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Assessing group research projects: oral group exams with individual grades!

This final post in the series on group project work looks at the oral group exam, which is a traditional Danish type of exam. Oral exams are integral to the Danish educational system from primary school through to university and can take different forms. This post explains the oral group exam based on a project, where it highlights some of the benefits and challenges.

The exam is structured as follows; there are two examiners (the supervisor and either an internal or an external examiner depending on the project level), who discuss the written project before the group enters the room. Each student has a right to 30 minutes examination, including assessment. Consequently, a project exam lasts between 30 minutes and three hours depending on the size of the group (1-6 persons). The students leave the room after the exam, and the examiners discuss the individual student’s performance and the written project, then each student comes into the room to receive their individual grade and feedback on their exam performance and the project. Sometimes groups decide to receive the grades together.

Colleagues who have never tried oral group exam often ask ‘how can you distinguish between the different students and their performance?’ Firstly, I always ask the students to make a nametag, so the other examiner (and me) knows who is who in the group. Secondly, it is important to take notes during the exam, so that you afterwards can assess if the individual student answered all the questions and thereby assess the level of the answers. Thirdly, some students are very nervous during exams and do not say much, whereas other students talk a lot, here it is important for the examiners to ensure the quiet students are given the opportunity to talk, this might involve asking a talkative student to be quiet. Often, the students are good at giving space to each other to allow everyone to answer the questions.

The exam starts with a short presentation by each student, before the examiners begin asking questions about all aspects of the project in relation to the formal requirements outlined in the degree programme. The dialogue between the students and the examiners sometimes leads to interesting discussions and reflections relating to methodological and theoretical choices or further implications of the empirical findings. These exams are interesting and fun, whereas other exams can be painful, for both students and examiners, because the project is not very good and the students struggle to answer basic questions. Here, it is important to give constructive and instructive feedback to the students, at the end of the exam, so that they know how to improve their research skills the following semester.

The individual grade is based on the written project and the oral examination, where the student’s performance can either drag the grade down or pull it up. Colleagues sometimes discuss the extent to which we differentiate grades between the students in a project group. Whilst it is important to differentiate between students’ grades when appropriate, there are often good reason for giving the students the same grade. Often students choose to work with peers who have the same interests and get the same grade, so there is a natural selection bias in project formation especially as the students get to know each other (see blog post on group formation and group dynamics).

Overall, the oral group exam based on a project is time and resource intensive, but they provide a good opportunity for the students and examiners to discuss the research project in details, thereby helping the students to develop their presentation skills and ability to discuss different aspects of research, including reflecting on the research process.

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