The End of the Viva

I’m stuck at home today, waiting for UPS to come and collect a defective printer. Any time between 9am and 7pm, they said. Very helpful. Anyway, I’ve got plenty to do while I’m here, catching up on STFC Astronomy Grant Panel business that I’ve been too busy to attend to. Also, this week’s Private Eye has just arrived in the post, so I’ll take a break at some point to do the crossword by Cyclops. It’s a lovely day. Pity I can’t sit in the garden. I’d miss the doorbell when the carrier arrives.

Anyway, the past two days have been largely given over to the business of examinations in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. The External Examiners spent a big slice of Monday doing viva voce examinations of selected candidates; not just those on borderlines, but also some others for “calibration”. I wasn’t involved in them this year, but have taken part in the past as External in various places. Obviously these examinations are very stressful for the students, and also quite difficult to conduct fairly, but sometimes provide useful insights in the cases where a student’s marks put them on a knife-edge between two degree classifications (or even between pass and fail).

Anyway, in its infinite wisdom Cardiff University has decided to scrap the viva voce examination after next year. From 2014 onwards we’ll just have to apply a formula to deal with borderline cases; the algorithm involves counting how many modules were passed at the higher level, etc. Actually, I probably agree with this for the purposes of classifying degrees. Twenty minutes’ questioning under stress can hardly be expected to yield much objective  information about a candidate’s knowledge of the subject that dozens of written papers and other assessments. Often, in my experience, students (especially the shy ones) are so nervous that the shutters come down almost straight away.  I would  prefer a system which is algorithmic as possible, so everyone knows what the rules are, rather than relying on subjective judgements.

As external, I always found the viva examinations a useful way of getting feedback from the students on their course which can be fed back – either usefully or not – to the department. In losing the viva  for drawing up the classification lists, I hope that we can find another way for the externals to talk to students in some other context to get some feedback about the course. Perhaps they could attend for project talks, or something like that?

Yesterday, the entire Board of Examiners (including Externals) gathered to go through all the individual cases and draw up the Honours List. I was delighted when I saw all the consolidated marks in advance of the meeting, to see how well how many of our students had done. There were one or two difficult cases, but in the end we produce the lists. As I went back to my office, students were already gathering in the corridor by the noticeboard where it is always placed as soon as the definitive final version has been prepared, shortly after the meeting closed.

Soon I heard whoops of joy and laughter and had a quick look to see the students congratulating one another. As always on such occasions, I was tempted to go along and chat to a few of them but, as always, I resisted doing so. It’s a time for them, the students, not us, the staff.

Anyway, congratulations to all those who had good news yesterday!

I hope your hangovers aren’t too bad…

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One Response to “The End of the Viva”

  1. Gary Mathlin Says:

    In Bath we have done away with vivas this year. In general I agree that algorithms are a great idea but the line, wherever it is drawn, is a very sharp edge. In previous years a student who ended up with an overall average of, say 59.4% would have been seen by the externals. May be they could see a reason to recommend promotion, may be the could not, but at least when the student found out that they were one tenth of one per cent away from an upper second (we have always rounded to the nearest integer), they will know that their degree classification was taken seriously.

    I spend a lot of time berating students for unrealistic optimism in their assessment of experimental error, so to see a (potentially life changing) decision based on such a fine margin, by a machine is uncomfortable to say the least.

    The other point is about the role of the externals in ‘quality assurance’. We have decided to bring our externals in twice a year. Once in January where they see some project talks and to get taken to lunch by some of our students, and once in June to sit with the rest of us (in silence) while we are informed what the outcome of the algorithm is for each student.

    One thing that has not changed however is the need to take the externals out to dinner, which is what I’ve been doing tonight :)

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