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Michael Kahn kahn at wsu.edu
Thu Nov 20 19:20:57 EST 1997

Sorry to change the subject a bit but there was something that I thought
deserved a comment.

In article <A9F134E3B at bio.tamu.edu>, JFRUGOLI at BIO.TAMU.EDU ("Julia
Frugoli") wrote:

>   I agree with Susan that science has become hypercritical;three 
> examples come immediately to mind.
> The best advice I heard going into my orals was to  remember that the 
> examiners don't care so much  what you know-they want to know what you 
> don't know, as so will keep changing the subject if you show competence 
> until they find one you trip on.

As a faculty member often participating in orals, I find this
characterization to be fundamentally wrong.  The object is NOT to trip you
up but to find out what you know, which can involve asking you questions
you don't know the answer to, which Julia interprets as tripping you up. 
The distinction is important. It's pretty easy to ask a question that a
student can't answer.  If the game was stump the chump, the examiners
would win every time. [Though it is pretty easy to ask a question that an
examiner can't answer, either. :)]  The hard part is to find questions
which the students have to think a bit to answer that are valid inquiries
into their area of expertise.

Most exams students have taken are written exams.  Written exams are a set
task--there is no opportunity to modify the exam to fit a particular
situation.  Oral exams are very different in being more of a titration
process.  Julia is right that if you answer a question right, you get a
harder question or one in a different area.  But what is also true is that
if you don't get a question right, you get an easier one or one that is
more in your area.  A written exam is static, an oral exam is dynamic.

An oral exam is actually evaluated in a different way from a written exam,
with more of an emphasis on the level of the question that is being asked
and its relationship to your core areas of competence.  The kinds of
thoughts an examiner has during an oral exam often relate to how they
would do when asked the question.  If the examiner is thinking, "I don't
have a clue whether this answer is right but my collegues who are more
into this area seem satisfied." or "This ecologist knows more about
protein structure than most of our biochemists." you get points.  If the
examiner is thinking of how poorly you are doing on material that is part
of an introductory class ("Can we give a Genetics Ph.D. to a student that
doesn't know that G pairs with C?"), you lose them.  

I don't consider this aspect of oral exams as being hypercritical, just
part of how they work. 

In a nightmare, you can add a hypercritical examiner whose goal is to trip
you up but in 18 years I've only seen one of those and that was a person
assigned by the graduate school to a preliminary examination. The
examining faculty couldn't get the guy to shut up and let the student
think and she got so rattled that she did poorly.  We had him removed from
her reexamination, which the student passed.  

Three rules for orals:

Make sure you AND the examiner understand the question.  Many problems
come from difficulty with the unfamiliar format.  Unlike a written exam
where the examiner has time to review the question for ambiguity and
context, an oral exam is on the fly.  If you are confidently answering a
question about transformation (in the sense of getting DNA into E. coli)
and the examiner is looking for an answer that relates to unlimited cell
division, there is a problem.  Unfortunately for you, it can be a little
like being in a crosswalk.  You may have the right of way but the
examiners have the mass.  Clarifying the question is the academic
equivalent of looking both ways before crossing the street.  And since it
puts the examiner on the spot to make sure the question is stated
carefully, it also helps you partly maintain control.

Go with the flow and do the best you can. Orals are a titration, the
examiners are trying to find where you are strong and where you are weak. 
But "the line" between isn't a narrow one and one objective is to see
where you go when you don't know right away--are you stuck or can you
identify things you do know that are relevant and start to assemble an

Don't keep score.  That is the examiners' job.  In a good oral exam you'll
spend most of your time somewhere on "the line".  If you usually get 90%
on written exams, the experience can be a shock and, as all first aiders
know, shock can kill even if the underlying trauma is pretty minor.  One
of my students in his prelims moved easily to a very high level in the
first hour of the exam and it was obvious to the examiners, though not to
him, that he had "passed".  Two of the examiners decided to try to find
out where his edge was.  It was waaayy out there and the questions at the
end were *very* hard.  It was a brilliant effort, one of the best I've
ever seen, but when I came to tell him how well he had done, he was very
upset and very sure he had failed. Fortunately, he didn't let this turn
into panic. 

Mike Kahn
Microbiology and Institute of Biological Chemistry
Washington State University

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