Oral Reviews: Improved Understanding, Grades and Retention

Project No.
PI Name
mary nelson
George Mason University

EHR Core Research

Abstract 1

Oral Reviews: Improved Understanding, Grades and Retention

Presentation Type
Harvey Segur James Curry Anne Dougherty


Many students are discouraged from pursuing a STEM degree because of their experience in their first Calculus, Biology, Chemistry or Physics class. We have shown that participation in oral reviews is strongly correlated to improved retention, understanding and grades.


We are engaging students in oral reviews with the help of undergraduate learning assistants, and gathering data to uncover whether oral reviews are as effective in disciplines other than mathematics.


We are involving instructors, TAs and undergraduate learning assistants in facilitating oral reviews with small groups of students. Students are asked to explain their thinking, negotiate meaning with their peers and the facilitator and make important connections between crucial concepts.


We have shown that students participating in three orals (one hour each) over the semester achieve grades about one letter higher than those who do not participate. They report greater interest and satisfaction with the courses. At CU Boulder our ten year average failure rate was about 31%. The five year average failure rate after introducing orals dropped to 22%. Similarly the failure rates for Calculus II dropped from 27% to 17% over the same time span. This was key in improving STEM retention.

Broader Impacts

This project has been disseminated to six universities. Four of the six (CU Boulder, Seattle, Shippensberg and George Mason) have reported results similar to those outcomes listed above. The other two have not yet analyzed their data.

Numerous presentations have been made nationally on the results of this project, and recently the PI was invited to speak to faculty members at a Turkish University about this and the learning assistant program. They intend to begin oral reviews in their math and science courses.

An article was published in PRIMUS about the program results.

Unexpected Challenges

We are now using oral assessments at GMU, but they have spread too rapidly and to too many departments. This has caused logistic problems in trying to accommodate all of the students who wish to participate.


Nelson, M.A. (2005). A reform approach to calculus instruction: Effects on retention, grades and
understanding. PhD Dissertation, ProQuest /UMI.

Nelson, M.A. (January, 2010). Oral Assessments: Improving Retention, Grades and Understanding.