This practice is often seen in thesis defences, yet students are not given much in the way of preparation for this type of assessment. For graduate students especially, assessing them this way can be good practice for their coming defences.vi

iii. Finally, you can have a student make a presentation on a topic. Often, this is in conjunction with a written report/essay/etc that the student has prepared and is now explaining to the class. This is the most widely used and easily adaptable use of oral assessment.vii

Q: You make it sound great... what’s the catch?

A: Ah, the catch, well, there are a couple of those. Some students become extremely nervous under stress and having them speak directly to the examiner can amplify that stressviii. Also, students whose first language is not English will be at a distinct disadvantage, as they will have less time to articulate their thoughts than they would on a pen and paper examinationix. Furthermore, depending on the size of your class and the length of your examination, this can be a fairly lengthy process.x

Q: How do I prepare my students for an oral assessment?

A: Just explain to them how the assessment will work. If you can, give them the general marking scheme or rubric in advance so that they understand what it is that you are looking for during the exam. If time permits, have them do a few mock or practice exams during them semester, partnering them up and asking questions or playing out scenarios.xi

Q: What if I’m questioning a student, and they answer a bunch of my later questions, or, worse, if they skip important details while answering?

A: You need to be flexible in your questioning. If a student answers a bunch of your later questions, adapt and test the depth of their knowledge, or move on to other questions. Questions may need to be rephrased for some students for clarification anyways, so know your questions and their answers well.xii If a student doesn’t fully explain something, or skims over a part you feel is important, ask them to elaborate on that topic, don’t just assume that they don’t know the answer. Often times a student will get so caught up in explaining one topic that they don’t explain other aspects of it. Making a general request for them to elaborate on these missed concepts is an easy way to make sure they have a full grasp of the topic.

Q: What if a student comes to me asking me to justify their marks?

A: This is one of the reasons that you should always have a record of the students’ exam. Bring a recording device of some kind (ie. laptop, ipad, recorder) to the exam and have all of the exams on file. This way, you can also refer back to their exams later if you need to clarify something.xiii

Q: What’s the best way to mark for an oral assessment?

A: It is best to create a rubric or marking guide with expectations listed alongside associated grades. During the exam, while the student answers the question, mark each one. This makes marking quick and simple.xiv


  1. Joughin, G. and Collom G. (2003) Oral Assessment. The Higher Education Academy. http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/resource_database/id433_oral_assessment. retrieved: August 30, 2011. 
  2. Joughin, G. (2010) A Short Guide to Oral Assessment. Leeds Metropolitan University in association with the University of Wollongong.
i Joughin, 2010, pg. 8.
iiJoughin, 2010, pg. 5.
iiiJoughin & Collom, 2003, pg 1.
ivJoughin, 2010, pg. 5.
vJoughin, 2010, pg. 1.
viJoughin, 2010, pg. 1.
viiJoughin, 2010, pg. 1.
viiiJoughin, 2010, pg. 7.
ixJoughin, 2010, pg. 15.
xJoughin, 2010, pg. 7.
xiJoughin & Collom, 2003, pg 3.
xiiJoughin, 2010, pg. 11.
xiiiJoughin, 2010, pg. 16.
xivJoughin, 2010, pg. 16.

-Rebecca Schaeffer, June 2011