Managing the Exam Period Professionally

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Many new lecturers gain some experience of teaching while doing their doctorate. While this provides invaluable classroom experience, however, it is likely that the marking you will be asked to take on as a lecturer will be on an altogether different scale, and with very different responsibilities.

In a lecturer role you will probably have responsibility for convening a module yourself, and will therefore be a first-marker. The marking load is likely to be greater, and you may still be familiarizing yourself with the institutional guidelines.

This article gives an overview of some of the main pitfalls of the exam season and how to avoid them.

Pitfall 1: Being over-invested

Exam marking represents one of the larger challenges for a young academic fresh from his or her graduate career. It is very easy, in your first years of teaching, to take the fate of each of your students very personally.

Pitfall 2: Marking too painstakingly

As a result, it is not uncommon for new lecturers to mark too painstakingly, and therefore, too slowly.

Address this temptation, firstly, by remembering that marking is about looking for patterns and testing structural arguments, rather than responding in detail to every nuance of what has been written. Refer to the marking guidelines, often, to help you see the bigger picture.

Secondly, consider what place in the feedback cycle the work in question has. For instance, if it is a final year exam, is there really any point in writing a detailed account of the use of the Oxford comma in the margin? On the other hand, a first-year may well benefit from a reminder that there is a difference between ‘use’ and ‘utilize’. Be judicious in your commentary.

Thirdly, remember that you are part of a team. At exam time, the team must run like clockwork. It is unprofessional to delay your colleagues’ marking schedules because you are marking too meticulously. And remember that at the end of it all is the student, anxiously waiting for his or her grades (and sometimes with a job offer dependent on them). The student whose work you have marked so lovingly that you have held up the entire process will not thank you for the delay. 

Pitfall 3: Marking too harshly

Over-investment can also mean a tendency to mark too harshly. In such cases, the new lecturer may be painfully aware of the gap between his or her already considerable achievements and the majority of undergraduate students who, inevitably, cannot replicate that level of specialized knowledge. Remember, that even if you have taught your specialized subject to them, they are not, unlike you, PhDs in the area. This is not (necessarily) a reflection on you: it is simply about stages of learning.

Becoming professional

Likewise, it is useful for you to remember that while having a PhD means that you have attained a level of expertise in a specific field, it does not mean that you automatically know how to assess student work. Familiarise yourself with the university’s marking guidelines. Understand that while they may look very general, they contain valuable information which will help you stand away from the detail of a specific argument and look for certain patterns of response and structure.

Notice the warning signs

Warning signs of over-investment can include: finding yourself getting irritated about a student’s response, over-using exclamation marks in your margin notes, or adopting a sarcastic or otherwise inappropriate tone in your feedback. If you notice yourself doing any of these—stop, have a break, and remind yourself of the marking guidelines. Oh, and a further tip—always use a pencil when marking, for just these reasons!

Make the most of your colleagues

Most universities operate a double-marking system, which means that you will be paired with another, usually more experienced marker. A moderator should also be involved, and an external examiner. View moderation meetings as excellent opportunities to fine-tune your understanding of accepted exam practice.

Finally, remember that if you view your marking in the larger context, you will be far better placed to handle the emotional pressure of feedback day, when you encounter your students face to face.

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