Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences
||Assessing through Viva Voce Examination
||School of Environment, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education,
Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, Glos. GL50 4AZ
||+44 (0)1242 543370
||+44 (0)1242 532997
A short oral examination has been used to assess practical work in physical geography in a succession of courses and modules since 1985. Initially used in 'Geomorphology and Biogeography', later in 'PG209 River Basins', and currently in 'WR201 Hydrological Processes', the method appears to be reliable, highly effective in discriminating amongst students, and time-efficient in comparison with other methods of assessing practical work. In addition, it can be used to provide useful formative as well as summative information to students. In the cases above, vivas have been used in conjunction with a written examination, which explores more theoretical perspectives.
Setting the context
Practical work in physical geography and related areas is traditionally assessed through the submission of a 'Field and Laboratory Notebook', or through unseen examination questions focusing on the evaluation of particular techniques. The notebook is notoriously time-consuming to assess, because the examiner normally considers the majority of the elements. Although the traditional 'unseen' paper prevents students avoiding completion of particular practical elements altogether, it is unreliable in assessing their overall practical capability.
Students are provided with a workbook covering all the field and laboratory elements in the module. The study involved is challenging, and they are required to complete various exercises in small groups, compare their results with those of other researchers, and reflect on their findings. Completion of the workbook is designed to stretch an able candidate, but also to provide a detailed framework into which less able candidates can place their work. The learning outcomes of the module are clearly and simply specified from the start (and could include development of oral fluency if desired). Currently 'WR201: Hydrological Processes' does not specify this outcome, but does identify the acquisition of field and laboratory skills. The follow-up course at Level III 'NR302: Water Resource Management' picks up verbal skills for more formal development, so students will have had an introduction in the previous Level. The assessment method is clearly published from the outset.
Paperwork and other records
Students receive a briefing sheet on arrangements for, and intentions of, the viva voce examination. It reassures them about the informality of the 'event' itself, but is clear on its status. Specimen questions, the starting points for discussions, are published and students told that they will need to bring their workbook to illustrate their points.
The examiner uses a selection of questions as starting points for discussion, and records the quality of each answer as a letter grade A-F. Supplementary notes are added during the viva. The overall mark achieved will depend on the standard achieved in particular areas, and the number of areas tackled successfully within the time. After an initial 'training' period, the examiner rapidly senses the ability and effort of the candidate and can develop the scope or depth of questioning accordingly. A documentary 'trail' is left, and the entire viva is also recorded for moderation by the external examiner.
A letter explaining the outcome is sent to the student, offering a perspective on their technical skill and verbal presentation, which can be of great value when they subsequently attend for job interviews.
- Students are often initially nervous, but well-prepared students rapidly relax. Students may comment that they have enjoyed the viva. No student (to my knowledge) has ever alleged the method of assessment to be unfair. They are offered the possibility of having their notebook examined - few feel a need to do so.
- Discrimination amongst the cohort is excellent - weaknesses are revealed in those students who lack ability and/or application, and the quality performance shines through. The standard deviation of marks is typically high, a finding confirmed by colleagues now using this method in other modules. Consistency between two examiners (one "silently 'observing'") has been high when this has been evaluated in pilot runs, and the external examiners have concurred with the assessments.
- Overall time is saved in comparison with other methods of evaluating practical work. The viva and the paperwork can be completed in 10-15 minutes per candidate.
- Students find they can learn from the process, as they are forced to reflect on and explain their findings verbally. Weaker students can be prompted if necessary (and this is reflected in the marking), but will see new connections and implications in their work. They may comment on this subsequently.
- Students also feel that a personal, but focused, academic interest is being taken in them by staff. For example one student this year said after the viva 'No-one has ever discussed my academic work with me one-to-one, like this, before. I've really learnt a lot in the last fifteen minutes'. Module evaluations have been good.
Viva voce examination
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Page created 14 July 1998
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Page updated 2 October 1999
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