The move to oral exams could reduce the opportunities for students to cheat by either traditional methods or with artificial intelligence (AI)

Will advances in AI force a push to oral exams?

The move to oral exams could reduce opportunities for students to cheat by either traditional methods or with artificial intelligence

Key points:

  • As AI becomes more sophisticated, educators must ensure academic integrity
  • Oral exams are one way to let students prove their own knowledge and mastery

As ChatGPT, Google Bard, and other AI tools are available to the average internet user, academic conversations are common on how faculty and students will accommodate these technologies within the academic milieu. 

Plagiarism detection software touts the ability to detect machine-derived prose, while other academics warn that AI detectors have high error rates. In my own tests with AI detectors, student generated work was identified being up to 28 percent machine generated. At the same time, some AI-generated work was returned as 0 percent AI generated. In one case, a document submitted through the learning management system (LMS) was flagged as both 0 percent and 100 percent machine generated.

Some experts seem to warn that the next generation of AI tools will be able to learn from previous works and generate materials in styles indistinguishable from a person’s earlier works. All that will be necessary will be to give the AI engine some samples of the person’s previous work. At that point, it would seem to be nearly impossible for AI detectors to work effectively.

The pandemic’s shift to online learning helped to highlight some of the struggles for students, faculty, and IT staff with lockdown browsers and other attempts to prevent cheating on exams as they migrated from paper to online exercises. The use of proctoring software has raised privacy and equity concerns as well, and added difficulties for those using assistive technologies. An NPR article reported that colleges identified significant increases in cheating across the country, and in one highlighted case, a university reported a 79 percent increase in cheating on exams.

It is not just exams that are affected. An academic dishonesty survey done by Donald McCabe revealed that 95 percent of higher education students have cheated in some aspect. Maybe it is time to look to the past to identify a solution for the future. Oral exams were standard for most high stakes academic exams. Potentially, it is time to return to oral examinations. Stephen Dobson posited that the oral exam is an academic tool that dates to the ancient Greeks. It continues to be used in those societies that still maintain oral historical traditions. It is a traditional portion of graduate programs where the culminating experience for most doctoral students is the oral defense of their dissertations. The current use of written exams in academia started in the late Renaissance period. Dobson mentioned that Sweden still makes regular use of oral exams within academia and secondary education.

The move to oral exams could reduce the opportunities for students to cheat by either traditional methods or with artificial intelligence. In general, traditional written exams have received a fair amount of criticism for a lack of equity or cultural responsiveness in the last decade. Moving to oral exams would allow for more flexibility, differentiation, and potentially more cultural responsiveness. Inherently, oral exams have the potential to be more engaging for both the students and the examiner(s). Oral exams can be tailored to the individual needs of each student, feedback can be immediate, and examiners would be able to probe answers to better understand student perspectives of both “correct” and “incorrect” answers.

Oral exams provide a more realistic environment in preparing students for future job interviews and other professional scenarios. These opportunities can assist students in developing the communication skills necessary in today’s work environment. In 2021, Kevin Sun suggested the advantage of the oral exam for computer science students as  good preparation for technical interviews. Performance-based assessments such as the edTPA for teacher candidates have been in place for a while, but the expansion of such performances or traditional oral exams would seem to address many of the concerns currently being discussed in academic circles.

From a student perspective the implementation of oral examinations could round out the college experience. Large portions of the undergraduate curriculum are devoted to general education requirements, in part to widen the breadth of knowledge obtained. There could be a massive benefit to STEM degrees. Students in these disciplines generally have difficulty with public speaking and translating their technical ideas into understandable presentations. Some universities, like the University of Iowa, have ‘Be Creative’ classes for engineers designed for this exact issue.

A first step in the movement towards oral exams might be to provide students with the choice between a traditional written exam or an oral examination. A second option would be to maintain some written exams but either allow or require an oral component to the exam process. Oral exams could be a separate form of the exam, so within a course, each student would take one or more written exams and at least one oral exam. In my own master’s comprehensive exam process, students were provided a set of written prompts and then those responses were reviewed by a faculty panel who then held an oral review with each student to probe more deeply or clarify the written responses. It was both a stressful and rewarding experience–one that prepares students for the application of their knowledge as an expert in the field upon graduation. Students could be asked to provide visuals or a presentation to support their exam, which would allow them to showcase their technology skills and creativity as well.

Oral examinations seem to offer educators an opportunity to provide a more engaging method of assessment for students. They have the potential to reduce academic dishonesty, provide more immediate feedback, be more culturally relevant, and provide equity in the overall assessment process while addressing the concerns about emerging AI technologies.

GPT-4: The unprecedented game changer in university graduation rates

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

eSchool Media Contributors