What We’re Still Looking 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 have posted something over the last few years that turns 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 Iliad; 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. And you’ve heard arguments that trace the broader arc of plot and character throughout the work. If you sound as though all you know could have been taken from Spark Notes, then we’re not that impressed.  We’d like you to show some fluency in the world of the Iliad. 

We also expect you to retain key elements of the arguments in a Platonic dialogue, or in philosophical essays like Seneca’s On Anger. It won’t work to just say, “Well, I read the Republic and I just don’t buy it.” While it’s fine to push back against arguments in such texts, you have do so with some detail. You don’t get points for gut reactions. Here the hard work you’ve done in your papers can really pay off.

Admittedly a more diffuse narrative text like Ovid’s Metamorphoses can be a challenge to keep in your head. But you can develop strategies to remember the episodes by thinking of their position within larger framing narratives, or by linking them thematically as you study. As always, committing to some level of detail on a part can be as important as getting a sense for the whole. Think which parts of the work connect most relevantly to your brief—that’s one way to prepare for the exam efficiently.

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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