External Examining

This week I’m spending some time at UWE in Bristol as External Examiner for their postgraduate programmes in Marketing. If you are not from the UK, or sometimes if you are a student in the UK, the “External Examiner” system is probably a bit of a mystery to you, because while it is the corner stone of the quality assurance of British higher education, it is also one of the most invisible roles.

Basically, the system requires an academic from an other institution to scrutinise the assessments and grades given – to ensure they are fairly marked and comparable in standard across the higher education sector. So, for example, I will look at scripts from UWE, someone from Nottingham looks at my scripts from Hull, and so on… It is not only the scripts that an external examiner looks at, but also the questions, exams, courseworks etc., normally, before they are given to students. The system is, of course, on top of the second marking that already goes on within universities in the UK.  As it so happens, this week seems like THE week for universities to start having the boards, that means that many of my colleagues don’t only look at their own marks – but also spend a lot of time travelling to other universities, reading other students exams, courseworks or dissertations – and sitting in on boards which decide the final grades. While it seems like a lot of work (and it is), the system has a lot of advantages for students, lecturers and institutions.

For students, it means that their work is viewed again by someone from a different university – and who doesn’t know them. Often students seem to feel that lecturers like them, or dislike them, and that this [dis-]liking is somehow reflected in the results they get. Of course, with second marking (that is, a second marker in the institution looking at the work on top of the first marker) such a bias should be immediately obvious, if it does really occur. But, one could argue, that maybe the second marker may collude with the first marker – so therefore, an independent third marker (the external) should really be totally independent. The third person doesn’t know the student at all – and can only see what is put in front of him (or her) – so it does ensure the grade is fair.

For lecturers, the external examiner provides a form of external and independent validation to their work. It’s like a peer-review of what is “going on”. Of course, sometimes, lecturers may also have specific questions, e.g. if some of the work is to hard or appropriate for the level of students etc. So in that sense, the external can also act as a critical friend, who can provide advice.

Finally for the school, such a system brings advantages in that it makes the entire process transparent to at least one person from the outside. Moreover, because the external sees all the assessments for all the modules on a course, it can be the case, that sometimes the external may pick up on issues by taking a “helicopter view”. For example, the external may notice that all courseworks are case studies or that some modules grade more harshly than others etc.. Consequently, externals can make recommendations to the school to change assessments or make some parts more transparant, or indeed take good practice back to their own schools.

External examiners themselves also have some advantages: Most importantly, they see what a lot of other colleagues are doing. As a lecturer, it’s all to easy to get all wound up in your own work – and own modules you teach. By seeing other people’s assessments, it’s often possible to look at how other colleagues handle assessments – and often they have pretty good ideas. For example, at UWE, they have great feedback forms – a system I have adopted when marking in Hull.

Of course, not all of the process is only good: A major point my American colleagues raise (where this system seems to be largely unknown), is the lack of flexibility. This is pretty true: For example, as an external I need to see the proposed coursework questions before they are sent to the student. Therefore, I usually get them at the beginning of the year. Later changes, for example to incorporate material covered in lectures, are no longer allowed, once the external has ok-ed the scripts.
Similarly, I know that some colleagues really dislike when other people review their papers. I’m not sure why they are academics, as journal-peer review is often a lot harsher than any external examiner, but ok. Criticism, even friendly suggestions seem to cause some colleagues enormous stress…
Similarly, for the external examiner, it means a lot of extra work – which needs to be done on top of the work they do “at home”, and usually at the same time as the same work goes on in their home institutions. Reading through all of the scripts, even if just a sample, is quite a demanding task and fairly pressurised. I haven’t counted all the scripts I read through this afternoon, but I’d say it’s probably a good 60 or so, with some more to come tomorrow.

Being an external isn’t my favorite job in the world (which is reserved to writing this blog under palm tress, of course). But, I can honestly say, that being an external examiner is quite an interesting task. It’s also great to see how things have changed over the years. I’ve been at UWE for three years, and I can see how suggestions I have made have been picked up, for example. Similarly, I’m always grateful for suggestions from my external. A fresh pair of eyes really does sometimes make a big difference. And of course, finally, it is quite satisfying that in my small way I’ve done something to ensure the quality of education the students receive. Unfortunately, very few students seem to be aware of the process, and seem to think people just randomly give grades. But the long and short of the story is: I can hardly think of a way to make the process more just than the first marking, second marking and then third marking by an external examiner.

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