Oral questioning

By Ross Woods © Veritas College International. Adapted and used with permission.

Oral questioning is most useful as an assessment method when questions are open-ended, the assessment needs to address the student's unique situation, and there is no value in getting the student to write it all down.

How to prepare | At the interview | Guidelines | Dangers and pitfalls | Good practice: A story | Bad practice: A story



How to prepare for an assessment by oral questioning

  1. Make a written list of questions you want to ask the student. They will probably be much like those below.
  2. Use a term that is less intimidating than "oral questioning" or "oral exam." The best word I've found is "interview" but even that scares some people.
  3. Set up a time and place for the assessment. The location should put the students at ease. If possible, go to the student's workplace because they will be less nervous on their own turf. They will also be able to show you more about their what they; a look around is very helpful.


At the interview

  1. First, help students to feel relaxed. They will probably be quite nervous and more likely to forget things that they would normally do well at. Avoid making the student feel interrogated.
  2. Ask the student to describe what he/she has done. They might find a story easier to tell.
  3. Ask:
    1. why they did it the way they did.
    2. what major decisions they needed to make.
    3. what kinds of things can go wrong.
    4. the main principles that guided them.
    5. how they evaluate what they have done.
    6. in what situations they would do it differently and why.



  1. Keep written notes. The best way is simply to make brief notes next to the questions.
  2. You do not need to ask questions twice. Quite often students will explain something earlier in the interview that will come up later. You then don't need to ask it.
  3. Use a list of questions that are based on the unit requirements. Give the student a copy of the list too.
  4. Use follow-up questions.
    1. When students talk about what they do, you may need to ask more detail about what they did and why they did it the way they did.
    2. If students give an unclear answer, you may want to ask them to explain it further.
    3. If the student is very nervous, they might forget things that they would otherwise know. A follow-up question can give them a second chance.
    4. Stop asking follow-up questions when it is clear that students either can or can't give a satisfactory answer.
    5. Students who know what to do but have never actually done something that is required might have knowledge but are not yet competent at the skill.


Dangers and pitfalls

  1. Students who have the "gift of the gab" or who present very well are not necessarily competent at what is being assessed. Some are very charming, clever or even slippery, but that doesn't make them competent.
  2. Students who are very nervous, naturally quiet, or inarticulate may be highly competent. It's your job to probe to find out.
  3. If you personally like the student, it will be easy to make the assessment go well and give the student a positive outcome. And if you don't, you are unconsciously biased to giving a negative result.
  4. It is easy (and unfair) to intimidate a student during an oral.
  5. The interview must be free of interruptions, whether telephone or visitors. They can distract the student and make the interview unfair. (The only time that interruptions are a good thing is in a workplace assessment when they demonstrate how well the student copes with a variety of demands at once.)
  6. Don't ask questions that are irrelevant to what is being assessed. It is unfair to add extra requirements.


Good practice: A story

Jacob had found the course difficult. He'd done a project in his local branch and had only limited support from the regional supervisors.

David was asked to give an oral assessment on his project, so he phoned and asked what time would suit. They agreed on a week away, and John said that they'd simply go through his project. David would travel to an outer suburb to Jacob's office.

On the day, David showed up as promised, and Jacob welcomed him very nervously. As David had never visited that branch before, Jacob was very happy to show him around and introduce him to a couple of the staff. David asked about the business, what kind of clients it had, and how it was going. Jacob enjoyed answering the questions and also shared a little of his difficulties with the regional supervisors and what he was doing to improve it. It was clear to David that Jacob had taken on a difficult placement and had made a great deal of progress. They then had coffee and Jacob talked more about how it was going.

The formal part of the assessment came, and David took out several pieces of paper and glanced at them.

Jacob started to panic, but to his surprise, David simply kept on discussing what Jacob's had been doing and  about how Jacob felt the project had gone. He took some time to look through some of the local paperwork. After a little while, Jacob asked when the assessment would begin. David said he'd nearly finished and had only one or two more questions, which Jacob also found quite easy.

Then David said, "That's it. You did really well." They talked for a while longer and then David spend ten minutes making notes.


Bad practice: A story

Peter had enjoyed the project, which he'd done on a very creative kind of business model.

Dr. Smith telephoned him to discuss a time for the oral interview. Peter tried to be flexible, but he was scheduled to speak at a major conference next week. Dr. Smith explained that was the only day he had available and Peter would have to do it then, or accept a failing grade for the whole project. As Dr. Smith was so short of time, Peter would have to come into the campus and do the assessment there.

Reluctantly, Peter cancelled his speaking appointment and bought a plane ticket for the two-hour trip to the campus.

Although the campus was difficult to find, Peter arrived on time. The receptionist seemed quite sure that Dr. Smith was busy with something else that day, but that she would squeeze Peter in somehow.

After a two-hour wait, Peter was ushered in to Dr. Smith's large office with tall, well-stuffed bookshelves. He sat on a low chair where Dr. Smith looked down on him.

Dr. Smith's seat was in front of a window with a beautiful view of the campus. Peter looked but could not see his face in the silhouette.

Dr. Smith mumbled a brief apology and started with a string of difficult questions that generally had nothing to do with the project. He didn't look up to listen to Peter's answers, but kept busily typing notes of some kind into a computer.

Peter suspected that Dr. Smith hadn't read the project or even had any experience in that kind of work. But Peter tried his best, even though his best answers received only a curt acknowledgement and even more difficult questions. He eventually gave up and gave shorter answers and stopped trying to explain how he thought.

After fifteen minutes, Dr. Smith gave the sad news that Peter "didn't really seem on top of it" and he'd send in a report that Peter would need to repeat the project.