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What is an Oral Exam?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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The oral exam is a long held tradition in many schools and disciplines, which poses questions to students in spoken form. Students must then answer questions as appropriate, from material they have studied in preparation for the exam. Demonstrating sufficient knowledge in the subject results in passing the exam or an actual grade.

There are many instances in college and career studies where oral exams are used. As part of graduation from a program at the undergraduate or graduate levels, students might need to prove knowledge of material and demonstrate sufficient understanding of a subject area. Many science majors finish bachelors’ studies with oral exams, or a particular program may require oral and written exams that show how a student has taken in all material studied in a four-year period. Usually study guides or a syllabus is available for these exams so prepared students tend not to be surprised by the questions they’re asked.

Medical schools may also make use of the oral exam for 2nd or 3rd year students, not only to test knowledge but to test ability to think quickly. Psychologists in the US frequently have to take an oral exam prior to being awarded a PhD. Sometimes schools offer an option of taking written and oral exams or completing a project or thesis, and other times, all three are required to graduate. Oral exams are usually thought of as distinct from a defense of thesis, which has questions but is much more specific to the topic of the thesis.

Students may be able to choose their examiners for some oral exams, and this is important thing to consider. It’s vital to think about each teacher’s style and also about relationships staff members have with each other. Contentious faculty may decide to make a student a hapless victim in a desire to prove each other wrong. This is a nightmare scenario for the student, and should be avoided when possible. It may particularly occur in studies where material is highly interpretive.

One valuable tip for students is to practice. Students may not be able to predict all the questions but they can practice by answering questions classmates or peers ask them, and by doing so sitting up or standing up straight. On the day of the exam, students should also plan to dress plainly but respectfully, and in keeping with any dress code requirements.

People taking these exams should remember how much they have studied, which is hopefully quite a lot. Nerves can cause information to temporarily evade the smartest student, but taking a deep breath, and reminding the self that the oral exam is a nice way to show off how much has been learned from teachers, can help overcome nervous moments. Any other relaxation techniques that help can be utilized.

Sometimes the oral exam is an alternative form of examination for students with writing problems in grades below or in college. Some students with dysgraphia or with disorders like dyspraxia or non-verbal learning disorder could be exceptional in school performance if they didn’t have to write things down. Parents may be able to use individualized educational plan (IEP) or 504 meetings to inquire about students taking oral tests to demonstrate their knowledge, instead of taking written exams. This request, when granted, often improves students’ grades immensely.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PracticalAdultInsights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By Comparables — On Dec 15, 2010

@ Highlighter- I just took a cumulative final oral examination in French and I feel that i did really well on the exam (I will not know my grade for about a week). I would have loved to find people to speak the language with, but I do not live near campus, and I am taking so many courses that I had no time to get together with a group.

For people in my situation I would like to offer a little advice. My oral exam prep consisted of watching numerous movies in French (over the semester) with the subtitles off. This helped me get a grasp of the situational uses of the language as well as allowed me to hear the language spoken in its natural tone. After completing the movie, I would write a synopsis of the film in English, and describe the lives, physical features, and personalities of three of the movies characters in French. The class was and it all culminated in almost four hours of written and oral exams, but using the movies helped me master the nuances of the language.

By highlighter — On Dec 12, 2010

One of the most common academic oral exams I have encountered is a foreign language oral exam. Foreign language oral exams are meant to test the pronunciation, word use, and ability to comprehend verbal commands and inquiries. I find these exams to be very stressful, but they are not impossible to ace. If you are lucky, your professor might give you an oral exam prep guide, but if not, the best way to prepare is to pay attention in class and practice with a fellow student. Nothing will prepare you better for these exams than hours of practice.

By anon126096 — On Nov 11, 2010

well I think this is nice way of explaining what oral exams are and giving situations where they are used recommendations to overcome nervousness. I have found the information informative and easy to interpret as you mentioned as a mark to give oral tests.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PracticalAdultInsights contributor,...
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