It’s time! Viva Day – Reblogged

This is my guest post for the University of Reading ‘Engage in Teaching and Learning Blog‘. (Click here for original post)

There can’t be many more nerve-wracking oral exams than the PhD viva. A several-year build-up –and then… what? To give research students an impression of what’s it actually like on the day, Dr Carol Fuller from the Institute of Education has produced a short, entertaining and informative video. Using some Teaching and Learning Development Fund (TLDF) money, Carol, who is Director of the Institute’s EdD Programme, has teamed up with film maker Henry Steddman – a UoR alumni — to provide reassurance to potentially anxious candidates. Starring some IoE colleagues as well as professional actors, the video thankfully stays clear of vague and meaningless advice often found in self-help type viva-survivor tips, such as ‘just be yourself’ (which is fine if your self is a confident academic on top of your game, not so much if it’s a nervous wreck.  As Father Ted says to Dougal: never be yourself! That’s just something people say!)

So how should you be, then? First, let’s remember the cornerstones of the situation you’re in here:

  • You’re the expert on your thesis
  • The examiners have read your work thoroughly…
  • ….and they’re keen to discuss it with you.

On viva day:

  • dress smartly
  • refer to your thesis
  • keep eye contact
  • if unsure, ask questions
  • stay hydrated
  • ….try to relax!
  • at the end, if you’re asked whether you’d like to add anything, take the opportunity.

Then, you’ve done all you can for now, and there’s no more to than just wait, until… it’s time!

Hopefully, you’ll get the desired result, and will be awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy! Congratulations!

If UoR PhD’ers and EdD’ers find the video useful, Carol is keen to hear their feedback – via any means possible, be it the YouTube comment box, on Facebook or twitter, or via email.” It’s a good way to give students access to an easy-to-use resource”, says Carol. “If students tell us they like this video clip, we can make the case for funding to make more such short films, for example on epistemology or methodology.”

What do you and your students think of Carol’s video?

Brexit: A victory for ordinary people?


Words are distributed unevenly in texts. This is a lucky fact for corpus linguists, who study the nature of this distribution, and are often able to identify linguistic patterns which may otherwise remain hidden.  Why should we care?  Here’s an example, based on a) evidence from my collection of 40.000+ digital newspaper articles, aka ‘corpus’, and b) my heart.

This morning that same heart was broken, when I woke to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU. I can’t even begin to tell you how devastated that makes me feel. Only yesterday I had such a happy day, because I’d reached a milestone in my PhD: I’d finished processing all my data and had excitedly begun to explore the above-mentioned corpus.

Some words have a tendency to co-occur with others, which is known as collocation. Corpus linguistics makes a strong case for collocations being a more helpful unit of meaning than words.  Take for example the collocation ‘friendly fire’: this phrase means something entirely different to just simply the sum of the words ‘friendly’ + ‘fire’.  So playing around with my corpus of British articles on German, the Germans and Germany, I made a list of frequent collocates of ‘Germans’. Right at the top of the list: ordinary.  When I looked at the concordance lines in detail, they showed that ordinary Germans was almost exclusively used in the context of the darkest chapter in German history, such as:

  • Did ordinary Germans know what was going on?
  • Ordinary Germans were more complicit in the liquidation of European Jewry than historians have previously supposed
  • There were widespread denials by ordinary Germans that they had known about the existence of internment and death camps
  • A television drama exploring the guilt of ordinary Germans during the Second World War
  • The issue of how much the inhumanity of ordinary Germans was an acquired survival response to the prevailing Nazi terror is sidestepped
  • Her account of ordinary Germans coping with life during wartime
  • At the time Nazism had a powerful appeal to ordinary Germans
  • Hitler didn’t use violence against most ordinary Germans
  • The Nazi party championed ordinary Germans

The Nazi party championed ordinary Germans.  As opposed to whom, extra-ordinary Germans?  Who are these ordinary people?  I don’t really know, but what I do know is that splitting any group or society in a polarised way is a very very bad idea.  Early this morning, an icy chill took hold of my heart when I heard UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s comment on the referendum result: “This will be a victory for ordinary people”.

When Sandi Toksvig asked me about my PhD


Can’t think of any character from Scooby doo. Not even Scooby doo.

Missing your regular dose of TV quizzing now that University Challenge is done for the season?!  No need to mope – Fifteen to One’s back on, hoorah!

I love this show – so much so that I seem to make a habit of exposing my lack of general knowledge publicly by appearing on it every ten years or so.  So against better judgement I did it again for the third time – and these days you get to go on three shows in a row!


I think we need some more makeup

Contestants were sworn to secrecy about anything to do with the casting and recording until the show you’re on has aired. Well it has, and the gagging order’s been lifted!  After a whittling-down process involving pen and paper tests and onscreen auditions, eventually whoever was left standing was invited to the BBC studios in Glasgow in October last year – yes I know it’s a Channel 4 show, but that’s where it was.  Extremely lucky for me, as Glasgow’s practically my second home!  Presenter Sandi Toksvig was hilarious and made a point of having a little individual chat with everyone.  “So, Heikie, what’s your PhD in?”  Now we’d been briefed that if Sandi asks you something, give a bit of detail.  So I droned on about my PhD until she could take no more – needless to say, that bit never made it onto the show.  But I’ll never forget the moment when Sandi put an end to my monologue with a desperate “that’s really interesting” and turned to the next person: “So, Vicky, I hear you breed bunny rabbits?”

If you really must, you can watch me on catchup for the next few weeks (13/14/15th April episodes).


The Glasgow Fifteen, with Sandi

DATA! Or doing research in schools




I’ve created simply the most exciting folder of my PhD so far. It’s called DATA! Complete with capitals and exclamation mark – I just couldn’t stop myself. I’ve actually gone out ‘in the field’ and gathered some real data! I never thought the day would come, but it did, and here’s what I learnt:

Research in schools. Who needs it? Well yes, a lot of us, but don’t forget that everything about fieldwork in schools is hard, from A for access to Z for… it’s just hard, ok? Don’t get me wrong. I love education, I love schools. I’ve spent most of my life so far involved in some sort of educational establishment or other, be it as ‘educatee’, educator, or both. But the three top things to remember are:




  1. School teachers are busy, busy people. I should know, I used to be one. Make it easy and keep wordy emails and long lists of things you want done to a minimum. If you’re lucky enough that someone responds and offers you a time slot, take it, even if it means getting up a silly o’clock, finishing at silly o’clock or rushing madly from one appointment to the next, which will be at, yes, silly o’clock.


  1. Waste Spend your own time and money to make sure all documents are copied, stapled and ready to go. Don’t expect the teacher to take the time to prepare this, or the money for it to come out of the departmental budget. Put it all into one big bag and be prepared to hand over the bag as well – if you’re lucky you’ll get it back at the end, full of completed questionnaires. If you’re lucky, that is.


  1. Never been to this particular school before? Allow A LOT of time. Last week I was waiting outside of firmly locked electronic metal gates for what seemed like ages, worrying I might miss my appointment. And the parking! Parking’s always, always an issue. What’s legal isn’t always acceptable to the local community – if you’re parked in a side street, you’re almost certain to put someone’s nose out of joint. On my return to the car I found a handwritten note – impersonating a traffic warden – on the back of an envelope, telling me that my car was parked illegally (it wasn’t). The message was clear: “Don’t do it again”.


parking note


This was only day one of my data collection schedule. I interviewed two teachers at two schools – the text books say to only do one interview a day, but hey, see point 1) above. I’ll be back for more interviews, questionnaire sessions, lesson observations and focus groups – I can’t wait. So then, what to do with all this lovely, fresh and juicy data? Well, before you can crunch it all up and then spit it out again in some sort of (hopefully) meaningful fashion, it needs to be transcribed. But that’s a blog post for another day!


Are you conducting research in a school? How’s that going? Please post your comments below!

So you think you’re doing a PhD?




I’ve been upgraded! Yes I know the old version of me did suffer from bugs and sudden crashes, cheers for pointing it out, so an upgrade was long overdue, and thanks to the procedures of the PhD machinery, I’ve now got one, hoorah! Confused? Then read on…

So you think you’re doing a PhD? Often, not so, at least not to start with. You might be registered for a lesser degree first, and only clamber up onto the PhD train, destination graduation, later. Or your status might officially be ‘PhD-initial registration’, and you need to have your registration confirmed. Who knew? Not me! So this is the CoR, confirmation of registration, aka upgrade, aka transfer. Requirements for this vary between institutions and departments, but often you’re asked to produce a mini-thesis, bar findings, and just a general intro-background-methodology-findings-discussion list won’t cut it, sorry, it’s got to contain some serious content. Then you get to discuss this with a panel, with your supervisors sitting in but not allowed to say anything. Sounds like scary stuff – so preparation is everything.

Anyway, for me, it’s over. I’m a officially a fully signed-up PhDer now, and I couldn’t be more relieved. When I was preparing for it though, it struck me that I can’t be the only person who was struggling to piece together some info about how the whole CoR process works, or that it even exists in the first place! So here are a few key points that might be worth knowing (NB this applies to my institution and my home school – do check how it works with your own uni/school/department). If you look for it, the info CAN be found out there, you just need to know a) where to look, and b) that you should look in the first place! Since you’re reading this, you got b) covered. As for a), here are some….

…Top tips re preparing for your CoR:

  • Check your VLE (Blackboard, Moodle, etc). Mine actually has a useful section on the CoR, but I only came across it quite late. So save yourself some hassle and have a look on your VLE as your starting point! It will probably also say what paperwork you need to complete. Look out for these forms (again, this might be different for your department):
  • CoR new paperwork (honestly, it’s called that in my case, yours might not be ‘new’ :-))
  • Example document (extremely useful: someone else’s completed report – hopefully it was someone who passed!)
  • Annual Review of Progress – CoR – student template (don’t think just because you’ve already done a review of progress report not too long ago you don’t have to do a new one! You can just update the previous report though, self-plagiarism rules don’t apply in this instance).
  • Learning Needs Analysis (update and submit to assessors)
  • Check your Graduate School website. Mine has useful links to forms, policies and procedures.  (Don’t switch off at the sound of this – knowing this stuff will help you navigate the PhD maze! Familiarise yourself also with the CoR section in the Code of Practice on Research students, or your institution’s equivalent.
  • Good practice guides are helpful too, e.g. Monitoring and Assessing the Practice of Doctoral Researchers. Knowing the criteria against which you’re assessed is rather essential, but this information isn’t always easy to come by, astonishingly.
  • Read your PhD handbook!!! This is worth its weight in gold and your starting point for every general PhD question you may have. Avoid feeling a fool if the answers to your questions have been in there all along.
  • Put your CoR document through Turnitin. On my VLE there’s a button saying ‘draft chapters’, which I ignored until after I’d submitted my CoR document. THEN I found out that you can check, completely confidentially, for instances of unintended (and intended, I guess) plagiarism, by uploading your work onto Turnitin. With trepidation, I did this – and it came back as 28% plagiarised! Shock horror! If this happens to you, don’t panic. When I checked each item, it was all references or template ethics documents form the appendix. Phew! I do recommend before checking your document before official submission though, not after. All official University student work is now put through Turnitin as a matter of course. Use this tool to your advantage.
  • Your institution’s researcher development programme might run a seminar on preparing for the CoR. I went to one and it turned out to cover the whole of the PhD assessment process, not just the CoR. Quite useful but I’d have liked to spend more time on ‘the thing that it said on the tin’. Still, it alerted me to the documents above, and that’s definitely as good thing.
  • In the actual CoR session (not sure what to call this: a chat, an oral exam, a mini-viva? Let’s stick with session), relax and enjoy discussing your project with academics in your field. I think it’s a real privilege to have someone read and comment on your work – make the most of it! I finished my session with a feeling of renewed energy and inspiration. It reminded of why I embarked on this project in the first place. I can’t wait to get out into the field and collect my data now!

So the last thing then is to be aware of the criteria used to assess your application for full registration (again, this might vary from institution to institution). At my university these are:

  1. Is the work presented by the student such as might reasonably be expected as a result of their having studied for the equivalent of around 12-18 months full-time for a PhD, depending on the timing of the confirmation process?
  2. Has the student shown that he or she is able to exercise independent critical judgement?
  3. Has the student demonstrated that he / she understands how his / her research topic is related to a wider field of knowledge?
  4. Has the student demonstrated the ability to produce an original contribution to knowledge?
  5. Is the amount and nature of the subject-specific and generic research skills training that has been undertaken by the student appropriate to his / her needs, as identified through a Learning Needs Analysis or similar process?
  6. Is the student’s work, and his / her understanding of it, of a standard that indicates that it will lead to the successful submission of a PhD thesis within 3-4 years full-time registration (or part-time equivalent)?

Amazingly, the answer to all of these questions for me today seems to have been YES. So why do I still feel that everybody else knows what they’re talking about, whereas I don’t? To answer this, I’ve signed for a course called Imposter syndrome. But that’s a blog post for another day!


How is/was your upgrade experience? I’d love to hear from you via the comments form below!



¡Viva NVivo!




Whilst other qualitative data analysis software IS available, one big name in this field you just can’t ignore is NVivo. NVivo claims that it can help you ”organise, explore and share your work – easily and quickly”. I’m in! So where’s the catch?

It’s this: When you’re new to NVivo, it’s quite hard and time-consuming to find out more about it, let alone get training and support. It’s not even that easy get some basic pricing information! But fret not, and do read on: I’ve put together some links and other info right here. Hoorah! Re pricing, I found 12 month student licences for £49 for Mac and £78 for Windows; however, you might be lucky and find that you can get NVivo for free from your university. There’s also the usual 30-day trial which can sign up for via the QSR (the makers of NVivo) website .

What’s it all about then? Well. It sounds like magic! NVivo can deal with a huge amount of data in a variety of formats, be it text-based, audio, video, databases, images, web pages and social media – you name it, NVivo is happy to gobble up all your messy data, crunch it, and spit it out again in an orderly fashion so you can actually do something with it. You just need to tell it how! Yes I know, sorry about that, but no software in the world will do your thinking for you. Once you’ve accepted that, you can still be grateful for its help with managing your data and ideas, querying your data, visualising it, and reporting from it. Then all you need to do is make sense of it all. Simples!

I wish I could show you how it works. Ah! I can! Here’s a three-minute video from the QSR YouTube Channel!

It’s worth watching, if only for the weird way the Australian (?) voiceover says ‘dahr-tahr’ every five seconds or so. Also, as a linguist I’m pleased to see that the clip seamlessly blends into playing in six other languages, starting with French. Chapeau!

I’m currently using NVivo for a project involving interviews, an online survey and focus groups, and I love it! I have some quantitative data too, which I could import both via Excel and SPSS. I wish I’d known about it for earlier projects, but hey, better late than never. I love how you can slice through your data this way and that way – plus how sci-fi is it to be able to say you’re running a matrix query!

Next I’m planning to use NVivo for my PhD literature review. Yes, your literature is data too! Who’d have thought? You can code it, search it query it, visualise it in models – the mind boggles! You can also import references, abstracts, notes and pdfs directly from Endnote – it just gets better and better! (other bibliography software like RefWorks, Zotero and Mendeley and works too but I’m using Endnote, and loving this one too. By now you might be thinking I’m too easily pleased?!)

Here are a few links to things I wish I’d known earlier, to save you finding out the hard way:

  • The QSR website . This is a good starting point, albeit of course their motivation is to flog you the thing. But still. Download a free NVivo 10 guide (current version) here.
  • Going old school for a moment, here’s a top book (yes the type with actual paper pages) which is EXTREMELY useful:

Bazeley, P., & Jackson, K. (2013). Qualitative data analysis with Nvivo (2nd ed). London: Sage.

I locked myself into my study for a week and did nothing but work through it, making notes along the way and practising using my own project and the training ones provided. Comes with an equally helpful website with additional resources and guides – you can download these for free even if you haven’t bought the book. I bought mine for about £20 and I’ve not regretted it.  Also check out Dr Pat Bazeley’s website – the woman’s a legend!

  • NVivo glossary: Columbia University Libraries/Information Services has compiled a very useful table of NVivo terminology, from ‘aggregate’ right through to ‘value’. Definitely worth saving in your Favourites.
  • For what it’s worth, I’ve put together my very own top tips for NVivo. This is by no means a perfect document, more like notes I made while working through the book and applying it to my project. Supplied in Word format on purpose; feel free to download and edit as you see fit.
  • The above-mentioned QSR YouTube channel has loads of other videos explaining different aspects of NVivo. But don’t just stick to that! Searching YouTube for ‘how-to-do-such-and such-with-NVivo’ yields a plethora of other results too.
  • Once you’ve got NVivo installed, don’t overlook the HELP button (looks like a question mark, funnily enough). A wealth of useful information covering everything you’ll ever need, and more.
  • There’s an active NVivo Forum on the QRS website, plus NVivo has a presence on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Ha! Instagram! Just kidding, but the other ones are for real.

Will you be giving NVivo a go?


PS: Despite of what you may think, this post is NOT sponsored by anyone or anything ;-)!



Sociocultural Theory goes to a party

image1 (13)

So, looks like I can’t just go out in the field, conduct my research and write it up – PhD done. Damn!  There’s just the small issue of the theoretical framework. What’s your view of the world – i.e. what is reality?  The answer to this question defines your ontology. And how can you find things out about this reality? The answer to that question is your epistemology. Both of these should run through your theoretical framework.  And for that you pick key concepts from the literature and show how you plan to operationalise these through your methods. Easy!

Enter Sociocultural Theory as a possible candidate. Why?

1) At a, er, theory party (bear with me!), SCT would happily chat away all night with Discourse Analysis, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism and Social Constructivism. Constructing giggles all night long – they have so much in common!  If I was invited, that’s the group I would join too over nibbles and a glass of wine or five.

2) SCT would be the life and soul of said party – after all, everything starts with the social, and this one is an active producer of her own social and cultural environment, including choosing the music.

3) When Motivation turns up alone, not quite sure of himself and a bit up-and-down mood-wise, it finds SCT very friendly, showing him around and introducing him to her friends . SCT treats motivation kindly because she thinks he’s emerging through the interactions of participants, context and sociocultural activity in a socio-historically situated process.  Aw, bless!

In case you’re wondering why SCT’s female and Motivation’s male, well, gender is a social construction, and  I constructed it that way through my discourse. And why not!

Have you come across SCT before? Yes you have, and if you’re a (language) teacher you DEFINITELY have!  Scaffolding, dynamic assessment, internalisation? These are all concepts derived from SCT. Here’s a few others (for brevity’s sake can’t mention them all!)

Mediation: All human behaviour is organised and controlled by concrete or symbolic artefacts. Mediation is the process which connects the social and the individual. Language is an artefact?! Of course it is, if you think about it!


Zone of Proximal Development. Various definitions are available for this one! Through mediated support (scaffolding!!) a learner achieves more than they would have on their own. Learning leads to development. Here’s hoping!


Yes, really, this is a word. It refers to meaning-making and shaping knowledge and experience through language. Ever talked to yourself? That’s called private speech. Talking with others ideally takes place as collaborative dialogue. Yeah, well, that’s ideally!

Scientific and everyday concepts:

These are symbolic tools used to solve problems. Scientific concepts are conscious, systematic, and generalisable. Everyday concepts are experience-based, partially transferrable, unconscious, and unsystematic. The dialectic between the two creates the ZPD. Neat!


Thinking and feeling are closely connected. A brave person to disagree with this one!

Activity theory:

Complicated-looking diagrams of triangles – developed by Leont’ev based on Vygotsky’s (he dreamed up the whole SCT malarkey in the first place) conceptualisation of the individual and his or her goal-oriented context. Personally, I’m giving this one a miss.

Dynamic Assessment:

Assessment as social and cultural activity. Can be joint construction of performance, not just learner as sole performer. An expert will guide learner to a performance they’ll later be able to carry out on their own, as opposed to measuring past learning. Liking this one a lot!  Complete opposite of psychometric testing.

So, is SCT going to feature in my theoretical framework? Not really, not as much as its friends mentioned above anyway. I might give it a nod, but I just couldn’t really make it fit. I enjoyed reading about it though! My approach turns out altogether differently grounded – but that’s a whole new theory for another day!

What framework are you using in your research?


Conference proceedings

Ah, conferences… I love them!  That is, I love attending them, listening in awe whilst lurking silently in the back row.  Not so this time!  Having had my arm kindly but firmly twisted to take the plunge and present,  I gulped hard when I discovered that I was due to kick off proceedings as the first speaker at the Language Studies PhD conference 2015 at the University of Reading.  No pressure then!  Well, I survived and am here to tell the tale, and to my surprise I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, even plucking up the courage to ask the odd question or two.  Who’d have thought! Altogether 22 PhD researchers from English Language & Applied Linguistics, the Institute of Education, Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences, and Modern Languages & European Studies talked about their research in front of an audience of fellow-students and lecturers.  In a day that lasted from 9am to 6pm, time flew by as we heard about topics as varied as language policy in Namibia, female twitter users in Saudi Arabia, Greek EFL writing, and aspect binding in Mandarin Chinese, to name but a few. Luckily the audience wasn’t the heckling kind; on the contrary, comments and questions were supportive and helpful.  As well as a round of applause, each speaker also received constructive written feedback on their presentation skills. The conference concluded with a panel session on the Language Studies Working Papers – an annual peer-reviewed digital journal with contributions from staff and PhD-researchers at the University of Reading.  Some of last year’s student-contributors spoke persuasively about the benefits of submitting a paper, such as article-writing practice, attention to detail and development of reviewing skills.  And the best thing: you can develop your text for inclusion in your thesis!  Sounds like a win-win to me. Find all necessary information, including format templates and past issues, by clicking here.   But hurry!  This year’s deadline is 30 April 2015. Many thanks go to Dr. Jackie Laws for organising this enjoyable, instructive and multi-disciplinary day.  It certainly changed not just my view of conferences for the better, but also my view of myself.  If you’re in two minds whether to give presenting a go, here’s my advice: just do it!

Click here to watch a 10 minute video of my presentation: German as a school subject in the UK: discursive representation, motivation and uptake.

How you roll your /r/'s says a lot about you  How you roll your /r/’s says a lot about you!