High Impact Practices Purpose of Teaching

Oral Exams

In case you missed it, Molly Worthen’s opinion essay on oral exams in the New York Times offers a lot to consider.

Worthen traces the history of these exams, listing the benefits and problems with this approach to student learning. Though time-consuming and anxiety-inducing, Worthen suggests that this type of exam more closely mirrors the work many of our students will do after graduation. As well, these exams can provoke “eustress,” or the type of stress that leads to growth and deeper learning.

Along the way, Worthen also offers criticisms of pedagogical faddishness, ending her essay on this note:

The most empowering thing a teacher can do for her students has nothing to do with constant surveillance of their academic engagement, fancy classroom technology or a syllabus that caters to the latest trends. It is to simply talk with them, face-to-face, as fellow thinkers.

I think Worthen gets a lot right here, and I also think she offers an opportunity for liberal arts colleges to consider their unique value. Put another way, she asks us to consider: Privileged as we are with small class sizes, how can we use these to empower our students in their educations and after graduation?

Though public speaking is stressful, how can we build an experience that supports our students so that they are excited to do the hard work of thinking on their feet under conditions of uncertainty?