Gen Ed Course To Offer Oral Exam

In an unconventional twist on final exams, students in this semester’s English 156, “Crime and Horror in Victorian Literature and Culture” will find themselves conveying their academic insights not only through their word processors, but also face-to-face with teaching staff in an oral final exam.

The recently announced oral exam  will require students to choose one text from a list of supplementary readings to discuss aloud with a member of the teaching staff. According to English Professor Matthew B. Kaiser, who teaches the course, the oral format of the test is meant to exercise some “neglected intellectual muscles;” namely, students’ ability to engage in scholarly dialogue.

“Students who have read little or attended lecture sporadically will have a lot less to say and will not be able to produce compelling conversation,” Kaiser wrote in an e-mail.

Though some concentrations, such as Social Studies and History and Literature, already include oral examinations as part of their degree requirements, Kaiser’s decision is likely part of a larger trend in the College aiming to expand students’ communication skills beyond the traditional focus on writing.

The recent approval of the course into the General Education curriculum was one such motivating factor for this change, Kaiser said.


According to Gen Ed Committee member and Psychology Professor Mahzarin R. Banaji, one of the goals of the Gen Ed committee is encouraging faculty to think about “non-traditional” methods of teaching.

Banaji said it is important to “push the boundaries” in order to find the most effective pedagogical methods.

Concurrently, the English department is trying to make public speaking a “more central component” of undergraduate education, according to Kaiser.

“Students often complain that they don’t acquire interviewing skills during their time in college,” Kaiser wrote in an e-mail. “We’re trying to address that problem.”

Unconventional forms of assessment, though still uncommon, are being seen in other Harvard classes as well.

Culture and Belief 11, “Medicine and the Body in East Asia and in Europe” is another Gen Ed course that has traded traditional writing assignments in favor of weekly, student-produced podcasts or short videos relating to the assigned readings.

Head teaching fellow Robert Joseph “R.J.” Jenkins wrote in an e-mail that he hopes courses continue to help students develop a more diverse set of skills beyond academic writing.

“Helping students improve their ability to express themselves verbally is a goal shared by faculty and teaching fellows, academic departments and College administrators,” he said.

— Staff writer Melody Y. Hu can be reached at


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