In my university, in Italy, most professors want students (at least the undergraduate ones) to handwrite what they are saying in an oral exam. If I understood correctly, this is somewhat due to needing an official document for the oral exam. Does this occur in other countries too?

It's not uncommon for students to have a not so clear handwriting (I know many), one has to put care for the text to be clear, it ends up being kind of distracting. Maybe that's not to the point of being a huge problem, but nowadays LaTeX is anyway an important instrument for a mathematician, would it not be feasible to offer a LaTeX course in the first semester of the first undergraduate year, and then have LaTeX-assisted orals? I think the speed of handwriting can be partially undermined by the need to put that (probably extra) care, resulting, in average, comparable to the speed of LaTeX-typing after an entire dedicated course. Is there a good reason not to give the students a keyboard and a monitor, provided that they have been taught LaTeX? In the end, the printed document would be manually signed.

(Added stuff from the comments)

  • $\begingroup$ Currently, we offer courses in "presentation skills", "time management", and the like. Should we also start to offer courses in "handwriting for math students"? $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Uwe That's probably ironic (and if so, rude), but generally, improving handwriting would be a solution. However it should be done way earlier than university, and one never knows, it's not uncommon for students to have a not so clear handwriting. Since nowadays LaTeX is anyway an important instrument for a mathematician, would it not be feasible to offer a LaTeX course and then make LaTeX-assisted orals? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 14:05

2 Answers 2


There are two types of oral exams I'm aware of:

  1. A Q&A-style, where the student is supposed to show knowledge and learned concepts by giving definitions or answering short questions.
  2. A talk-style, where the professor discusses a problem with the student and the student is supposed to show that he understands the concepts taught and can apply them to the given problem.

Most professors are familiar with both styles and adjust according to the student: If things are going well, you talk, if the student seems to be completely lost, you fall back to Q&A.

Now, especially in the second case of exam, you want some written document. Not (only) for official documentation, but rather to have something to talk about and discuss. The student is most likely nervous, and if you want to come back to a prior point, if you want to point the student in the right direction, he might have well forgotten what exactly he said two minutes ago. Furthermore, many students (especially undergraduates) are not yet accustomed to a mathematical way of talking. This will result in many situations of the sort "didn't I essentially just say that?" If you have the student write down his definitions or arguments, you can ask him to look at it again closely, if he is sure that everything is correct with it.
Such a situation can get really frustrating, if you are trying to get a student to say something he thinks he already said and it might get troublesome to prove that he actually didn't, as long as you haven't got any written documents.

Last but not least, writing things down takes some momentum off the whole thing. It gives a nervous student time to think, time to order his thoughts, time to write them down properly. If you just talk with no end, you would have to fail many students not for being bad but just for being overly nervous.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer. You clearly proved that writing down what is being said is important. However, what about handwriting it vs typesetting it? I'm primarily interested in this aspect. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ You are assuming that students have the Latex skill necessary. However, it takes years of training to be able to type in Latex just as fast as you would write by hand - and even then you might forget some parentheses or have a minor typo which stops the whole document from compiling (add nervousness to that and you are in trouble). Thus, I think Latex is not viable for an oral exam, where time is very limited (usually 15-30min from my experience). $\endgroup$
    – Dirk
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 10:01
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I'm assuming that. Anyway I see your point, but I think the speed of the handwriting can be partially undermined by the need to put (probably extra) care to let the text be clear. Would your opinion change if there was a LaTeX course in the first semester of the first undergraduate year? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ Note: I do know an Italian university where LaTeX is taught. By the way, +1, I'll accept your answer if no one else shows up in a while. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ @VincenzoOliva No, it would not. Latex is in this sense similar to a coding language: Even experts forget a symbol once, include a bug, etc. And in an exam, you don't have time to look for that, as Latex and finding bugs should not be the topic of the exam. Furthermore, a single semester is not enough to be good or fast in Latex, it merely allows you to know your way around, to know where to find the symbols needed, etc. It is surely a good idea to teach Latex and also to encourage students to use it (for homework,...), but it is not as efficient as notes on paper in an exam. $\endgroup$
    – Dirk
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 9:09

That is overkill and too close to a written exam. Just have a form for the prof to put a grade and a couple paras in what was covered and what was done well or poorly.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site! When posting an answer like this, it is best to include more details about the rationale behind your opinion or some anecdotes / experiences you may have had either way. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ .......................... $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 13:15

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