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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 using oral examinations as part of your assessment strategy

Oral examinations are an example of a more traditional assessment type, elements of which may now be enabled by digital technologies. For example, students may be asked to pre-record and share a short ‘microviva’  to evidence thought ownership. Longer oral examinations may be facilitated in a synchronous or ‘live’ environment using a virtual classroom or teleconferencing tool.  

When using oral examinations, vivas or interviews as part of your assessment strategy, keep the following points in mind:   

  • What is the purpose of the oral examination? Is it the most appropriate way to assess student learning outcomes in this instance?  

  • Are you intending to use the examination for formative or summative assessment purposes, or both?  

  • What criteria will you use to assess the students’ performance in the examination? Have you provided students with a rubric? Does the rubric align with the relevant learning outcomes? 

  • Will the examination be ‘live or will you ask students to pre-record their responses? For example you might ask students to pre-record and submit their responses to viva questions which are released at the start of an oral examination “window”.  

  • If the oral examination is ‘live’, do you need to record it? (For example for moderations purposes?) If so, make sure that you are adhering to Trinity’s Privacy Policy and to the University's Records Management Policy.  

  • Does the oral examination focus on individual or group presentations/responses? 

  • Have you provided students with clear guidelines on the format and requirements of an oral assessment in your discipline? For example, do they have a clear understanding of the procedural requirements such as duration, number of people present, and ‘process’ of the assessment? 

  • How long will your oral examination be? Oral examinations can vary enormously in duration, depending on how they are being used and what they’re being used for. For example, 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. 

  • Remember that your students may not have undertaken an oral examination in a digital context before.  Check what institutional supports and guides are provided for this and share with your students in advance. 

  • Have you provided supports for students with additional needs? For example, a soft copy of questions in written format may be useful for students with hearing disability or those English as an Additional Language? See the Trinity Disability Service for more information.  


Trinity-supported tools:  

A student perspective on oral examinations


Revitalizing Classes Through Oral Exams  

This article from Inside Higher Ed (2020) presents various strategies for using (virtual) oral exams and associated benefits for students.

Privacy PolicyTrinity  College Dublin  

This provides a comprehensive overview of how and why Trinity collects and uses 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 is particularly pertinent if you need to record oral examinations (e.g. for moderation purposes).

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