You are facing an oral exam and you do not really know what to expect? The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) has compiled tips to help you succeed in your exam.
An oral exam is all about competently demonstrating your knowledge. You should be able to present your knowledge and your competences, reflect on them and discuss them. Often, it is expected that you can both provide an overview and focus on the details. Apart from content-related competences, fluency of speech, clarity of expression, body language and social competences are also important in an oral exam. In this blog contribution, you will find a few tips that can help you to optimally shape your examination talk. And do not forget: There is more than one way to reach a goal.
Preparing for the exam
- Find out everything you need to know about the exam procedure. Do you have to give a short presentation? Will the oral exam take the form of a conversation? What is more important – detailed knowledge or a broad overview? Are there any time guidelines regarding the exam procedure? What questions were posed to previous students?
- Do not only prepare by studying the relevant subject-specific content of the oral exam, but also practise the presentation of your knowledge. Formulate possible questions and practise answering them – in a loud voice, if you want.
- Organise practice opportunities with other students who prepare for the same exam. Discuss the topic of the exam in your study group, talk about it in all its facets and present it in a controversial way. This way, you get a broad overview of the content while also practising rhetoric skills that will be important for the oral exam.
- Prepare a written concept for oral exams that do not have a strictly specified procedure and that give you sufficient room to shape the exam. In this concept, you specify how you plan to structure the exam. Before the exam, consider an introduction to the topic as well as wordings of the most important trains of thought and lines of reasoning, so that you can present them if need be.
As an examination candidate, you should take an active role and use any opportunities to shape the exam. Not all oral exams are held in a pure ‘question and answer’ format. Indeed, they can be influenced more than you might be aware of.
- Try to let the exam become a professional discussion by showing that you have reflected on and understood the topic. Demonstrate that you are able to establish relations and to use your knowledge by giving examples.
- There is no general formula for answering exam questions since the dynamic of each exam is different. However, it can be helpful to let yourself be guided by the three-step structure for answers.
- Generally classify the question by stating the subject area to which it belongs or a key concept.
- Answer the question in a content-related way by elaborating on the most important aspects and by using subject-specific terminology.
- Support your argumentation with an example.
- If possible, guide the exam by presenting a prepared introduction in which you point out different questions and points of discussion. Start with your favourite topic and use your speaking time. Even in group exams, you can influence and guide the exam by referring to specific topics.
- Pay attention to your language. Structure your statements in a precise and logical way and use subject-specific terminology.
- Focus on the gist of the question and emphasise the main points. You can give the question a certain emphasis by using interpretative formulations, such as ‘This question has different aspects. First, I want to elaborate on aspect X.’ or ‘With this question, you mean that …’.
- Ask clarifying questions if you did not understand the initial question. Ask the examiner to repeat the question if you do not yet know the answer and need time to think about it. If your answer is very brief, you could refer to an area that suits you more when giving your answer. In any event, try to continue the conversation.
- In case of difficult or problem-oriented questions, you can outline possible approaches to a solution through loud thinking. This way, you give the examiner the opportunity to follow your train of thought.
- Try to keep cool. Calmly listen to the exam question, think about it and then present your answer in a structured way. Even if you are nervous, you should in no case interrupt the examiner.
- Do not take criticism or unsettling body language personally.
Follow-up of the exam
- In a differentiated way, think about what was good and what did not work well (e.g. knowledge, time schedule for the exam preparation, presentation, reaction to questions and comments). It is crucial to not only make yourself aware of your shortcomings but also of your successes.
- Talk to other students who also completed this exam about their experiences.
- Draw conclusions from this knowledge for future exams.
Good luck with your exam. 🍀
Click this link to download an extensive checklist for preparing for and shaping oral exams (in German).