Thirteen ways to treat an external examiner

July 17, 1998

1 Always send incomplete drafts of exam papers to be approved. The draft should be full of grammatical errors, missing parts of questions, inconsistent numbering and ambiguities. Illegible hand-written amendments and missing pages are particularly useful.

2 Ensure that external examiners have as little time to look at the material as possible. They have no other work responsibilities, family or social life and will gladly stay up until the early hours or devote a whole weekend to considering material that arrives just before the deadline for results. Substantial coursework or massive dissertations which were submitted months in advance of the deadline are best sent at the last minute, preferably timed to arrive just after the major sets of exam papers.

3 Avoid the use of any systematic order in packaging the material to be sent. If you organise the material into any order (alphabetical, by ID number, by quality of performance) you deny the external examiners the pleasurable task of getting it into some order before work can begin. At all costs ensure that the order of exam scripts does not match the order on the marks list, and where both coursework and exam scripts are sent, ensure that they are shuffled quite differently.

4 Refer to students inconsistently. If your examining system refers to students by ID numbers, always refer to your students by name - or vice versa. Using first names for students when the examiners' lists give only initials adds to the enjoyment that external examiners will derive from trying to work out who is being referred to.

5 Ensure that material is sent in unopenable packages. Just like small children with Christmas presents, external examiners derive great pleasure from opening parcels, as well as from their contents. Combinations of gum, staples and various kinds of tape can result in many happy minutes being spent before the contents are revealed. Inventive use of staples and tape can ensure that nothing can be removed from an envelope without either the contents or the examiner's hand being ripped, while padded envelopes can create a festive air if filled or sealed in such a way that the padding showers out when they are opened.

6 Never include any comments on students' work. Guessing why particular marks have been given is part of the fun of the external examiners' job. Any indication on the exam script of good or bad points, any summary of your views on particular answers or scripts, or any accompanying note giving your thoughts on strengths and weaknesses deprive the external examiner of the joy of working from scratch every time.

7 Ensure that your marking scheme is not straightforward. Where the final mark is made up of different elements, make sure that your own marking and the overall scale provide a proper challenge for the external examiners' skills. With practice, you can advance to such things as giving marks out of 54 for coursework worth 37 per cent of the final mark, while the remaining marks come from an exam marked out of 115.

8 Ensure that in at least one case the arithmetic in adding up marks is wrong. This is best done in the simple addition of marks on an exam script that then form only part of the total mark, so that the external examiners feel obliged to check both the initial adding and the further calculations in all cases.

9 Never give an indication of which candidates are marginal. Especially if you are using a short marking scale that ensures that lots of candidates are near the borders of particular classes, do not let the external examiners know which are thought to be marginal and which clearly within the allotted class.

10 Ensure that you are difficult to contact. At the time when the external examiners may be trying to contact you to discuss material or report their views, make sure that you are out of touch as much as possible. On no account give your direct telephone number or email address and never tell your departmental secretaries where you are or when you are likely to be in at work. Vary your routine so that your secretarial staff can give no guidance on how to contact you. Switching off the fax or any answering machine is also useful.

11 Notify any special circumstances affecting a student only after the assessment process has been completed. This ensures that the external examiners have to try to remember the overall context and think about how the new evidence would have affected their decisions. This is particularly effective if the external examiner has already returned all of the scripts and is not given any information about the candidate's performance other than his or her final mark. Where a short-term illness or sudden disruption is concerned, make sure that the external examiners do not have enough details to check dates.

12 Ensure that the report form is as long as possible. The form on which the university requires external examiners to report should require the same information to be filled in as many times as possible. No questions should be answerable with single word answers, and ideally the examiners should be requested to provide lengthy comments on matters which they could address properly only if they had spent the whole year observing conduct at the university and carrying out detailed comparative studies of other institutions. Requiring a separate form for every course or module and for every element of assessment is particularly valuable in ensuring that the pleasure which examiners derive from their role is prolonged.

13 Pay the standard going rate for the job. External examiners' time is of no value.

These thoughts are based on observation and discussion with colleagues at several institutions. They are not a reflection on treatment I have received. Indeed, the good practice that I have seen directly has helped me to realise how bad things could be if the opposite were to apply. I would welcome suggestions for a subsequent note for external examiners on How to Keep Internal Examiners Happy.

Colin T. Reid is professor of law at the University of Dundee

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