July 1998 Issue 28
The External Examiner
An Internal Perspective
The rôle of an external examiner is one under debate at present. The majority view is that external examiners are now clearly defined as moderators rather than second or third markers. This moderation is achieved through assistance to the university or college in:
maintaining academic standards
verifying that the standards are appropriate to the awards
ensuring that the assessment process is consistent and fair.
This implies a broad knowledge of the educational processes and procedures, a good knowledge of the workings of other courses and programmes, and the ability to provide a reasoned and fair judgement on difficult matters.
It is vitally important to the process that the external examiner is free to recommend or comment on any and all aspects of programmes of study. The external examiner does NOT represent any one group from either the staff or students.
I am fortunate that I currently hold two positions as external examiner. The first is on the De Montfort University MSc Conservation Science course and the other is on the newly established undergraduate module in Heritage Conservation at Derby University. Both of the course teams involved actively encourage me to participate in the full workings of the programmes by confidential sessions with students and staff. Only by being involved at such a depth can I offer my full skills as moderator.
The reality of the issue is paperwork. Very often external examiners will see and be asked to comment on examination papers and practices, review marking and feed back comments on the structure and content of programmes. It is not uncommon for a 70cm package to arrive on my desk (with prior warning) that will contain exam scripts for rapid review.
I constantly remind myself that I am dealing with people's lives and future job prospects. Occasionally, some hard decisions must be made about the future of individuals on courses. Fortunately such hard decisions are not solely reliant on the external examiner but on the whole educational team.
So why undertake this rôle? It certainly is not for the money although there are fees and expenses for the task. The other external examiners I know all undertake the task out of an altruistic sense of duty. Since one has taken and absorbed knowledge and skills from the broad profession, it is only fit and proper that something is put back into the system. Being an external examiner is one means of doing it.
A Personal View
The principles behind the external examiners' rôle are to ensure fairness in marking, to moderate the assessment of the internal examiners, to see that justice is done for the individual student and ensure parity with comparable post-graduate degree courses. The reality of being an external examiner for the MA in Conservation at Camberwell is that between twelve and sixteen 20,000 word dissertations would thump through the post two weeks before the final examinations in November. The examiners can see any course work carried out over the two years, but in practice the emphasis until 1996 was on the final dissertation, examined at a viva voce (viva) which took place in the students' exhibition, amongst the conserved objects.
The MA course is offered in Paper Conservation, within which the student can specialise in art on paper or library and archives, or further specialise in photographic materials. There are two external examiners, one drawn from the 'conservation profession' the other 'representing the field of conservation research.' I shared the task firstly with Dr Derek Priest of the Paper Science Department of UMIST and then David Watkinson, Course Leader in Conservation at the University of Wales. Being an external examiner is, to quote Spenser, both a 'painful pleasure' and a 'pleasing pain'. It is very gratifying to realise what you do know; it is very humbling to realise what you do not know.
The subjects presented for the final year projects was expansive, ranging from an experimental scientific balloon to peepshows and jigsaws, and from fire-damaged paper and plastic to Islamic manuscripts. Each final year project had to contain elements of history, conservation, science etc, but with a lot of latitude as to where the accent was placed. One consequent difficulty for the examiners was in the comparison of a dissertation weighted towards scientific research with one which laid greater emphasis on ethical discussion of treatments, or with one which centred around a lengthy piece of practical work. In my fourth year as examiner the MA changed, so that the elements of history, research, management and conservation were presented as separate essays, either on one object or each on different objects, with the conservation project carrying the highest mark. So, 35 essays thumped through the post two weeks before the examinations last November. To read everything was untenable, nor is it the role of the external examiner to re-mark everything. Ensuring fairness can be accomplished with sampling.
The viva voce, although nerve-wracking for the student, reinforced the assessment of the written work and decided the conferral of a distinction at one end of the scale and the (always reluctant) recommendation of failure at the other end. With the new structure, it was suggested last year that we only 'viva the borderlines' for distinctions and failures, as is the case with many other degrees. Interestingly enough, this was not well received by the students, due to vivas being seen as a rite of passage and as an opportunity for feedback from outsiders.
I found the most engaging and interesting vivas were those which developed into an exchange and discussion rather than those characterised by formal questions and answers. Every year I emerged from the two days with a clutch of ideas. This year, for example, I was intrigued by the repair of pith paintings using a pulp infill which contained amongst other things, silicone micro balloons. This is not a one-way process. When making their interim visits in April to discuss the embryonic essays, the external examiners suggest directions for the students; for example, with the pith paper, there was clear overlap both with parchment pulp infilling carried out in Budapest, Baltimore and Brussels, and with paper pulp repair methods.
After the vivas, the external examiners attend a formal Board with all the tutors, Head of College etc, and the degrees and classifications are recommended. The examiners write individual reports on subjects such as: the quality of the overall performance of the students in relation to their peers on similar courses; the pass rates; distribution of results and level of internal marking; the form and content of the assessment process and the implications for the content, teaching methods and resourcing of the course. These comments form part of the academic quality monitoring process, and are passed on to current students.
Some final observations as an ex-external examiner. I was always impressed with the overall output of the MA students in under two years, given less than ideal accommodation, given the changes in teaching, and given the growing financial imperative for many students to work part-time. Some useful original work has been published, and easier access to the projects would be useful, perhaps by publication of abstracts.
I was always concerned, and continue to be, about the amount of practical work that the students do, given that the entrance requirement, a first degree, need not necessarily be in conservation. This is a profession-wide concern, not confined to this course, as graphically illustrated by Alan Cummings in a talk to the ICOM-CC Working Group on Training in Maastricht in 1996.1
I found fascinating the influence that the students' backgrounds had on their approach and development. One year, there was a large intake of Fine Art students who were manifestly creative and dextrous; however they spoke in the first year of experiencing difficulty with the discipline of trimming against a straight edge, and of cutting and measuring very accurately to produce enclosures. As a potential employer, it has been useful to get to know so many students. As supervisor to the MA in Book Conservation on the RCA/V&A Conservation Course, it proved valuable during viva discussions for comparing standards of work.
1. Cummings, A.,The eternal triangle: Professionalism, Standards and Standardisation in Conservation Training, in A Qualified Ccommunity: Towards Internationally Agreed Standards of Qualification for Conservation; Proceedings of the Interim Meeting of the Working Group on Training in Conservation and Restoration of the ICOM Committee for Conservation, Maastricht, 6 8 April 1995; Cronyn, J., and Foley, K., (eds.), ICOM CC Working Group on Training in Conservation and Restoration, Distributed by English Heritage Postal Sales; ISBN 85074 640 0