Surviving a physiotherapy viva: tips from a first-timer.

Every exam I’ve ever taken before has been a written paper, and I’ve taken a lot of exams: A levels, entrance exams, English literature undergraduate exams, access course exams, exams for jobs, psychometric exams, and an iGCSE in maths. Not a single one has been anything like the first physiotherapy viva I completed recently, and so I thought that for those hoping to study physio in the near future I’d describe a little of what it was like – structurally – and some revision tips that might help you prepare. Always remember, however, that I am currently a first year undergraduate and have a lot to learn and a long way to go. Please use this as an aide to your own preparation rather than a definitive guide.

So, what is a viva?

A via is a form of spoken examination. Viva is short for viva voca – or oral test. They’re not unique to physiotherapy degrees but most people will associate them with the defence of a PhD thesis once the written body of work has been submitted, at least this was my experience of them. I once sat in on a friend’s PhD viva. He did brilliantly but the process seemed terrifying to me! Luckily, the end of module physiotherapy viva I recently took wasn’t anything like as scary. The first thing to remember is that your lecturers don’t want to catch you out, make you look stupid, or ask you things you haven’t been guided to learn. If they’re anything like mine, they’ll be friendly, warm, and supportive during the viva itself. You probably won’t believe it on your pre-exam frenzy, but I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised once you’ve actually done it.

My viva lasted 30 mins. Some weeks beforehand, we were given 4 case studies to learn. Each case study consisted of the subjective and objective assessment of a hypothetical patient. 10 mins before the viva, we were individually told which of the 4 case studies our particular examination would be based on and given that time to read it over for a final time.

Pro tip: if your viva follows a similar format, make sure you read the right case study.

I didn’t! I only realised my mistake 5 minutes into my preparation time. It didn’t really matter; I think I knew the material very well at this stage but it knocked my confidence and that I could have done without. Make sure you listen carefully to any instructions and you should escape that fate.

The viva began as scheduled and I was asked a series of questions relating to my particular case study, which involved a patient with osteoarthritis of the hip. I won’t go into the specific questions, that’s up to you to pre-empt, but they were to be expected from the subject areas covered in the course up to then. During this time, I was sat facing my examiner with the case study in front of me. I was also able to bring in an A4 sheet of paper with one side of handwritten notes on it. However, I barely looked at this; you simply don’t have time and, if you really have to rely heavily on your notes, something probably went wrong with your revision.

After the opening questions, my ‘model’ was brought in and a plinth was made available to me. The model was a classmate I had been paired up with prior to the viva; she modelled for me during the exam and I modelled for her. By this I mean that we each were the subjects that the examiner asked the other to demonstrate practical skills on. For my practical I was asked to locate a bony lower limb landmark; identify a particular muscle and describe its action, origin and insertion; demonstrate a concentric action of the identified muscle; teach the model the correct use of a walking aide; and asked to conduct a deep transverse friction of a particular part of the model’s lower limb. I was then asked to carry out a movement analysis of a particular functional movement demonstrated naturally by my model. I could have been asked to demonstrate any number of other techniques, asked about ligaments or other soft tissue. After this, my model was dismissed and I was asked some further questions relating to the practical work I had just done.

The combination of questions and practical skills that come up in this kind of viva is really quite random, and so the only thing you can do to come through it successfully is to learn everything really well.

Easy to say, right? It’s just that there is no way to cheat it. You could hedge your bets and and only revise what you think might come up but there is no way of knowing. You could be struck by that unexpected set of questions that pokes a hole right through your knowledge and exposes the gaping void. Moreover, I believe you wouldn’t be a very good physio at the end of the day if that’s how you approached things. Learn it all and then you can’t be anything other than pleasantly surprised on viva day. In retrospect, wish I had gone over things that I thought I was confident in more thoroughly. I was asked a question about something I feel was quite easy, and was only able to provide half an answer. The reason for this is because I thought that I knew it and so didn’t spend any time revisiting the area. This is a mistake. When I was asked about it, I realised the information wasn’t as easy to produce as I thought, and this let me down. I also had to have a long think about the walking aid demonstration as the particular gait and aide I was given wasn’t a combination I had seen in class. That shouldn’t have mattered. It was an obvious combination and it shouldn’t have flummoxed me as much as it did. Again, learn everything you have been taught thoroughly. Test yourself with different variations of questions that could come up, think laterally about what scenarios you could be faced with. It won’t just help in vivas, it should help you to develop the clinical reasoning that is so important to the everyday practice of physiotherapy.

All in all, I did well and I’m pleased with my results. I think if that if you get organised in advance and revise thoroughly, you can approach the viva with something approaching cautious confidence rather than fear. I hope I can continue to do well but it certainly won’t be an easy ride; I’m going to have to work very hard, along with my classmates, to continue to improve and be the best I can be.

Handy hints.

I’ll leave you with a few key viva tips I think helped me and that I will certainly try to take forward with me as the course progresses:

  1. Listen carefully to what you’re asked to do. Don’t make my initial mistake!
  2. Try not to be afraid. The examiners are generally a reassuring and calming presence.
  3. Learn everything you have been taught. Do it methodically and do it from the start and as you go along, not just in the few weeks before the exam.
  4. Practice practical skills every chance you get. On your friends, family, partner, classmates. No one should be safe from your palpating hands!
  5. Form a small study group that will help motivate you and with whom you can practice likely viva scenarios.


Any questions, comments, are general musings you have, feel free to contact me as always.

Best of luck,


Featured image credit:

Stress by Firesam, Flickr. [CC BY-ND 2.0]



Category: Physio Student JourneyPhysiotherapy



  1. Hey Vee, as always i love reading your articles; what better insight can one give than that of a student currently experiencing it first hand as we speak! 🙂

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