Assessments and examinations at risk

As governments in a number of countries try to square the circle of rising higher education participation rates and budget (and therefore faculty) cuts, one thing in particular should be borne in mind: the risk to the quality of exam and assignment correction. Only academics can really know the burden that descends on them at certain times of the year, when large numbers of papers have to be corrected and scored in a very short space of time, and detailed feedback provided for students. And while it is possible (though undesirable) to cram more students into a hall to hear a lecture, when these students produce examination papers, essays and projects the volume of this material may overwhelm the declining number of academics who have to carry out the corrections.

Initially, the risk is not that the job will not be done, but rather that it will be done too hastily. In the longer run the quality of the higher education experience is at risk.

When I was still teaching actively I always enjoyed and was greatly stimulated by the teaching. But even then I found exam correction a source of great pressure, both because of the numbers involved and because I was very aware of the responsibility that rested on me when I was doing this. As governments continue to push for greater participation in higher education while cutting the resources, they are creating a quality risk that will, in the end, have serious consequences.

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10 Comments on “Assessments and examinations at risk”

  1. jfryar Says:

    I think the main issue is actually time – the amount of time after receipt of exams before exam board meetings, registry submissions, dissemimation to students etc. Certainly there’s a lot of replication of function at exam time between department, faculty, and registry which I suspect can be reduced.

    And I think better planning of when those exams take place could increase the time allocated for marking – for example, in many universities students have Christmas holidays followed by a two week study break followed by two weeks of exams followed by two weeks before start of term. So there’s plenty of room to move exams around to accomodate large numbers of students.

    Finally, I don’t think quality necessarily would suffer – academics would simply have to re-think how they assess the students. More continuous assessment, for example, would lighten the load at exam time. In some subjects, such as physics, multiple choice exams can and have been included in the assessment without compromising ‘quality’ – these can be corrected by postgrads rather than the academic him/herself.

    • Jilly Says:

      Some of this (especially with regard to the ‘processing’ of marks) may be true. But continuous assessment doesn’t lighten the load – it’s still all marking, and has to be done at some point. Setting deadlines before the end of term for essays etc brings them in earlier, but while you’re still teaching there’s less time to mark them. The sheer number of them is the problem, and remains the same whichever way you cut the deadlines or types of assessment. And not all of us have postgrads to do the marking! It’s a grim business.

    • Actually, the timing/time for marking doesn’t matter as much as you might think. It’s the volume. Handling excessive amounts of marking, even over an extended period, is very difficult, as staff become tired of the numbers and the repetitive element of the content. It is very hard to stay objective and focused.

      • jfryar Says:

        I take your points and can’t really argue with them!

        My strategy was to quickly glance through the scripts (I had 250 from one course alone) and place them into three categories: ‘potentially good’, ‘distinctly average’, ‘those I’ll have to study in great depth to award any marks whatsoever’. Then I’d divide the average scripts into piles and intersperse each pile with some good and some terrible.

        Ok, it didn’t solve the problem. But my Russian roulette game, waiting to see when I hit the godawful ones, helped alleviate the repetition and mind-numbing boredom.

  2. Aidan Says:

    Would appointing Associate or Assistant Lecturers not be a cheap, quick and easy way of fixing this issue, by passing over the bulk of exam / assignment corrections to PHD/Master students?

    • Jilly Says:

      While the use of PhD students for teaching and marking is common, and is fine up to a point, the balance between that and full lecturers teaching and marking is a crucial one. And Masters students are not qualified to take this on.

  3. Jilly Says:

    Have been thinking about this again. It’s not unusual these days for 1st year modules on some degrees to have 500 students. These are split into smaller groups for seminars (worth bearing in mind therefore that groups of 25 students will require 20 hours of teaching labour to provide 1 hour of contact time per student). But if those students each write a 2,500 word essay (entirely normal for an arts subject), then that’s 1.25million words to be read by those doing the marking. Even though with groups of that size, there will be at least 10 people doing the teaching and marking, that’s an enormous amount of time involved. I would estimate that the quickest such an essay can be marked (with any kind of integrity at all) and feedback notes made is 45 minutes. And that’s really pushing it for integrity’s sake. But that then amounts to 375 hours of marking, or one full working week each if 10 people are teaching/marking the module. And that’s just one module. Most lecturers are teaching anywhere from 2-4 modules per semester.

    • Vincent Says:

      You well know, Jilly, that the Arts student is the cash crop of most universities. And are very much on the hind teat when it comes to anything they might require. Be that multiple library books or use of lecture theater space at reasonable times of the day. Shit, if the powers that be cut anything more from the services to the Arts. They might as well nail names to biggish trees and lecture from the nearest big field.

    • wendymr Says:

      Absolutely, Jilly. And once you have more than one person marking, you’re into – for want of a better term – ‘quality control’. However much we try to make it objective, marking is subjective. It’s not a science. You’re inevitably using judgement and opinion – consider how often first and second markers differ, even if only by a couple of percentage points! For the sake of fairness (and to cut down on complaints!) there has to be an attempt to ensure consistency of standards.

      So there’s always going to have to be an element of second-marking of other assessors’ work, even if two or more academics are sharing the load. When it’s PhD students, especially if they’re new to the role, it’s even more essential. I used to give each new teaching assistant six essays to start with and then second-mark in detail to give the assistant feedback. Later, I would sample-mark at least 10% of the assistant’s work, and of course all fails, Firsts and borderline grades as a matter of course. Add to that the fact that the teaching assistant generally tends to be less likely to spot plagiarism, due to inexperience… the time-commitment ramps up again. And again.

      No, I certainly don’t miss the piles of marking several times a year…

  4. Private Hi Says:

    In agreement – an older academic once told be you will spend 1000 hoursc correcting and 500 hours teaching. The ratio is about right!

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