Oral exams (mündliche Prüfungen)

If you are a Master's student considering to specialize in our area (Media Computing and HCI), then you will be taking an oral exam ("Schwerpunktkolloquium") with me at some point. You can combine either our classes DIS1, DIS2 and Current Topics, or DIS1, DIS2, and iOS Application Development, or DIS1, Current Topics, and iOS Application Development, and for a total of 18 credits. For other combinations, please contact Clarissa de Gavarelli, our secretary first to see if they can be approved, but I expect any combination to be at least 18 credits of classes (not seminars or practical labs).

I limit my own examining to the classes from our chair. I will be happy to hold combined exams with another professor for your combination. Most colleagues are also happy to do this. Personally, I consider this a fairer approach, since being tested by someone who only knows the concrete class in passing can lead to misunderstandings and less accurate evaluation. Other colleagues handle this differently. The trickiest part here is finding a common date with both examiners; work with the secretaries from both examiners for a quick result.

You must have successfully taken each of our classes for credit that you intend to include in your oral exam with me; exceptions for outstanding students with a proven track record of excellent self-study results may be granted, please contact Clarissa de Gavarelli, our secretary. The projects and assignments will help you to better understand and get comfortable with the principles and methods discussed in class. In our classes, the lectures and lab assignments complement each other. We grade every single assignment as a service to you; make use of this to spread the learning load evenly and gain a working knowledge of the material.

These exams typically last 45 minutes. There will be you, one of our PhD students taking notes (or a second professor in the case of combined exams), and myself. We will let you pick your language of choice for the exam, English or German. It's perfectly ok to mix in terms from both languages too.

I will be asking you about topics from the classes we agreed upon. We will roughly follow the order of lectures you prefer, but the best exams end up jumping between topics (see the toolbox principle below). The relevant material consists of the slides, the things talked about in class and and in lecture videos, and required reading assignments. If you would like to dig deeper and become more confident in talking about these topics, add the suggested readings and the lab sessions to this.

Here are a few more tips to prepare for your oral exam:

  • Prepare using the latest materials from the current academic year. If you took the class a while back, review the slides and videos as needed to catch up. We have a hard time remembering what topics were different 3 years ago, and this approach both makes sure you learn the most useful, recent version of the material, and avoids embarrassing misunderstandings during the exam.
  • Study in a group. While you will likely spend a good part of your time studying individually, include at least one morning or afternoon each week where you meet with fellow students who are studying for the same exam. Use these meetings to quiz each other under realistic conditions: closed-book, with clear questions, and the need to answer them without immediate help. Use questions from the exams, or from the weekly repeat sessions in class, to start, but also think of more universal questions that test whether you can actually transfer and apply your knowledge to real-world problems. For example, have each other design a simple interface, or critique an existing design that you found somewhere. I call this "toolbox knowledge": In real life, nobody will ask you "what did you learn in DIS1 about this?". Rather, in your future job you will need to pull out the right research, design, or evaluation method or model, like the right tool(s) from a toolbox, for a random HCI problem someone presents to you. If you don't have study buddies, ask our secretary if other students are taking their exam around the same time and contact them. Really, don't do this alone, even though you are a computer scientist!
  • Use the videos. We take great efforts to produce fresh recordings of all classes each semester. We are gradually moving our classes to a model where you find lecture contents in video clips, and we use our face to face time for more interactive sessions. Either way, use these video materials to review classes, and to prepare for your exam. If you aren't sure what a slide is about, check the video. We have received excellent feedback from students using this technique. However, don't expect to be able to learn it all just by watching the videos like a TV series. Come to class instead, it's much more fun, includes interactive sessions where you are forced to turn on your brain, and you will remember much more!
  • Arrange an exam date around 2 months in advance, by emailing our secretary with a date range of a few weeks in which you would like to take your exam. Beforehand, check my rough schedule to avoid asking for times during which I am away. I usually offer oral exams on Tuesdays at 13:00 and 13:45.

During the exam: 

  • Bring your student ID (Studienausweis) and an official ID (Personalausweis) to the exam
  • Don't ramble on. The exam time is short for the material we try to cover. The more "data points" of your knowledge we can sample, the fairer the grade can be. Therefore I try to move through many topics, rather than spending endless time on one or two questions, whether you know or don't know the answer. Help us do this: First think about the question briefly, then give a concise structured answer. Include keywords that we can expand on if necessary. Don't try to hold a monologue of 15 minutes because we happened to hit a topic that you know well, and you're afraid to leave it. Don't be surprised if I cut you off sometimes if I get the feeling that you know this area well enough — I'm just trying to move forward so we can do a better job of understanding your overall level of knowledge. The same is true if you don't know something: Don't try to hold on to the topic forever, hoping you will get to the answer. In some cases it makes sense to say "I don't know this, but I think I can get to the answer from this point." For those questions where that works, we will let you show if you can get to the answer by thinking. In other cases this may just not be possible, and we will move on. Again, it's ok — your grade will improve if we get more opportunities to sample and you do well on those other questions.

If you have specific questions about something discussed in class or in labs, first talk to the teaching assistant who did the labs. If the question cannot be resolved, ask him to involve me as well. We make mistakes too, and welcome any corrections to our materials. 

I hope this information will help you prepare effectively and relax a bit when thinking about your exam. It is compiled from frequent questions by students, and from my experience over the last couple years of offering oral exams.

-- Prof. Jan Borchers

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