IUBio GIL .. BIOSCI/Bionet News .. Biosequences .. Software .. FTP


Fri Nov 21 11:17:32 EST 1997

(Michael Kahn) wrote:
(SNIP of my previous  comments re orals)
>As a faculty member often participating in orals, I find this
>characterization to be fundamentally wrong.  The object is NOT to trip 
>up but to find out what you know, which can involve asking you 
>you don't know the answer to, which Julia interprets as tripping you 

>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 
>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 
>into their area of expertise.
>Most exams students have taken are written exams.  Written exams are a 
>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 
>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 
>with more of an emphasis on the level of the question that is being 
>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 
>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 
>examiner is thinking of how poorly you are doing on material that is 
>of an introductory class ("Can we give a Genetics Ph.D. to a student 
>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 
>you up but in 18 years I've only seen one of those and that was a 
>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 
>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 
>question about transformation (in the sense of getting DNA into E. 
>and the examiner is looking for an answer that relates to unlimited 
>division, there is a problem.  Unfortunately for you, it can be a 
>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 
>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 
>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 
>spend most of your time somewhere on "the line".  If you usually get 
>on written exams, the experience can be a shock and, as all first 
>know, shock can kill even if the underlying trauma is pretty minor.  
>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 
>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 
>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 
>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

I want to emphasize that I agree with everything Mike said, and I find 
from the responses I got that I need to clarify some things about my 
experience with orals.  The reason I found the advice about orals 
looking for what you DON'T know so helpful was that it kept me from 
panic when we  got to a question I couldn't answer-I was able to to back 
up a step and  reason forward.  My orals experience turned out to be 
very good-my PI commented  that it was the lest  stressful orals 
experience he'd ever had (at my institution, the PI is present at the 
orals but cannot ask questions-only make awful faces when the student 
says something wrong :)  I can see how stresssful this  can be!).  But I 
was trying to make the point that by expecting criticism, the little I 
got didn't devestate me, and the positive comment by my PI carried me 
for weeks!   Some people go in expecting that "gold star" and are 
devestated by any  negatives.  When I started grad school, I was one of 
the people who would have been floored by a negative comment.  I no 
longer am, partly because I understand that it's the only way to 
improvement.  Susan's comments on how positive feedback dimishes as you 
go up just reminded me that it's not enough to not be floored by 
negatives-you have to be able to survive without positives; the drive 
comes from within, not without.  I'm pretty sure I'm  not there yet!

But there is a line between negative comment and cut-throat comment, and 
I've seen it crossed a couple of times, both in public and private, by 
several different people toward several different people, and then 
brushed off as "for the student's  good".  While "If you can't say 
something nice don't say anything at all" isn't always helpful to 
science, even "not nice" things don't have to said in ways that insult 
other's character. 

Hope this helps take some of the negative spin off what I said (when I 
read the post myself, it sounds more negative than I meant it-I must be 
more scared of my thesis defense than I realized!)
Julia Frugoli
Dartmouth College

visiting grad student at
Texas A&M University
Department of Biological Sciences
College Station, TX 77843
FAX 409-847-8805

"Evil is best defined as militant ignorance."        
																										Dr. M. Scott Peck*****************************************************

More information about the Womenbio mailing list

Send comments to us at archive@iubioarchive.bio.net