With living voice: the power of oral examinations

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

The oral exam, sometimes referred to as a “viva voce” or just “viva”, is most commonly associated with the formal defence of a PhD thesis. However, it is also suitable and widely used for other situations in which students answer questions verbally and synchronously. It is also very suitable to be delivered face-to-face or online using standard videoconferencing software. Because it can be used to probe deep learning in an authentic setting similar to that of a workplace, Sotiriadou et al (2019) refers to the viva as an interactive oral involving an exchange rather than a question and answer test. Being able to communicate effectively in a verbal exchange is important for students’ employability prospects, including getting through the initial job interview!

Using oral exams

There are a number of situations that an oral exam might be a considered as a replacement or supplement for a written assessment, including:

  • As an additional assessment to supplement a written or group task where the conversation can probe the individual student’s understanding of the topic. This type of viva has been used as part of the examination of the PhD and of experimental work in the sciences and medicine for many years.
  • As a separate assessment of a skill or topic which is more authentically examined orally. This type of viva has similarly been traditionally used for assessing language or communication skills for situations that model the profession in areas such as nursing, business and pharmacy.
  • As an alternative assessment for an individual or small group of students. This type of viva is sometimes used for students with specific learning disabilities, as part of a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach. It can also be considered for reasons of efficiency, flexibility and practicality for situations where a very small number of students require a replacement examination.

Running oral exams

Depending on the nature of an oral exam the way in which it is set up, run and marked may vary. There are some generic considerations that apply to each of the three situations described above:

  • The length of the exam should be carefully considered and for many coursework situations 15-20 minutes is a good guide. Shorter vivas may not allow the exchange to be very detailed or for a student to demonstrate what they know after settling in. Longer vivas are very tiring for both the examiners and the student.
  • If the viva is being used as an alternative assessment, it must cover the same learning outcomes as that used for the other students.
  • Students should be prepared and be told how the assessment will run and for how long. Ideally, students would be given a mock oral exam with a tutor. At the very least, a video of a mock exam can be used to show students the format and style.
  • The exam itself should be run in a supportive and equitable way. More than 1 examiner should be used and the diversity of the panel should be considered. To ensure that students can show what they know, a conversational style can help students feel less stressed and more confident.
  • For students with English as a second language, the questions may need to be provided in a written form and answers marked according to an agreed standard.
  • The oral exam needs to be accessible for all students. Individual academic plans and disabilities need to be addressed. Where an oral exam is not compatible with a student’s academic plan, an alternative method of assessing may be required.
  • The integrity of the exam needs to be considered. Students need to be asked to show their student card. Students should not receive exactly the same questions.
  • Structured oral exams, in which the format and the questions are agreed beforehand, work better. This may require the examiners to agree to a bank of questions or follow-ups of a similar standard to ensure that the students do not receive exactly the same questions.
  • As oral exams should be used for students to demonstrate the application of knowledge rather than content recall, rubrics should be considered to improve reliability. Calibration between examiners is vital.
  • For oral exams involving 1 student, our policies allow Zoom (or another supported videoconferencing software) to be used. When scheduling, allow some buffer for individual connection and technical issues.