- Supervisors & managers
- Premia - making research education accessible
- Supervising disabled researchers - Premia
- Making the viva accessible
Making the viva accessible
The final assessment for all postgraduate researchers in the UK who are examined by thesis is the viva - the oral defence by a candidate of their thesis where the candidate faces examiners, at least one of whom is external to the institution. In recent years, there have been numerous studies of researchers' experiences in the viva (for example, Hartley and Jory 2000, Wallace 2003, Murray 2003, Tinker and Jackson 2002 and 2004). These have demonstrated that a large proportion of candidates approached their vivas with high levels of anxiety and that a significant minority found it a negative experience, even if the outcome was positive. For some disabled researchers this form of examination can present greater challenges and anxieties.
In the QAA Code of Practice Section 3: Disabled students, precept 12 states that academic assessment practices ensure that disabled students are given the opportunity to demonstrate the achievement of learning outcomes and competence standards. It goes on to state that;
‘In fulfilling their anticipatory duty, institutions should ensure that their assessment strategies and methods are sufficiently flexible to give all students an opportunity to meet the objectives of their programmes of study.
Where reasonable adjustments are required with respect to assessment, institutions should seek to ensure that they are reviewed at regular intervals to ensure their effectiveness and that they operate with minimal delay and disruption to the individual student. Institutions should make the assessment criteria and allocation of marks clear and transparent to students as early as possible. These must be set in a fair, non-discriminatory way. Identifying clear criteria for assessment can also aid in discussion and agreement on assessment strategies appropriate to meet the entitlements of individual students.
Consideration should be given to the institution's marking policies and procedures to ensure transparency and fairness for disabled students, taking into consideration the reasonable adjustments that have been agreed. Consideration should be given to the format in which feedback is provided by the institution to ensure that it is fully accessible to disabled students.
Institutions should seek to monitor the consistency and comparability of inclusive assessment practices across modules, programmes, departments and faculties (including in the context of off-campus learning). Staff should be given access to sources of advice, both from within the institution and externally, about inclusive assessment strategies and practices, as well as the assessment implications for individual disabled students.’
This extract pinpoints the issue which concerns many academic staff: how can we make reasonable adjustments and maintain academic standards? Interestingly, the adjustments to practice which will be discussed in this section are feasible in terms of cost, health and safety and practicality. So the key issue becomes academic standards. That is why it is important to look at the learning which the viva is measuring and whether reasonable adjustments would detract from a valid and fair examination of the learning.
What is being examined in the viva?
The viva assesses a researcher's ability to place their research in the broader context, identify its contribution to knowledge, show detailed knowledge of the thesis and prove that it is the researcher's own work. The candidate is expected to defend their methodology and findings of the thesis, as well to be aware of their limitations.
The viva is not a test of memory, or a researcher's command of the spoken word or the effectiveness of the researcher in engaging with the examiners.
Why make adjustments?
Disability discrimination occurs when a disabled researcher is treated less favourably than their non-disabled peers or failing to make a ‘reasonable adjustment' when disabled people are placed at a ‘substantial disadvantage'.