Although none of my students will feel at all comforted by this, I have been finding this year’s round of exams profoundly unsettling. Last week, as I acted as senior invigilator for an afternoon, I honestly found myself experiencing the cold grip of fear that I haven’t felt for – well, since I took my qualifying exams for the doctorate, I think. There is a very simple reason for this, which is that I am adjusting to cultural differences in the way that the UK university system copes with end of year examinations compared to the way that the US deals with it. For those of you not familiar with both sets of variations, let me set the scene.
In the US, end of year exams tend not to exist; instead you have end of course exams, which happen at the end of semesters. The final exam counts for a significant proportion of the grade, but not all of it – other assessments, like attendance, participation, quizzes, papers and projects as assigned by the instructor, have already been banked to the students’ credit. In the case of a course that is not being team taught, or does not fall under some kind of higher jurisdiction (like multiple sections of the same Latin 101 class, for example), the instructor has full authority over the final exam. She sets it; she administers it, at the time set by the central examinations office; she marks it; she enters the marks into the university’s grading system. That’s it. She is, in short, judge, jury and executioner. There are some local variations on how this process is managed; for instance, faculty may have to fill out a report explaining how every D or F grade has been earned, or the notorious hand of the athletics department may descend on an unsuspecting instructor’s shoulder. But, in the main, faculty just get on with it, with very little external moderation. This is the system within which I taught for three years.
In the UK, the end of year exam, for the classics student, forms a hefty part of the final grade for many modules. There may have been a paper due after the Christmas break which will form 50% of the grade, but often the final result is down to what happens in those three hours. Accordingly, the examination process is overseen much more rigorously. Exam questions are produced well in advance (I had to have mine written before the end of the autumn term) so that they can go past the scrutiny of the exams committee and the external examiner (an unknown beast in the US, to the best of my knowledge). Exams are printed and administered centrally by the university; here, academics are required to be present for the first fifteen minutes of an exam they have set, but otherwise their presence is not required. Students sit examinations with other students sitting different examinations, rather than just their own class – hence the ‘Great Hall’ phenomenon – and there is a thick handbook for senior invigilators full of guidance about proper procedure, announcements to make, paperwork to fill out in case of irregularities and so on. Examinations, once sat, must be processed by an administrative office (the exams office, the department or both) before they are available for marking. The exams go through the process of first and second marking and are then open to the external examiner for moderation. Finally, grades go before the Examination Board, so that the end of year mark for each undergraduate can be decided.
A number of features here are down to different university set-ups. In the IAA, our students are, in the main, taking courses entirely within our department, or in the case of joint honours students, within two departments who are used to working together on this sort of thing. They progress through the degree over three years. They have far fewer opportunities for formal assessment, so it is only right that the opportunities they do have are rigorously monitored. A US undergraduate’s career, by contrast, is far more likely to look like a patchwork of departments, and trying to manage centralised monitoring for the inconsistency and variation the different system produces would consume vast amounts of time and effort for little gain.
Coming from one system to another, I’ve spent most of the last few weeks petrified that I’m going to trip up over a rule or a regulation that I haven’t noticed, despite my best intentions to watch where I’m going. Thankfully, I seem to have avoided making any mistakes so far, mainly due to my colleagues who are kind enough to answer my rather nervous and increasingly focused questions, and to whom I am profoundly grateful. After all, most of the regulations are common sense. The shift in the environments and attitudes, though, has still been a bit of a shock to the system – but I think I’m starting to get used to the UK way of doing things again.