Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Exam Board

Entry for 11 September 2007:

There is nothing exactly like it in American higher education: Once (or twice) a year, an Exam Board is convened by a high-ranking academic faculty member and a senior member of the administrative structure to review the grades and status of all students in the various courses run by a department or centre. This meeting has been planned for months, with many preparations and some degree of stress for office staff and team managers as final preparations were underway throughout much of August.

An interesting feature of the Exam Board is the use of an External Examiner for the course, that is, a person who reviews a sample of student work in order to provide quality control on a course’s grades and grading processes. For the past 3 years, Judy Moore, from our sister course at the University of East Anglia, has played this role.

Last year, Mick dissuaded me from attending the exam board, so the mystery remained; therefore, I decided it was important to me to go this year, even though I didn't have to. Yesterday finally rolled around, and Judy arrived for a round of preliminary meetings and dinner. Apparently, taking the external examiner out for dinner is part of the ritual, because there was another large party from Jordanhill at the restaurant we took Judy to last night.

The first thing that surprised me was how informal our interactions with Judy were. Mick described her role as that of “critical friend”, which seemed pretty accurate. In the pre-meetings we had before the Exam Board, Judy shared her impressions and discussed issues of concern, offering mostly positive feedback but with a few suggestions for improvement.

Then, this morning at 11am, the course managers and Judy met with the exam board, consisting of the head of another department in the Faculty of Education, and the assistant faculty officer for the Faculty of Education. I came along as part of my ongoing enculturation process, i.e., to learn what the heck is going on.

Mostly, the meeting consisted of us going over lists of names, confirming their grades and telling the convener and administrator what the student’s status was. However, this was not at all as simple as it sounds. They started by telling us that we had to provide grades for all the students for whom we’d left blanks because they were still working on their theses or in the middle of a module (UK edu-speak for a course; what they call "courses", North Americans call "programs"). Then, after discussing this with us to 10 minutes, they decided that it was OK to leave these blank after all. There was also considerable discussion of what progress categories to use for these students. We had a long document with the different grade and status categories, organized somewhat bizaarely, into two main categories: Portrait and Landscape. After studying the list carefully, I somewhat sheepishly asked if a category named (not numbered) “35” might possibly be appropriate. Yes, they said, after studying it for a moment, that should do it. And so, some substantial number of students now have their current degree status listed as “35”, which roughly translates in English as “in progress”.

Finally, Judy, our external examiner, delivered her report, which was quite glowing in its terms of praise. Among other things, she noted improvements in the quality of our feedback to MSc students this year, which she judged to be more substantial and less focused on picky details. Although it is evidence of my poor character, I must confess to a moment of silent gloating at this, having spent much of the month of July arm-wrestling with my colleagues on the MSc course over the need to raise research standards.

We are greatly relieved after this somewhat surreal event ended, and retired to the cafeteria downstairs to debrief and hang out until it was time for Judy to leave. My strongest impression from my first encounter with the Exam Board process was that in spite of the detailed document describing procedures and categories, and also in spite their having done it before, the convener and administrator actually appeared to be making the whole thing up as their went along…

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