This is the third briefing on the Degree Standards project, led by the HEA and managed by HEFCE on behalf of the devolved administrations to explore, across all four nations, sector- owned processes focusing on professional development for external examiners. The purpose of this five-year project is to:
- design, pilot and deliver different approaches to the professional development of external examiners;
- propose evidence-based and cost-effective longer-term approaches to the professional development of external examiners operating across the UK higher education system;
- explore approaches to the calibration of standards, presenting recommendations for future work in this area.
Professional development course for external examiners
During the first year of the project (2016-17), a blended learning professional development course was successfully designed, piloted and evaluated with eight higher education providers. This course was delivered to external examiners both within institutions and on a regional basis. An online version of the course was also designed and tested. Through this work, it has become clear that:
- there is a considerable appetite amongst higher education providers for the professional development of their own staff who are, or who aspire to be, external examiners;
- there is a need for flexibility of provision, as there are benefits to be derived from institutionally-based delivery, from regional delivery and online provision.
- the course has led to changes in knowledge and understanding of external examining and has prompted consideration of changes in behaviour, stimulating in several cases institutional dialogue about standards, assessment, marking and moderation.
The reach of the course delivered in 2016-17 has been extensive, with a total of 268 academic staff having completed the course. The regional courses have been attended by participants from 51 higher education providers, with various levels of external examiner experience and from a range of subjects. In general, the uptake of the course has demonstrated that the piloted provision is valuable and relevant across nations, types of provider and for various levels of experience in external examining.
During this second year of the project, the HEA is committed to:
- the delivery of the professional development course with 19 higher education providers as ‘early adopters’;
- trialling and running the ‘develop the developer’ programme for those who intend to roll out the course inside institutions, including eight partnering institutions and ‘early adopters’;
- holding four regional courses across the four nations;
- launching the online version of the course, and running four online cohorts;
- evaluating the longer-term impact of the course.
During the first year of the project, the ‘social moderation’ approach to the calibration of academic standards was piloted with two subject associations1, demonstrating that:
- social moderation seems to be an effective means of generating greater comparability of standards;
- the conduct of calibration activities under the auspices of professional bodies or subject associations carries considerable weight with practitioners and can produce useful tools to facilitate on-going calibration activities;
In 2017-18, the project is employing two approaches to explore the use of calibration:
- Regional consortium of higher education providers – mounting calibration activities for a subject community.
- Partnership model with professional bodies or subject associations – establishing a number of exemplar disciplines whose case studies and/or toolkits can be ‘showcased’ for other subject communities to emulate.2
The main aim is to investigate the feasibility, viability, portability and sustainability of these approaches as different models for the development and delivery of subject-based calibration of academic standards. The anticipated impact of these approaches to developing calibration will be the establishment of a community of practice around degree standards and increased comparability of academic standards across particular subject communities.
The project has continued to benefit significantly from advice from the HEA’s Project Board and the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment.
1 The Royal Geographical Society, the Veterinary Schools Education Group.
2 For example, the project team is continuing to work with the Royal Geographical Society, and are working with Conservatoire UK who represent 11 conservatoires across the UK.