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Title: A study of the PhD examination : process, attributes and outcomes
Author: Houston, Gillian
ISNI:       0000 0004 7653 3890
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2018
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The idiographic nature of the PhD examination raises challenges for assessment in higher education. While the examination follows different processes internationally, the submission and evaluation of a thesis or dissertation that demonstrates originality is common to all. In many countries, this is complemented by a viva (oral examination), which in the UK is held in private. The confidentiality of the viva contributes to examiners' judgements being considered highly individual, especially when compared with the cohort-based examination processes that prevail in the assessment of students on taught programmes. The study aimed to explore UK PhD examiners' judgements through observing 10 vivas and conducting interviews with 43 different actors in the process. The theoretical framework combined a realist perspective with case study methodology and involved ten cases in different subjects at six institutions. The qualitative data generated shed light on: the examination process; the role of the thesis, the purposes of the viva and the relationship between them; the attributes sought by examiners; and how different examination outcomes reflect candidates' achievements. Data support the idea of a 'continuum of judgement' that begins with initial evaluation of the thesis and ends after the viva. During the assessment period, examiners' individual and collective judgements develop until the jointly agreed outcome of the viva is reached. The study confirms the centrality of the thesis in the assessment, while demonstrating the value of the viva for examiners and candidates alike. The relationship between the thesis and viva is shown to be interdependent, the viva assuming greater importance if the thesis is borderline. Candidates particularly appreciated the `rite of passage' signified by the viva. Criteria employed by examiners to inform their judgements are multifaceted. Data imply that examiners are seeking professional and personal, as well as research attributes. Initial evaluation of the thesis determines if the candidate has `done enough' for the award of PhD but in their detailed scrutiny examiners assess the candidate's deeper knowledge and understanding of their research and its relevance in the field, seeking originality or a contribution to knowledge. While examiners' principal focus is on the candidate's research achievements, the importance of qualities such as intellectual rigour, leadership and integrity, also emerge from the study. The viva allows examiners to probe these personal qualities in more depth than is possible by reading the thesis. The wide range of achievement among PhD candidates above the 'threshold' judgement is acknowledged, although many believe a pass/fail outcome remains appropriate. Reasons for rejecting a grading scheme include the challenge of developing universally acceptable criteria, the potential to increase subjectivity and the wish to avoid grade inflation. Examination outcomes do not currently reflect the significance of professional and personal attributes in the judgement, and the variability in institutional regulations regarding recommendations open to examiners remains a concern, especially the flexibility inherent in the `minor corrections' category, which nevertheless offers flexibility to accommodate candidates' individual circumstances. The study concludes that the thesis remains central to examiners' judgements, that the viva and thesis are interdependent and the viva fulfils important purposes. The research has served to emphasise the complex nature of the PhD examination process and suggest that more explicit reference in the examination to the candidate's professional and personal attributes would better reflect modern expectations of the PhD.
Supervisor: Lunt, Ingrid ; Elliot, Victoria Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Role and relationship of thesis and viva ; Assessment of thesis and candidate attributes ; PhD examination process