I am now in my first year as the external examiner for the BSc Zoology degree programme at University College Dublin (UCD). Some of you will know what this entails from personal experience, others will not even be aware that the process exists. For my sins I have been involved in external examining university courses since 1997. So exactly what does being an external examiner involve and why do I do it?
According to the UCD handbook ….
“Extern (sic) Examiners play a vital role in assisting the University in fulfilling its obligations of assuring the academic standards and integrity of its modules leading to awards.
1.2. Extern Examiners provide an important consultative and advisory function in supporting the development of modules as well as the enhancement of teaching, learning and assessment practices.
1.3. UCD appoints Extern Examiners that are internationally recognised experts in their subject areas and are from institutions with the highest academic reputations.”
Looking across UK universities and reading their descriptions of the duties of external examiners we find a common message that as an external examiner your duties involve the review of all summative assessment (ie check that the exam papers are fair and understandable) prior to students being assessed and the requirement to submit an annual report, based upon your professional judgement, about a number of aspects of the programme. These being answers to the following questions; are the academic standards set for the programme awards appropriate, how rigorous are the assessment processes, are the students assessed fairly and equitably and are the standards and student achievements comparable with those at other similar institutions. You are also asked to identify examples of good practice and to suggest areas where improvements or changes would be beneficial.
I got involved with external examining purely by accident; back in 1997 I was asked to validate a new degree programme in Life Sciences at what was then The Roehampton Institute of Education, now Roehampton University. Validating a degree programme involves assessing the course materials, programme specifications, learning outcomes, projected demand, resource availability, goodness of fit to other programmes etc., etc. Having agreed that there was a case for them to start the new programme I found myself two years later being asked if I would like to be the external examiner! Obviously, having validated the degree in the first place I felt that it would be churlish to refuse 😉
I have since that first appointment been an external examiner at the University of Leeds (BSc Biological Sciences), York University (Environmental Sciences (Undergraduate and Masters), University College London (BSc Biology), Writtle College (MSc Conservation Management), University of Cumbria (MSc Forest Ecosystem Management and Conservation Biology) and now BSc Zoology at UCD. I have also validated and re-validated several degrees at other universities but managed to suggest alternative external examiners for those 😉
Appointments are usually made for three years but in many cases extended to four years and very occasionally to five. So what does it actually involve in practice? Before your annual, or in some cases biennial visit, you will be sent exam papers to check if the questions are appropriate and to proof-read (you will be amazed at how many spelling and grammatical mistakes can creep into exam papers). You should also receive module descriptors and the material that students are given before being set assignments and also details of how scripts are graded and marks allocated. Some places will send you examples of course work and student project dissertations before your visit so that you can make a start on your evaluation ahead of time. On arrival at the Department, where you will spend the next two to three days, you should be allocated a space (a secure office/room) where you will be faced with a pile of paperwork to go through. This can vary greatly, depending on the number of students in a cohort and the number of assessments that count towards the final degree mark. Those programmes where all years of study contribute to the final grade will have more for you to look at. Your main duties usually involve examining the paperwork associated with those students graduating in that year, so final year exam scripts, examples of coursework assignments and of course their final year project dissertations/theses. My UCD pile was about average.
When I first started as an external examiner, exit vivas for students were fairly wide-spread and in some cases were used to moderate the degree results of individual students. This practice has pretty much disappeared and in fact it is now rare to actually get to talk to students on a one-one basis. I totally agree that it was unfair to classify a student’s degree on the basis of a twenty-minute interview, but on the other hand feel that you learn a great deal about the course by talking to students about their projects and experiences. The staff who deliver a course look at things from a very different viewpoint than those who are on the receiving end. At some universities students are invited along to an informal gathering with the external examiner(s) (drinks and nibbles provided as an inducement) so that at least some idea of what the students think can be gained; unfortunately take-up can be very low and those who do turn up are certainly not a random sample. At many universities now, final grades are not changeable and final degree outcomes are determined by an algorithm. The practice of speaking up at the final exam board in the hopes of moving a student from one grade to another is a thing of the past, and perhaps rightly so as it was very subjective and dependent on the student having a passionate advocate. Now, if you as an external feel that items within a module were over-marked or under-marked, you are there in an advisory position and not in an executive position, and if any changes to marks are made it will be for the module and not for individual students.
At UCD I was able to talk face to face with half the zoology cohort, an experience that I found interesting, informative and enjoyable and which did not have any life-changing effects on the students. Their final marks were not affected.
At the end of your visit you will be invited along to the Final Examination Board where the marks are presented to the assembled faculty and you will be invited to say a few words about general standards and highlight any concerns that you wish to be addressed before your next visit. You should also highlight the good things that you noticed and say thank you for the hospitality that you will have received. Incidentally you will also have to provide a written report to the host university before you receive your fee although you do generally get your travel expenses back fairly promptly.
So why do I agree to be an external examiner? First, I find it very useful to be able to compare practices across institutions, I often find examples of good practice which I take note of and apply in my own teaching or tell others in my home department about. Sometimes I come across great exam questions which I shamelessly borrow to inflict on my own students! Secondly I think that it is something one should do as a ‘ good academic citizen’ and finally, you are also usually well treated by the staff of the Department you are visiting and get a least one opportunity to be wined and dined and to meet staff members in an informal setting.
So if you are asked to become an external examiner say yes. It is not that onerous and it is certainly educational. If you do decide to become an external examiner I have three pieces of advice for you.
Don’t ask for things to be changed just for the sake of it – for example, the way exam questions are posed in a particular way is generally for a reason. The people who taught the course know what the students are expecting. I remember one external examiner asking me to reword an exam question which I did, the result of which was that the students did not answer the question because they did not ‘get’ what it was about.
Don’t be antagonistic – I treat external examining much the same way as I do PhD examining – a two-way process that should have positive outcomes for all involved. You might not agree with the way things are done in the Department, but find out why it is done that way; if there is no reasonable answer then gently point out why you think it would be better done your way. If you have valid criticisms to make do so, but do make sure to mention the things you thought were excellent. Talk to staff and find out if there are things that they feel should be changed by the university or Department. As the external examiner your report is read by the university administrators and usually published on the University’s website. You do have the power to make a difference.
Finally, talk to the students. Even if the Department you are visiting does not have student vivas, ask them to arrange a meeting, either with a group or preferably individual students, so that you can hear things from both sides.
Change will not happen instantaneously, even if you feel it should. Look, listen and learn and it will be a pleasant three or four years for you and your hosts and at the end of it all you will hopefully feel that you have achieved something worthwhile.