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Training external examiners: an import and export business?

27 Jul 2020 | Andrea Chalk Andrea Chalk, Academic Registrar, University of Gloucestershire, shares her reflections on the University becoming an early adopter of the Advance HE Professional Development of External Examiners course.

As an Academic Registrar, I have often (unsurprisingly) been heard to extol the many virtues of the external examining system as the cornerstone of Higher Education. However, if I’m absolutely honest, I have been less vocal about some of the niggling reservations that have crept into my mind across the years regarding the self-same system that we are so reliant upon. So I was incredibly interested when, in 2017, and as part of the HEFCE Degree standards project on external examining, the University of Gloucestershire (UoG) became an early adopter of the Advance HE (then HEA) Professional Development of External Examiners course. I was also very keen to take up the offer to be trained to become a facilitator of the course and have since partnered with my UoG colleague, Amanda Pill (Director of Quality Enhancement), to deliver the course to almost 60 delegates across a number of sessions.

The course has set out to enhance the quality of external examining by developing, through partnering HEIs, a generic Professional Development Course for External Examiners (EEs). So far, over 2,300 academics have taken the course with 47 higher education providers adopting the course for use in training their own staff…and this is where the UoG approach has diverged from that  adopted by many of the participating institutions.

The University of Gloucestershire took an early decision to deliver the course through not only the ‘export’ model (i.e. delivering to its own staff) but also through the ‘import’ model and this approach has proved to be very beneficial in a number of ways. The course is offered to all of the University’s EEs on a voluntary basis, whether existing or newly appointed, and although a relatively small number (15 to date) have taken up the opportunity, simply making this offer across the full EE cohort has been received as a very positive step. It sends a clear and unequivocal signal to the University’s EEs that it is interested in supporting their professional development. A further benefit of the import model is the fostering of serendipitous meetings that otherwise may not occur. The University’s EEs are suddenly thrust into a room for a day with a plethora of UoG staff who they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to meet.  This has resulted in some very interesting conversations and debates that have enhanced the experience of all delegates, not least because the training session in itself becomes a unique melting pot of perspectives that couldn’t be recreated by UoG staff alone.

We often talk about our ‘external examining team’ but I wonder how much a part of a university its EEs actually feel? By including them within our invitation, I believe that we are taking a step in the right direction to foster this desired team approach and, in affirmation of this benefit, I have received numerous extremely positive comments from EEs who have taken up the opportunity to attend the course. These comments not only focus on the excellent content of the course but also on the opportunity to come together with UoG staff and EEs from other institutions. We have adopted a wider community approach to the roll-out of the course and it is clearly appreciated by all concerned.

In terms of the ‘export’ model, the course is not only offered to the University’s own academic staff who are (or aspire to be) external examiners for other institutions, but we have also chosen to offer the course more widely to any staff across the institution (ie including non-academic support staff) who may have an interest in attending. This decision has been driven by the clear positives, as documented by so many delegates, that go beyond raising awareness of the EE role as the course explores so much more in terms of the nature of standards in the higher education context.

I often joke that quality assurance is like health and safety – it’s the responsibility of everybody. By opening this course up to any and all interested parties, we are firmly communicating this message and it has been very gratefully received.

In my role as course facilitator, I have found delivering the course to be a really interesting experience. Bursting with content as it is, time management is definitely a skill required by facilitators as it is very easy for delegates to get side-tracked as questions buzz in their brains. Teasing them back from what can often be really interesting avenues of discussions can be a challenge - but I guess this is one of the signs of a vibrant training course that genuinely offers added value to delegates. As such, we begin the day by briefing (or perhaps warning may be a better word to use) delegates about the pace of the day and, on this point, we definitely do not disappoint! However, although we take a steady gallop through the eight areas of the course, we definitely ease up at some highly absorbing and interactive activities that provide interesting and, it must be said, fun interludes throughout. By the end of a day of presenting and facilitating the course my fellow presenter and I always feel pretty exhausted….but also exhilarated as we reflect on the journey that delegates, regardless of whether they are from our EE team, UoG academic colleagues or support staff, have taken throughout the day. Perhaps, more importantly, a journey that they have navigated together.  

During the past two years, I genuinely believe that the content of the course has gradually started to seep into the fabric of the university, and we are seeing the benefits of accommodating both the export and import models.  From academic colleagues convening their own calibration events to the redesigning of our External Examiner report around the four roles of the EE, to our participating EEs genuinely feeling part of the UoG community, the content lives on far beyond the training room… and that is good to see. Indeed, I sense a palpable effect across the University as a result. Not only is it serving to develop effectively the university’s EEs, who are core to overseeing quality assurance and protecting academic standards, but also in developing a blanket of appreciation and understanding across the institution in not only the role of the EE but also the general challenges that are faced in this arena.        

Unfortunately, our plans to deliver the course during 2020 have had to be shelved due to COVID-19. However, I look forward to getting back into the training room as soon as possible. If your institution doesn’t yet have trained facilitators then I would highly recommend adoption of the course not only as an excellent source of self-development but also of organisational development. If your institution delivers this course then I would encourage you to consider attending, if it is permitted, whatever your role. If any HEIs currently offer this course but only through the export model then perhaps consider the adoption of the import model by opening the offer up to your EEs – there are clear benefits to this approach and I really believe that the more inclusive our stance collectively, the swifter we will see the transformational benefits across the sector.  

The Degree Standards project is led by Advance HE and managed by the Office for Students on behalf of England and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland and Wales. The project explores sector-owned processes across the three nations and is focused on professional development for external examiners. Over five years the project aims to: 

  • design, pilot and deliver different approaches to the professional development of external examiners 
  • propose evidence-based and cost-effective longer-term approaches to the professional development of external examiners operating across the higher education system in England, Northern Ireland and Wales
  • explore approaches to the calibration of academic standards, presenting recommendations for future work in this area.

If you are interested in joining the project, which is currently free, please contact: 

External.Examining@advance-he.ac.uk

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