The external examiner’s role

Research and communication help make the external examination process a satisfying experience for all

May 15, 2008

Busy external examiners sometimes assume that marking scripts can be done in a spare moment. Higher Education Authority surveys bear this out, showing that external examiners rely heavily on personal experience when carrying out their duties.

Andrea Rayner, spokeswoman for the HEA, warns against complacency. She notes that institutions vary considerably in the way they manage assessment and examination. Additionally, the duties and responsibilities they expect of examiners may differ.

Alison Mayhew, spokeswoman for the Quality Assurance Agency, urges external examiners to clarify what is required of them. She recommends the QAA Code of Practice, Section 4: External Examining as a reference.

Examiners should familiarise themselves with the procedures of the individual institution. This includes confirming what one’s formal powers are, whether attendance at examiners’ board meetings is compulsory, what form reports must take and what points must be covered, and whether pass lists require the examiner’s 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 varied from institution to institution. Examiners should verify what documents are available, including 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 recommended that external and internal examiners attend a discussion forum as part of the induction process.

Craig Mahoney, deputy vice-chancellor of learning and teaching at Northumbria University, says that external examiners must understand not only the general and institutional context of the role, but how it applies to a particular programme. This means understanding the fundamental principles behind the programme being examined. Ideally, this includes looking through documentation on the validation procedures the institution has been through for the course, to provide a better idea of the ethos on which it is based.

One mistake sometimes made by external examiners 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.

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.

External examiners’ work comes in short, sharp periods of activity. Consequently, they must be scrupulous in meeting deadlines.

“Review of examination material in your external examiner role will also come at a very busy time in your home institution,” Rayner notes. “Careful time management is essential.”

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 that were too brief and failed to address all necessary points.

But the report should be only one part of external examiners’ responsibility to the institution employing them.

Mahoney says: “I see the external examiner as being a critical friend of an institution and exam programme.”

This means passing on advice or concerns to the institution, and being prepared to be contacted during the year. “If external examiners just see it as a contract, they are missing out on the opportunity of a much more valuable relationship,” Mahoney 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 – while keeping confidentiality in mind. If an examiner feels something is badly wrong, he or she should inform the exam board, note it in the 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,” Rayner observes.


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