Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Scrutinizing Exam Papers

Hello. My name is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

Our Head of Department Mike Rowe has made us go back to the full meeting of all staff in the department to scrutinize the exam papers this year. In recent years we have been split into small sub-panels to look at groups of related papers - for example Richard Gardener chaired the sub-panel dealing with the papers for econometrics and other quantitative modules, while Mike himself took charge of the microeconomics and industrial organization modules.

The sub-panel approach had the advantage of efficiency in that we weren't all tied up in a day long meeting as we shall be again this year. But Mike is right in arguing that it is important for all staff to see all the questions that have been set for all the modules that we teach. Otherwise there is a danger that we won't be fully conscious of what students are being expected to know about right across the degree programme.

Whichever system we use the meetings can be tedious. We have to remember the protocols that the university has laid down for the use of quotations and quotation marks, the clear indication of the marks available for each question and sub-part of a question etc. And it is now required that as well as the exam paper itself you must supply indicative answers or, in the case of the quantitative subjects, full answers. To be fair it is really important that the questions on the quantitative papers really do have feasible solutions . There have been occasions in the past when students have been faced with a question that doesn't work out and invigilators have had to get hold of the lecturer who set the question to come and sort it out on the spot. Not ideal.

We also now have to submit a resit or referral paper for our modules at the same time as the main paper. This is to avoid a situation where the resit date arrives and there is no exam paper ready because the module leader has forgotten about it and might now be on leave or away from the university for some other reason.

Unfortunately these meetings do provide the opportunity for the more pedantic members of staff to indulge themselves, picking on the incorrect use of apostrophes, semi-colons and other grammatical niceties. They also make sure that we don't make use of words or phrases that might not be easily understood by a student whose first language is not English (or even a student for whom it is!). Students should, of course, be able to recognise well-established terms in particular subjects and sometimes there have been disputes as to what these might be. Richard has tried to prepare two lists - one of words that people have tried to use that are not acceptable and one of terms that students should know about. I will put some of these that I can remember at the end of this post.

We have to avoid questions that could be answered simply by the words "Yes" or "No" such as "Do you agree that austerity policies are the wrong way to go about tackling a budget deficit in a recession?". Often this can be done by the addition of a second sentence that says something like "Show clearly your reasoning and provide references to relevant contributions to the literature".

Whichever type of meeting we work with you can guarantee that there will be some lecturers who fail to provide their draft examination papers in time - the people that Molly refers to as "the usual suspects". This is really annoying as it means that there has to be Chairs' Action to deal with these papers. With the sub-panel approach this could mean one member of staff who has had to chair the sub-panel chasing up a colleague over whom they have no authority. At least with the full meeting approach it will be the Head of Department dealing with these cases.

We used to have a requirement that the draft papers were also sent to the External Examiners for scrutiny. But the university, in its wisdom, decided that this wasn't really necessary, This is something that rankles with some of our Externals who think that it should be part of their job to check that the exam papers reflect the learning objectives set for each module. And this should occur at a stage in the process when action can be taken to change things rather than just leaving them to make comments after the event. As with many things at the university at some point the powers that be will decide to change things back to how they were before. Gus says that if you stay here long enough at USE you will see the regulations cycle from one thing to another and then back again.

Some lecturers try to insert little in jokes or references to their favourite football player into their questions which is a bit naughty as it can distract students who recognise the reference and erroneously think that they should comment on them in their answers. For example I noticed that one of last year's papers asked students to compare the properties of two different utility functions for consumers called respectively Terry and Ferdinand.

In some subjects the lecturer has moved entirely or in large part to multiple choice questions. While I can understand the pressure to simplify the marking process for a module for which a large number of students are registered, and it may be OK at first year level, I don't think that it is really appropriate for more advanced level modules where we need to assess students' critical awareness.

Let me end with some of the word and phrases on Richard's two lists:

1 Acceptable words or phrases: adverse selection, cointegrated, disintermediation, externality, fiscal drag, free-rider, Laffer curve, laissez-faire, marginal propensity, normative, per capita, principal agent, regression.

2 Unacceptable words that we have ruled out in previous meetings: cogent, cognisant, cursory, efficacious, immutable, predisposition, propitious, substantiate (although there was quite an argument over this word). You can see why the meetings can last a long time as it can take over half an hour to get people to agree on which list a word should appear!

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