Lighting up the external examiner system

Observers of higher education in these islands may believe that quality assurance processes introduced over the past decade or two are the key guarantors of quality and standards in universities.  Without wanting to get into a debate on whether this is true or not, it is worth observing that a much older and on the whole robust framework for securing standards has been the external examiner system.

Under this system all examination scripts and assessed essays and projects are open to external scrutiny by an examiner appointed from another institution, and often from another country. These individuals consider the overall results, assess borderline performances by individual students and do spot checks across the whole range of results. Their task is to confirm that the overall standards adopted by the internal examiners are in line with the norm across the sector and that individual students have been fairly and appropriately assessed. They are also typically asked to comment on the general approach of the department and the suitability of the syllabus adopted. Generally external examiners receive a small fee, but it would be fair to say that this fee doesn’t even come close to rewarding them for time and effort. External examining is highly demanding and very pressurised, as the tasks set out above typically have to be performed over a very short space of time.

Lecturers and the universities more generally get much advice and support from external examiner reports. To students on the other hand these reports and the associated activities are almost entirely hidden, and therefore they do not have an opportunity to benefit from the confidence building aspects of the system. For this reason it has now been proposed that external examiner reports should be available for students to see. While some fear that this might cause the examiners to be less frank and forthright in their comments, in the end this is an argument against almost all freedom of information. It seems to me that the proposal is right, and that the reports should be openly available (perhaps without those comments that are ad personam evaluations of individual students). Doing so will also help make the case for continuing (and maybe better) support for this vital aspect of higher education.

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13 Comments on “Lighting up the external examiner system”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The extern system is grand but it just doesn’t go far enough. Nor is it designed to ask the correct question.
    At bottom, the extern examines the quality of the scripts. This they should do for it protects the quality of the system. But they should also examine the feeding and mastication aspects also. This, the one area that really matters to the students for one follows the other. It’s all very well having a state of the art course with it’s expected results approved. It’s another entirely having a weak lecturer delivering it.


  2. I agree that external examiner’s reports should be published. Perhaps Vincent has valid points about the limitations of the external examiner system, but publishing the reports would help shine a light upon the workings of the system as well as publicizing details of comments on specific courses.

  3. Jilly Says:

    I would suggest that the External Examining system is not long for this world, which would render discussions of publishing their reports moot.

    As student numbers rise, along with levels of administration within departments which fall on academics, the entire system of external examining is coming under enormous pressure.

    Greater student numbers makes externing an even more onerous task than it used to be, particularly in terms of the time needed to assess sample scripts etc. At the same time, as levels of administration within departments rise, the very people who might be taking on the role of extern elsewhere find that they are unable to do so because of pressure of work in their own department.

    Because we all do exams, exam boards and externing at the same time, being an extern requires a senior member of staff to be away from their own department for up to 3 days at the very moment that they are under the most pressure. More and more potential examiners (in my experience) are declaring that they just can’t do this. As student numbers continue to rise, the task of externing will only get more difficult, and people will be even less likely to agree to do it. As things stand, I’d give the system about 5 years until complete collapse. Which would be a shame, because as you rightly point out, it’s a good system which has worked for decades. It’s largely the system of externs which has prevented these islands from experiencing the kinds of grade inflation evident across the US, where there is absolutely nothing to prevent academics handing out A grades like smarties (and lots to encourage them to do so).


  4. I’m an external examiner, and I find the process interesting and enlightening.

    I think the feedback though, if published entirely, would change the process. For example, would I publish the findings of a student appeal of their grade, and the faculty correspondence about the appeal? Or would I publish the feedback on individual exams as they are set? Would there be a time lag in the publishing of the material? These are important questions, that have nothing to do with Freedom of Information (which I’m all for), but rather with what the system is designed to do.

  5. Al Says:

    I have mixed feelings here.
    An extern could be wrong, or pursuing an agenda.
    Cut budgets could affect ability to rectify problems identified

  6. no-name Says:

    In my university when a student appeals a mark the paper in question is sent to an extern, together with the original lecturer’s report (two reports if the paper was double marked internally). I find this very dubious. In my mind the extern should not be influenced by the original mark and report, i.e., the paper should stand alone in order for a fair mark to come back. At the very least the student should be allowed to submit a report to the extern defending any negative comments in the report(s). Anyway, surely sudents, in Ireland anyway, are entitled to an extern’s report (and all emails, etc., corresponding to it) under the Freedom of Information Act? If that is correct then it is pointless not just providing student’s with the report in the first place. After all, it is their report, for which they have paid.

  7. Perry Share Says:

    Like Jilly, I can see the external examining system facing increasing strain, patly for the reasons she identifies. Two further key factors are semesterisation and modularisation.

    Semesterisation has the potential to double the ‘workload’ of external examiners, as it envisages two discrete points of summative assessment: ie in January and May/June. In my experience externing systems have not adapted to this reality, meaning that the first semester assessment processes may not be treated equally to the end-of-year ones.

    Modularisation is an even greater challenge. Externing was to some extent straightforward when all students in a cohort followed a similar, relatively predetermined pathway, at much the same pace. Modularisation has seen an (in my view, welcome) explosion in the number, range and diversity of learning opportunities; it has also seen (at least the potential for) a much greater diversity of student experience.

    The sheer numbers of individual modules, the doubling of the ‘workload’ through semesterisation, and the exponentially greater range of possible learning pathways, within the ever-more demanding nature of the academic workload as described above, have combined to create a very significant challenge to the practice of external examining.

    How to address these issues? This is a very complex area. We need at least to interrogate the purpose of externing – is it a QA procedure, a strategic development one, a legalistic covering-your-ass one, or something else? Is it designed to develop pedagogical practice? Does it?

    Perhaps look at a greater use of peer-assurance: academics working in internal teams to cross-mark and co-develop examinations; greater use of e-portfolios that can be made remotely accessible to examiners; put examination papers up on to websites for public comment! Again, digital technology has the potential to break down the wall of secrecy within which much academic work is conducted.

    I don’t have the answers, or even the questions, but I do believe it is time to seriously address the external examiner question!

    • Vincent Says:

      As I understood it Perry, when the extern was involved by a student her roll was to examine procedure rather than running a check on pedagogical practice. Something that a competence was taken as a given, however in error such a given might be in practice.
      Anyway, the system as exists seems to measure at college level via a connection between departments. And any connection with students is relatively incidental.

      • Perry Share Says:

        Even if there is no connection with students, the trends I have outlined above are still likely to impact on the externing process. I would be interested to know if and how institutions are responding to these challenges.


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