Viva Voce examinations during COVID-19 Outbreak

Guidelines on viva voce examinations for doctoral degrees during the COVID-19 outbreak

The University recognises that doctoral viva voce examinations may be disrupted during this time of altered working conditions, and reduced ability to travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In its meeting of 26 March 2020, Senate has agreed to suspend the requirement that viva voce examinations are to be held in person on campus. Alternative arrangements using online technologies are allowed and this guidance should be followed. For PhD degrees, the examination will be attended online from separate locations by members of the Board of Examiners as appointed by Senate, consisting of a Chair (acting as an examiner), a visiting external examiner and internal examiner/s. An examiner appointed as 'non-visiting external examiner' is not required to participate in the viva. The Principal Supervisor can attend the viva as an observer and may contribute if invited to do so by the members of the Board of Examiners.

As part of the arrangements for conducting a viva using online technologies:
  • The candidate must confirm that they agree to the viva being conducted remotely using online methods. Candidates who wish to be examined face-to-face can ask to have their viva postponed. Candidates should be made aware that any postponement may be for several months.
  • The candidate must be aware that if they agree to proceed with the viva being conducted using online methods, the method cannot be used as grounds for an appeal of the outcome of the examination process.
  • No recordings of the viva must take place by any party.
  • Unless the candidate is observing a period of self-isolation, they can be accompanied by someone to provide support to them during the viva. This person can be a friend or family member and would be present to provide moral support in the way that the principal supervisor would normally do. The person is not allowed to take part in any way to the conduct of the viva and must be introduced at the start of the viva.
  • The viva should be scheduled at a time that is reasonable to the time zone in which the candidate and the examiners are located.
  • The candidate and the examiners are to ensure that they have suitable equipment (with both audio and video) for the viva and access to a private location free from distractions.
  • The Chair of the Board of Examiners is responsible to set up the online session before the viva and ensure that suitable equipment (with both audio and video) is available.
  • It is recommended that the viva be conducted using Zoom or Google Meet, software that is supported by UM's IT Services. If there is no agreement on a common platform/application that can be used by the candidate and the examiners, the viva should be postponed.
  • The technology used must support video and audio connections and the parties must confirm that they have the required euipment and that it can be plugged in to maintain battery life.
  • The viva must be carried out using both video and audio. However, video and audio may not be required by all members throughout and it should be noted that maintaining active video engagement may be difficult, if there is also a need to consult simultaneously an online version of the thesis.
  • If there is a failure in the connection/technology attempts should be made to re-connect. In the event of a serious or protracted breakdown in the connection or quality of the connection of more than 20 minutes the viva should be halted. However, if it is clear before 20 minutes are up that re-connection cannot be made or is unlikely, the viva should be halted.
  • The decision as to whether to halt a viva should be made by the Chair. How to make the decision as to whether the viva is postponed, re-convened or concluded is covered in section 4.
  • The external and internal examiners' separate pre-viva reports must have been submitted in advance of the viva and shared with the Chair.
  • Any presentation that the candidate is expected to make as part of the viva must be sent in advance to the Chair who is responsible for sharing it with the examiners. The purpose of this is to facilitate all parties having the presentation ready to view during the viva, rather than to assess it in advance.
  • The purpose of the viva and its conduct should remain as per the standard procedure. The viva is meant to enable the examiners to: question the candidate on the substance of the work submitted; assess the ability of the candidate to present and defend intellectual arguments; to assess the candidate's knowledge and understanding of the discipline and of the relevant literature; and to verify that the work submitted is the candidate's own and assess the extent of any collaboration.
  • If the viva has to be halted due to a breakdown in the connection or quality of the connection, the Chair should consult with the examiners via an alternative method (e.g. telephone). The examiners should decide whether there is a need to reconvene at another date or whether sufficient discussion had taken place by the point of the communication loss that further examination would not change their decision. In arriving at such a decision, the examiners should take into account the requirements and outcomes of a doctoral degree and not the extent to which they had covered the contents of the thesis. If it is agreed that the viva needs to be re-scheduled this should be at a mutually agreed time for all parties. The Chair should communicate the outcome of this decision to the candidate as soon as possible.
  • In order that the examiners can discuss the candidate’s performance, the candidate (and the supporter) and the principal supervisor must leave the video/conference call and the Chair must confirm that this has happened. The candidate and the principal supervisor should be advised how they will be contacted to invite them back into the video/online meeting and given an approximate time when this will happen. The same technology can be used for the purpose (e.g. a new meeting scheduled via Zoom and an invite sent out to the candidate).
  • The Chair must ensure that any decisions and recommendations are based solely on the candidate's performance and do not reflect issues related to the format of the viva.
  • The candidate and the principal supervisor should be contacted and invited to re-join the video/online meeting. The candidate may be physically accompanied by the supporter.
  • Candidates should be informed of the outcome of their examination as soon as possible. The possible outcomes and procedures to be followed are the same as for a standard viva and are in line with the UM's PhD Regulations (2008).
  • The communication of outcomes should be sensitive to the fact that the doctoral examination is the most significant culmination of the candidate's work and that the normal support and activities surrounding this rite of passage are likely to be disrupted when the candidate is in a different location to the examiners.

The responsibilities of the Chair are to:

  • preside over the viva proceedings and act as an examiner
  • ensure that any post viva decisions and recommendations to Senate are based solely on the candidate's performance and do not reflect issues related to the video/online format of the viva
  • confirm that all parties are comfortable with the arrangements and that the candidate and the examiners can see and hear each other clearly
  • make clear the ability of the candidate and examiners to request brief breaks if necessary
  • actively monitor the quality of the connection, and in the case of occasional breakdowns/pauses in either the video or the audio link ensure that any discussion is repeated and that no misunderstanding has occurred
  • make the decision about whether the viva continues in the event of a serious or protracted breakdown in the connection of more than 20 minutes. However, if it is clear before 20 minutes are up that re-connection cannot be made the viva should be postponed
  • make notes of the proceedings of the viva and if the candidate experienced difficulties in responding whether this was due to their understanding or due to the technology/format being used.

In addition, the Chair should:

  • receive all the pre-viva reports from individual examiners and exchange them ahead of the viva commencing
  • allot time before the viva for the examiners to discuss their initial impressions of the thesis, and to decide on how to manage the exam, including who will ask which questions to the candidate
  • circulate any presentation that the candidate is required to make to the examiners ahead of the viva commencing
  • offer a test call with all parties separately ahead of the viva
  • collect and hold telephone numbers of all parties for effective communication in case the viva has to be halted due to technical difficulties.
  • confirm that all parties are in a suitable location
  • put all parties at ease, particularly in light of the nature of the situation and the format of the viva
  • ensure that the duration of the viva is not excessive, especially in light of the format
  • ensure that the candidate has appropriate follow up after the viva.

This guidance follows the procedures which are being put in place in major European universities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The document prepared by the UK Council for Graduate Education, Conducting Vivas Online: A Guide for Institutions and Candidates (2020), has been particularly useful and has influenced our document. Its use is acknowledged.

https://www.um.edu.mt/doctoralschool/regulationsandpolicies/vivavoceexaminationsduringcovid-19