In praise of… examining. Another for the “laws and sausages” list?

There is an old saying that “laws are like sausages – it’s best not to see them made”

As so many of us finish marking our internal exams, and carefully apply consistent and coherently produced grade boundaries to inform our students’ progress, to what extent is that aphorism still true of examining?

In some mythical ‘ye olden days’ kind of time, examining was thought of as a wonderful route in to a secluded club of “experts”, and an insight in to writing textbooks, glory, riches and perhaps even the god-like Chief Examiner status. While it is often claimed that examining is excellent professional development – and indeed, I’m guilty of saying to people that it’s the kind of thing that they ‘should do’ if they aspire to middle leadership roles – what are the considerations and implications of whether this is still true?

  • The marking process has changed

In days gone by, exam scripts would arrive in the post, and you would mark a whole script. There would be a simplicity and consideration to it, but I always hated the time-consuming administration and adding up of marks afterwards. It was fairly straightforward, I know, but I always found it desperately frustrating – the false hope of ‘having finished’, only to then spend time counting, checking, double checking, and asking someone else to do it too.

Now, scripts are marked online. This has the benefit of reducing all of the administration, and indeed, it improves the marking experience for the student. Papers are far easier to review, it’s likely that at least two examiners have seen their scripts, and it’s a simpler process in terms of exam security. But for the examiner, perhaps it does tie you to a computer and inside on days when you might perhaps be glad of fresh air and a little July sunshine! For some people, it is a disadvantage – they dislike reading online, and find it harder to concentrate and review, particularly if it’s a long essay-style answer!

I think this is very much about personal preference – some people won’t mind it, but for some, the online process will mean they won’t want to do examining.

  • The standardisation process has changed

Previously, all standardization processes were done face to face. This enabled you to discuss and debate with the key members of the exam board – you’d be on nodding terms with your Principal Examiner or Chief Examiner – and the element of round table challenge really did extend and deepen your understanding of how this process worked.

Now, many boards are moving to an online training process. Clearly, it saves costs – those long lunches in London hotels of lore are not cheap – but it also diminishes the experience and value gained for examiners, I feel. I am lucky in that I still attend face to face meetings: they are long, and brutal, but I come away having learned so much – having sharpened my understanding through challenge, debate and persuasion.

For me, this is one of the most significant shifts in the examining experience – in my opinion, it significantly reduces the amount you can really learn and understand if you’re just following a webinar. If your exam board does online standardization, then it wouldn’t be worth it for me.

  • What do you get paid?

Inevitably, the answer to that is “too little”. For some people, the meetings fees can be valuable – unless your school takes that money to pay for cover – but the per script fee tends to make you sad when you calculate it as an hourly rate. It is understandable and unexpected that exam boards choose to save costs this way – but I do not think it is a coincidence that examiner vacancies remain high, and increasingly desperate adverts circulate in to May and even June. I am not aware of any exam boards paying recruitment or loyalty bonuses – they rely on the fact that plenty of people regard the process as professional development. However, this does lead to relatively high turnover of younger examiners – perhaps institutional memory is important? – but a core of examiners who have retired from teaching and regularly will mark at crunch times.

I think no one should go in to examining for the money. Inevitably, the opportunity cost is not worth it – hopefully, it softens the time it takes, but it won’t be profitable and “easy money”.

  • What can you learn? How can it help you?

I think this one is inevitably much more personal – the first few times that you do examining, you learn an enormous amount about how the papers are constructed, the way that levels are built, and the precision or details of certain approaches. I know that the learning curve and analysis process of “what can I apply for my students?” is highest in that first 2-3 times of examining. But realistically, that learning all comes in the standardization processes: marking is just applying it.

Many of my colleagues regard this as a lost opportunity cost, however. You can probably learn similar amounts through forensic review of the examiners’ reports, and chatting to colleagues who have examined. All that, without spending hours in front of a computer to mark lots of papers!

Personally, rather than going on an INSET, I’d happily pay money to sit in and be part of the marking and moderation meeting. Done well, and pitched right, it could be incredibly powerful for teachers to share that discussion – and to understand the board. It could also offer very interesting insight in to the process, and may well be encouraging for new examiners to step forward and give it a go!

I do still examine, despite having been a teacher for ten years. Having relatively recently changed specification, I think it’s worth the learning that I get out of it. I am fortunate in having a highly professional exam board, who still believe in the value of face to face meetings (with online marking of papers), and the conversations I have still help me change my teaching. But it’s a close-run thing, I think – there wouldn’t have to be much change to make me consider it far too costly for the learning I get.

And this is critical for the whole system – we need examiners, and we want the value of the professional development. Too many boards are taking an economic approach to this: focusing on where and how they can save costs, rather than where and how they can improve quality and product – part of which involves bringing the teachers in to the process, so they fully understand and are on board. Creative solutions – perhaps paying to sit in the sessions is too far for confidentiality and other problems? – to this dearth of experienced examiners need to be found.

Now, I need to get back to my marking…

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