External examiners' understanding and use of academic standards

Bloxham, Susan and Price, Margaret (2014) External examiners' understanding and use of academic standards. Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) / Higher Education Academy (HEA).

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Abstract

'External examining provides one of the principal means for maintaining UK threshold academic standards within autonomous higher education institutions' - Chapter B7: External examining of the Quality Code. The external examining system is seen as a key tool in assuring assessment standards in the UK. It is, however, an expensive tool and there have been recurring concerns that it is no longer able to warrant comparable standards across universities (Silver and Williams 1996). Criticisms have included a lack of consistency in examiners' appointment and role (HEQC 1994) and unwelcome variability in examining practices in different programmes, subject disciplines and universities resulting from weak or inconsistent institutional processes (QAA 2005). Also noted have been anxieties about the potential for 'cosy' relationships between examiners and departments (Universities UK, Guild HE and QAA 2010), and concerns about clarity (HEFCE 2009) and authority (BIS 2009) in examiners' role in assuring standards (HEFCE 2009) as they move from arbiter of standards and having the final word to being a 'critical friend'. Solutions to these problems have concentrated on examiner recruitment, procedures and stakeholder understanding of examining (Universities UK, Guild HE and QAA 2010; Universities UK 2011) now reflected in the new Quality Code. Furthermore, in its re-design of the expectations of the external examiner role, QAA endeavoured in Chapter B7: External examining to make more 'transparent, rigorous and as consistent as possible' (QAA 2011) the processes involved in the external examining system. In this regard, it is worth noting that the data for this research was collected roughly a year after the introduction of Chapter B7 (Dec 2011). Therefore, the expectations set out with regards to the external examiner role may not yet be fully embedded in the sector. Nevertheless, the underlying UUK reports did not focus on a central tenet on which external examining rests: the capacity of examiners to hold and consistently apply a shared knowledge of academic standards. In general, previous inquiries have avoided the issue of what standards mean and how they are established, influenced and used by external examiners. This omission is despite broader research on academic judgement and grading, the outcomes of which provide little confidence regarding the consistency of academic standards in use in higher education (see summary of research and references in Bloxham and Price 2013). In the context of this broad research, is it appropriate to assume that external examiners can apply shared knowledge of academic standards and assure that these are consistent and aligned with national frameworks? The general aim of a QAA and HEA-sponsored qualitative research project on standards, the findings of which are presented in this report, was to investigate current practices in how academic standards are conceived, constructed, and applied in external examining processes.

Item Type: Report
Publisher: Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) / Higher Education Academy (HEA)
Departments: Institute of Education (IOE)
Additional Information: This research report was jointly authored by the University of Cumbria and Oxford Brookes University, UK, and jointly commissioned by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA).
Depositing User: Anna Lupton
Date Deposited: 28 Jun 2018 11:27
Last Modified: 29 Jun 2018 23:47
URI: http://insight.cumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/3954

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