There is no reason for external examiners to feel isolated from the institution they work for, writes Harriet Swain. Research and communication make for an arrangement satisfying for all parties
A crisp pile of exam scripts lands on your desk, and the temptation is to shove them under the desk for the time being so you can tackle them in a spare moment. They should not take long because you are an old hand.
But do not be too complacent, says Andrea Rayner, spokesman for the Higher Education Academy. Although HEA surveys suggest that external examiners tend to rely heavily on personal experience when carrying out their duties, she warns that institutions vary considerably in the way they manage assessment and examination, as well as in the duties and responsibilities they expect of their examiners.
Alison Mayhew, a spokeswoman for the Quality Assurance Agency, says you need to be clear about exactly what is required from you and what your contract involves. Use the QAA Code of Practice, Section 4: External Examining as a reference point for the general role of external examining, she advises, and keep abreast of developments in higher education and any good practice tips from colleagues and institutions.
But you also need to familiarise yourself with the procedures of the individual institution. This includes checking what your formal powers are, whether you need to attend all examiners' board meetings, what form your report must take and what it must cover, and whether pass lists require your signature in order to be valid.
The QAA's 2005 report Outcomes from Institutional Audit, External Examiners and their Reports found that preparation of external examiners also varied from institution to institution, so it is worth checking what documents and other help are available to you. These may include recent annual reports arising from programme monitoring and associated action plans, the outgoing external examiner's last report, access to the institution's website, induction events or mentoring opportunities. The QAA report found that a discussion forum could be useful for external and internal examiners as part of the induction process.
Craig Mahoney, deputy vice-chancellor for learning and teaching at Northumbria University, says you need to understand not only the general and institutional context of your role but how it applies to a particular programme. This means understanding the fundamental principles behind the programme you are examining. Ideally, this includes looking through documentation on the validation procedures the institution has been through for the course so you can get a better idea of the ethos on which it is based.
One mistake external examiners sometimes make is not to look at every paper that has been failed, Mahoney says. Understanding why students fail is key to understanding the course and the examiner's role.
It is also useful for examiners to meet some of the students.
"I would think as an external examiner if you don't understand and spend time with the sort of students who have done the academic programme, you don't have a good idea of where they are coming from," he says. He likes to look at the work they have produced in the context of their university experience and says that keeping in close touch with the institution is equally important.
Good communication is essential and must be two-way, according to Mayhew. She says you must highlight any potential conflicts of interest as soon as possible and inform the institution of any information you may need to carry out your role. Meanwhile, you must make sure the institution lets you know of any changes in programmes.
Catherine Lillie, programme manager at the Association of University Administrators PG Cert, says managing communication and expectations is one of the most difficult aspects of the job. "Everyone needs to know what they need to know, the volume of work, and what they are going to do with it when they get it," she says.
Because the work comes in short, sharp periods of activity, you have to alert people beforehand if you are not going to be available at a certain time, and you must be scrupulous in meeting deadlines.
The QAA report refers to one institution terminating the appointments of external examiners who submitted reports too late for inclusion in its annual monitoring process. Other institutions sent back reports because they were too brief and failed to address all the points that had been expected.
But the report should be only one part of external examiners' responsibility towards the institution that employs them.
Mahoney says: "I see the external examiner as being a critical friend of an institution and exam programme." This means examiners passing on advice or concerns to the institution whenever they occur, and being prepared to be contacted during the year by the institution, not only to discuss specific points but also for general chats. "If external examiners just see it as a contract, they are missing out on the opportunity of a much more valuable relationship," he says.
Rayner says external examining can be a lonely business, so it is important to seek help from more experienced colleagues if faced with a difficult situation, although you must be careful to respect confidentiality. She says that if you feel something is badly wrong you must inform the exam board, make sure you put it in your report, and follow up on it.
"Experience has shown that ignoring serious faults and blunders does not help the institution, for these are generally picked up in external institutional review and audit," she says.
Meanwhile, be careful about shoving too many scripts under the desk.
"Review of examination material in your external examiner role also comes at a very busy time in your home institution," Rayner says. "Careful time management is essential."
Higher Education Academy www.heacademy.ac.uk
Quality Assurance Agency www.qaa.ac.uk