Stephen Dobson

There are better ways of testing than NAPLAN

Professor in education, University of South Australia.

Constantly weighing a pig does not make it fatter, nor does constantly testing children make them smarter.

Schools and teachers use a suite of tests to gather evidence on student performance and NAPLAN is only a single part of the larger picture. But we keep experiencing NAPLAN-mania every year at about this time, when all of our schools are focussed on testing.

Literacy and numeracy aside, success in later life also depends on possessing and knowing how to assess a wider set of competencies, typically those understood to encompass 21st century skills such as critical thinking/problem solving, ways of working collaboratively, using information technology and living in a multi-cultural world.

I propose we dump much of the pen and paper testing that is carried out in schools today, and at the same time incorporate 21st Century Skills, by reviving the role played by oral assessment, or more specifically the viva.

What is the viva? It comes from the Latin viva voce, by the living voice and is simply the view that knowledge is both communicated and defended in an oral exchange with examiners.

The viva is found in all French, Spanish and Scandinavian speaking countries. In these countries, with some minor modification, it is not possible to complete a university degree without sitting a viva and I am talking about all subjects, not just language subjects.

In Norway to take a random example, all students even at year 10 and at the end of High School will sit at least one viva in a random subject. It could be mathematics or information technology! The viva in these cases counts as a separate grade on the final school-leaving certificate.

The viva was the chosen form of assessment with the birth of universities in the late Middle Ages. But when we fell in love with written assessment, beginning in the late 1700s, the viva was gradually phased out in most English language speaking countries.

I have to ask,  what kind of skill set does a contemporary student, who has performed well in written tests in primary school, high school, possess? Not to mention Bachelor and post-graduate education.

In Australia I note that even the scholarly work of the PhD thesis is no longer assessed with a viva. There are of course a few notable exceptions in some professions, such as those studying law who undertake moot court training where oral skills are in focus.

The probing questioning format of the viva, which does not have to be more than 30 minutes in a particular subject, makes it possible to assess subject knowledge and a number of 21st century skills.

Many students in the course of the viva are actually thinking aloud as they answer and defend their knowledge. When this happens the assessor gains deep insight, backed up with follow-up questions, into the total knowledge and skill set possessed by a student.

We increasingly question what are we testing and why, so it is timely to look at how we test.

Would the viva work in Australia?

In many so-called non-academic subjects there already exists a tradition for performative testing, where the student is judged on their performance of a skill set; and in the course of the performance it is not unusual for them to be questioned orally.

Some might argue a viva would be costly compared to written and online testing. However it is a much more valid test  because it uniquely probes the depth of a student’s knowledge.

It is also very fair in the sense that the examiner can make allowances for the cultural background or level of the student. Ask a student if they remember a viva and they will always say yes. Ask if the event engages them to the extent that they take responsibility for their results, and they will also answer yes.

To talk about your knowledge and skills requires adopting a deeply felt, personal position.

This isn’t the case in the plethora of written tests to which we expose our students from a very early age. They suit the memory ‘cramming’ trait typical of educational high achievers, who have been there, seen that and soon forgotten the sights.

I believe it is time to widen the debate on NAPLAN and explore the possibility of alternative forms of assessment such as the viva.

By doing this we might manage to measure the blind spots increasingly evident in the current practice of standardised testing, and dampen the escalating  NAPLAN-mania out there.


Dobson,Stephen copy copy


Stephen Dobson is professor in education at University of South Australia.  He has a Phd in refugee work and a Phd in Assessment. For many years he was based in Scandinavia.