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4:59pm on Saturday, 12th January, 2013:

Testing Testing


I've just finished writing the exam questions for my students this year. They'll be sitting them in June. Those who decline to pass them in June get a second attempt in September (apparently it's bad for business if they fail; this means that "finals" aren't actually final).

I have only written the lectures for half my courses as they are 20 weeks of 1-hour lectures. Most of my colleagues have 10 weeks of 2-hour lectures and haven't written any of their lectures. They have to rely on what they wrote last year (if it's not a new module), which means they have problems if they want to update their material — they may have already asked an exam question on the old stuff.

The reason we have to do this so stupidly early is so that the papers can be checked. I write my papers; they are checked by an internal assessor. I make changes based on what they say; they are sent to an external examiner; if the external examiner suggests changes (which is rare but can happen) I make further changes and the external examiner gets to OK these. Then, the students sit the exams and realise the extent of their lack of revision.

The thing is, the start of term is busy. The period between Christmas and the start of term is also busy: those assignments that were handed in at the end of term have to be read and those final-year project Interim Report marks have to be agreed and those lectures you have to give next term have to be prepared. You don't have a lot of time to write exam questions.

What happens, then, is that some lecturers just put down any old rubbish as questions, knowing that the internal assessor will come back with a slew of complaints and they'll have to rewrite them. They were always planning on rewriting them, or rather writing them; this was their way of not having to do so until the third week of term. They make the "changes" and then the external examiner gets them. The internal assessor does get to see these changes (that is, the complete rewrite) but there's little chance that they'll be able to send them back to be altered, or indeed do anything other than sign a form to say they've seen them. There's just not enough time. Those external examiners have fifty papers to look at and they apparently need to receive them all at the same time.

Other lecturers try to get the questions done but have to rush. This makes their questions, er, let's say "less than satisfactory". The internal assessor, assuming they're not rewriting their own papers, come back with complaints. The lecturers who rushed their papers take this as a personal insult — they'd done their best — and come up with a litany of reasons why they shouldn't have to make changes. One of the worst examination papers I ever saw was set by a Head of Department and must have taken about as long to write as they took me to read — a minute or so. Despite my ranting about it, the students actually sat that paper.

I believe that all this is called "procedure". If we follow procedure, we can't be sued by students with more money than academic ability. It doesn't matter that anything horrible the procedure unearths can be ignored, so long as it was followed. It's ironic that the machinery that is in place to reduce examination errors takes so long to work that it gives us precious little time to set the papers, so introducing the very errors that make it necessary.

Believe it or not, despite all this, Essex University is actually better than most places. At least our external examiners get to see examination questions before the students sit them and can refuse to approve them — which is not ignored. This isn't how it works in the majority of UK universities, where externals can only see the appalling papers after students have toiled through them. I've seen papers for which the marks have had to be doubled to compensate for the fact that half of its questions were unanswerable.

Why, yes, I do resent having to work on a Saturday. You noticed?

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Copyright © 2013 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).