Career advice: how to survive your first exam board

Robert MacIntosh explains what to expect when staff enter the little-known world of the university exam board

July 5, 2018
A courtroom scene
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Before the pomp and ceremony of graduation day, academics have been gathering in darkened rooms to determine students’ marks. For early career staff, these exam boards remain shrouded in mystery. To shine light on this, here is a guide to the players in academia’s own version of a courtroom drama.

The ‘judge’
The chair will oversee proceedings, manage pace and ensure that attention is spent most lavishly on the cases that need it most. As it is not uncommon for exam and progression boards to consider several thousand students at a time, student-by-student commentary is not the norm. However, like any other large group, there will be some individual life stories that bring complexities that require individual attention.

Taking on the role of chair is, therefore, an onerous responsibility, and whoever does so deserves sympathy, respect and support from those around them. Colleagues can assist the chair by spotting errors in spreadsheet calculations or noticing an inconsistency between discussions of a current case and events in an earlier part of the meeting.

Those who announce that they “just want call the board’s attention back to page 4 in our packs” late into the exam board can, however, expect a cross look from the chair, even if, ultimately, everyone wants to see justice done.

Due process
Seated next to the chair, and periodically whispering in their ear, will be the clerk. Usually a member of professional service staff, the clerk will know what needs to be formally recorded and will keep a close eye on the audit trail of mitigating circumstances and medical certificates accompanying some candidates.

There will be a lot of paper and, as a former colleague noted, academics “give so many autographs, yet have so few fans”. Gently reminding the chair that he or she wanted to draw the board’s attention to some specific detail and making sure that the right signatures end up on the right pieces of paper, the clerk is invaluable.

In this context, don’t be surprised to hear from the unapologetic pedant of the exam board. Pedants can be invaluable, although I once had one ask to see the death certificate in relation to the tragic case of a mature student whose spouse had died during the previous semester. Clearly, some pedantry is not helpful (and for the record, we did not request sight of said death certificate).

Supporting cast
The twin roles that form the building blocks of any academic award are the course (or module) coordinators and presenters. The former have taught students a particular subject, set the exam and graded the papers. These marks build towards an aggregate result for each student. When borderline cases or personal circumstances are discussed, it is the course coordinator who will be asked to put their specific grade into context. For example, was it a tough year? The presenters (usually the programme director or year-group head for graduating and continuing students, respectively) are often the ones who lead the presentation of results for a particular cohort of students.

The chair may turn to them to lead their part of the discussion while breathing a brief sigh of relief that someone else is in the spotlight. Each presenter then takes it in turn to guide the board through their results.

At this point, the board’s self-appointed “legal eagle” may intervene by citing chapter and verse of the complex regulations that govern the awards process. They play a vital role in ensuring that everything is in order. They will often intervene in response to the interjections of a “lobbyist” raising arguments over a specific case.

Outside characters
Alongside the teaching staff, you can also expect to see several visitors to your department, group or faculty. Most obvious will be the external examiner. Paid less than the living wage (at least when the time taken to scrutinise the mountains of material they are sent is calculated on an hourly basis), your external is there to calibrate the standards to which you are assessing. Externals carry significant authority. Some wear it lightly, while others are more strident, but all of them will be aware that they are experiencing less pressure than they do in their own institution’s board.

In many institutions, there will be a representative from the wider university, such as a senator. These individuals visit multiple boards to monitor compliance and consistency. Finally, where joint degrees are being awarded, there may be “outlanders” from other disciplines in your own institution. It is normal to engage in some academic jousting with them as you negotiate joint honours classifications because clearly your standards will be tougher than theirs.

Unseen actors
Students are an absent presence. Even in anonymised matriculation number form, they are what the whole thing is about, and they complete the cast. As a new member of the cast, your first role is likely to be that of course coordinator, but you can pore over the regulations and act as understudy to many of the other roles set out above.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University. He writes regularly about academic life on the Heriot-Watt blog thePhDblog.com.

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