Skip Navigation

Rockbridge Academy Blog


The History of Oral Exams at Rockbridge Academy

January 28, 2021
By Olivia Reardon, 11th Grade Student

“It’s a historical method on how to examine someone and their rhetoric.  It’s all about being articulate, thinking on your feet, putting together your thoughts, integrating your subjects, and expressing your world view.”  That’s how Rockbridge’s Headmaster, Roy Griffith, described Rockbridge Academy’s oral examinations.  These graded conversations between two teachers and a student are Rockbridge’s unique version of midterms.  Every rhetoric student is assigned a fifty-minute slot in which they verbally answer questions about any material from across the subjects they have studied that year.  Exams are most successful when students integrate information from multiple subjects in their answer while weaving in their Christian worldview.  Thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of the Rockbridge Academy staff, oral exams became a tradition that has been benefiting our rhetoric students for years.

Back in 2007, the Rockbridge staff was struggling with the idea of exams.  Midterms and finals felt like time consuming disruptions to learning, but the students' understanding of the material still needed to be assessed.   Mike McKenna, Rockbridge’s Headmaster from 2000-2015, said, “We started by asking the question, "Why?"  Why midterms and final exams?  Do we have to do it the same old way that everybody does it?”  It turns out, the answer is no.  McKenna said, “We wanted to think outside the box to come up with a way to assess the students' understanding of what they were learning, but we also wanted to do it in a way that was in accordance with a classical model.”  Ralph Janikowski, who was Rockbridge’s upper school principal from 2005-2016, came up with the solution that fit all of these criteria: oral exams.  

The oral exams concept put Rockbridge into relatively uncharted territories in the world of high school.  As far as Rockbridge knew, no one else—not even other classical Christian schools—were doing something like this.  Rockbridge made oral exams more casual than typical midterms by encouraging students to take the conversation in the direction of a subject matter that interests them and to articulate the thought process behind what they are learning and why it is significant rather than asking obscure questions or simply getting the student to parrot information they have memorized.  Heidi Stevens, a retired Rockbridge art teacher who was on staff at Rockbridge for twenty years, said that orals were originally meant to be something you could do without having to study; if you paid attention and participated in class you would be fine. 

McKenna said, “I always wanted the students to feel like they were having a dinnertime conversation with Uncle Mike about what they were learning at school.”  Despite this, the students are understandably intimidated in their first year of exams.  But it seems that as the years progress, the students become more and more comfortable.  Each sophomore class is almost always nervous, but juniors are usually a bit more comfortable, and seniors tend to enjoy the experience.  Oral exams are actually more convenient for students because, “rather than taking an hour written exam in each subject over the course of a day or two, now they [have] a fifty-minute conversation with their teachers.  And then they [are] allowed to spend the rest of the day getting some solid work done on their thesis papers,” said McKenna.  Oral exams ended up being exactly what Rockbridge rhetoric students needed, in so many ways. 

Fast forward fourteen years, and oral exams are still going strong, much in the same manner that they began.  Two teachers still act as interlocutors, terrifying sophomores and exciting seniors for their fifty-minute graded conversation.  Through the years of doing oral exams, the benefits this unique test offers have become apparent.  The testing method itself gives the student more freedom to express themselves and what they believe.  McKenna put it this way: “If I talk to you about your view of mathematics I can see whether you understand it from a biblical perspective or not.  But, if I put a trigonometric equation in front of you and ask you to solve it, you could be a Secularist or a Christian and still solve that problem. I won’t understand your worldview.”  Having a worldview and being able to winsomely express it is an important part of Rockbridge’s education.  

In a blurb about oral exams in the 2007-2008 Rockbridge Yearbook, former Rockbridge teacher Donna Duarte said, “‘Orals are an appropriate form of evaluating a rhetoric student’s progress, and the goal is to indicate how the student is progressing toward an integrated biblical worldview.’”  

Oral exams also provide students with ample future benefits.  Nathan Griffith, Rockbridge teacher and former Rockbridge student, said, “Orals are preparing you to have a long conversation about topics you may not be comfortable talking about,” and also that “it’s a great opportunity to get comfortable talking to someone in authority over you.”  Being able to think through difficult questions as well as verbally articulate answers are valuable life skills.  

Emma Williams, Rockbridge eleventh grader, said, “I can just picture myself being really nervous for an interview or something, but now I will be much more confident having done orals.”  Oral examinations fit perfectly into the rhetoric years as they test both knowledge and oratory skills, allowing a student to weave together what they have learned with their worldview.  Oral exams are the optimal midterms for Rockbridge Academy because the integration that naturally occurs demonstrates that a classical education is a Christ-centered education. 

Olivia Reardon, ‘22, loves to write and can usually be found reading a good book.  She is part of a dance company and enjoys spending time with friends and eating ice cream.

Posted in Upper School
Jessica Shaner says:
January 28, 2021 10:59 AM CST
Well said, Olivia! You've captured well both sides of the student experience – terror turning into appreciation. It was very interesting to hear about the origin of the exams, too. Thank you for this work!