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Viva versus the Virus – Examinations in the time of Corona

March 31, 2020

During this difficult time many of you will be worried about your exams and online working processes.  Former MCR President, Claire Macht, is studying for a History DPhil and recently took her viva voce online. Here she explains the process to us and shares some tips to help make the experience as stress free as possible.

As I sat down at my kitchen table in locked-down Munich to have my viva voce via Skype, I knew I wasn’t the only student at Oxford who has had to adapt to new ways of academic interaction. Here are some of the things I learned in preparing and doing my video viva that can help you prepare for yours.

While a viva via video means you won’t experience the solemnity and tradition of an in-person examination, there are many things you can do to ensure the remote nature of it does not detract from either the proper assessment of your work or the importance of the occasion.

1. Early contact with your examiner
You are permitted to contact your internal examiner with questions about the viva process and arranging a remote viva definitely falls into this category. The main question is about what platform to use and this is up to your examiner. Whatever platform is chosen, ask to do a test with your internal examiner. My viva was on skype and we did a 5-minute test call three days before.

2. Familiarise yourself
Once you know the platform, make yourself familiar with it. Make sure you know where to find basic controls like mute, webcam, screen share, and where you can adjust your audio and video settings. I was familiar with Skype but I reviewed all the controls and double checked my audio and video settings. Every platform has tutorials to help you learn to use the features offered and you can also recruit your friends and family to do further tests to make yourself comfortable.

3. Prepare your environment
One of the benefits of being stuck at home means you have control over your viva environment. Pick a quiet room where you will not be interrupted, there is no background noise, and you have a good internet connection. I did mine in the kitchen because it has a door that I could close to keep pets and housemates out.

Sit with a blank wall behind you so your examiners aren’t distracted by your choice in books and artwork. Do not sit in front of a light source, as this creates glare. Raise your computer up so that your webcam is at the level of your eyes, a much more comfortable position for what will be a very long discussion.

4. Technical best practice
Do not do your viva on your phone. You need to be hands free and the screen needs to be big enough for you to see at least two people clearly. Use your laptop or desktop computer instead. Use a headset with a microphone, so that you don’t have to worry about feedback. Earbuds should work just fine.

Decide how you will refer to your thesis. I printed a copy of mine, so that I did not have to navigate the document on the same computer as the call was happening. I also needed to refer to a large dataset analysis, so I had that file open on a second monitor. This meant I did not have to switch between applications, which can be distracting mid-conversation. You might want to make notes, so have pen and paper nearby. All of this made for a crowded desk, but it also meant everything was to hand so I could respond to questions promptly. Close any unnecessary programmes on your computer and turn notifications off, so you aren’t distracted.

A key issue is your internet connection, especially as home networks can be tricky. A wired internet connection is always going to be more stable than wifi. If you can, plug yourself directly into a LAN, even if it means halting wifi for the rest of the household for a while. If this isn’t an option, try to have a backup connection, such as a phone hotspot.

4. Prepare yourself
Your viva is an important moment so finds ways to mark it. I didn’t have my gown with me so couldn’t don sub fusc but I did dress up. This is also a reminder to your examiners that you are taking this as seriously, as if you were there in person.

5. During the viva
Have a glass or bottle of water handy. Look into the webcam when you are giving your answers. You have the choice to mute yourself when not speaking but make sure you know how to unmute!

With these seemingly minor points taken care of, I found that I was able to concentrate on the questions being posed, rather than the technology. The first few minutes of checking display and sound was inevitable but, once that was done, the only thing reminding me that I wasn’t there in person was the odd video freeze.

6. Afterwards
Find a way to celebrate! I had a virtual get-together with friends, but fly a flag from your balcony to brag to your neighbours, hop on social media to share your news. Just because it is done via video does not mean that your viva is any less of an accomplishment!

Remember, if you have any concerns about your academic work, you can contact or the relevant member of your department.