Examining Season

Students, you may want to look away now as I’m going to give away some of the secrets of exam marking, as I’ve discovered them over more years than I care to remember.

Firstly, it is extremely boring. If you have 100 scripts to deal with in a compressed period of time, as so often, it is very hard to keep concentration going reliably. Sometimes the pile may be much larger than 100, which compounds the pain. But we all know that getting every question correctly marked is extremely important, so a wandering attention is simply not acceptable. Nevertheless by the end of a long day it is a big ask. Every examiner knows that, even with a minutely documented mark scheme to go by, no two students answer questions in exactly the same way in exactly the same order, and it is important to be sure you don’t give the same mark twice – because the correct answer appears in two places several pages apart – or not at all, because the relevant remark turns up out of context. How anyone marks an essay in the humanities I don’t pretend to understand. In physics setting a mark scheme is at least viable.

Of course there is then the problem of reading what has been written. Students don’t write much these days (unless they are penning billets doux to pass across the lecture theatre, and I suspect this too is a dying art in the days of social media). That means their handwriting is under-utilised. Writing under pressure is hard. My late-lamented mother, always so willing to take me down a peg or too, used to say I only did so well in my History O Level because no one could read what I had written. With the hard won experience of marking I am sure that is the last reason I did well (instead I’d attribute it to the excellent teaching of my school teacher, a certain Mrs Milliband, now probably better known as the mother of Ed and David); a tired examiner may just decide not to give the benefit of the doubt to the finer points of an argument (or proof) if it just so difficult to read.

For one exam, for which I was the external examiner, no one could read the candidate’s writing at all and so the student was called in to read out their answers and dictate them so they could be typed out. It turned out they couldn’t read their own writing either. So, the warning given on the front of many exam booklets to ‘write legibly’ (and I’ve just checked this year’s batch and yes, that is exactly what is said) means just what it says. Of course, with any luck, soon students will be able to use laptops for much of this, to everyone’s benefit.

Thirdly there is that moment when you realise that a significant number of students are consistently not giving the answer expected. One year, long ago, it transpired that a particular question was entirely ambiguous and so two completely different answers had to be accepted. In my department questions are checked and rechecked by those other than the setter, but still these things happen far more often than one would like. Even without ambiguity it can be disconcerting when you realise that – for instance for an algebraic answer in terms of fundamental constants and some parameters – there may be multiple ways of writing the same equation which look wildly different but are actually all equivalent. It can take me (and presumably others) a large number of scripts to realise that that answer you’ve been marking wrong all morning is simply a different manifestation of the right answer. Re-marking is an even worse penance than doing it the first time.

Fourthly, there is the checking. This always takes an extraordinary amount of time, and usually far longer than the time mentally allocated. Firstly one has to check that every page of every script has been marked: students sometimes sneak the last part of question 4 onto the tail end of question 2 in a different booklet, but it has to be ferreted out and marked and correctly totted up. The practice here is that some indication has to be put on every page to show that it has been looked at (I use a red scribble in the corner of each page, if no actual mark is entered). Then one has to check that all marks have been correctly totalled, a task that is surprisingly difficult to get right consistently. And that all the marks are correctly entered against the correct candidate. Yes I know this all sounds trivially easy but each year I find I’ve lost concentration and put things in the wrong place. And, as the ultimate check, a second examiner checks everything again. And as second examiner I know how often a handful of errors are still found in the markbook. It is mortifying when my second examiner points out my own idiocies, but it is better than candidate A getting candidate B’s marks.

Finally, there is the report to write. This needs to identify how the mark scheme was actually used in practice, since small deviations from the original plan may be required because no student picked up one aspect or many students commented on something that hadn’t originally appeared in the scheme (these things usually arise when the lecturer has shifted content around a bit from previous years). It also needs to spell out the sorts of traps that students fell into or the things they found particularly hard – or easy. All of this takes time at a moment that the exhausted examiner just wants to curl up in a chair with a nice hot cup of tea, if not anything stronger.

I don’t expect any student to feel sorry for me and my fellow examiners, but I would like them to appreciate we take our duties very seriously. I have not yet met an examiner who was careless by intent or who didn’t work flat out to complete the task in good order. I have met examiners who have failed to deliver because of ill health (vide my last post) or other unanticipated problems. On that score I can at least say the only time I ducked out of my examining duties I had given about six months’ notice. This was when the due date of my first child fell neatly around examination time. When my mother died a week before I had to mark three years ago, I firmly decided I would not opt out of my duties because the load on anyone else would be intolerable. Interestingly, that was the one year my second marker found no mistakes in the mark book, showing that my need to focus hard in distressing times absolutely had worked.

Students, if you did stick with reading this, we do try hard on your behalf to be fair, accurate and consistent!

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One Response to Examining Season

  1. Carolyn Carr says:

    That is absolutely spot on – I have just shared it with my fellow examiners!

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