How to study for an oral exam

Study Arata! Do you know what is one of the greatest fears of students across the world? Taking an oral exam. Oral exams are very scary, whether you’re answering your teacher on your own, or worse, in front of all your classmates.

The fear of speaking in front of other people is very common. Fear of public speaking can be even greater than the fear of death. Now imagine having to speak publicly and be assessed on it in an oral exam.

That’s why in today’s conversation we’re going to look at what you can do to overcome your fear and prepare better when you’re studying for an oral exam. But before we get started, let me clear something up straight away. There’s no magic trick or hack that can give you a good result if you haven’t done your preparation beforehand. It’s almost impossible to get a good grade in any assessment without studying.

That’s the first thing you need to realise: the only way to do well in an oral exam is to study and prepare. What we’re going to look at here is how to prepare in the best possible way. And the first step is to understand the importance of how you study.

How you study is almost as important as what you’re studying.

When you’re preparing for an oral exam, there are two levels you need to take into account. One is the content. The other is how that content is going to be used.

When you have to go through an oral exam, you need to think and plan before opening your mouth and beginning to speak.

If you’ve studied the content, the knowledge and information are already there, in your head. What you need to do now is pass on that knowledge to the examiner verbally, orally.

To do that, you need to plan your introduction, how you’re going to make your different points, give the different chunks of information in the correct order, using the right words and examples, and how to draw your conclusion.

If you don’t plan how you’re going to get the content you know across, there’s a strong chance that you won’t be clearly understood. You might start to stumble over your words. Or repeat things that are already clear. Maybe you’ll discuss concepts in the wrong order. And the sequence your argument follows is very important to ensure you make yourself understood. Maybe you’ll forget to mention important aspects that are crucial to reaching your conclusion.   

What you’re looking for, in any kind of communication, is to always attain the highest level of clarity you possibly can.

Don’t try to overcomplicate things. Don’t use difficult jargon in a bid to impress. The clearer your idea is, the higher your communication will be rated. Anyone looking to share valuable ideas doesn’t try to hide behind difficult words.

That clarity should also come across in the way you articulate your words and use your voice. No need to speak fast, swallowing up your words. Be clear. Keep calm.

In an oral exam, calm is perceived by the examiners as an extra indication that you really know what you’re talking about. Appearance matters when you’re in a situation where you’re presenting. And when you start to speak slowly and calmly, you’ll already stand out from the other students.

This tiny difference can be decisive in oral exams and interviews where only the best applicants make the cut.

Your examiner could be assessing dozens, maybe even hundreds of other people. The examiner is probably tired. It’s your duty to make the examiner’s job easier.

So the first point is to pay extra attention to the way you talk, the way you pass on your knowledge orally. The clearer you are, the better.

And the way you get that clarity is through practice.

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Practice until you get good at it.

There’s a concept I explain in our course How To Learn Faster and this is it: truly mastering the content is one thing. Being under the illusion of mastering the content is another. Unfortunately, we don’t have much clarity on the difference between truly knowing something, and thinking we know it.

Here’s a good example: you’re trying to sing some song at karaoke. You choose a song you like, a song you’ve listened to hundreds of times before. You might even have sung it in the shower. The trouble is, once you’ve got the mic and need to start singing, you realise you don’t know the lyrics and have no idea how to sing certain bits of it.

That surprise uncovers the difference between knowing how to sing and thinking you know how to sing. Similarly, you might really know how to answer in an oral exam, or you might just think you know the right answers.

To really know how to answer in an oral exam, you need to practice what you know and how you know it. First of all, you need to study the subject, same as you would for a written exam.

Then, you need to practice speaking. Think about possible questions the examiner might ask and start to answer them orally. You can do this alone, or practice answering someone else, like a classmate, a friend or a relative.

It’s a good idea to film this practice with your phone. That way you can look back at the footage and identify where you need to improve.

The more you practice, the better. For you to deliver an easy performance, your training has to be difficult.

With deliberate practice, you’ll uncover the weaknesses and gaps in your knowledge. It’s important to be aware of the points on which you need to keep improving. And one of those points is probably using the right words.

Use precise terminology.

Now let’s look at this in more detail. Any mastery of knowledge implies a set of technical terms which are crucial for professionals and students of the field to successfully communicate.

During your oral exam, the questions will contain technical terms you’ll need to respond to.

When you answer, you need to use all the technical terms in a precise way. If you avoid using technical terminology in your answer, you might give the impression that you’re not very secure in your knowledge. When you use the technical terms, you’re showing that you’ve really understood what’s being asked.  

For instance, in a medical oral exam, I’m much better off saying: “ghrelin is a peptide hormone produced by the cells in the gastrointestinal tract which regulates the appetite.”

That will result in a much better grade than if I say something like: “we all have this substance inside our body that ends hunger by telling the brain that we’re full and can stop eating.”

You might say my second example was a clearer answer to the question. Sure, the second reply is much clearer if I’m talking to people outside of the medical field. Anyone can understand my second example. However, my first answer is also clear and it’s much more precise if my audience is composed of medical professors, in the context of an oral exam.

So it’s important to know who your audience is when you communicate. In the case of an oral exam in your first year at university, the vocabulary you use will be different from an oral exam as a postgrad.

The worst is when you use a technical term inappropriately. To avoid this, it’s essential you set aside some time during your preparation to understand the correct usage of the technical terminology.

To answer clearly, clarify the question.

Just as you need to be clear when you answer in an oral exam, you also need to be sure you’ve understood the question clearly.

That’s why you shouldn’t be afraid to ask your panel of examiners questions to make sure you’re answering the correct question.

In case you’re not completely sure about the question, say something like that: “Excuse me, regarding the question about blah blah blah could you clarify in which context, A or B, you’d like me to answer?”

Another handy, generic way of saying this is: “I like that topic and I believe I’ve got different arguments to discuss.To be sure I’m approaching this the right way, could you please rephrase the question?”

You can also rephrase the question yourself and say: “I want to be sure I’m about to answer your question properly. Could you please confirm that when you asked me about blah blah blah you wanted me to answer in relation to yada yada yada?”

When you clarify the question like this, what you’re doing is putting yourself in the examiner’s shoes for a minute. And that’s exactly the point of our last tip.

Put yourself in the examiner’s and other students’ shoes.

When you’re preparing for an oral exam, one of the best things you can do is to watch other oral exams, paying attention to the dynamics of questions and answers between the teachers and other students.

This will allow you to understand what counts as good practice, and what you should avoid. You can do this in person or search for video recordings of oral examinations.

When you find these, try to put yourself in the examiner’s shoes. What are you hoping to get out of a student ? How would you phrase your questions? What criteria would you use to assess the student in the fairest possible way?

Then try putting yourself in the student’s shoes. Imagine you’re that student answering the exam panel’s question. How would you meet the assessors’ expectations? How would you speak to ensure you’re conveying your ideas in the clearest possible way? What topics would you need to study to master the content that’s being covered?

The more you practice this exercise of putting yourself in the examiner’s and other students’ shoes, the easier it will be to achieve a good grade in your oral exam.

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Knowing how to study for an oral exam is something very few students excel at. It’s not enough to have mastered your subject. You also need to pass on that knowledge orally as clearly as possible.

To do that, you need to prepare well and structure the best way to answer questions in your head beforehand. Then, you need to practice until you get good at it. Preferably by recording your trials to identify areas where you need to improve, such as the use of precise terminology.  

On the day of the oral exam, remember to clarify the exact question you were asked. And put yourself in the teachers’ and other students’ shoes to observe what’s best practice and what you need to avoid.

These are just a few quick tips on learning how to learn. If you’ve stayed here up to this point in the conversation, I’d like to point you in the direction of our course How To Learn Faster. This course will teach you more advanced techniques to do better not only in oral exams, but also in written exams, entrance exams and even when you’re looking for a better job or want to take your professional career to the next level.

To find out more about the course How To Learn Faster, all you need to do is go here.