Getting sorted or going for gold: Key themes and issues that arise in the oral examination of doctoral theses

Despite the long history of oral examination in the United Kingdom, there remain a great many issues in relation to robustness and fairness of process and the role of a viva component in thesis examination (Morley, Leonard & David, 2002; Tinkler & Jackson, 2000; Carter 2008; Crossouard, 2011). This paper draws on interviews with examiners who have substantial experience of oral examination in order to identify key themes and issues in the oral examination of doctoral theses. The analysis is informed by recent findings from the first stage of the same study that established that in their reports examiners (n= 584) focus on four areas in the lead up to the oral (Holbrook et al 2016). These are the need for i) elicitation and clarification, ii) verification and validation, iii) the interest in drawing out the candidate to elaborate on their work, or ‘extension’, and iv) process and procedural matters. The first and second of these are very much about ‘sorting out’ questions and concerns, the third picks up researcher identity and professional interaction driven by explicit interest in the contribution of the thesis. It was found that examiners sought more of iii) and less of i) for theses with a more favourable recommendation. The fourth category is indicative of complexity of process whereby boundaries blur between the evaluative work of assessment and the work involved in doing the oral. The data set reported from the second stage comprises 82 interviews. These were conducted face to face or by telephone with examiners located in Australia (26%), England (37%) and New Zealand (37%). The partly semi-structured, partly conversational format was based on earlier studies (Mullins & Kiley 2002; Kelly 2010). Interview text was de-identified, transcribed, entered into QSR NVIVO 10 and analysed using a priori categories (based on what was found in the first stage of the study) and exploratory analyses grounded in the transcripts. Five areas were identified in the interviews that mirrored the four described above: i) opportunities to clarify complex issues, ii) verification that the work is the candidate’s own, iii) the chance for the candidate to engage with experts iv) clarification and agreement on revisions, and v) early closure on the assessment process. The findings detail the overlap between, and relative contribution of, the two components of assessment. The authors raise specific issues about the process of oral examination in light of changing thesis models internationally.