Online Assessment from a STEM Faculty Perspective Part 1: Oral Exams

Online Assessment from a STEM Faculty Perspective Part 1: Oral Exams

By Dr. Sabine Lang and Lexi Schlosser, OTL Faculty Developer of Online Learning

When thinking through assessment in online courses, are you considering how to observe students’ interactions with the course material? Your answer to this question may look differently depending upon the context of your course. Dr. Sabine Lang, from the University of Denver’s Mathematics Department facilitates online assessment in her courses through multi-modal approaches, offering students multiple opportunities to engage with the content and test their knowledge. This approach positions students at the center of the pedagogy, which can at times feel like it puts extra work on the instructor but ensures that course assessments are providing students with the opportunity to deepen their understanding of the content (Wright, 2011). In this two-part blog series, we will consider two approaches to online assessment. This week, we are talking about oral exams. Look out for next week’s post, where we will talk about group exams.

Lang’s course structure looks differently for every course, however the trend you will notice from her syllabi include formative assessment approaches, which offer students the opportunity to test the understanding of their knowledge and do so in low-stakes, non-traditional ways. To explain further, students in Lang’s courses have the opportunity to test their knowledge multiple times throughout the quarter. Assessments in Calculus for Business and Social Sciences are facilitated through different modalities, aligning with the section’s content. As the students are learning about extrema and concavity, they are then assessed through oral. This involves one-on-one synchronous meetings to administer the exam, and depending upon your class size, this may be an accessible assessment to adopt in your course. By keeping the exam time relatively short, and spreading the meetings over several days, the time commitment feels reasonable.

While oral exams might be common in other disciplines, they are rarely used in undergraduate STEM classes. Originally, some faculty members started using oral exams in Math 1200 (Calculus for Business and Social Sciences) because of the transition to online classes. Because a large portion of the material taught in this class could easily be done by any online calculator, it became even more important to focus on how students get to their answers, instead of solely the final result.

The use of this exam format in Math 1200 was first motivated by concerns about cheating, but the benefits are much more substantial. If a student were to misinterpret the problem or get stuck, for example, they have a chance to correct their work after getting immediate feedback. On the other hand, students with a good understanding of the material can demonstrate the entirety of their knowledge, as the instructor can push them further by asking follow-up questions. Oral exams provide students with the opportunity to reach levels of understanding that they may not reach when answering traditional multiple-choice exams (Fitzgerald, 2016).

From the teacher’s perspective, oral exams provide quick but precise feedback about the students’ knowledge. Lang finds it helpful to use oral exams earlier in the term, as she can use what she learns from her students to adapt the class to their needs. Additionally, Lang noticed one unexpected benefit, as oral exams in large online classes helped her build a relationship with her students.  “The oral exam gave me some one-on-one time with each student. A few students who were struggling felt more comfortable and reached out to me right after or during this exam meeting.”

The introduction of this unusual format of assessment in a math class was not easy, but a careful approach can help the students accept this change. Some of the strategies that Lang used and learned along the way include:

    • using oral exams for a relatively small part of the grade, and reminding students that another part of their grade comes from assessments in a format that they are used to-
    • providing the students with the exam rubric ahead of time, so that they know what to expect-
    • explaining the benefit of oral exams on learning to the students-
    • reminding the students that every group work time is an opportunity to practice explaining their mathematical reasoning, hence, to practice for the oral exam; and-
    • encouraging students to come to office hours beforehand, so that they are comfortable talking about the class content with their instructor.

It is up to the instructor whether they plan for their oral exams to be associated as high stakes in the grading scheme, however, low-stakes oral exams can provide for authentic check-in on the students understanding of the concept. If you are looking for ways to offer more formative assessment in your course, consider adopting oral exams that both challenge your students’ thinking on the course concept and offer valuable feedback on student content interpretations.

For those of you thinking about adopting oral exams in your course and want to explore additional ways for facilitation, consider how this can transfer to the asynchronous learning environment. DU supports Educational Technology tools that can support oral exams, such as Kaltura Video Capture and Zoom recording. Both tools integrate with Canvas and can be used to administer your online oral exams. Learn more about these tools here.

Interested in learning more about how to enhance assessment and align with best practices of online assessment in your course(s)? Sign up for a one-on-one consultation with an Instructional Designer in our office or contact the


Fitzgerald, C. W. (2016). The pros and cons of oral examinations in undergraduate education. Center for Teaching Excellence, United Stated Military Academy

Kirkland, T. (2017). Want your students to learn more? Test them in groups!

Williamson, M. H. (2018). Online exams: the need for best practices and overcoming challenges. The Journal of Public and Professional Sociology. Vol. 10: Issue. 1. Article 2. 

Wright, G. B. (2011). Student-Centered Learning in Higher Education. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Vol. 23. 3, 92-97.