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.

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