What do we look for in an oral exam?

It’s that time of year when Human Situation students are getting ready for the final oral examination.  Since oral exams are rare and the students are largely freshmen, it’s understandable that they don’t quite know what to expect.  I posted something last year that turned out to be very helpful, so I’m reposting it now with a little freshening up.

First of all, if you’ve seen the rubric, you can tell that we are looking at the full range of texts in the semester.  At a minimum, you should have something to say about every text we read. We don’t expect total recall of the whole text of say, the Odyssey; but it is not unreasonable for us to expect you to remember the names of major characters, the general incidents and outline of the work as well as some details that were personally significant to you. We dwell on particular scenes in discussion and lecture, and we’d expect those discussions to stick in your memory. If you sound as though all you know could have been taken from Spark Notes, then we’re not that impressed.  You should really know who Polyphemus is, what the bow contest was, what’s so special about Odysseus’ bed or his scar, and whom Telemachus visits.

In a text like Plato’s Symposium, we expect you to retain the general nature of the speeches (yes, all of them) and how they relate to each other. We might throw a question at you like: why doesn’t the Symposium just end with the speech of Diotima?  It might be understandable that you’d forget the name Pausanias, but you should definitely remember the name Alcibiades and why his intrusion seems important. (And thanks to that last sentence, you will NOT forget the name Pausanias.)

Some of us are quite open to your challenging philosophical positions in the exam. For example, you might declare you find Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to be seemingly inconsistent; however, expect immediately to be asked to explain the inconsistencies in detail.  It’s not enough to say, “I just don’t buy the argument.”  You should also be careful to review the meanings of words as defined in the context of the course. We might ask you, “What is yoga in the context of the Bhagavad Gita?” or “What would Marcus Aurelius think of kleos as a goal for virtuous action?”

If we are discussing the Hebrew Bible or a Christian work like Augustine’s Confessions, know that we expect you to engage them as texts. We are neither trying to convert you nor subvert your faith; but we are expecting you to enter into the terms and details of those books as texts. You don’t have to be a Christian or a Hindu to address a comparative question like, “How do Plato and Augustine see the nature of the soul’s desire as opposed to the Bhagavad Gita?”

Ultimately, the exam shouldn’t really be all that much about your memory of texts and arguments—it’s not a trivia contest. It’s a lot more about your engagement with the reading. So what’s the difference between a B- and a solid A exam?  Here are some observations.

  1. An A exam feels like the examinee has conviction based upon a thoroughly digested reading of the texts.  This means thinking through the arguments, pulling them apart, comparing them, and coming up with new ideas. Hopefully you have done this in your discussion sections and your papers.  All that previous work is fair to use for the oral final; use it, but build on it. Repetition doesn’t get you much.
  2. An A exam is not one where we have to walk you through the connections.  Sometimes the examiner poses a question that immediately draws two texts into play.  Once you see the connection, a lot of things should fall into place. But if the examiner has to map them out for you, then you get a lot less credit for the discussion.
  3. In an A exam, the examinee is often as ready to teach as to learn. While we don’t expect it to happen in every exam, the fun thing for us is that we sometimes learn to see things differently based on what students say in the oral final. This again reflects not just assimilation of information, but a new synthesis and digestion of all this from your perspective.
  4. In an A exam, there is solid textual detail that naturally comes forward.  While we don’t expect you to remember everything we might mention, we do expect some decent kind of recall.  However, when you offer of your own accord some detailed textual analysis, we can’t help but be impressed. That’s why memorizing some parts of texts is always a great fallback, particularly when they are central to your understanding of the text.
  5. In an A exam, the examinee holds her own without bluster.  This means that in the give and take of questioning, she keeps her poise but also allows herself to think, in order to add judicious insight and nuance to her answers.  One common mistake is to think we’ll read bluster and obstinance as conviction and certainty.  You can get marked down for simply riding one hobby horse through all the texts, so remember that this is a conversation, not a debate tournament.  Learning to concede points, to qualify claims, or to reflect on the implications of a line of reasoning are all part of critical thinking. There is more to critical discourse than talking fast. Sometimes taking a moment to ponder and formulate an answer to a good question looks quite respectable.
  6. In terms of the show ChoppedYou need to use all of the ingredients from the basket, but it’s not enough just to toss them on the plate. You need to transform the ingredients and give us a real sense of your cooking skills.

Lastly, these observations are not made as some kind of ideal of what an A exam should be.  These are actual descriptions of what A exams are like, from the point of view of the examiner. There really are people out there who will get an A.  It’s not easy to do, but people do succeed at this all the time. And we are always very proud of them.  Good luck!

About richarda18

Associate Professor of Classical Studies The Honors College at the University of Houston
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