Talking Physiology: Oral Exams in an Undergraduate Course

discussAt one point, I’m sure many of us experienced (perhaps ‘suffered’ is more the appropriate term here) through an oral examination.  This may have been at the culmination of a graduate degree or perhaps as part of a certification of some kind.  The event likely produced anxiety, stress, and perhaps even sweat.  However, we also probably (1) prepared extensively; (2) identified strengths and weaknesses in our understanding; and (3) most definitely survived.  It is these latter experiences that I aim to achieve by having my undergraduate physiology students complete cumulative oral exams (though the anxiety and stress are fairly unavoidable).

The Course

Primarily, the students enrolled in my Human Physiology course are mid-level exercise science, pre-physical therapy, dietetics, and exercise physiology majors.  At this point, they have completed a general biology and chemistry sequence as well as a semester of Human Anatomy with a cadaver-based laboratory.  I use a variety of instructional methods, trying to incorporate active learning and student-centered techniques in an effort to improve student performance and learning, as has been well-documented in the literature .

The Backstory

In full disclosure, I’m not a veteran instructor, so the backstory is relatively short.  After my first semester of teaching, I was grading cumulative final exams and questioning whether this method of assessment was really indicative of students’ knowledge of physiology, particularly from a conceptual and “big picture” perspective.  With graduate school oral exams in my recent memory and thinking that they were a great way to demonstrate knowledge (or unfortunately, a lack thereof), I asked myself: what if I implemented oral exams at the undergraduate level?

The Exams

If you’re like me, one way to ensure that something gets incorporated into a course is to include it on the syllabus.  It was staring me in the face now: “Cumulative Oral Exam – 1 @ 50 pts”.  So what was this going to look like?  How was I going to administer this for ~60 students and how would I grade them?  That semester, and the two since, the format has been fairly similar:

  • Students sign up for 20 min time slots
  • A list of potential questions is provided to the students well in advance.  They choose one question to respond to and I choose the other.
  • There are about 30 questions that are intentionally broad in nature.  Examples include:
    • What can change membrane potential and why does this happen?
    • How do we regulate blood glucose levels?
    • What determines and regulates mean arterial pressure?
    • Why and how do we breathe?
  • A rubric is used for grading and immediately provided to the students.
  • An excellent (20 pts) response to each of the two questions is defined as: “Student demonstrates extensive knowledge and understanding of topic, ability to think critically and creatively, and answers follow up questions in a thoughtful and complete manner.  No misinformation is provided.”
  • Overall performance is excellent if “Appropriate terminology is used throughout discussion and student is fully engaged and prepared, providing answers without significant struggle.”

Typically, the exams average ~10 min and the rest of the time is spent discussing the student’s performance, areas for improvement, and any questions regarding the material that was covered (or in many cases, the questions they were relieved not to have to answer!).

The Hindsight

While students are anxious (not an uncommon finding in this type of situation), most are grateful for this relatively low-stakes (50 pts out of a 1000 pt course, while the written final is 150 pts) opportunity to be tested on cumulative knowledge.  The broad nature of the questions makes them fairly impossible to simply “look up” so they must try to integrate information presented throughout the course.  I also truly appreciate the opportunity to meet with each student one-on-one, something that would not necessarily happen otherwise.  Some specific tips for anyone who might consider incorporating this form of assessment into your courses:

  1. Technology can be your friend.  Utilizing appointment slots in my University Google Calendar helps with the logistics.
  2. Why?  How?  Asking follow-up questions, for more information, or even interrupting what sounds like a memorized response to a question challenges students and can expose misconceptions that you can then correct.
  3. Provide help when needed. I tell students up front that I will help them if they get stuck.  Asking leading questions keeps the exam flowing and can lower anxieties and prevent embarrassment.
  4. Welcome surprises.  Each semester, my impressions of a student’s interest or abilities in the course have been altered as a result of their oral exam.
  5. Don’t forget to sell it.  Reminding students that preparing for the oral portion will ‘jumpstart’ their preparation for the ‘traditional’ final, can go a long way in helping them deal with what is likely a unique and stressful situation.

The Future

As I learn more about teaching and learning (including through resources like this blog, Advances in Physiology Education, programming at conferences, and my continually expanding network of fellow educators), I continue to reflect on these exams and seek ways to improve them.  Eventually, I’d like to truly measure what impact they may or may not have on student learning and performance.  Would a mid-term oral exam be beneficial? If so, how could the process be streamlined to decrease instructor time-commitment?  Could I observe a conversation between partners and glean similar insights?  I look forward to hearing your feedback and discussing through the comments section!


PECOP Crecelius head







Anne Crecelius is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Sport Science at the University of Dayton.  She teaches Human Physiology and a Capstone Research course.  She returned to her undergraduate alma mater to join the faculty after completing her M.S. and Ph.D. studying Cardiovascular Physiology at Colorado State University.  Her research interest is in the integrative control of muscle blood flow.  She is a member of the American Physiological Society (APS), serving on the Teaching Section Steering Committee and the Communications Committee.


2 thoughts on “Talking Physiology: Oral Exams in an Undergraduate Course”

Thanks for the posting. I tried once oral exams as an alternative option, and maybe 2 students took up the offer (even after I had practiced with the class beforehand). Your strategy (making it low stakes) probably would work! As somebody who took oral examinations as a student, I believe they are very good for probing knowledge, but also subject to strategies 🙂 I was a good student so I was not afraid of the early slots, but many classmates would sign up later to have the instructor later and more tired…

I’ve thought about incorporating oral exams of some sort. I think that it might be helpful for some students who struggle with traditional written exams but might do better in a conversation. I appreciate you sharing your insight about how you set it up and made it work for your class. Thanks!

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