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Making external examining fit for the future

26 Nov 2020 | Dr Lia Blaj-Ward Dr Lia Blaj-Ward, senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, points to 'the emphasis on the importance of calibration across the sector' as the highlight of Advance HE's external examiner course.

Like many higher education colleagues, I spent most of 2020 on a steep learning curve and I am very grateful to Advance HE for adding value and meaning to my learning experience, particularly (but not only) through the external examining course facilitated by Rachel Forsyth and Pete Boyd at the start of the 2020-2021 academic year.

The standpoint from which I am writing this blog

At the time of writing this blog I am nearing the end of my appointment as an external examiner for the MA Academic Writing Development and Research at Coventry University, a niche postgraduate course with excellent links to professional writing centre practice internationally. My experience as an external examiner at Coventry University has been extremely positive. It started with a carefully structured and highly informative briefing event for Coventry University external examiners about regulations, processes and the substance of the role. The course team’s expertise in academic writing was clearly reflected in the way assessment requirements and student feedback were framed and worded. As an external examiner, I felt listened to and supported at all times: when exploring aspects of the course on which I needed more clarity, making suggestions and recommendations, or navigating a virtual learning environment different from the one used in my own institution. The annual report form template offered valuable scaffolding in terms of reporting expectations and the registry team colleagues I liaised with made the administrative side of the examining experience a pleasure to engage in.

Must-read guidance on external examining from Advance HE

Early in 2019, Advance HE published updated guidance for external examiners (Fundamentals of External Examining). The guidance gave me reassurance, halfway through my external examiner appointment, about the balance between upholding standards and the critical friend aspect of the external examiner role. It also made me more fully aware of the challenges likely to be encountered by external examiner colleagues with responsibility for undergraduate courses or collaborative provision.

Reflections on the external examining course

To put that knowledge into context further, I attended the online course for external examiners that Advance HE ran in September and October 2020. I learnt a great deal from it, not only about external examining but also about excellent practice in online learning design. The learner onboarding experience was fantastic, the self-study materials were of very high quality, there was a logical path to follow through the course with clearly indicated time commitments, and we were offered ample opportunity for meaningful interaction with colleagues across the sector, both synchronously and asynchronously, as well as with the course facilitators. I cannot recommend the course highly enough.

Early on in the course, participants – well over 100 and from a wide range of UK higher education institutions – were invited to share and comment on assessment information for a module and to explore how academic standards and quality standards are enacted in different institutions. It was fascinating to see convergence and divergence both across institutions and across disciplines. What became immediately apparent was the value of the Advance HE course in offering perspective, to external examiners, on examining and assessment practice in a wider segment of the higher education sector.

Colleagues on the course had a range of experience of external examining. Each and every participant had something useful to contribute to the discussion, whether as an experienced external examiner, as a course leader or module leader reflecting on their experience of engaging with an examiner for their course, or simply as a higher education colleague reflecting on academic standards in their assessment and moderation practice.

I took away many useful learning points, but emphasis on the importance of calibration across the sector was, for me, the highlight of the external examiner course. Prior to the course I fully appreciated the value of calibration (discussing exemplars to ensure there is a common understanding of criteria) among colleagues marking as part of a module or course team. The external examining course brought into sharper focus the value of this approach to safeguard consistency in standards across the whole of the higher education sector. The case study we explored clearly revealed the benefits accrued to subject communities when academic colleagues from a range of institutions and relevant colleagues from professions with a stake in that community are invited to engage in conversation about standards. It showed a highly effective way to make tacit knowledge explicit and ensure confidence in the way standards are applied. 

Going forward

Making professional development opportunities available to external examiners adds further confidence that the external examining system truly safeguards sector-wide standards. As subject and discipline landscapes evolve, as higher education colleagues engage in Building HE Curricula Fit for the Future with more and more diverse assessment forms, and as the facilitation of learning experiences is transformed in response to the global pandemic, further professionalisation of external examining becomes all the more important. The note on which Sue Rivers ended her 2017 Wonkhe blog (“while the external examiner system may not be perfect, it may well be better to mend the peer show rather than end it”) has particular resonance for higher education in 2020 and beyond.

Find out more about The Degree Standards Project, led by Advance HE and managed by the Office for Students on behalf of England and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland and Wales, exploring across those three nations, sector-owned processes focusing on professional development for external examiners.

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