The Case For Oral Defense Grading

Oral Defense grading is a fantastic alternative to traditional written assessments and a great way to really ensure your grading is focused on the actual learning of content knowledge and not mere task completion. It’s  a concept we first picked up from Dr. Kathie Nunley whose Layered Curriculum model has saved at least one teaching career. Her website is a great resource for parents and teachers,  even if you’re not on the Layered Curriculum bandwagon.

In a nutshell, Oral Defense is simply asking students to answer questions verbally rather than in written form. Virtually any assessment you would have students write can be adapted to an oral assessment. And there are a variety of benefits to this sort of grading.

 For starters, it’s a much better representation of what students actually KNOW than is writing down an answer. For example, if a student answers questions from a textbook, they likely just looked up the answers from page 224 to answer the questions on page 226. They copied down the answers while listening to their iPod, fighting with their younger siblings, watching TV, texting their friends and eating dinner. The retention of knowledge isn’t real great there. So giving students points for completing the assignment doesn’t seem right given that they may not have learned anything at all. Instead, simply ask them “List two precedents set by George Washington.” When they stare back at you blankly and say “Huh? I just did the questions from the book!” you can reply “I know, that was question #1, guess you’re not ‘done’ yet after all.” That’s all assuming of course that your student actually completed their work and didn’t just copy it down from a classmate ten minutes before class. Not only is it very hard to fake knowledge in Oral Defense, it’s virtually impossible to cheat as well.oraldefenseOral Defense grading is not only more accurate than traditional grading, it increases student accountability and encourages teachers and student to focus on learning course objectives, not simple task completion. It also means less take home work for teachers and more student engagement.

Oral Defense works sensationally well with knowledge based subjects such as Science and Social Studies, as in the previous example but it works great with Vocabulary in any subject. Rather than simply assigning six vocabulary words and giving students a lame matching quiz over them, tell them you’ll be asking them to define and use three of the words and don’t tell them which ones.

Skill based classes such as Language Arts and Math can benefit form certain elements of Oral Defense grading as well. For example, suppose you’re working on persuasive essays. If one of your key components of this essay is that students have a thesis statement supported by [x] number of reasons, consider working in some oral defense during the editing process by asking students “So what is your thesis then? Why do you believe that? Tell me what resources you used in your paper to support your argument.” It adds an element of reflection to the writing process and encourages students to think about the topic differently, knowing that they’re going to have to articulate the elements of their paper as well.

In math class, consider asking students to “show you” how they solved a certain problem and tell you what rules they used to do so. Essentially, it’s the old trick of asking students to “show their work” except you’re going to have them “teach the teacher” about it.

If you’re worried that Oral Defense seems like it would only benefit the most basic Depth of Knowledge levels, don’t be. Consider giving students the objective and letting them choose from a variety of assignments that help them learn that objective, one of the basic premises of the Layered Curriculum model, but rather than ask the student the specific questions about the work, ask them the objective instead. Students can complete any one of a variety of assignments, but at the end, everybody will have to “Explain the Scientific Method” if that’s the objective. Oral Defense in this case helps students make connections between the purpose of the work and the objective they’re trying to learn, and it keeps their focus on learning the objective, not completing the task.

Oral Defense can also be very beneficial to English Language Learners and non-readers as well. Yes, those skills are important for students to learn, however, teachers of other subjects need to assess these students in their knowledge of their respective subjects and sometimes poor Language Arts skills can mask how much a student actually understands about Science or Social Studies. Knowing confidently how much a non-reader or ELL student understands (or doesn’t) helps the teacher make informed decisions going forward – such as how much time and effort they should spend helping students read and write in these content areas, or if they really do need to concentrate on the subjects at hand.

Grading in this manner can be beneficial in taking some of the work load off of teachers. Although having these mini-conferences with students all hour can be extremely exhausting, at the end of the day the teacher doesn’t need to take home a mountain of tests or papers to grade. Their grading is already done. Furthermore, because the teacher talks content with every student, the teacher is much more aware of what individual students may be struggling with. Another bonus, students appreciate the face-to-face time even if it is only for 2-3 minutes and the relationships that can be built because of this can be very beneficial to classroom management and being focused on learning. 

Lastly, Oral Defense can take some of the pressure off of late or forgotten classwork or homework. Since it places the responsibility on the student to actually LEARN the material rather than simply complete the task, suppose a student comes to you upset that they forgot their homework though they SWEAR to you they did it. Ask them questions from the homework instead. After all, what’s more important to you – that they DID the homework or that they LEARNED what they were supposed to learn? Yes, it’s important that they be responsible enough to remember their work but your gradebook is not the time or the mechanism to have that fight. Record how much the student knows about the objective, then deal with the responsibility independently (or not at all).

Oral Defense may actually do more to encourage responsibility than typical grading, because students know they’re going to be asked these questions and be held accountable for this learning, whether they completed the task or not. Except now, they’re being held accountable for learning objectives, not just “doing work.”

If you’re considering giving it a shot, here’s a tips to keep in mind.

  • Usually, it really does work better if the teacher moves and the students sit. Go grade them on their turf. This makes it less intimidating for the student, helps with classroom management by using some proximity control, and ensures that students who don’t want to be bothered don’t get that chance. However, this can frustrate your top students who want to come get graded as soon as they feel like the know something, so the temptation will be for the teacher to sit and say “come see me when you’re ready.” This allows students to slip through the cracks. Consider at least alternating, having some days where they come to you and some where you go find them.
  • Obviously, this method can be a trick depending on the age of your students and your classroom management skills. It’s imperative that teachers have strong relationships with students, or at least sound rules and procedures in order to really make this work.
  • Make sure students have something engaging that they should be working on. Kathie Nunley advocates choices on virtually every assignment, which helps ensure students are engaged and working productively while she’s Oral Defense grading
  • Organize desks in a way that helps you move around. Long rows are tough to maneuver for Oral Defense.
  • Resist the urge to “teach” while you’re assessing. Obviously you want to help kids who are struggling, but if you spend fifteen minutes with a kid who doesn’t understand it, you’ll not be able to assess all your students. Give each student 2-3 minutes and move on, making a note to come back and help out the kids who need it later, such as by grouping students the next day.
  • Sometimes grading students with a partner, alternating questions, can REALLY help their comfort level and allows you to move a little faster.

Oral Defense grading really does provide a more accurate assessment of student learning, encourage focus on learning the objectives, provide less take-home work for teachers and encourage student accountability. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but it’s worth it to try it a few times and see if it fits your classroom. For more on this type of grading, check out Kathie Nunley’s article In Defense of Oral Defense Grading or our own Guide to Using Layered Curriculum. 

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