Nowhere to hide: Mastering your spoken exam

It’s bad enough when you don’t have the answers, but so much worse when your examiner is sitting right opposite you. These tips will get you through…By Karina Beck.

I’ve survived several face-to-face exams at Warwick, including a 2 hour grilling on pre-WW2 literature, and a language exam that went down in history as I managed to ping an elastic hairband at the examiner’s face. Needless to say, I left that exam crying, but I also got a special commendation for spoken German, so apparently I might have some advice to share.

Revision and preparation:

  • Don’t learn entire answers word for word. By all means, rehearse for things that might come up, but if you’ve learnt your answer too rigidly, you won’t be able to adapt it when the examiner phrases the question slightly differently.
  • Have some phrases in the bank. What you can prepare word for word is the odd show-off line. This might be a sentence you’ve squeezed lots of fancy terminology into, or if you’re a language student something that combines a tricky tense with a cultural idiom. You can then slot these into an answer when it fits.

In the exam:

  • Don’t pay too much attention to your examiner. If they nod you on rigorously, then yes, you might want to elaborate on your point, but don’t waste your time assessing every facial expression and deciding what they might mean for your grade; smiles and frowns are often just down to an individual’s demeanour.
  • Ask for clarification. If you’re unsure, don’t let nerves stop you from asking your examiner to repeat or rephrase the question. Even better, tell them your understanding of the question and check its right. This is so much better than nervously skirting around it and essentially saying very little.
  • Say “I’m not sure”. If you’re totally lost on a topic or have run out of things to say, you need to stop blagging it. Otherwise you’ll find you’ve wasted time making up answers which you know aren’t pulling in the marks. Hopefully your examiner will stray towards a different aspect or topic you’ve more to say on.
  • Stop and think. This sounds simple, but if you started writing the second you turned an exam paper over, you wouldn’t have read the question yet. This applies in spoken exams too; consider the question and plan the best way of answering it before you rush to fill the silence. Just make sure you put on your thinking face – not your vacant one!

Good luck with your exam, and if you pick up any pearls of wisdom along the way, share them with us for your fellow students’ sakes. Don’t forget that your examiner is human after all; they know you’re nervous, and they’re expecting you to choke on a couple of things or muddle your words up. Just try not to launch anything at their faces (other than your bounteous knowledge of course).

Image: bite your lips, tease your hair/Kate Lewis/CC BY NC SA 2.0


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