As I said in the intro, oral exams and I haven’t always been the best of friends. And looking back, I wish I’d actually asked for more advice on how to get through one. That’s why we’ve put together this mini oral exam guide for you!
Oral Exam Meaning
An oral exam, also known as a viva or viva voce, is a type of examination where a student is questioned verbally by an examiner (teacher/lecturer) to assess their knowledge of a specific subject/topic.
This form of assessment is commonly used in academic settings, particularly in fields such as language learning, literature, and the arts. Oral exams can also be used in professional settings, such as job interviews or certification exams. During an oral exam, the examiner may ask the student to discuss a particular topic or answer questions related to their coursework.
This type of exam can be challenging, but it also allows you to showcase your communication skills and demonstrate your knowledge in a more interactive way than a written exam.
Oral Exam Examples: Phrases and Questions
When I think back to my oral exams at university, I can vividly remember certain questions. In my French exam (A1 level, so super basic), I was asked what I was wearing that day, and I answered (in my ridiculous South-African-French accent😁) that I was wearing black shoes and make-up (hence the maquillage fail). In my German oral exams, I was asked (for A1 and A2 levels) about my daily routines or what I did on the weekend. When I progressed to third-year German (about B2 level), I was asked about my opinions on certain topics, so your oral exams will get progressively more challenging as you progress in your language proficiency.
Below are some examples of oral exams in terms of their format:
- Having a conversation with a classmate. This happened in my French oral exam. I was paired with a classmate on the day, and during the exam, we had to have a conversation with each other. I can’t remember the exact topic of conversation now, but I know we had to demonstrate that we could introduce ourselves and each other and give a bit of info about our classmate. You might also be asked to introduce your classmate to the examiner, giving their name, some background info, how you know them, what subjects they study, etc.
- Guided conversation. This should typically happen in all oral exams. Your examiner asks you questions (based on materials you’ve covered through the semester) and then encourages you to try to have a discussion. All the examiners I had were wonderful and would guide me throughout the conversation, sometimes even giving me the words to help me move forward!
- Building blocks. Some oral exams will build on difficulty throughout the exam. Here, you’ll be asked easier questions at first to warm you up, with the linguistic difficulty increasing until the end. Look at this example from the NSW government for someone taking an English oral exam:
- Monologues. To be honest, I don’t remember having any monologue questions myself, but your examiners can ask you to talk about a topic on your own without interruption. The examiner can give you a topic to talk about, or they’ll show you a picture and ask you to speak about what you see in the picture. They can also ask you to give your opinion on a specific topic.
- Reading. I’ve never personally had to do this, but you could be asked to read a text appropriate to your level. You might then be asked what your opinion is based on what you’ve just read.
- Games. OK, maybe ‘game’ isn’t exactly the right term because games tend to be fun, and I can’t say oral exams are my type of fun😉. But the idea is to get the students to participate actively in their exam. In a video you’ll see later in this article, the examiner (during a German oral exam) asks students to choose a number laid out in front of them. Each number corresponds to a different topic the students must talk about.
Some oral exams will incorporate some or most of the elements mentioned above; others might just focus on one (my first German oral exams were guided conversations with the examiners).
Language oral exams typically shouldn’t last too long – probably between 20 and 30 minutes, maybe even shorter depending on your level. Also, you won’t be thrown into the deep end immediately when you walk in! Your examiner/s will start with an introduction and warm-up, explaining what’s expected of you in the exam. They’re also likely to ask you your names and your student number.
Oral Exam Questions
Oral exam questions depend on your language level. Take a look at this CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) table on the qualitative aspects of spoken language use. This table shows you what you should be capable of in the language you’re learning at each level (A1 to C2). For example:
- If you’re learning a language at A1 level, you’ll ‘[s]how only limited control of a few simple grammatical structures and sentence patterns in a memorised repertoire.’ This means that you’ll only be expected to use simple grammatical structures and phrases in your oral exam.
- If you’re at B2 level, you’ll ‘[s]how a relatively high degree of grammatical control [and you don’t] make errors which cause misunderstanding … .’
This means that at each level, you’ll be required to demonstrate that you’re capable of having a conversation using different grammatical structures and vocab (you won’t be asked to demonstrate the English third conditional at A1 level, for example). You will never be asked to go beyond your linguistic ability in your oral exam, so keep calm!
I obviously can’t give you a list of questions you’ll be asked, but no matter what language you’re learning, these are common themes that come up time and again: what you’re studying and your goals for the future, family (including info about your beloved pets!), going on holiday, weather and seasons, what you do in your free time, where you live/grew up, sport, and public transport.
Useful Oral Exam Phrases
It’s pretty common to be asked about why you’re learning a specific language and what you know about countries that speak that language. For example, if you’re learning German, it’ll be helpful to know phrases about German culture, food, drinks, cities, etc.
If you’re just starting out, you’ll need to know how to introduce yourself and be able to make small talk, such as having conversations about the weather, your hobbies, where you live and who you live with, etc. Higher levels will require your opinion on certain topics, such as news stories or literature/poems you’ve studied during your course. This is when it’s helpful to know the phrases on how to express an opinion; for example, in German, you would learn, Meine Meinung nach (in my opinion) or Ich denke/Ich glaube (I think/believe).
Below are some useful oral exam phrases for different situations in the exam (they’re given in English, which you can translate into the language you’re learning):
- If you need some clarification on a question:
- Could you please repeat that?
- Sorry, I didn’t quite understand the question.
- Just to clarify, do you mean … ?
- If you need a bit more time to think about your answer:
- That’s a good/interesting question!
- Let me think/let me see …
- I think I would …
Some Valuable Oral Exam Tips
If you’re anything like me, you find oral exams terribly nerve-wracking. I’ve always preferred writing to speaking (hence why I write blog posts for the StudySmarter magazine!), and of course, when you’ve just started learning a language and only know the basics, trying to do an oral exam in this new language is NOT easy. BUT always remember, you’re only being tested on the content you’ve learnt throughout your semester, so it’s very unlikely that you won’t understand what’s being asked of you (unless you’ve been skipping classes and not doing your homework 😉).
Here are eight tips to help you ace your next oral exam:
- Prepare, prepare, prepare. The best way to get rid of those pre-exam jitters is to prepare well. This starts from day one of your course. Participate actively in class, do your homework, and practise speaking in this new language each chance you get. Of course, the BEST case scenario is to go to a country on a semester exchange where the language you’re learning is spoken, but that’s not always an option. So, immerse yourself in the language in other ways. Read your favourite books in this language (like me reading The Hunger Games in German), watch films and series either in that language with English subtitles, or practise with your classmates during lunch break. There is SO much you can do to improve your vocab! And, if it helps, write down some cue cards of important phrases that you can study on your way to the exam.
- Ask for help and tips. Speak to your lecturers or teachers. Ask them how you can prepare for the oral exam and if you’re allowed to bring in cue cards or something to help you. Trust me, teachers do want to see you succeed!
- KEEP CALM. I cannot emphasise this enough. Of course, you’ll have butterflies and feel anxious, but practise deep breathing just before you go in. I have a FitBit with a meditative function that allows me to focus on deep breathing for two minutes, focusing on nothing else. Also, you can check out the Headspace app, which comes with short, quick meditative guides to calm you down. If you work yourself up into a frenzy, you’re going to forget everything you’ve learnt. That’s what happened to me in my one German oral exam – I got so nervous to the point of tears, and when I went into the exam, I couldn’t even speak or remember how to say, Ich bin Tracey. Stress messes with your cognitive functions, so if there’s only one thing you take from this article, it’s that you must JUST BREATHE.
- Fake it! I know you’re nervous, but you’ve got to walk the walk. Even if you don’t feel it, act confident. Shoulders back. Good posture. Try not to fidget. Make eye contact, be polite, and smile! An oral exam is also about demonstrating your interpersonal skills. And make sure you feel comfortable and confident in what you’re wearing to make a good impression (keep it as professional as possible without compromising your identity!).
- Speak slowly. There is no rush! Your examiners are not expecting you to be fluent or speak quickly without mistakes. Think about your answers before talking. Also, JUST SPEAK. As a foreign language learner myself, it’s easy to become self-conscious because you’re afraid of all the mistakes you’ll make. This is what prevents you from speaking. Just go for it – your examiners are looking at a combination of fluency and accuracy based on your level. I’ve been speaking German for about five years now, and I’ve come to learn that I must just talk – so what if I use ‘das’ instead of ‘der’?! Also, if you’re assigned a reading task, talk loudly, clearly, and with a bit of life (putting your examiners to sleep probably isn’t the best idea).
- Don’t give one-word answers. Saying ja or oui and not giving a reason for your answer is NOT demonstrating those awesome language abilities of yours!
- Could you repeat that please? Heck, you’re doing an exam in a different language – be proud of yourself! OF COURSE, there might be times when you’re not sure what you’ve been asked, and that’s totally OK! Just ask the examiner to repeat or rephrase the question kindly. If it helps, I watch tons of pilot vs air traffic control videos, and one of the pilot’s advice was, ‘If you don’t understand the instructions, ASK AGAIN AND AGAIN until you’re sure.’
- It’s just an exam. This exam, I promise you, is not going to determine the rest of your life. There’ll be plenty more opportunities to do better in the future if you didn’t do as well as you wanted. And remember, your examiners are actually there to help you, too! They will guide you, especially if you’re struggling to understand a question. In the greater scheme of things, an oral exam isn’t so bad😉. And like our article on wabi-sabi says, you need to embrace imperfection!
Preparing for Oral Exams in Different Languages
It doesn’t really matter what language you’re preparing for – oral exams should typically follow similar formats. You’ll always be asked questions based on your knowledge level (i.e. if you’re learning A1 German, your examiner is not going to ask you to speak about Einstein’s theory of relativity😉).
German Oral Exam Tips
Check out this video of two high-school students taking a German oral exam (about A1/A2 level).
In the video, the examiner introduces herself and tells the students what to expect. She then asks questions, such as:
- Who is your classmate? Tell me a bit more about her.
- What grade are you in?
- What do you two do when you meet up with each other?
- Can you describe your friend’s personality?
- What are your favourite subjects?
- Talk about where you live: Where is it? How many people live there? What can you find in your area (shops, doctor’s offices, cinema, etc.)?
- How do you get to school? Are there public transport connections?
You can see that the examiner encourages each student to speak more, guiding the conversation and giving hints on what each student can talk about. The examiner also speaks slowly, ensuring that students understand the questions and not overwhelming them (they will even rephrase questions to make it easier).
Preparing for a French and Spanish Oral Exam
Preparing for a French and Spanish oral exam is exactly the same as for any other language you’re learning. If you’re living in Europe and have the opportunity to do an Erasmus exchange to Spain or France, you should absolutely go for it! This is the best way to learn a language and culture (including how people speak every day with slang and accents). I did a six-month exchange to Germany in my final year, and when I had to do my final oral exam, I was super confident and could really engage with my examiners!
One of the most important things about French and Spanish oral exams is pronunciation (especially French … #nocomment). Make sure you learn how to pronounce all of those silent letters/sounds as best you can (otherwise, you’ll end up like me saying maquillage wrong and not being allowed to move on to the next question until I said it correctly!). Pronunciation is all about practise, and if you have native-speaker friends, ask them to help you out.
The Oral Exam Is Near, but Have No Fear!
I truly hope this article has helped you feel a little calmer about your next oral exam. I know it’s not easy, especially if you’re more on the introverted side like me. But just keep in mind that you genuinely know more than you think, and your examiner is also there to support you, seriously. In every oral exam I’ve had, my examiners have spoken slowly, rephrased things when I didn’t understand, and offered me some words of encouragement.