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Rethinking assessment: is the ‘oral essay’ a realistic alternative to the written essay in HE?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 31 May 2022

Students prepare for oral exam

© MINES ParisTech / S. Boda 2020 via Creative Commons

Katia Dowdle.

‘I own the words I speak more than I own the words that I write’. (student’s sentiment recorded by Joughin)

Higher education students in the UK are predominantly assessed through the medium of writing, with essays being the most common type of assignment. As an academic writing tutor, I have been ‘part of the system’ for several years now, preparing foundation students to understand and appropriately address essay tasks in their university studies.

The mere existence of my job has depended on the long-lived and cherished tradition of essay writing as a means to facilitate learning, diagnose students’ progress and assess understanding. I have always admired the format of academic essay that has an inherent potential to give learners space for expressing new and original ideas and, at the same time, demonstrating their deep understanding of the existing knowledge.

Students have not always shared my enthusiasm though. Moreover, the combination of independent thought and experts’ ideas that I admired was often a matter of confusion for learners. This issue, I learned later, had already been noticed by Womack in 1993. It seems worth quoting his words here, as after almost 30 years they can still resonate with educators.

On the one hand we want her own thoughts and responses: independent thought, freshness, originality, are not only permitted, but tirelessly demanded in examiners’ reports. On the other hand, there’s an equal insistence that every assertion be supported by evidence of intensive and extensive reading, that the language of the essay be ‘appropriate’, that the handling of contentious issues be balanced – in short, that the expression of independence of mind be thoroughly permeated by signs of conformity to an academic code of practice. The inevitable stress signal of this tension is plagiarism.

Bewildered or exhausted by the requirement that she should be herself and simultaneously approximate to a model outside herself, the candidate produces the contradiction in the form of deception – she literally adopts the voice of another as her own. 

The issue of plagiarism, or adopting someone else’s voice, mentioned by Womack, has since grown to a considerably larger proportion due to the wide use of the Internet in the 21st century. Even students who believe in academic integrity and do not intend to plagiarise can be overwhelmed by the amount of ‘ready-made ideas’ available online and can engage in the so-called ‘patchworking activity’ when the final essay presents ‘patches’ of disconnected ideas, roughly ‘stitched’ together. As a result, students’ personal voice can be lost, critical analysis can be insufficient and the overall argument can lack coherence – and these are the qualities that academics seem to value most in students’ writing.

Driven by the awareness of these issues and the appeal of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) ‘to design out’ opportunities for plagiarism in university assessments, I started thinking and experimenting with different types of assessment that can be used instead of essays or in combination with essays as a scaffolding tool.

Eventually, I noticed that students felt less detached from the task and more focused on the assessment requirements if they knew that they needed to perform the task orally. This usually resulted in reduced plagiarism and a more coherent argument. The oral mode seemed to create the feeling of ‘ownership’ and ‘responsibility’ in the way learners presented their ideas and structured their narrative. Suddenly, the areas that they used to consistently ignore or overlook in their written essays (for example, a clear thesis statement, general topic statements, coherent sequencing and structuring of ideas) successfully appeared in their oral monologues. It seemed to concur with the ideas of Joughin, one of the advocates of oral examinations, that writing can have the effect of ‘separating the knower from the known’ while, in speaking, students tend to ‘identify themselves with their words’.

I did not want to completely abandon the essay format though – not only because I was employed to teach writing, but also because, despite its ‘questionable legacy’, I believed in its potential to be what Womack called a ‘weapon’ against instrumentalism, meaning that the task allowed students to be creative and critical, and did not just focus on regurgitation of facts or application of a practical skill.

This is where the idea of an ‘oral essay’ came to mind. I envisaged it as an assessment where students would be ‘given the floor’ – an uninterrupted stretch of time to orally construct a critical argument combining personal stance and experts’ ideas. The oral mode, where a student uses their physical voice, could possibly help to develop the so-called academic voice – the independent and original stance that Womack was talking about.

Many of the essay marking criteria, I thought, could be preserved and constitute the structure of the proposed innovation. The pre-determined structure, according to Joughin, could increase reliability – an important aspect of assessment, which is often challenged in oral examinations.

Developing the idea, I felt, deserved time and effort. This prompted me to formulate it as an aim for a PhD research project that could be undertaken over a period of several years, bringing rigour and empirical evidence to the initial proposal.

Now, while I am in the process of clarifying my rationale, refining my research questions and confirming my methodological choices, I keep asking myself and people around me: Is a human brain capable of spontaneously producing and delivering at least a short (5-paragraph) argument in an oral form without any visual aids, combining personal stance and experts’ ideas? And if yes, what benefits can it bring to that human being?

What do you think?



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3 Responses to “Rethinking assessment: is the ‘oral essay’ a realistic alternative to the written essay in HE?”

  • 1
    Eiram wrote on 11 June 2022:

    not everyone prefers oral skills, some prefer or are more skilled at writing it down, and feel more fluent in terms of idea and mechanism of writing, while such domains can not be observed as someone speaks. The evaluation will not be reliable.

  • 2
    nmwhiteport wrote on 28 June 2022:

    What do you think?

    Firstly, I think it’s important to raise the question in the first place and certainly for that your blog (and research) are worth reading (and pursuing).

    On the other hand, though, a number of immediate responses come to mind which are not mentioned (presumably for reasons of space and clarity) in the blog:

    Higher education students in the UK are predominantly assessed through the medium of writing

    While, yes, I suppose this is largely true it does not appear to take into account disciplinary differences or differences in level of education in assessment types or the way in which students from some ethnic and/or sociocultural backgrounds are likely to react to this spoken essay suggestion.

    For instance, disciplines such as architecture, graphic design, and certain business courses often include integrated assessments on the ability to discuss their work or give presentations on features relating to it. Doctoral degrees, famously, still include the viva in all cases that I am aware of. Regarding the students themselves, how would you avoid students simply memorising and reciting an essay they have earlier written down? There are ways to discourage that in the design of assessment, but those ways may be ones that would disadvantage students from certain backgrounds. And I don’t mean only students with English as an additional, second or foreign language here (in a UKHE context). Students from non-traditional backgrounds (e.g. white working class young men) can very quickly become tongue-tied and awkward in such situations or go the other way and come across as overly aggressive and hectoring. Similarly, consider gender – Deborah Cameron has written extensively on research that appears to show that women speakers are often rated (by other women as well as men) as generally less confident or inspiring in oral presentations.

    None of what I’m saying is meant to be discouraging, I think your idea is very interesting. But I do think there is a great deal there to be explored further.

  • 3
    Pete Puxon wrote on 7 November 2022:

    Hi Katia,
    It sounds a really interesting project. The quote from Womack gets to the heart of the debate between ‘normative’ and ‘transformative’ practices. The interesting thing is that your project retains the normative element by not abandoning the essay format, but introduces a transformative mode.

    Your final questions about whether humans are capable of doing it without visual aids or any other support are intriguing. I’m not sure of the answer! However, the oral element reminded me of some new ways that researchers go about creating a paper for publication. One of these is a dialogue between 2 well-informed people (an example is in the paper ‘Working with power: a dialogue about writing support’ by Lisa Clughen and Matt Connell) It is interesting that they chose this mode for the same reason: that it retained the author’s voice. I feel that I personally could manage a dialogue, but I don’t know whether I could do the monologue to mimic an argumentative essay. But perhaps it doesn’t need to follow the same structure or follow the same language conventions of an essay? Would this then become a long-form argumentative presentation (if you allowed some supporting visuals)?

    Looking forward to hearing more about how the project is progressing 🙂