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Oral Examination

Oral examinations-also called vivas or interviews-are conversations between at least one assessor and one student or candidate. During an oral examination, the assessor(s) role is to guide students to explore and demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of a subject. Oral examinations can be used across all subject/discipline areas at various levels. Possible formats include:  a short student presentation followed by discussion;a series of short responses to unseen/pre-prepared questions;a student solving a series of proofs while talking through their approach.

Typically used to…. 

  • assess students’ understanding of concepts, subject area, results (e.g. where the student presents material which they are then questioned on).  
  • assess students’ engagement with the literature base 
  • probe original contribution to knowledge (e.g. PhD viva) 
  • assess students’ ‘ownership’ of their work – i.e. have they completed the work themselves?  
  • mitigate the risk of plagiarism 

Key considerations when preparing for oral examinations

When preparing for or doing an oral examination, viva or interview, always refer to the guidelines and requirements provided by your lecturer, keeping the following points in mind:  

  • Is the examination being used for formative or summative assessment purposes (or both!) 
  • If your oral examination contributes to your final grade (i.e. is being used for summative assessment), how much is it worth? 
  • What criteria is being used to assess your oral examination? Has a rubric been provided? 
  • Are there any Trinity guides/supports that might be useful to review in advance? 
  • Oral examinations can vary enormously in duration, depending on how they are being used and what they’re being used for. How long can you expect your examination to be? (Longer exams are typically used at PhD level to test a candidate’s engagement with the literature base and to probe their original contribution to knowledge, but they can be used at any point on the undergraduate or graduate assessment cycle. Short ‘microvivas’ can be very useful for checking that students have completed work themselves and understand the ‘process’ of calculations and/or concepts. 
  • Consider key prompting questions that you might expect to come up. For example:  
    • ‘Tell me about X theory’.  
    • ‘What might happen with X if you did Y? 
    • ‘Talk me through your solution to Z’. 


Trinity-supported tools:  

VLE Virtual Classroom available through the institutional VLE Blackboard
MS Teams and Google Hangouts are available through MyZone

A student perspective on oral examinations


How to prepare for your virtual viva  

This video from the University of Warwick’s School of Law, provides a student perspective on online vivas and shares tips for other students (in this case PhD students) are are defending their thesis virtually.  

Preparing for online oral exams  

This resource from University College Cork provides useful guidelines for students preparing for online oral exams. 

Privacy Policy, Trinity  College Dublin  

This provides a comprehensive overview of how and why Trinity collects and uses your personal data. See in particular, their Privacy Notice for Hybrid Learning which is of particular relevance when conducting oral exams. 

Records Management Policy, Trinity College Dublin  

This University policy may be of interest if your oral examinations need to be recorded oral examinations (e.g. for moderation purposes). 

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