The joy of examination boards (or “Is that Angry Birds?”)

It’s that time of year. The examinations have been sat; the marking completed; the moderation and numerical checking done and dusted. There’s just one thing remaining. Yep; the examination boards.

Over the years I have sat on many an exam board, both within my own institution and, in cases where others have been forced to scrape the barrel, as an external examiner elsewhere. Actually, I love being an external examiner; an exercise where I am given free reign to criticise people for doing exactly what I do, whilst simultaneously pinching all their good ideas and incidentally, as happened to me recently, finding myself having coffee with a Man Booker Prize shortlisted author, journalist and occasional celebrity*.

So I enjoy other people’s boards. Mainly because my input in the run up to the meeting is minimal and basically consists of me demanding pieces of obscure coursework, or asking a beleaguered academic why they are gave five marks to one student and four marks to another when their answers appear almost identical.  Or, as happened to me recently, just before I met up with the Man Booker Prize shortlisted author, journalist and occasional celebrity, asking a beleaguered academic why a student had managed to provide narrative solutions to exam questions that were exactly the same as the model solution.

The downside to external examining is, of course, that unlike exam boards at my own institution, I have to pay attention. I have blogged elsewhere about distraction techniques employed within my own ivory tower; however, similar activities are unwise when away from home as, when backed into a corner, the astute Exam Board Chair will often say “And I wonder what our external examiner thinks about this seemingly intractable issue?” At such times, it’s best not to be playing Angry Birds / Candy Crush Saga /  Words with Friends on your phone. Take it from the voice of experience; expunge Angry Birds from your phone before entering the board meeting.

Styles of exam boards vary, of course. Some being rather rigid, turgid affairs in which a fussy little individual insists on reading out every single digit on many large sheets of paper; others being rather more relaxed, skipping over straightforward cases, whilst spending an appropriate amount of time on the more troublesome issues and individuals. However, in my experience, all have thankfully have always striven to secure the best outcome for the students.

And yet, we live in a world where once the marks are agreed, they are locked down, a computer makes some buzzing and whirring noises, and then out pops a decision for each and every student. No discussion, no argument, just a decision. Oh yes, we may apply “profiling” in borderline cases, but even that is an entirely mechanistic process with no academic input.

So why do we need to coax and corral an entire department to sit for a couple of hours through what is basically a non-event? Has anyone calculated the opportunity cost of an exam board, and then considered how many such boards are taking place throughout the country? In my experience of external examining, there are three such meetings each year. And they’re the ones to which the external examiner is invited. Doubtless there are meetings in advance where the dirty laundry gets a good old going over. So yet more expense.

Now I absolutely do see the need for rigorous and robust examination boards. I absolutely do see the need for external validation of academic standards. But does the process really need to be so bloated and so demanding on time for some many individuals? One constant theme coming out of academia these days is the extent to which our academic staff are stretched in what they have to do and the time available to do it (don’t get me started on academic legs again – if you aren’t aware of my views on this, have a look at ). It just set me thinking; is this one area where we could make some relatively easy changes to processes, reduce a bit of burden, without compromising standards, and maybe make a few friends amongst the staff? I bet my Man Booker mate will have a view on that.



*Guesses as to the identity of my new found friend should be sent on a postcard or the back of a sealed down envelope to First one drawn at random winds free subscription to this blog.


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