Oral versus written assessments

The January 2012 meeting of the Bioscience Pedagogic Research group at the University of Leicester included a “journal club” discussion of a paper Oral versus written assessments: a test of student performance and attitudes by Mark Huxham and colleagues from Napier University, Edinburgh. The paper had recently been published online in advance of a paper copy appearing in the February 2012 edition of Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education.

To kick off the discussion I shared the following slides:

We had a good debate about the paper. For the most-part we thought it was an interesting and thought-provoking study, prompting us to consider greater use of oral examinations in the assessment repertoire at Leicester. A few questions were raised. It was felt to be a pity that the authors had not included an evaluation of the overall staff time involved in oral assessment versus written assessment (particularly for the first year cohort that had been randomly assigned one or other task). This would have been a valuable addition.

I don’t claim to be statistically-minded, but those with greater expertise in this field felt that the Mann-Whitney U-test might have been better than Student’s t-test for comparison of student scores in the oral and written assessments. The notion that a p-value of 0.079 was “not quite a significant difference” (p130) also ruffled some feathers.

Aside from these relatively minor issues, it was felt that the Napier study was a useful addition to the canon on assessment and readers of this short reflection are encouraged to seek out the original paper.

Thanks to Mark Huxham for some e-mail discussion prior to the meeting.


  1. Dear Chris

    Thank you for choosing our paper for discussion – and for explaining it so clearly and fairly in your slides. Its a really good point about the time taken for both types of assessment – if the oral examination lasts 15 minutes per student then it is impossible to do more than say 25 in one day. On the other hand, because the marking has to follow immediately and be quick (otherwise you forget) there is no pile of marking at the end. So it works out perhaps 20-25 min per student, which compares reasonably well with a standard written examination.

    We were surprised at the large apparent benefit for the students of having oral exams – this was one of those pieces of research where the result was not anticipated (at least by us)… so I would encourage folk to consider orals for their courses.

    best wishes

    Mark Huxham

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