Oral examination – format and procedure

The oral exam is a type of exam that serves as a source of learning for many students, particularly when it is constructively prepared and takes a departure in the learning objectives. The oral exam is very dependent on the examiner’s conscious efforts on both learning objectives and questioning techniques at the exam.

Oral exams do not form a limited genre within the existing exam types. An exam may or may not involve drawing a question or topic, it may or may not include preparation time, it may consist mainly of a student presentation, involve much or little dialogue, have one or more participants, and it may or may not include material (text, picture or other). Oral exams may be part of or serve as the conclusion of a long process that also includes a written product prepared by the student, for example in the case of an oral exam that follows the preparation of a project or a dissertation. However, the oral exam can also be an isolated event, making the student’s performance at the exam the only basis of assessment.

Roles of the examiner and second examiner

It is the examiner’s role to be in charge of the examination. The exam serves as an investigation aimed at providing the most accurate and informative basis possible for the assessment. The examiner’s job is to provide the student with an opportunity to demonstrate the extent to which he/she is able to meet the stipulated objectives and to uncover any shortcomings in that respect.

Usually, the examiner asks the majority of the questions, whereas the second examiner may add comments and make suggestions as to the themes that he or she feels should be discussed. However, unless this has been agreed upon in advance, the second examiner should not take over the examination for longer or shorter periods. Due to the examiner’s role as the interviewer, it will be natural for the second examiner to take extensive notes during the exam. And you cannot change your roles during the day. Even if the examiner is tired of questioning and the second examiner likes to have a little time without taking notes, you cannot switch functions from student to student, because due to the exam order the students have to be equally treated.

The second examiner is the official representative, which means that he or she must ensure that the exam follows the correct procedure. The second examiner must make sure that all examinees are assessed equally and fairly; this includes ensuring that the examiner treats all students equally, that they get approximately the same time etc. In addition, the second examiner must make sure that the basis for assessment is correct, i.e. that a proper description of the objectives of the exam is in place, that an assessment of whether the students meet the objectives is possible, and that the description of objectives provides guidelines for both the exam and the assessment.

Finally, the second examiner must check that the examiners are capable of making the appropriate assessments, i.e. that they possess the appropriate academic qualifications, that they have read any written works included in the assessment, etc. In this respect, the second examiner is also supposed to assess him- or herself.

Exam phases

ses serving each purpose: An initial phase, a central phase, and a final phase. The phases are not equally long. At a 20-minute oral exam, time must be deducted for discussion, feedback, and students getting in and out of the exam room, which means that the time for the actual exam is reduced to about 15 minutes. The 15 minutes could be distributed as follows: Start 3 minutes, central phase 9 minutes, and final phase 3 minutes. You have to be aware, – timekeeping is essential, and all students are supposed to spend the same amount of time in the exam room.

In the initial phase, the most important element is to play down the situation. Many students are unduly nervous, and the intention is not to have them perform under extreme conditions. It will thus often be useful to start by asking general, broad questions or, by means of a question or an invitation, just allow the student to begin. Some exam descriptions or degree regulations provide that the student should start by giving a presentation of a given duration.

Students tend to perceive specific questions as very tough questions that they risk answering incorrectly, and general questions as soft questions they can talk themselves out of by being evasive. However, answers to general questions are just as indicative of what the students know or do not know as specific, narrow questions.

In the central phase, the examination should normally deal with the topics the student wants to talk about as well as other themes. This means that the examiner must be able to move the student from the “home ground” to the ”away ground”. In order to make the examination proceed smoothly, the examiner may benefit from having written down a number of questions in advance. The written questions must not, however, have the effect that the examiner is so focused on asking all the questions that he or she neglects to ask elaborating questions. Elaborating questions are vitally important to allow the examiner to find the limits of a student’s performance. However, elaborating questions are often used to a different end, namely as a tool to emphasize the student’s performance. If elaborating questions are to serve as an assessment tool (as indeed they are), the following principle must be adhered to: If you get good answers, increase the complexity of your questions. If you get poor answers, lower the complexity. Experience shows that many examiners do the opposite.

In the final phase, a suitable tool to get the best conditions for assessment is to ask the student if there are themes that have not been touched upon in the exam, but which he or she finds important. If there are, it is an excellent opportunity to discuss one of the themes. At the same time, it gives the student the opportunity to demonstrate his or her general knowledge and overview of the issue.

Questions and questioning techniques

A very important, contributing factor to the quality of oral exams is the questions. Questioning technique is not only a matter of phrasing questions but also of how questions are organized into themes and how the exam develops or progresses. Good questions are asked at the right moment. Good questions are defined as providing the opportunity to give a good answer, not necessarily “the right answer”, but an answer that illustrates the boundaries between what the student is able to explain and not able. The questions asked must be understandable to the student. They must be phrased in clear and simple language. Questions must take their outset in assumptions, premises, and facts that the examiner and the examinee have in common.

Open and closed questions

In the exam situation, it is important that the questions asked open a possibility for the examinee to unfold his or her knowledge. Consequently, it is useful to operate with the paired concepts of open and closed questions. Open questions call for detailed answers, explanation or justification, whereas closed questions allow only a limited, already defined range of answers. Closed questions can turn the exam into an oral type of multiple choice test, or, particularly in the case of yes-no questions, an interrogation. As an exam technique, obviously, open questions are generally more suitable than closed questions, but this does not mean that it is always possible to completely avoid closed questions. They may be useful in follow-up phases when the framework of a theme or an issue has been clearly established.

The following question is a specific example of how closed questions can be a matter of guessing what is on the examiner’s mind: What term does Luhmann use for that phenomenon? Here, the examiner wants one, correct answer. The right answer is the term that the examiner has read about in Luhmann and is thinking of at that particular moment. In the examiner’s world, he or she is discussing a certain phenomenon with the student. However, the student does not necessarily share that opinion and may give a wrong answer to the question because he or she thinks that a different phenomenon has been discussed in the examination.

However, not all questions are either open or closed. Below are examples of how it is possible to gradually open a question. A slightly more open wording could be: How does Luhmann explain that phenomenon? Or even more open: How would Luhman explain that phenomenon? And yet more open, explicitly offering the student the opportunity to present a personal angle of his or her knowledge: Using Luhmann’s terms, how would you explain the phenomenon? An entirely open question, offering the student the opportunity to select from his or her knowledge and structure the answer: How do you explain that phenomenon? As a follow-up, the examiner can ask more closed and specific questions about Luhmann’s terms or explanations. The latter option presents several advantages:

  • When the examiner asks the student to explain the phenomenon, he or she does not put the student in a situation where it is a question of correct or not. As a result, the student will probably not spend much effort on guessing but rather on providing a good and coherent explanation.
  • It will very soon be obvious from the student’s explanation whether the examiner’s and the student’s perception of the phenomenon match.
  • The student gets the opportunity on his or her own initiative either to use (academic) terms in their explanation, or – if they are not able to do so – give a common sense explanation. Whatever the case, the student is being challenged to give an answer that may serve as a valuable indicator in the final assessment.


Assessment in Denmark is based on the principle of absolute assessment. According to the grading order, the assessment of the student’s performance or proficiency shall take place on the basis of the academic requirements specified for the relevant subject/subject element (awarding of absolute grades). No particular distribution of grades should be aimed for (awarding of relative grades). Read More.

The assessment then is based on an overall evaluation of the student’s performance. This considers the extent of fulfilling (all of) the learning objectives and the number and essence of the weaknesses. When you discuss the grade, your argumentation has to be related to the learning objectives. You are not supposed to relate it to other students’ performances.

Feedback/Explaining the grade to the student

When you explain the grade to the student, you have to relate it to the learning objectives. Be aware:

  • You are not allowed to refer to the discussion you had with the external examiner.
  • Don’t put any adjectives to the grades (like it was the biggest seven ever seen).
  • Don’t ever discuss the grade with the student; you only have to explain the grade.
  • Time will normally be short, but if there is time, it can be very helpful to the student to focus on where it is really needed for the student to improve.