Examining theses

Workshop introduction

When academics are first invited to examine a thesis, they may well feel a mixture of pride and trepidation: pride because they are now considered an authority in their field, and trepidation because of uncertainty about what standards to apply and how to approach a large task that someone else’s future may depend on. Even experienced supervisors agonise over ‘difficult’ theses and how to assess them. These four workshops address some of the uncertainties and fears that exist around the examination of theses.

The workshops were originally designed using the early work of Kiley and Mullins in the area of research degree examination, published as Mullins, G. & Kiley, M. (2002) ‘It’s a PhD not a Nobel Prize: How experienced examiners assess research theses’. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386. The workshops have since been updated using material that emerged in more recent years in a series of publications by Kiley and others, and in publications by a group of researchers from the University of Newcastle led by Holbrook, Bourke and Lovat.

The activities in these workshop plans are intended to help both experienced and inexperienced supervisors analyse their own experiences of and approaches to the examination of theses, and to place personal experiences in a broader context. The activities are based on published research on examiners’ reports, as well as interview data collected from experienced supervisors.

Workshop aims

The aims of these workshops are to:

  • increase supervisors’ understanding of the assessment of theses, in particular the conventions of writing examination reports on theses, the approaches of experienced examiners, and the standards they apply
  • improve the quality of examiners’ reports
  • help supervisors explain to students what examiners are looking for

Workshop options

A number of different introductory and main activities make up the four Examining Theses workshops. You may use the workshop plan options suggested below, or mix and match the activities to suit your purposes.

Workshop Plan 1: Discussion session for experienced examiners (Approximately 1.5 hours)
Workshop plan 1 (doc)  Workshop plan 1 (pdf)

Professor Mark Tennant has used research originally conducted by Margaret Kiley and Gerry Mullins to structure a discussion for experienced supervisors. The questions posed to the group in this workshop are based on both Mullins & Kiley (2002) and Buckridge (2001).

Workshop Plan 2: Discussion session based on PowerPoint presentation, for inexperienced examiners or mixed groups  (Approximately 1. 5 hours)
Workshop plan 2 (doc)  Workshop plan 2(pdf)  Workshop 2  power point

A set of PowerPoint slides is provided. This presentation emanated from recorded conversations between experienced examiners at Deakin University, talking on a series of matters facing beginning examiners.

Workshop Plan 3: Study and discussion of three successful examiners’ reports, for inexperienced and mixed groups of examiners (Approximately 3 hours)
Workshop plan 3 (doc)    Workshop plan 3 (pdf)

  • Activity 1: Participants recall their own experiences of receiving examiners’ reports
  • Activity 2: Participants study and discuss three examiners’ reports on a thesis
  • Activity 3: The workshop concludes with a discussion about what examiners typically say in their reports

Workshop Plan 4: Study and discussion of a difficult examiner’s report, for experienced and mixed groups of examiners  (Approximately 2 hours)
Workshop plan 4 (doc) Workshop plan 4 (pdf)


These workshop plans were developed by:
Dr Peggy Nightingale, fIRST Consortium and edited by Emeritus Professor Mark Tennant.
Professor Terry Evans, Associate Dean (Research), Faculty of Education, Deakin University, provided the PowerPoint slide presentation based on conversations about examining between experienced examiners at Deakin University (Activity 2).

Other assistance was provided throughout by
Ms Margaret Buckridge, Griffith Institute for Higher Education, Griffith University;
Dr Margaret Kiley, CHELT, ANU; and
Dr Gerry Mullins, Advisory Centre University Education, University of Adelaide.

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