The role of external examiner is essential for all UK HE programmes (as stipulated by the QAA’s UK Quality Code for Higher Education). External examiners are approved by the University, but are nominated at Department- or School-level in accordance with the criteria set by the QAA and each individual institution. To be nominated as an external examiner you will most likely be at a mid-career point, and to have demonstrated collegiality and reliability to your colleagues in the wider academic community.
Establish the parameters beforehand
Before you accept the role of external examiner, ensure that you understand what it requires. Some questions you might ask include:
- Which programmes / modules am I overseeing? At what level?
- How many students are enrolled?
- How and when are the modules assessed (e.g. by coursework, exam, combination)
- What is the mechanism and timeframe for receiving and returning assessment?
- When will you send me exam questions to scrutinize?
- Will I be required to conduct or be present at any examination in person (in the case of degrees requiring oral / performance examination, for instance, such as language, drama, or music degrees)?
- How does your extenuating / mitigating circumstances policy work?
- How long will I be appointed for? (Typically, 4 years)
- Under what circumstances can the contract be terminated?
- When are your external exam boards held, and when will you require me to attend? (Make sure that your own academic commitments are unlikely to clash with these).
- Will you expect me to view any scripts when I attend for the boards?
- How will I be remunerated?
You should also ask for a copy of the institution’s documentation regarding assessment and award of degrees, as well as copies of previous examiner reports (at least two years previously). These will help you to understand what ongoing issues there might be, how they have been addressed, and what follow-through is required.
Normally the role of the external examiner is to moderate the assessment of a cohort rather than mark individual scripts. Moderation means that you ensure that assessment is in line with both institutional policy and national quality assessment thresholds. This is usually undertaken by sampling the cohort (e.g. you might be sent 10% of a cohort’s work, sampled at random as well as any borderlines, firsts, and fails).
Questions you might ask yourself while doing so include:
- Is the marking appropriate and fair, in line with the institution’s guidelines and national benchmarks?
- Does the written feedback awarded match the mark and/ or classification? (Markers should not, for instance, award work a lower mark than their written feedback suggests)
- Does the overall spread of marks look reasonable? (Tread lightly here: small group sizes can skew distribution significantly, and take into account random variation).
NB. You should not re-mark any individual piece of work unless you have been specifically asked to adjudicate on a piece on which the internal markers cannot agree.
If you have any concerns these should be raised immediately with the exams officer. Make sure that you are fully informed of any action taken as a result: how an institution responds is an important part of the bigger picture to be discussed in your external examiner’s report.
On the Day
When you attend in person, be prepared to attend any or all of the following boards, depending on the system in place: internal, departmental, School, joint honours, modular degree, and so forth.
Remember that your role is to ensure parity of treatment in line with the institution’s guidelines, and to discourage personalized discussion about individuals. You may wish to make suggestions about the institution’s assessment policy, but try to avoid prefacing suggestions with the phrase ‘in my own institution…’, which can raise hackles. You will usually be given an opportunity to speak to the board at the end of proceedings, during which time you can raise any concerns, and offer praise and thanks where due.
Lastly, be prompt with your report and constructive in your criticism. Remember that the report is viewed by the Vice-Chancellor and /or Executive body of the University, and is taken extremely seriously.
Finally, enjoy the opportunity being an external examiner gives you to take part in your wider academic community.