The PhD viva

On the morning of my PhD viva (Dec 17th), I was rear ended by a scalding radiator on exiting the shower; happily the two red streaks (which I am still sporting) were the most painful thing to happen that day. In fact, the (2.5 hour) viva was an enjoyable experience (and not for masochistic reasons), which I think is the outcome most of us look for. Even more happily, I passed my viva with (subject to ratification) the only change needed to amend my heading numbers.

As part of my prep, I looked around lots of websites for advice and sample questions, and wrote myself a crib-sheet of responses. I’ve partially reproduced that below, not because I think the content is very useful, but to show how I collated and cross-referenced notes into a two page format. I didn’t make very extensive use of this, or flicking through my post-it annotated thesis copy in the actual viva, although in the mock I had been flicking through to refer to specific pages a lot and made more use of the crib sheet. I found it really useful to be able to refer to (a) specific sections of the thesis, and (b) onward work, including cross referencing interesting findings to my publication plan. This obviously also indicates that you know your work, and have ability to conduct a research agenda. It also meant I reminded myself that some of the ‘why did you make this decision?’ questions were in fact already answered in the text, and I could refer to the appropriate section. Thinking about my specific examiners and the kinds of interest they were likely to bring was also useful in pondering some of the more specific potential questions.  I’d also highlight some bits of advice from the resources below:

  1. Don’t get too bogged down in trying to correct every minor issue, and delay submitting to do it. The examiners are likely to ask for some changes and that’s fine
  2. Find out what the format of the viva will be, and whether you’ll be expected to give a short presentation at the beginning (I asked, and was invited to give a 10-15 minute overview of the key elements and contribution of the work – this is a nice ice breaker – which I delivered verbally, without slides).
  3. “it is important to observe that the selection of examiners plays a critical role in the success or otherwise of a thesis examination” Anthony Finklestein at
  4. Practice voicing answers, the notes were really useful, but thinking about how to verbally articulate the succinct notes and annotations into a succinct response was incredibly useful (even if you’re just doing it by yourself)

So, resources I found useful:


So these were the notes I printed on a single (double sided) sheet of paper:

  1. Can you start by summarising your thesis?
    1. You’re asked to search…
    2. Not about ‘do you know x’ but about complex literacies
    3. Important area and a prime target for learning analytics due to increased availability of such systems & commensurate data they produce – potential for investigating info seeking as epistemic process
    4. Understanding this broad socio-cultural, pragmatic, context is important and target of this thesis – theoretically grounded learning analytics, tool mediated students included in ‘assessment’, social context, towards “Developing Learning Analytics for Epistemic Commitments in a Collaborative Information Seeking Environment”
    5. Develop a novel method…
    6. Demonstrate that patterns of info seeking (& chat) are epistemic
    7. Through development of pedagogically grounded tasks, and a social account of info-seeking & epistemic cognition, grounded in behaviour (traceable)
    8. Demonstrate that epistemically aligned features in writing can be reliably identified (and, in preliminary analysis since, aligned with textual features), but not by students themselves
    9. Demonstrate that the trace (6/7) can model variance in outcome (8)
    10. And that ISEQ – though replicating 2 factor solution – does not model this well (except possibly source diversity), though it does model trust rankings & self-report search skill
  2. …OVERALL….Now, can you summarise it in one sentence?
    1. In a pedagogically designed epistemic task, there is variance in behavioural (including clear epistemic dialogue) and that behaviour can model variance in outcomes on an epistemic writing task better than a psychometric
  3. What is the idea that binds your thesis together?
    1. Analysis of tool mediated activity, literacy & importance of MDP (e.g. in vaccinations) & bound up in ep cog as social construct. Interdisciplinary approach
  4. What motivated and inspired you to carry out this research?
    1. Info seeking problem (& Danish)
    2. LAK focus on theory & learning constructs
    3. View of info-seeking as (socially) mediated & epistemic
  5. What are the main issues and debates in this subject area?
    1. What is ep cog (social) & how do we measure it (behaviour)
    2. Info seeking as social/CIS & how do we measure it (‘success’)
    3. Dev of LAK grounded in pedagogy
  6. Which of these does your research address?
    1. 5
  7. Why is the problem you have tackled worth tackling?
    1. 5
  8. Who has had the strongest influence in the development of your subject area in theory and practice?
    1. Norway group; Chinn-Sandoval-Hammer/Elby (resources view/increasingly sociocultural drawing on philosophy); Shah & Marchionini (& Sundin); Rouet & Britt, Wineburg
  9. Which are the three most important papers that relate to your thesis?
    1. 8
  10. What published work is closest to yours? How is your work different?
    1. 8 – work different in that it unifies, takes sociocultural learning approach, outcome measure (in which students are involved), provides conceptual model, builds on existing established metrics (info-seeking) in novel context, and adds dialogue
  11. What do you know about the history of [insert something relevant]?
  12. How does your work relate to/improved by/build on [sociocultural; CSCL; discourse analysis; ]?
  13. What are the most recent major developments in your area?
    1. Increasing shift to behaviour in both LAK & ep cog
    2. Increasing focus on CIS and availability of tools to facilitate social in info-seek
    3. Shift to more authentic assessments, performance assessment, richer understanding of literacy
  14. How did your research questions emerge?
    1. Desire to understand written outputs as epistemic in nature, and the potential of peer and self-assessment as a pedagogically grounded method to ‘get at’ that – alignment with approach at new job (largely unpublished)
    2. Desire to contextualise with (and understand external-validity of) prior psychometric work (ISEQ)
    3. Desire to connect outcomes, prior data, and behavioural data of various kinds – through moving from fine to coarse grain analyses across datasets
  15. What were the crucial research decisions you made?
    1. Holistic approach to model of ep cog as socio-cultural
    2. Model needed social,
    3. b/w v within subjects
  16. Why did you use this research methodology? What did you gain from it? – behave oriented, hoslitic, pedagogic
  17. What were the alternatives to this methodology? – self report, more constraint
  18. What would you have gained by using another approach? – control
  19. How did you deal with the ethical implications of your work?
    1. See ethics section
    2. Interesting gap around LAK, Slade, BPS online research guidance
  20. How has your view of your research topic changed?
    1. Findings
    2. Grounding for future work
    3. Limitations/scoping suggestive of future research approaches
  21. How have you evaluated your work?
  22. How do you know that your findings are correct? – sample analysis, granularity
  23. What are the strongest/weakest parts of your work?
  24. What would have improved your work? – innov tech risks, peer assess validation,
  25. To what extent do your contributions generalise?
    1. Scope of title. The general focus generalises very well – the work provides clear demonstration that behavioural features, including social e.g. dialogue, vary – we should focus (social) mediation in understanding ep cog, through analysis of tool interaction & dialogue
  26. Who will be most interested in your work?
  27. What is the relevance of your work to other researchers?
  28. What is the relevance of your work to practitioners?
  29. Which aspects of your work do you intend to publish – and where?
    1. See pub plan
  30. Summarise your key findings.
    1. 1
  31. Which of these findings are the most interesting to you? Why?
    1. ISEQ trust – but complex; assessment reliable (trajectory), dialogue clear epistemic & diffs b/w groups (modelling potential) fuller analysis e.g. of dialogue & sequences holds promise (trajectory)
  32. How do your findings relate to literature in your field?
    1. See final appendix [I included a table of key alignments]
  33. What are the contributions to knowledge of your thesis?
  34. How long-term are these contributions?
  35. What are the main achievements of your research?
  36. What have you learned from the process of doing your PhD?
    1. 20
  37. What advice would you give to a research student entering this area?
    1. 20 + start small & constrained
  38. You propose future research. How would you start this?
    1. Work with benchmarking exercise at UTS
    2. More constrained MDP tasks
  39. What would be the difficulties?
  40. And, finally… What have you done that merits a PhD?
  41. How did you exclude literature/methodologies?
  42. What literature has come out since?
    1. xPhi, handbook of ep cog, printed paper (trust & docs), my papers (CIKM, etc.)
  43. Biggest challenges
    1. Scope and focus interdisciplinary issue (conceptually) – information, learning and psychological sciences
    2. Recruitment and methods (methodology) building on existing work but extending across disciplines
    3. Analysis and interpretation – developing, sets clear trajectory for onward,
  44. Say something about the messiness (in methods and theory)

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