…because some thoughts are worth remembering
Mainstream media from The Guardian to Huffington Post have covered the Scandinavian countries’ strategy to nurture their innovation economies through funding of education. They normally offer free tuition and in addition, at least in Denmark, the Danish students are given stipend to assist with their living expenses during the study (Norway continues to offer free tuition even for students outside of the EU).
Their difference in philosophy of teaching is also worthy of note. My husband is a post doctoral researcher at a Danish university, and he had to adjust to these differences. A tradition completely foreign to him was the ubiquitous use of oral examinations. Even in a class of a hundred students, the final exam is often given orally individually. The professor who taught the course presides over each and every one, and is companied by a “censor”, an external examiner, who provides input for the grades. Students are given several topics to prepare for the exam, and appointments are scheduled for each student. At the exam, the student is given some cards with the exam topics face down, and is asked to select a card (or sometimes they roll the dice where each number corresponds to a particular topic). They are given about 10 minutes to present on the topic during which the professor can ask questions to prod the students’ understanding. After the presentation and the questioning is complete, the student leaves the room. The professor and the censor then discuss what grade the student should get. The student is then invited back into the room and is given the grade.
Imagine the time commitment of the professors! The university also has a budget to hire censors if they cannot manage the staffing internally (postdocs and other professors are usually tapped). If the funding, the time commitment and the logistics of scheduling all the students didn’t phase my husband, the grading philosophy took him by surprise as well. He was told that students start off from a twelve (the highest score) and then have points taken off for errors and omission that can be justified to the students. What took him a while to digest was that it turned out the grade he helped give those students at the oral exams was the only grade they got for the class. While students received feedback on other assignments, and a certain level of performance and completion of the assignments were necessary for them to be able to take the oral exam, these assignments did not receive a grade that counted towards the final grade. 10 minutes can make or break you as a student, at least for that course.
It’s no picnic for the students either, who are often taught in English at the Masters level (and many text books at the advanced undergraduate level are in English), and take this oral exam in English if the professor and the censor do not speak Danish.
No single testing method is appropriate for all occasions, but it was refreshing to learn about this practice when multiple choice standardized testing have infested the US education system. With the oral exam, professors can and do customize for each student to test for the highest score by asking tougher questions. This method also provides opportunities for the students to apply the information they learned in class to a situation they have not encountered before, showing their ability to synthesize the concepts covered in the course.
Photo: Aarhus Universitet, Denmark