Monday, 31 October 2011

Examining students - How we do it

Most of our students follow one or other of our degree programmes, and these are made up of a range of courses - some of them compulsory, some of them optional. To get their degrees, students have to pass all, or nearly all, of the courses they take (we allow for a limited amount of failure), and this means that the students' performance in each course has to be assessed. How do we do this?

Sometimes a course is assessed entirely on the basis of the individual student's own work, in the form of essays (and sometimes, presentations), but more often we use a mix of coursework and examination, or assess entirely by examination. When students write a dissertation, as they often do at the end of an honours degree, this is naturally assessed entirely on what they write.

In the case of examinations, we usually set papers that give the students two to three hours to answer a choice of questions, typically 3 out of 8 essay questions; or there can be a Part A consisting of multiple choice questions or questions to be answered using short notes, and a Part B with the more familiar essay-type questions, again with a choice. From all this it can be seen that there is scope for a fair amount of diversity in our practice, with different courses in a degree programme being assessed in different ways. This partly reflects the preferences of different members of the teaching staff, but I think it makes sense on educational grounds, too.

At the start of a degree programme, student performance (i.e. marks and grades) matters only to the extent that it determines whether they are eligible to proceed to the next year of study in the normal way, or whether they have to repeat examinations or even the whole year. Later on, marks and grades matter because under the current system (currently under discussion) they contribute to each student's final degree classification. And at the end, each graduating student receives a degree certificate that indicates his/her subject and class of degree, together with a detailed transcript showing all the courses taken and grades/marks achieved by that student. Much of this reflects the modern desire - and need, apparently - for ever more information to be provided about everything we do. In my day, as I've mentioned in earlier posts, I received a degree certificate that indicated that I was now a graduate with a BA degree, but it showed neither my subject nor my class of degree. And transcripts were unheard of back then in the 1960s.

This whole edifice of assessment and examinations is supported by our system of external examiners. For each course we have an external examiner, sometimes more than one, whose job is to ensure that our assessment is both fair, and consistent with the standards that would be expected at other universities. In other words, we should not be giving first class degrees to students who might struggle to get a second class degree elsewhere, and conversely, we shouldn't be too hard on our very best students.

Mostly, I think this system works surprisingly well. Of course, it's vulnerable to 'friendly' personal networks - 'you examine for us, and I'll do it for you later on', but most senior academics are quite anxious to protect their reputations, and would not want to be seen to be supporting assessment that was of a poor standard, badly run, and the like. Since in my view our 'internal incentives' about this are really very strong, it's a bit irritating that institutions increasingly feel that they have to provide ever more documentation and guidance about what they expect from their examiners. More information is also provided about the individual courses being examined, including the expected learning outcomes and outline answers to the examination questions.

With a struggle, I can just about see a justification for this, though in the first 20 years of my external examining experience it was never done, nor seen to be needed. Back then, the external examiner was a respected outsider whose professional judgement was almost invariably accepted with alacrity. Now there is too much box ticking and concern for procedure over content for my taste, so I haven't accepted invitations to examine at undergraduate level for quite a while. These days I only examine PhD dissertations.

An interesting aspect of the external examiner system is that it is, in effect, a free service provided by academics in one institution to those in another. Actually, it's not quite free, as we do get a notional fee for undertaking external examining. But the fee is tiny in relation to the work involved, and there is a presumption in the UK higher education system - implicit but nevertheless widely understood and accepted - that doing some external examining is part of a professor's job description. That was fine in the old days when professorial pay was relatively higher than it usually is today, and when academics were under less immediate pressure from their home institutions to meet a variety of short-term performance targets (which never include external examining). So it's probably time for the whole system to be reviewed.

Monday, 24 October 2011

What did the Romans ever give us?

Despite being officially retired, I found myself doing some undergraduate teaching earlier this month, contributing to a new course we're running this year on 'Topics in World  Economic History'. When the idea of this course was first under discussion, I piped up and said, 'why not look at the economic impact of the fall of Rome?' So naturally, that's the topic I ended up teaching, in the form of a lecture one week, and two seminars the following week, at which the students presented the essays they had written for me.

The students wrote on attempts to assess income distribution at the height of the Roman Empire, while my lecture covered the institutional features that enabled the Empire to perform well economically - such as the rule of law, security, good roads and other public infrastructure, and a monetary economy - and then discussed how things fell apart in Britain when the Roman legions left in AD 406 or so. I argued that the Dark Ages were indeed very dark! The students were hugely enthusiastic, so I think the whole thing went down pretty well.

The first picture shows Hadrian's Wall, the northern frontier of the Empire (in northern England), as it probably looked around AD 200-300. The second picture shows it as it is today, lots of the stone having been lifted for other buildings over the centuries. It's still amazing how much remains 1600 years after the Romans left Britain. They built to last!

Quite aside from the sheer inherent interest of the topic, there are two things that struck me while I was doing this teaching about the Roman Empire.

The first was a reminder of just how interesting it can be to vary what one teaches, and not teach the same thing year after year. I've always found it surprising when colleagues have tried to hold on to the same area of teaching more or less forever. Much of the fun of teaching is trying something different and new from time to time. It involves a bit more work, naturally, but I think it's better for both staff and students when the teaching is fresh and engaging.

The second point was a reminder of some issues that still don't get enough attention in our standard economics courses, namely the critical importance of good institutions for successful development. Although this is still debated among historians, it doesn't seem that Rome succeeded as a result of its amazing science, technology and innovation, though in some fields it was certainly impressive for the ancient world; rather, it established public order, a decent legal framework, money, and good infrastructure, and that boosted incomes and growth remarkably well for a long time.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Who needs a four-year degree?

As expected, moves to a regime of higher fees for undergraduate students - for all students in England, for non-EU and non-Scottish UK students in Scotland - are already calling into question the merits of the traditional Scottish four-year degree. This is not surprising as, although no UK student studying at a Scottish university will pay fees up front, students will be increasingly conscious of their growing indebtedness, debt that will have to be repaid over their future working lives, on an income-contingent basis. Of course, students who graduate and then take low-paying jobs will not have to repay anything, and for those who find well paying jobs the burden of repayment should not feel that bad. Nevertheless, it's understandable that students and/or their families should think hard about where to study, what to study and how long a course to go for, given the new funding arrangements.

Traditionally, Scotland's four-year undergraduate degree has fallen into two parts, namely a three year ordinary or general degree (usually a BA), and the fourth year that resulted in the corresponding honours degree (usually an MA). When I first came up here to teach in Scottish universities back in the early 1970s, around half the students completed the ordinary degree and graduated at that stage, not least because for many professions that was sufficient for the job market. Entry to the honours year usually depended on performance in at least the first two years of study, and it was not enough just to pass the relevant courses, good passes were required. Commonly, students had to be achieving results of at least a lower second class honours standard before we let them advance to the honours year.

Over time, this quite strict and competitive system gradually broke down.

In part this happened as a result of factors external to the university, specifically changes in the job market. It seemed that more and more jobs expected graduates to have an honours degree (possibly because that was always the norm in England), so instead of choosing to leave us with a perfectly good ordinary degree, more and more students pressed for admission to honours. As a side effect of this, the status of the ordinary degree gradually declined, relative to the honours degree. There were also factors internal to the university, such as the modularisation of courses; each module was then assessed separately (by a mix of examination and coursework), instead of students facing a single set of exams at the end of each academic year. Gradually, it came to be thought that we couldn't stop students from proceeding to honours if they were passing all their modules. It was considered unfair to deny students the chance of an honours degree. And before long, practically everyone took their studies that far.

So how might the Scottish system evolve as increasing numbers of students have to pay fees? One way forward is to be more flexible about allowing entry to second year. For the first year of a Scottish degree was often quite broadly based, with a strong subject specialism only coming in year 2. Originally, the first year was designed for students with a range of Scottish Highers, but now more students stay on to do Advanced Highers, and the English students have A-levels. These qualifications often overlap with first year degree work, so second year entry is not so unreasonable. Indeed it has always been an option for exceptionally well qualified students, but I think it will be allowed more widely before long. The financial pressures certainly push in that direction.

Some universities might soon find that their first years become quite small, with more and more students entering at the second year stage. In time, one can easily envisage the existing first year simply being abandoned in many degree programmes; everyone would then start at the current second year (so it would be the new first year). Of course, this has resource implications for institutions, as universities wanting to keep up their total undergraduate numbers would need to recruit more students for each year of three-year degrees than they currently do for four-year degrees.Will there be enough students to go round, and how will such changes affect the competition between institutions? We don't know yet, but one can imagine difficult times ahead for some.