Silence is Golden

A recent post in Tomorrow’s Professor by Joseph Finckel, Associate Professor of English at Asnuntuck Community College in Connecticut, suggested an innovative approach to teaching courses that have a discussion-based component. He writes: “I teach English, and midway through the spring 2013 semester, I lost my voice. Rather than cancelling my classes, I taught all my courses, from developmental English to Shakespeare, without saying a word.”

Black and white drawing of a man with his mouth taped shut.In The Silent Professor, Finckel notes that with an instructor-centric approach, talking is often confused with teaching. What he observed when he had laryngitis has compelled him to “lose his voice” at least once a semester since. “A wealth of literature focuses on active learning and learner-centered instruction, but I submit that nothing empowers learners as immediately and profoundly as does removing the professor’s voice from the room.”

Finckel points out that there are non-verbal actions the instructor can employ such as writing on the board, posing questions by typing into a projected document, and using gestures. Further, he tells us that considering when and for what reasons to speak assists developing “…an intentional, reflective teaching practice.” Student response has been positive. Finckel feels that is because he is creating a situation where learning will occur. “Teaching without talking forces students to take ownership of their own learning and shifts the burden of silence from teacher to student. It also forces us to more deliberately plan our classes, because we relinquish our ability to rely on our knowledge and experience in the moment.”

Although such an approach wouldn’t be appropriate for a large lecture class, it is useful to think about whether talking too much or too soon inhibits students. In working with faculty who teach discussion-based courses, one pitfall is being afraid of the silence after asking a question. It’s all too easy to fall into the habit of answering the question yourself when the silence is deafening. That simply reinforces the students’ belief that if they wait long enough, they’ll be off the hook.

Check out the article for more details on implementing the silent approach. Maybe that next case of laryngitis will be an opportunity rather than bad luck.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source:

Making Maps Making Connections

Using mapping as a learning tool for students offers several outcomes. Students develop skills in framing material within temporal and geospatial constructs. The ability to layer data and various media types in creating a map furthers critical thinking and gives students opportunities to understand course content in a complex spatial context. Mapping can be thought of beyond the sense of traditional cartography; we can use images of the universe, floor plans of a building, or molecular structures as the basis for maps on which students can build a story pertaining to their course work and/or research. Fortunately, there are some great tools, freely available, for you and your students to use for mapping projects.

Previously in a post on Resources for Multimedia Creation (October 8, 2014) I mentionedAn 1691 French map of the city of Kamianets-Podilskyi, located in western Ukraine. Google Maps for developers. “With Google Maps Application Programming Interface (API) users can expand, customize, and embed maps and mapping tools into their websites. This includes combining Flickr (the photo sharing website) content with maps. These work well with Google Sites and Google Docs.” Check out the tutorials and articles to get an idea of the types of projects Google Maps will support.

Harvard World Map, developed at Harvard University, is described as “…an online, open source mapping platform developed to lower barriers for scholars who wish to explore, visualize, edit, and publish geospatial information.  The system attempts to address the gap between desktop GIS which is generally light on collaboration, and web-based mapping systems which often don’t support the inclusion of large datasets.” Harvard World Map allows users to import and make visual large GIS data sets. The application facilitates the use of multiple layers to create complex visualizations. Maps can be kept private or shared. There are examples on the homepage as well as a large number of shared maps found under View a Map. This would be a good option for someone wishing to examine correlations among several data sets without having to deal with the steeper learning curve of a program such as ArcView GIS.

For those using Omeka [see,, and a previous Innovative Instructor post, Omeka for Instruction], the Neatline plugin offers a set of tools to allow “…scholars, students, and curators to tell stories with maps and timelines.” Neatline was developed at the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library. Omeka and Neatline are designed specifically to support online collections and exhibitions. Take a look at the demos to get a sense of the rich and complex ways in which cultural heritage artifacts, photographs, or other documentation can be layered over maps to provide complex and nuanced interpretive readings of the collected materials.

If you are teaching in the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences or the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins, there is another option: Reveal.  Developed here at the Center for Educational Resources, Reveal uses mapping, in the sense of the term that refers to hierarchical image mapping, combined with annotation. “Reveal is a web application for annotating images with rich multimedia content. Using Reveal, you can create a website where image annotations link to image, audio and video resources to illustrate visual relationships.” Watch the video to get a better idea of how Reveal works. Reveal uses JHU authentication and for the present is available only to those teaching on the Homewood Campus.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: – An 1691 French map of the city of Kamianets-Podilskyi, located in western Ukraine.

PowerPoint in the Classroom

Do you use PowerPoint (or Keynote, Prezi or other presentation software) as part of your teaching? If yes, why? This is not meant to be a question that puts you on the defensive, rather to ask you to reflect on how the use of a presentation application enhances your teaching and fits in with other strategies to meet your learning objectives for the class.

Cartoon-like drawing of a presenter showing a slide to a sleeping/snoring audience.It’s been almost three years since The Innovative Instructor wrote on using PowerPoint in the classroom. See Polishing your PowerPoints, a post that covered some tips for creating more effective slides, citing a book by Nancy Duarte called Slide:ology [Nancy Duarte, Slide:ology,  O’Reilly Media, Inc., 2008].

A key point from that post to reiterate: “Duarte reports on research showing that listening and reading are conflicting cognitive processes, meaning that your audience can either read your slides or listen to you; they cannot do both at the same time. However, our brains can handle simultaneous listening to a speaker and seeing relevant visual material.”

It’s important to keep this in mind, particularly if your slides are text heavy. Your students will be scrambling to copy the text verbatim without actually processing what is being said. On the other hand, if your slides are used as prompts (presenting questions or key points with minimal text) or if you don’t use slides at all, students will have to listen to what you are saying, and summarize those concepts in their notes. This process will enhance their understanding of the material.

An article in Focus on Teaching from August 1, 2012 by Maryellen Weimer, PhD asks us to consider Does PowerPoint Help or Hinder Learning? Weimer references a survey of students on the use of PowerPoint by their instructors. A majority of students reported that all or most of their instructors used PowerPoint. Weimer’s expresses the concern that “Eighty-two percent [of students surveyed] said they “always,” “almost always,” or “usually” copy the information on the slides.” She asks, “Does copying down content word-for-word develop the skills needed to organize material on your own? Does it expedite understanding the relationships between ideas? Does it set students up to master the material or to simply memorize it?” Further, she notes that PowerPoint slides that serve as an outline or use bulleted lists may “oversimplify” complex content, encourage passivity, and limit critical thinking.

Four journal articles from Cell Biology Education on PowerPoint in the Classroom (2004 Fall) present different points of view (POV) on the use of PowerPoint. Although written over a decade ago, most of the concepts are still relevant. Be aware that some of the links are no longer working. From the introduction to the series:

Four POVs are presented: 1) David Keefe and James Willett provide their case why PowerPoint is an ideal teaching software. Keefe is an educational researcher at the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International. Willett is a professor at George Mason University in the Departments of Microbial and Molecular Bioscience; as well as Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. 2) Kim McDonald highlights the causes of PowerPointlessness, a term which indicates the frequent use of PowerPoint as a crutch rather than a tool. She is a Bioscience Educator at the Shodor Education Foundation, Inc. 3) Diana Voss asks readers if PowerPoint is really necessary to present the material effectively or not. Voss is a Instructional Computing Support Specialist at SUNY Stony Brook. 4) Cynthia Lanius takes a light-hearted approach to ask whether PowerPoint is a technological improvement or just a change of pace for teacher and student presentations. Lanius is a Technology Integration Specialist in the Sinton (Texas) Independent School District.

These are short, op-ed style, pieces that will further stimulate your thinking on using presentation software in your teaching.

For more humorous, but none-the-less thought provoking approach, see Rebecca Shuman’s anti-PowerPoint tirade featured in Slate (March 7, 2014): PowerPointless. With the tagline, “Digital slideshows are the scourge of higher education,” Shuman reminds us that “A presentation, believe it or not, is the opening move of a conversation—not the entire conversation.”

Shuman offers a practical guide for those, like her, who do use presentation software, but seek to avoid abusing it. “It is with a few techniques and a little attention, possible to ensure that your presentations rest in the slim minority that are truly interactive and actually help your audience learn.”, the website Shuman references, discusses the use of presentation software broadly, not just for academics, but has many useful ideas and tips. 

For a resource specific to academic use, see the University of Central Florida’s Faculty Center for Teaching & Learning’s Effective Use of PowerPoint. The experts at the Center examine the advantages and challenges of using presentation software in the classroom, suggest approaches to take, and discuss in detail using PowerPoint for case studies, with clickers, as worksheets, for online (think flipped classes as well) teaching, the of use presenter view, and demonstrate best practices for delivery and content construction.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC Oliver Tacke

To Curve or Not to Curve Revisited

Yellow traffic signs showing a bell curve and a stylized graph referencing criterion-referenced grading.The practice of normalizing grades, more popularly known as curving, was a subject of an Innovative Instructor post, To Curve or Not to Curve on May 13, 2013. That article discussed both norm-referenced grading (curving) and criterion-referenced grading (not curving). As the practice of curving has become more controversial in recent years, an op-ed piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times caught my eye. In Why We Should Stop Grading Students on a Curve (The New York Times Sunday Review, September 10, 2016), Adam Grant argues that grade deflation, which occurs when teachers use a curve, is more worrisome than grade inflation. First, by limiting the number of students who can excel, other students who may have mastered the course content are unfairly punished. Second, curving creates a “toxic” environment, a “hypercompetitive culture” where one student’s success means another’s failure.

Grant, a professor of psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, cites evidence that curving is a “disincentive to study.” Taking observations from his work as an organizational psychologist and applying those in his classroom, Grant has found he could both disrupt the culture of cutthroat competition and get students to work together as a team to prepare for exams. Teamwork has numerous advantages in both the classroom and the workplace as Grant details. Another important aspect is “…that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it.” When students study together for an exam they benefit from each other’s strengths and expertise. Grant details the methods he used in constructing the exams and how his students have leveraged teamwork to improve their scores on course assessments. One device he uses is a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-type “lifeline” for students taking the final exam. While his particular approaches may not be suitable for your teaching, the article provides food for thought.

Because I am not advocating for one way of grading over another, but rather encouraging instructors to think about why they are taking a particular approach and whether it is the best solution, I’d like to present a counter argument. In praise of grading on a curve by Eugene Volokh appeared in The Washington Post on February 9, 2015. “Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.” He counters some of the standard arguments against curving by pointing out that students and exams will vary from year to year making it difficult to draw consistent lines between, say an A- and B+ exam. This may be even more difficult for a less experienced teacher. Volokh also believes in the value of the curve for reducing the pressure to inflate grades. He points out that competing law schools tend to align their curves, making it an accepted practice for law school faculty to curve. As well, he suggests some tweaks to curving that strengthen its application.

As was pointed out in the earlier post, curving is often used in large lecture or lab courses that may have multiple sections and graders, as it provides a way to standardize grades. However, that issue may be resolved by instructing multiple graders how to assign grades based on a rubric. See The Innovative Instructor on creating rubrics and calibrating multiple graders.

Designing effective assessments is another important skill for instructors to learn, and one that can eliminate the need to use curving to adjust grades on a poorly conceived test. A good place to start is Brown University’s Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning webpages on designing assessments where you will find resources compiled from a number of Teaching and Learning Centers on designing “assessments that promote and measure student learning.”  The topics include: Classroom Assessment and Feedback, Quizzes, Tests and Exams, Homework Assignments and Problem Sets, Writing Assignments, Student Presentations, Group Projects and Presentations, Labs, and Field Work.

Macie Hall, Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: © Reid Sczerba, 2013.



Considerations for Digital Assignments

Image of the handout on considerations for digital assignments

My colleague in the Center for Educational Resources, Reid Sczerba, and I often consult with faculty who are looking for alternative assignments to the traditional research paper. Examples of such assignments include oral presentations, digital and print poster presentations, virtual exhibitions, using timelines and mapping tools to explore temporal and spatial relationships, blogging, creating videos or podcasts, and building web pages or websites.

Reid, who is a graphic designer and multimedia specialist, put together a handy chart to help faculty think about these assignments in advance of a face-to-face consultation with us. A PDF version of this handout is available for your convenience. The text from the chart is reprinted below.

Learning objectives
♦ Have you determined your learning objectives for this assignment? Deciding what you would like your students to learn or be able to do helps to frame the parameters of your assignment.

Type of assignment
♦Will there be analysis and interpretation of a topic or topics to produce a text-based and/or visual-based project? Consider alternatives to a traditional research paper.
♦Will there be a need to document objects or materials for a catalog, exhibition, or repository? Defining meaningful metadata and the characteristics of research materials will be important considerations.

Access and visibility
♦Will you want the students’ work to be made open to the public, seen just at JHU, or shared only with the class? Decide up front whether to have students’ work be public or private in order to get their consent and choose the best platform for access.
♦ Will they be working with copyrighted materials? The fair use section of the Copyright Act may provide some latitude, but not all educational uses are fair use.

♦Will you want students to work collaboratively as a class, in small groups, or individually?
Group work has many benefits but there are challenges for assessment and in ensuring that students do their fair share of the work.
♦ Will you want the students’ work to be visible to others in the class or private to themselves or their group?
Consider adding a peer review component to the assignment to help the students think critically about their work.

♦ Will you want your students to have a choice of media to express their research or will all students use the same solution?
An open-ended choice of format could allow students to play to their strengths, leading to creativity. On the other hand, too many choices can be daunting for some, and it may be challenging to assess different projects equally.
♦ What would be the ideal presentation of the student’s work?

• spatially arranged content (mapping, exhibition)
• temporally arranged content (timeline)
• narrative (website, blog)
• oral presentation
• visual presentation (poster, video)

Formats for digital assignments are not limited to this list. More than one approach can be used if the result fulfills the learning objectives for the assignment.

Some of the solutions that we have recommended to faculty in the past are OmekaOmeka NeatlineTimeline JSPanopto (JHU), Reveal (JHU), Google tools (Google SitesGoogle Maps, Google Docs), Voicethread (JHU), and WordPress.


Reid Sczerba, Multimedia Development Specialist
Center for Educational Resources

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Image of the handout created by Reid Sczerba

The Fallacy of Fairness

Poster for Dr. Jo Handelsman seminar held on March 8, 2016.Back in March (March 8, 2016), Dr. Jo Handelsman, Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and (see more here) Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and Frederick Phineas Rose Professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale University, gave a seminar at Johns Hopkins. The talk, made possible through a Diversity Innovation Grant from the Johns Hopkins Diversity Leadership Council, was titled The Fallacy of Fairness: Confronting Bias in Academic Science. We are fortunate that a video of the talk is now available. Handelsman, who has done important research on women and minorities in STEM fields, discusses the strengths that diversity offers, scientists’ claim to meritocracy, how unconscious bias weakens the STEM pipeline, and offers actions and policies to confront and address bias.

The video is 80 minutes long including introductions and the question and answer session that followed Handelsman’s talk. Among the many thought-provoking points Handelsman made, it was particularly interesting to learn that women are equally as likely as men to be unconsciously biased towards other women when it comes to hiring, mentoring, and awarding salaries. Moreover, the unconscious bias holds across all types of educational. Although Handelsman focuses on STEM disciplines, the message is an important one for all in the academy.

I’d also like to point you to the blog edited by Dr. Karen Fleming, Professor in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Biophysics, Overcoming Bias & Barriers to Women in Science / Achieving Gender Equity in Science. Dr. Fleming was one of the organizers of the Handelsman seminar, along with JHU Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professor Jeffry J. Gray, and Julia Koehler Leman, postdoctoral fellow, and Dominic Scalise,  graduate student, both in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.  Also of interest on this topic is the video of a talk by Dr. Fleming given at the October 2014 JHU Diversity Conference: Achieving Gender Equity in STEM: How Can Women Move Beyond Bias & Barriers?


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Poster for Dr. Jo Handlesman JHU seminar, March 8, 2016.


Writing Effective Learning Objectives

The following post first appeared as an article in our Innovative Instructor print series.

Illustration of a light bulb with the word goals forming the filament and being written by a hand holding a pencil.Effective teaching depends upon effective planning and design. The first step in preparing a high quality course is to clearly define your educational goals, which are the broad, overarching expectations for student learning and performance at the end of your course. Next is to determine your learning objectives by writing explicit statements that describe what the student(s) will be able to do at the end of each class or course module. This includes the concepts they need to learn, and the skills they need to acquire and be able to apply.

Learning objectives are made up of 3 parts:

  1. Behavior: a description of what the learner will be able to do.
  2. Criterion: the quality or level of performance that will be considered acceptable.
  3. Conditions: a description of conditions under which the student will perform the behavior.

The following is a learning objective that has each of the three parts listed above:  After completing this class students will be able to write an historical article in chronological order when given a random list of events about the Second World War.

Instructors should be thinking about what a successful student in their course should be able to do on completion. Questions to ask are: What concepts should they be able to apply? What kinds of analysis should they be able to perform? What kind of writing should they be able to do? What types of problems should they be solving? Learning objectives provide a means for clearly describing these things to learners, thus creating an educational experience that will be meaningful.

Clearly defined objectives form the foundation for selecting appropriate content,Diagram of the relationships between Learning Objectives and Learning Activities and Evaluation Plan indicating that learning objectives should both inform and be informed by learning activities and the evaluation plan. learning activities and evaluation plans. Learning objectives allow you to:

  • plan the sequence for instruction, allocate time to topics, assemble materials and plan class outlines.
  • develop a guide to teaching allowing you to plan different instructional methods for presenting different parts of the content. (e.g. small group discussions of a common misconception).
  • facilitate various evaluation activities, evaluating students, evaluating instruction and even evaluating the curriculum.

Learning objectives should have the following SMART attributes.

  • Specific – objectives that are clearly stated and consistent with the goals of the curriculum.
  • Measurable – data can be collected to measure student learning.
  • Appropriate – for the level of the learner.
  • Realistic – objectives that are doable.
  • Tailored – to the worthy or important stuff.

Another useful tip for learning objectives is to use behavioral verbs that are observable and measurable. Fortunately, Bloom’s taxonomy provides a list of such verbs [see this list from Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence] and these are categorized according to the level of achievement at which students should be performing. (See “Bloom’s Taxonomy: Action Speaks Louder” from the Innovative Instructor series). Using concrete verbs will help keep your objectives clear and concise.

Here is a selected, but not definitive, list of verbs to consider using when constructing learning objectives: assemble, construct, create, develop, compare, contrast, appraise, defend, judge, support, distinguish, examine, demonstrate, illustrate, interpret, solve, describe, explain, identify, summarize, cite, define, list, name, recall, state, order, perform, measure, verify, relate.

While the verbs above clearly distinguish the action that should be performed, there are a number of verbs to avoid when writing a learning objective. The following verbs are too vague or difficult to measure: appreciate, cover, realize, be aware of, familiarize, study, become acquainted with, gain knowledge of, comprehend, know, learn, understand.

Since Blooms taxonomy establishes a framework for categorizing educational goals, having an understanding of these categories is useful for planning learning activities and ultimately, writing their learning objectives. The following list of learning objectives are written at each of the six levels in Bloom’s taxonomy.

  • Remembering: The students will recall the four major food groups without error.
  • Understanding: The students will summarize the main events of a story in grammatically correct English.
  • Applying: The students will multiply fractions in class with 90% accuracy.
  • Analyzing: Students will discriminate among a list of possible steps to determine which one(s) would lead to increased reliability for a testing a concept.
  • Evaluating: Evaluate the appropriateness of the conclusions reached in a research study based on the data presented.
  • Creating: After studying the current economic policies of the United States, student groups will design their own fiscal and monetary policies.

Additional Resources


Richard Shingles, Lecturer, Biology Department

Richard Shingles is a faculty member in the Biology department and also works with the Center for Educational Resources at Johns Hopkins University. He is the Director of the TA Training Institute and The Summer Teaching Institute on the Homewood campus of JHU. Dr. Shingles also provides pedagogical and technological support to instructional faculty, post-docs and graduate students.

Images source: © Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources, 2016


Updating the BlogRoll

The Center for Educational Resources launched The Innovative Instructor blog four years ago in September 2012. Recently, in my role as editor, I was checking over the pages and links to be sure that everything still worked. I realized that several of the blogs featured on the BlogRoll had ceased to be or were no longer being updated. Three down.

Screenshot of WordPress administrative menu to add new content.What to add? There are many good education-related blogs out there so it was difficult to narrow the choice to three. And I wanted to find candidates that didn’t overlap in too much in focus and philosophy. Here are the winners, which you can find linked on the right sidebar under BLOGROLL. Scroll down past RECENT POSTS, RECENT COMMENTS, ARCHIVES, and CATEGORIES.

Agile Learning is Derek Bruff’s blog on teaching and technology. Bruff is director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He says about Agile Learning, “This is my blog, where I write about topics that interest me: educational technology, visual thinking, student motivation, faculty development, how people learn, social media, and more.” Recent posts have covered Teaching with Digital Timelines, Flipping the Literature Class, and In-Class Collaborative Debate Mapping, or How a Mathematician Teaches a Novel.

Pedagogy Unbound is a regular column covering pedagogical advice from Vitae, a service of The Chronicle of Higher Education. David Gooblar is the editor/columnist. Gooblar is a lecturer in the Rhetoric Department at the University of Iowa. He describes the site as a place for college instructors to share teaching strategies. Recent columns include Learning More About Active Learning, 4 Simple Ways to Help Them Persist, and Start Planning Now for Next Semester.

Faculty Focus  from Magna Publications “…publishes articles on effective teaching strategies for the college classroom — both face-to-face and online.” Magna Publications serves the higher ed community.  Faculty Focus covers a range of topics primarily teaching-related, but also things such as academic leadership, edtech news and trends, and faculty evaluation. There is a lot of useful content on the site from practical to pedagogical. The Teaching Professor Blog will be of particular interest with recent posts on What Does Student Engagement Look Like? and a follow-up Six Things Faculty Can Do to Promote Student Engagement.

If your summer “to do” list included catching up on new teaching strategies, these sites will provide you with plenty of inspirational reading material.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source:

Fair Play—Gaming to Identify and Understand Racial Bias

A colleague recently attended an academic conference during which he had an opportunity to attend a workshop demonstrating Fair Play. Fair Play, a video game developed at the University of Wisconsin with awards from the National Institutes of Health, the Gates Millennium Foundation and supported by the University of Wisconsin System Administration’s Growth Agenda for Wisconsin grant program, allows players the opportunity to simulate the complex experience of a graduate student. Specifically, according to the website, “Fair Play provides players with the opportunity to take the perspective of Jamal Davis, a Black graduate student on his way to becoming a renowned professor. In this game, players experience racial bias during interactions with other characters, as well as in the virtual environment.”

Screen shot taken from the Fair Play website showing the four main characters and a link to the Fair Play Game Trailer.Players move through five chapters experiencing typical graduate school challenges (identifying an advisor, managing funding, making friends, publishing, and attending conferences); these are magnified through the lens of being an African American confronting biases. The goal is to identify and name biases.

While workshops, such as the one my colleague attended, are available, it is easy to download and play the game on your own. You can view a trailer to get an idea of the content. Even novice gamers will pick up the navigation quickly as the interface is straightforward and explanations are provided along the way. The exercise is enlightening. Although the game centers around graduate student activities, the lessons to be learned are universal, and would benefit faculty and graduate student future faculty alike.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source: Fair Play Screenshot:

Rethinking Oral Examinations for Undergraduate Students

Oral examinations, also called viva voce, have long been associated with graduate studies, but many years ago, when I was an undergraduate, oral exams were not unheard of. All undergraduates at my university were required to write a thesis, and many of us took comprehensive written and oral examinations in our fields. I had several courses in my major field, art history, which held oral examinations as the final assessment of our work. At the time, this practice was not uncommon in British and European universities for undergraduates. Since then it has become a rarity both here and abroad, replaced by other forms of assessment for undergraduate students.

Stack of triangular, caution-type road signs with red border and the word TEST in the white center.Recently I learned that Richard Brown, Director of Undergraduate Studies and an associate teaching professor in the JHU Department of Mathematics, had experimented with oral examinations of his undergraduate students in Honors Multivariable Calculus.

Some background: Honors Multivariable Calculus is designed to be a course for students who are very interested in mathematics, but are still learning basics. Students must have the permission of the instructor to enroll. They are likely to be highly motivated learners. In this instance, Brown had only 6 students in the class—five freshmen and one sophomore. For the freshmen, this fall course was their first introduction to a college math course. They came in with varying levels of skill and knowledge, knowing that the course would be challenging. The course format was two 75 minute lectures a week and one hour-long recitation (problem solving) session with a graduate student teaching assistant. This is the part of the course where students work in an interactive environment, applying theory to practice, answering questions, and getting an alternate point of view from the graduate student assistant instructor.

Assessments in the course included two in-class midterms (written and timed), weekly graded homework assignment (usually problems), and the final exam. As Brown thought about the final exam, he realized that he had already seen his students approach to timed and untimed “mathematical writing” in the midterms and homeworks. So, why not try a different environment for the final and do an oral examination? He discussed the concept with the students in class and allowed the students to decide as a class which option they preferred. The students agreed to the oral exam.

Brown made sequential appointments with the students, giving them 20 minutes each for the exam. He asked them different questions to minimize the potential for sharing information, but the questions were of the same category. For example, one student might be asked to discuss the physical or geometric interpretation of Gauss’s Theorem, and another would be given the same question about Stokes’s Theorem. If a student got stuck in answering, Brown would reword the question or provide a small hint. In contrast, on a written exam, if a student gets stuck, they are stuck. You may never identify exactly what they know and don’t know. Another advantage, Brown discovered, was that by seeing how a student answered a question, he could adjust follow up questions to get a deeper understanding of the student’s depth of learning. He could probe to assess understanding or push to see how far the student could go. He found the oral exam gave him a much more comprehensive view of their knowledge than a written one.

In terms of grading, Brown noted that by the end of the semester he knew the students quite well and had a feel for their levels of comprehension, so in many ways the exam was a confirmation. He did not have a written rubric for the exam, as he did for the midterms, but he did take notes to share with the students if they wanted to debrief on their performance. He saw this as a more subjective assessment, balanced by the relatively objective assessment of the homeworks and midterms.

Following up with students after the exam, Brown found that four of the six students really liked the format and found it easier than anticipated. Only two of the students had planned to become majors at the start of the course, but ultimately four declared a mathematics major. Brown noted that he would like to use the oral examination again in the future, but felt that it would not be possible with more than 10 students in a class.

After talking with Brown, I searched to find recent literature on undergraduate oral exams. Two papers are worth reading if the concept is of interest:

Oral vs. Written Evaluation of Students, Ulf Asklund and Lars Bendix, Department of Computer Science, Lund Institute of Technology, Pedagogisk Inspirationskonferens, Lund University Publications, 2003. A conference paper detailing advantages and disadvantage of the two formats. The authors, based on their experience, found that oral examinations are better suited than written for evaluating higher levels of understanding based on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Oral versus written assessments: A test of student performance and attitudes, Mark Huxham, Fiona Campbell, and Jenny Westwood, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 37(1):125-136, January 2012. This study of two cohorts of students examined “…[s]tudent performance in and attitudes towards oral and written assessments using quantitative and qualitative methods.” Many positive aspects of oral examinations were found. See also a SlideShare Summary of this paper. Possible benefits of oral assessment included: “1) Development of oral communication skills 2) More ‘authentic’ assessment 3) More inclusive 4) Gauging understanding & Encouraging critical thinking 5) Less potential for plagiarism 6) Better at conveying nuances of meaning 7) Easier to spot rote-learning.”

A site to explore is the University of Pittsburgh’s Speaking in the Disciplines initiative. “…committed to the centrality of oral expression in the educational process.” Detailed information for those considering oral examinations is provided, including benefits (“direct, dialogic feedback,” “encourages in-depth preparation,” “demands different skills,” “valuable practice for future professional activity,” and “reduced grading stress”) and potential drawbacks (“time,” “student resistance and inexperience,” “subjective grading,” and “inadequate coverage of material”).


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source: