Oral Exams

Nick Menhart, associate professor of biology at Illinois Tech, used Collaborate Ultra's web conferencing to to facilitate oral exams. To accomplish this, Menhart set up individual half-hour appointments with his students to assess learning in BIO 402.

“I did oral exams for BIO 402 midterms and will do so for finals. I will have an even better idea once I get through that.

I have 20 students, and did half-hour sessions, 10:30 a.m. to midnight with a few breaks. It was long, but then it was done. ...I would normally sit a paper exam for two hours, take it home, and grade until midnight or even beyond, so on my end I think the time commitment was similar or actually, I think, shorter. I just had an hour of wrap-up clerical work when it was over.

I did this in Collaborate and gave the students three questions. In the paper exam, they would have seven questions. We have three broad learning objectives in this class; they got one in each area.

In each of the three categories, they could choose the level A/B/C. These had different difficulty and point values. If they got a C question absolutely perfect, it was worth 70%, which is the absolute minimum for a B. More commonly, they would score a few points, so mid-to-high C—or worse on occasion, it is an exam. Ditto B questions; absolutely perfect got 85% bare A, and A question went up to 100% full credit.

Normally on a paper exam, I give student several questions in each category at different levels. Midterms two questions and a final, three—one each ABC; here, students self-selected into the level they were comfortable with. They had a one-time right of refusal, and my random number generator would pick another question. This compensated for lack of choice in each category and, I think, made students a bit less nervous.

I could assess how they were doing, and when they were obviously stuck, I’d say, ‘OK, move on to next question.’ Then we’d loop back. This was pretty efficient, hence the time saving. I can tell pretty quickly in talking to students what they know and what they don’t.

This is chemistry, so typically they had to draw out structures, too. I watched them do this to avoid use of contraband (i.e. DIY proctoring), which I am pretty confident in. I had them do a video sweep of their environment first; I do a brief 15 second spiel about how this made everyone comfortable—the whole class was being assessed fairly. At intervals as we chatted, I had them hold up their work or answer brief questions so I could assess how they were doing. I had them hold up the work to the camera when warranted. And at the end, they took a picture of all their work and sent it to me as PDF. The camera resolution is often poor for students, but it was good enough for me to assess whether there were any alterations in the 10 minutes it took for them to send me a higher-quality PDF. Most students used paper; a few students used whiteboards.

We might need to include a proper doc cam (approximately $100) as a essential class supply for these types of classes—just as we often require textbook, homework website subscriptions, iClickers, or lab fees.

These students were familiar with this system as I have been running my synchronous sessions like this, but with no grading and in a class cohort of approximately 10—have two sessions, I split the class—not individually.”

—Nick Menhardt, associate professor of biology at Illinois Tech