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June 26, 2008

Farewell to Exams: Lincoln Allison says good bye to forty years of marking scripts

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison ruminates on saying farewell to forty years of marking exam scripts - and is cheered to find that his final batch of fifty scripts were as good as any other he had ever read.

For most of my career the last week in June was the highlight of the year. There were meetings all week (several joint degrees and up to four year groups). But there was also a boozy "examiners' lunch" at which you were pretty well guaranteed that something memorably embarrassing would happen and a "graduands' party" which crackled with sexual tension like an office party - we were young then.

Sometimes there was a staff-student cricket match. And all the time there was debate about "exit velocity" and "first class quality" and "mitigating circumstances" and what to do about the eccentric candidate whose marks ranged from first to fail and whose case didn't seem to be covered by Convention 14b (ii). Occasionally there were viva voce examinations which allowed the candidate to raise his or her classification through oral performance.

By the time we get to this, my last year of examining, much of the form of all this remains, but the spirit has gone. The meetings are down to one day and there is no debate: most exam boards are restricted and the result has been prescribed by a prior cabal according to rigid "homogenized" conventions.

One is, in short, a "rubber stamp", a role I loathe. There is no opportunity to play the barrister and plead the case of one's "personal" students - though you can play the solicitor by assembling lots of documents. No vivas are held: there appears to be still a rule which allows them, but an edict which says you shouldn't do it. In any case, 85% of the students receive the same classification, the Upper Division of the Second Class, to give it its full traditional name.

It doesn't take much explaining why the atmosphere has gone and the institutional shell remains. My finals had a real sense of drama and tension about them. My entire degree rested on them and it was only the fifth time I had ever sat exams in my life and the first for two and a quarter years. Contemporary students have been examined in one form or another every year since they were seven.

In any case, the overwhelming majority know their "II,1" is in the bag because 75% of the work is already done before they take "finals". As a young academic I defined the success or failure of my year by whether X got that first I thought she was capable of or Y managed the II,1 he desperately needed. Young academics now (including a majority of temporary employees) have no such concerns; understandably their year is defined by whether they managed to place an article in a reasonably successful journal and by whether the networking went well at the major conference they attended.

The old procedures required debate. Having a good personal tutor could get you a better degree than you might get if you had a poor one. Such is life. They have been replaced by pseudo-mathematical and pseudo-objective procedures typical of their age. These require enormous credence being given to a number which might have been written down by a lady who was on her 67th script at 2am.

One argument for the change is the fear of litigation, though like the sex at the office party this is always talked about, but never seems to happen. Geoffrey Alderman was surely right to say recently that this combined with the pressure of league tables and the overwhelming desire to get back to one's research means that marking is generally going to be resolved by the quick fudge in an upward direction, ignoring "unscholarly practices" and even plagiarism. Though I must point out that I was saying all of these things in the Daily Telegraph more than a decade ago, so that public concern, if it exists (Alderman made the BBC News) has been some time germinating.

You can anyway inflate results in several ways: Plan A is the closely supervised essay, Plan B the clearly telegraphed and rather predictable question and the rehearsed answer. In the old days we had prejudice and debate; now they just fudge. As an external examiner trying to insist on what I thought was proper practice I used to feel a real nuisance (which I do like).

I have always been a great believer in a proper exam system, by which I mean timed answers to unseen questions. Success in the game thus defined involves dealing with stress, being brief, thinking "on your feet" and dealing with the unexpected. All serious, transferable skills, in other words, relevant to having an intellectually serious job. I am much less a believer in longer pieces of work than are most academics: cooking up reams of stuff often looks like work for work’s sake to me and dressing it all up with an elaborate system of references (which are, believe me, at least 90% to books and articles the writer has not read) encourages a bureaucratic culture of deceit.

Having said this, I don't think the situation in what employers tend to call the "better" universities is all that bad. Precisely because of plagiarism and similar issues the timed, unseen, double blind marked exam is still very much around. I always set mine during a specific hour the previous December and never looked at them again so that the questions were as much a surprise to me as they were to the students.

I have just marked in excess of 50 papers and they were as good as any other 50 I've ever read. Even five years ago, you could spot the scripts written by overseas students who were struggling with the language. But now the girl from Shanghai - in her third year, at least - writes more or less as fluently as the girl from Sheffield. This is down to better English language qualifications and "assimilation periods" I guess.

And there is still the odd candidate who is prepared to chance their arm and put a coherent, personal view that is enjoyable to read. Actually, I think that aspects of the current system actually encourage that. Just as, I have argued, some contemporary sportsmen are paid so much money that they will never have to worry about it again and so can afford to be imaginative, gentlemanly etc. so a lot of candidates these days can afford to "go for it" in exams.

In theory I should now throw away the red pens which I have only ever used for marking. Forty years of examining preceded by ten years of taking exams and now it's all over! But I have been accused of being the Frank Sinatra of academic life because I retire so often - from full-time work in 2004 and from a "buy-back" in 2008. But they have changed tax laws and pension rules so that I could work again (though definitely not next year). It is just possible that I will again have to insist on the profound difference between a 59 and a 60.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

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"I have just marked in excess of 50 papers and they were as good as any other 50 I've ever read."

Intriguing. During my stint in academia a few years ago (as a research physicist), my longer-serving colleagues despaired about the declining competence of their students, and how dealing with this had become a millstone around their necks.

Of course, politics might, I concede, be a different kettle of fish from physics. I knew only one politics student as an undergraduate --- a rotund northern lad. He divided his time between the pub and the sofa, occasionally rousing himself to attend a lecture when feeling energetic. Daytime telly and wall-to-wall football served him well, though; he got a first. In fact, I believe he became an academic himself. I sometimes wonder about him: perhaps he too now holds a chair (couch?) in "sport and leisure"...

...As for me, I couldn't stand academia. The thimbleful of satisfaction I derived from my depressingly trivial research was poor compensation for having to lunch with godless Panglossian socialists every day...

Posted by: P. Hayman at June 27, 2008 12:50 PM
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