Tread softly but keep eyes open

June 8, 2007

Invigilation is frequently seen as a chore, but to be done well it requires empathy, tact, eyes at the back of the head and a good pair of non-squeaky shoes, as Harriet Swain explains

Yawn. There is nothing going on outside the window. You have texted everyone you know. And how many more times can a person look at their watch? Will this exam never end? At least you are empathising with the candidates, which, along with common sense, is the most important part of being an invigilator, according to Carol Winning, examinations manager at Leeds University. Trouble is, you are not actually invigilating.

"The key to invigilating is actually to do it - not just to see oneself as sitting in a large room reading or, as many people do, marking other exam papers," says Susan Bassnett, pro vice-chancellor and professor in the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies at Warwick University.

Common sense is not quite enough either. You need to know what you are doing. According to Winning, this means being aware of your institution's exam regulations before the exam, identifying the location of the toilets, the evacuation and exit routes, the nearest first-aider and the porter's office, and internal phone in case you need to deal with a problem.

Dawn Stephens, central examinations manager at the University of the West of England, says invigilators need to try to create a calm and welcoming environment. "Our aim is to make students feel relaxed and able to ask any questions that may be necessary," she says. She advises invigilators to arrive at least an hour before the start of an exam to make sure that all the paperwork is in place and the necessary stationery is available.

Invigilators at UWE have the telephone numbers of all those involved in setting the exam so they can ring them with any queries, so it is also important for them to check these numbers.

Winning says you have to ensure that the environment is satisfactory in terms of temperature, lighting and noise and that there is a clock displaying the right time that is visible to all candidates.

You also need to check the rubric of the exam paper carefully for any exam-specific instructions, such as a need for graph paper, permission to use textbooks or instructions not to use certain items. You have to arrange with other invigilators how you are going to divide your duties and remind candidates as they enter the room of the relevant exam regulations, while being sensitive to the fact that stress could affect students' behaviour.

She advises smart-casual dress, without noisy footwear, and suggests resisting conversations with other invigilators unless absolutely necessary to the running of the exam.

Jude Carroll, staff and educational development consultant at the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development and an expert in plagiarism, says more experienced invigilators spot more things than those who are new, which shows that there are tricks of the trade to be learnt. "There is a whole bunch of things people need to look out for, and it changes all the time," she says.

One important task is to verify the identity of the candidate taking the exam. If a student has to put his or her ID on the desk you must remember to walk around and check that the person writing the exam is the same one as on the card.

You must also keep constant watch on what is happening - resist taking in your own work or marking - and if you see something unusual, walk around the room to check, making sure you do not disturb students.

Carroll says it is usual practice to note the name of the student who concerns you and address the issue once the exam has finished. Winning says you must not intimidate a candidate you suspect of cheating by standing over them or interrupt them unless you have to. Instead report back on any suspicious behaviour later.

Stephens says that at her institution invigilators are advised to get the opinion of a second supervisor if they suspect a student of cheating, and if that supervisor agrees to remove any item considered suspicious. They must also note the time when the item was removed.

But it isn't all about policing. Some international students may have trouble with the vocabulary used in a question, for example, so it is important to establish beforehand whether or not you can tell them what a word means.

Bassnett says it is vital to make candidates feel safe. "Stress at exam time scrambles people's brains, so some calm words at the start, very clear instructions and maintaining strict time boundaries can help a lot," she says. "You also need to arrive early and have a word with fellow invigilators so that you are all agreed on what the guidelines are that you are following."

Anni Wood, vice-president, education, at Bath University Students' Union, says: "Being relaxed and giving information in a friendly way is something students appreciate. Some invigilators are formal almost to the point of being militant." She says that while students do not object to invigilators wandering around the room, they don't like them standing over their shoulders. And they want them to act swiftly if there is noise outside the examination room, rather than waiting to see if it goes away, and to minimise the impact of one group leaving the room while others are still working if exams in the same room end at different times.

Finally, Bassnett gives two examples of bad invigilating experiences that suggest you should always be prepared for the unexpected. In one, she caught a student pulling notes from behind a framed picture of the Virgin Mary, which had, unwisely, been allowed to sit on her desk. In the other, she watched from a stage as a boy who had been tilting his chair fell over backwards, pulling down about four others with him. "There was absolute mayhem and people screaming and in floods of tears," she recalls. "I had to evacuate the hall for ten minutes and then get everyone back in again."

When it comes to invigilating, boring can sometimes be the best option.

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