One of the trademarks of the Argentine university system compared to the United States is the commonality of the oral exam. At UW-Madison oral exams are rarely used outside of foreign language classes unless you are being asked to defend a thesis. Granted, UW-Madison students give LOTS of presentations…but the oral exam is different.
Imagine yourself walking into a room where 3 professors sit silently in a row waiting for you. You sit down in front of them and they begin to ask you exam questions in Spanish about the class material. You are expected to be able to cite authors, describe major arguments, etc. out loud and on the spot in a foreign language. All eyes on you.
Even without the language barrier, I think that the oral exam adds the extra challenge of forcing you to think quickly. When you take a written final, you have time to think through your responses and plan out your answers before you start to write. When you take an oral exam, time is not on your side. Also, in some ways the oral exam is one of the best measures for testing what you know. Can you explain the material to someone else? How well have you internalized and adapted what you learned to previous knowledge? The oral exam attempts to answer these questions. I also believe that oral exams are good practice fore the “real world” in terms of honing effective communication skills. Honestly, I think more classes in the US should include a small oral component to final exams.
My first semester in Argentina, I managed to avoid taking classes with oral finals. This semester I was ready for the challenge. I took my one and only oral final in my class on International Security at the University of Buenos Aires. Although I was super nervous going into the exam…I ended up over-studying (like I have for every exam I’ve ever taken, in my life…ever. Haha), and I breezed through the exam with no problem and with hardly any grammatical Spanish errors. It felt fitting to end my time in Buenos Aires with an oral final.
However, the most exciting part about the day is that I almost took my oral final outside in the courtyard of the UBA Social Sciences building…which would have been less-than-ideal. When I arrived at the facultad the morning of the exam, I found myself waiting outside in a mob of students holding study materials waiting to enter the building. They had closed the facultad and weren’t letting any students or staff enter because the electricity had gone out. Five minutes before my class was scheduled to start they opened the doors, but there still wasn’t any electricity.
When my professors arrived (20 minutes late in keeping with Argentine custom), they mistakenly thought that no one was being allowed to enter the building since my entire class was waiting outside. My teórico professor herded us all over to a wet bench (it had rained that morning) and informed us that we would have to begin taking the exam outside in the crowded and noisy courtyard full of people until the lights came back on. I literally could not believe the circumstances in which I would have been expected to take my exam…but at least I felt way less nervous about it! Quickly, one of my classmates informed the professor that we were indeed still allowed to enter the building…there just wouldn’t be any electricity. Since the light shining through the windows was enough to see by, my professor opted for moving the class inside, and I took my exam in the semi-darkness of our regular classroom. It was a fun morning.
Overall, I would say I had a very successful and exciting end to my academic career in Argentina.