Don’t be Scared of Oral Examinations

For many students, oral examinations are simply hell: The cause of sleepless nights, sweaty palms and temporary blackouts. They evoke associations with words like, blackout, embarrassment, arbitrary questions and/or losing your voice. Adrenalin is pumping through your body, your mind has gone foggy, and your thoughts are either racing or frozen.  You want to escape as soon as possible; and if possible never come back. Yup, we are talking about oral examinations.

Oral exams – a nightmare for many students. Source:

Oral exams – a nightmare for many students. Source:

As always, there are many different reasons for exam nerves. In another blog article I introduced 5 strategies to help combat exam nerves, in the case of oral exams, exam nerves can be caused by other factors, which is why I wanted to devote a second blog entry to the topic.

Some exam nerves, regardless of the type of exam, are based on real experiences that were such a catastrophe that they should definitely not be repeated. Some students anticipate failure before it even happens. From a total blackout and the resulting embarrassment – not to mention a terrible grade. Others might be sitting their first oral exam at university and don’t really know what to expect, which can lead to anxiety or insecurities.

What can you do to combat these rising fears? This article is intended to give you a few tips to help you deal with exam nerves.

Oral Exams vs. Written Exams

In an oral exam you are required to express yourself accurately and answer specific questions. You are expected to answer almost immediately and there is little time to think the answer through. One of the biggest challenges is being able to deal with questions that might possibly completely confuse you when you first hear them. In a written exam you can miss out any questions that you are not able to answer immediately and then return to them at a later point. But this is not really possible in an oral exam.


Notes help you to gain an overview. Source:

Another important point is that – particularly in popular study programs – you only know your tutors from lectures and it is not possible to predict what they consider to be important in the exam. Even though it would be nice if oral examinations were more standardized, they simply depend very much on interpersonal communication, including the impression you make on the examiner. This isn’t always a disadvantage, it can also be positive if you make use of this knowledge.

Good Preparation Can Help Combat Exam Nerves

There are various methods that can be useful for regulating anxiety. But one thing first: Moderate anxiety is normal and even necessary if you want to put in a good or even excellent performance! It is only when your anxiety reaches exponential levels and leads to blackouts, problems with concentration or other difficulties that it is important to consider what causes these reactions (and the fears that feed them).

What is difficult or can cause difficulties is that there is often little personal contact with the lecturer who is examining you, except for short appointments or in over-filled lecture rooms.

And for this reason it is a good idea to gain an impression of your examiner. Listen to what other students say about them – in this way you can profit from the experience of students who have been studying for longer than you have. It may also be a good idea to find out about any work published by your examiner, the focus of their research and interests.  This can help to reduce a fear of the unknown. And don’t forget, examiners are also ‘just’ people.


Just don’t panic! Source:

Ultimately, you are often given a list of the relevant literature and/or a subject list that gives you specific information about what you need to focus on.  If you have any questions it is definitely a good idea to go to your lecturer during office hours and to ask directly as this will help to solve anything that is unclear.

Dealing With Expectations – And Not Just Your Own

There are expectations on both sides. You are on the uncomfortable side of things, you are the one being put through your paces and being questioned on a particular topic. Try to look at the situation from a different angle. What do you think the examiner is expecting from you in the exam?

The best case scenario would be that you can have a professional discussion that shows that you have prepared extensively and can actively discuss the relevant topic. That means, you are capable of putting in a good performance that is then rewarded with a good grade. The worst case scenario would be: that you know nothing about the subject and there is just an uncomfortable silence in the room, although examiners are generally prepared to try and help you by asking certain questions when they see that you are in trouble.

You do yourself a great favor if you can put yourself in the examiner’s shoes and ask yourself which questions you would pose if you were in their position in order to test a student’s knowledge. Another possibility is to involve other students and try to find out together what the examiner expects.University of Stuttgart

Revise? Revise!

There’s no way of getting around the fact that you have to revise and prepare for exams. Trying to talk your way out of a question when you have no idea what you’re talking about rarely works. That’s why it is important to make sure you have a broad knowledge of the subject matter. What knowledge is important depends on your course of study and on the exam.

Aside from gaining a general overview of the subject, it is also important to inform yourself about controversial scientific opinions, current theories and/or models and procedures.  This of course also includes being aware the examiner’s scientific opinion.  This also provides a good opportunity to get together with other students and consider the subject from different perspectives.  This can help you to identify any gaps in your knowledge, or any controversial aspects and it is also easier to learn the necessary material when you revise together with other students.

Make Notes

Yes you read it right! For an oral exam it is also a good idea to write notes to help you learn what exactly you want to say in the exam. This of course doesn’t mean simply learning everything by heart, it is more about writing your thoughts down so that you can then verbalize them in a simulated exam situation.

It is important to consider the following: Sometimes what is important, and sometimes how. What involves knowledge that you gain during your exam preparation, while the how relates to how you express this knowledge in order to reach a high level of expertise when you discuss a particular topic. The correct terminology is of course also important as this doesn’t just name particular things, it also helps to provide context.


This is not a quiz! Source:

This is Not a Quiz

Generally speaking, oral examinations are not a question and answer game between the examiner and the student, they are an academic discussion on equal terms. However, this won’t be the case if you – as you might have done in primary school – simply reiterate the answers.  You have to be able to consider a topic, theory or question from various perspectives, to provide comparisons, connect your knowledge to what has been discussed during the semester and/or to critically consider the relevant points.

This is not a quiz Source:

The prerequisite for this is that you have a well-grounded knowledge of the topic and that you can respond to any tips given by the examiner during the exam. It is rarely, if ever, the examiner’s intention to let you simply rattle through the exam. But in return, they expect that you have prepared and to have considered the topic in depth. This of course also involves your ability to present your knowledge adequately and to consider it in context.


Assistance Offered by the Uni: Study Guidance

Don’t worry, there is help available and you are not alone in dealing with this. The university also offers help and assistance. You can contact the study guidance department in the university student counseling center. There you can make an appointment for a consultation or take part in workshops that will help you to prepare for both written and oral exams.


Help needed! Source:

And When Nothing Helps?

If you have the impression that you always suffer from the same anxieties, regardless of how well you prepare for the exam, and sometimes you just wish you could run away from the whole thing, then it might be time to make an appointment at the University of Stuttgart’s psychological counseling center. If you have never heard of this, then take a look at: this article where I wrote about consulting a psychotherapist.

Before I finish I would just like to emphasize: You will probably never go into an exam completely free of exam nerves, that’s why it’s not a good idea to try to deaden or suppress your nerves. Being a bit nervous can even help you rise to the challenge. But if your anxiety is stopping you from concentrating or effectively dealing with the situation, then it is definitely a good idea to takes steps to counter this.

Good luck for the upcoming exams!


PS: Have you got any tips on how to prepare for oral exams? Then send them in!


Works in the Department of University Communications at University of Stuttgart. She studied in Tübingen and Berlin and came to the realization that: “These are the good old days that we will long to return to in ten years.”

One thought on “Don’t be Scared of Oral Examinations

  1. The problem with Oral Exams as they have been and currently exist is that educators are asking students to “perform” in normally a “one shot” venue in an arena for which they have little to no familiarity. It is no wonder that many students “blank” or melt down during these “assessments”. One has to ask “What do educators think they are getting by way of assessment of knowledge, understanding, or critical thinking from this exercise?” In my experience (two orals in my life), the past and current Oral Exams, to a large extent, assess the student’s innate ability to overcome the anxiety involved in public speaking and essentially arguing with someone they consider the master of their knowledge area. For those that have this ability, the oral exam appears to allow assessment of their knowledge because this ability to get in the batter’s box also provides them to swing and even hit the ball. These select few rarely fail. The great secret kept from the student is that the goal of an oral exam is to assess knowledge gaps, not fail the student. It is equally an assessment of the student as it is of the curriculum or course of study. As the Oral exam has been and is utilized in pedagogy, I believe that it serves no real function other than to validate curriculum and advance students who would likely advance in any educational construct.

    I am more concerned about the average and 1-2 standard deviations below the average student. It seems to me that the past and current pedagogical paradigm is entirely focused on assessment of memorized content that appears to be synonymous with knowledge. My contention as a former Academic and now as an entrepreneur is that pedagogy should focus on process rather than content. One can use the process of problem solving or the Scientific Method to cement content from any discipline into the mind of students who want to learn. The critical thing is that it has to be student centered, that is to say, the student does the work and the Educator serves as a referee or colleague, who provides support and feedback. This pedagogical construct absolutely requires students to participate in oral arguments from day one in a less formal setting. They will gain the skills necessary and overcome the anxiety currently inherent in the formal Oral Exam by gaining, utilizing and honing these skills over the course of the curriculum. Something amazing happens when students “construct” and “control” their own content knowledge……it is called “Learning” and becoming “Educated”. Notice the word “becoming” in the last sentence. As any “educated” person knows, learning and education are life long processes. I always told my students, “If you are comfortable, you are not learning and are ceasing to become educated!”

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