Live online oral assessment (viva)

An example of this approach, plus: pros and cons; requirements; resistance to academic misconduct and suggestions for making this approach more robust.


Oral cross-examination as an assessment method had largely fallen out of favour in undergraduate practice until 2020. At the same time it remained in place as the standard method for checking candidate knowledge and understanding behind postgraduate dissertations and theses.

Conversation around a topic as a mode of assessment has gained new devotees in the suddenly-online era, because it gives students direct individual contact with teachers, which both parties like, and it is difficult to cheat. It can give reassurance or raise flags about the reliability of scores in other elements of assessment. It is believed to provide a significant disincentive to misconduct.

May be used in two ways

  1. Part of assessment for all. May include a very short presentation on a topic followed by questions, perhaps as an alternative to an essay. Can also be used (same occasion or a different one) to ask questions about already submitted coursework, or cover learning outcomes already asked about in a summative exam.
  2. Directed as an initial enquiry into possible academic misconduct. This is permitted in University of Edinburgh policy and procedures (see Requirements, below).


Being able to talk about your subject is a highly workplace-relevant skill, and a valid programme learning outcome.

Students value direct conversation with academic staff, and when used as a standard part of assessment there are favourable anecdotal reports.

Teachers tend to enjoy this type of assessment. Often more than marking essays.

It is hard to deceive examiners about your understanding when asked to respond live to questions that you haven’t seen in advance.


Reliability: Traditionally vivas were an element of some professional examinations, or distinction/pass-fail processes. This was largely abandoned because of poor reliability (a different score or decision likely if repeated, or with different examiner). Therefore it is best used as part of a range of assessments, unless a lot of work is put into making it reliable – for example by addressing different topics with different examiners in multiple ‘stations’. Like the ‘OSCE’ examinations used for practical skill testing in healthcare, such exams need to be long (one or even two hours) to give reliable results.   

There could be a risk of appearance and manner, disability, and technical problems, influencing the mark. Particular issues when English not first language.

A few students may have such severe performance anxiety that they under-perform. Best defence is for examiners to be aware of issues, and give them practice during the course. Peer tutoring can help.


A good enough link via Teams or similar to include video and audio.

Sensitive but appropriately robust policies and procedures to cope with circumstances where there is an apparent mismatch between performance versus other assessments. UoE policy on academic misconduct – information on Affirmation Meetings

Where it is a test applied to all, formative or low-stakes practice is strongly recommended. Peer tutoring can help.

Resistance to academic misconduct

Probably the most robust form of assessment from this point of view. However it may be more difficult to detect possible input from others if conversation is slow, audio quality poor, or video not available.

Making it more robust

Including ‘virtual but face to face’ practical or oral assessments is good for student confidence and engagement, and for staff-student relationships. The same is true for group presentations.

If students are used to repeated interactions like this, and the proportion of marks allocated is reasonable, anxiety around their use for summative assessment reduces.

Further information

Further detail is available from the UCL guide on Designing Effective Online Assessment