Optional Oral Examinations

In a nation in which students’ educational growth is increasingly assessed by means of multiple-choice tests, it is increasingly challenging for serious teachers to maintain contact with students’ growth as critical and analytical thinkers.

Of course, such higher learning skills are the true goal of education in a free society – notwithstanding the present, politically-driven agendas of elected officials and the educational bureaucracy. But even before the arrival of standardized testing, serious, individually-focused evaluation was difficult to manage.

In my case, as a teacher of AP European History and AP US History, I relied mainly on essay tests to gain insight into what my students understood. But I found that even the essay format had its drawbacks. In my student days, I had always hunted for courses which relied on essay evaluations, because I was a consummate “BS artist”. Given a reasonably broad question, I could write an impressive essay making use of whatever information I knew, and carefully avoiding aspects of the topic I hadn’t studied or didn’t recall.

And, as a teacher, I realized that – even when I sensed that one of my students was doing the same thing – there was often no way to avoid awarding him high marks. I might detect an evasion, but there was no way to pin the student down and demand answers.

During my last year as a teacher, I borrowed an idea from a friend who teaches History at a fine liberal arts college. He called it the “Russian Roulette exam”, because of the relatively high stakes and the element of chance involved. I tried it out before my fall final exams, and I was delighted with the insights I gained. Had I remained in the classroom, I would certainly have continued to use this format, developing it further as I gained experience in its use.

I offer it here as a technique which some teachers might find useful.

As a matter of background, please understand that my semester and year-end exams usually lasted two hours, and consisted of 50 fairly challenging multiple-choice questions and a choice of one from among two or three long-form (one hour) essays. Most of my students approached my essay questions with some confidence, but they dreaded my multiple-choice questions.

In that final year, I offered my AP US History students the “Russian roulette exam” as an option. I made up about sixty questions, fact-based, but requiring a fairly sophisticated ability to draw connections among facts. A few examples should suffice:

What were the four key compromises at the Constitutional Convention of 1787? What conflicts were resolved by each? Why was each vital to the success of the Convention?

Who were the parties in the case of Marbury v. Madison, and what were the issues? Explain the Court’s holding, and the reasoning which supported it; the political context surrounding the case; and the short-term and long-term consequences of the decision.

Who were the four main candidates for President in the election of 1824? What state did each come from, and what states and groups did each count on for support? What was the outcome of the election in terms of the popular and Electoral votes? Who ultimately became president, and why?

I transferred these questions to index cards, one question per card. Then I announced the “Russian roulette examination”.

The rules were simple: Any student who wished to try could make an appointment with me, any time during the week before exams. At the appointed time, she would come to my classroom, sit across the desk from me, and draw one card from the stack. She must then answer the question, in detail and demonstrating an understanding of the issues involved. If she answered to my satisfaction, she would be exempt from the multiple-choice part of my exam – earning the full 50 points for that part – and have twice the time to work on the essay portion. If she failed to answer the question, she would simply have to take the whole exam.

I permitted myself to cross-examine any student who got stuck, but not to “lead the witness”. If I could bring out what a student knew, I would do it. If he didn’t know, I would not give him “hints”.

The result of this experiment were quite remarkable.

First, about one-quarter of my students attempted the “Russian roulette exam”. In general, they were the students who seemed more obviously interested in the course.

Second, of those taking the “Russian roulette exam”, a substantial majority did well enough to pass.

Third, despite the fact that the students really had nothing to lose by trying, almost all of them took the “Russian roulette exam” very seriously. Most had clearly studied hard, and they showed every sign of being under pressure. I remember one student, after finally managing to meet my expectations, standing up, spreading his arms wide, and falling backward onto the classroom floor in exhausted ecstasy.

But the most important thing I remember about the “Russian roulette exam” was how much I learned about what my students knew and did not know – understood and did not understand. Often, as I cross-examined a student on a question, I would see her make a connection I had never managed to get across in class. The light bulb would appear, almost visibly, over her head.

These were special moments – moments when a student suddenly grasped the connections which transform History from a collection of dry facts into a living network of cause and effect – moments when I learned what I had failed to communicate, and how I might have done better.

And that, in short, is my brief experience with the “Russian roulette exam”, a wonderful idea which I shamelessly stole from a friend and applied in a high school context. It taught me a great deal about my students and about my success, and lack of success, as a teacher. Most of all, it gave me the means of seeing how my students thought about History, face-to-face, in a tutorial context.

The following year, I started grad school in Educational Administration. I have taught since, but not at an AP level. And I’m not all that sure how the “Russian roulette exam” would work with less-advanced, less-dedicated students.

But I offer this little story as an experiment other teachers might want to replicate – and build upon. Teaching today, in an environment of standardized testing, has divorced teachers ever more completely from discovering how their students comprehend complex material. Any technique which creates an opportunity to break down the standardized-testing barrier – to gain insights into how individual students think, analyze and comprehend – seems to me worth investigating.