Thursday 13 June 2013

Marks Lunch Marks

I did my PhD in Boston where, before you could start the work on your research project, you were obliged to take two years of full-time course work and then sit a 'comprehensive exam'.  Anything your thesis committee thought you should know was fair game and you had a whole day and unlimited tea to show them that you were up to scratch.  Just writing was a gruelling exercise as it was all in long-hand on paper.  I think I covered about 25 pages with small neat Victorian copperplate.  When I was done (in), I stuffed it all in a folder, gave it to my Gaffer and said "That's IT, that's the last exam I'll ever have to take".  And I think that's been more or less correct up till today.

I wasn't sitting another exam today, but I was scheduled for a one-to-one meeting with the External Examiner for the course on which I have a whole module to myself.  Aragh, 'twas grand.  The Extern turned out to be a very competent and business-like person from The City and she wasn't in the least bit inclined to find fault with the way I had chosen the questions or assessed the answers.  But it did put me a little on edge, aNNyway.  One of my students was hanging just below the pass-mark because although she'd done a bit better than passably on the continuous assessment, she had completely booted the exam.  I wasn't inclined to inch her over the line and the Extern was politely insistent that such a course wouldn't do anyone much good, so we agreed on that the student would/should do the re-sits in the Fall.

I spent the rest of the day with various groups of colleagues and a couple of other externs (I have been teaching a bit of everything since January), and it's been interesting to see the dynamics and discover who are the hard-chaws and who the marshmallows.  As always, 2% of the students occupy 50% of the  meeting's time.

I wrote yesterday about the hazards of being at the end of the alphabet when you're having your exams marked.  Nobody really know why it's better to be called Annie Aardvark than Zoe Zebra, but a study published in PNAS in 2011 looking at the decisions made by Israeli judges on parole boards may be relevan.  The ExecutiveSummary.gif on the left shows that your chances of getting out of chokey on parole are much better if you're up before the beak after his lunch than immediately before - he's just a bit grumpy if he's hungry.  So if your examiners do the lazy thing and process the candidates alphabetically, Annie is much more likely to get the benefit of any doubt than poor Zoe who gets processed when everyone is looking at their watches and wanting their tea.

For my first job after the PhD for which my last exam qualified me, I was back in England.  Leaning over the allotment fence come exam-time, I was chatting to a neighbour who taught Mathematics at The Other (more prestigious) University.  He was both angry and ashamed because he'd just been party to what he thought was an outrageous miscarriage of justice.  In his Department, they didn't do things alphabetically, but numerically - it was the Dept Maths! - sorting the candidates' provisional marks from top to bottom and starting the process at the top.  They had allocated the whole afternoon to the process: about 20 academics round a polished hard-wood table (we throw a few desks together in one of the classrooms in The Institute) sitting in judgement on the future of several dozen students.  As my pal related it, everyone was feeling benign immediately after lunch and two students below the cut for getting a first class honours degree were, after discussion and by consensus, hooshed over the bar.  The meeting went on, issues were discussed, compensations for illness implemented, the meeting went on, unaccountable lapses of good students were explained, marks were rechecked, the meeting went on through the second class honours and the third class honours and the last two candidates were finally up for consideration. These two lads were just below the cut for getting an Honours Degree, albeit one of the Third Class (does this sound like the hierarchy of Soviet medals: Order of the Tractor of Lenin, Second Class?).  They were exactly as far below the line as were the two providentially promoted candidates who had been processed just after lunch.  And they were sent down!  Or at least let go from Prestigious University with an ignominious pass-degree.  And my pal condoned it and even at the time agreed with it.

I don't know if it's the pheromones but when you do work In Committee, it becomes easy to assess the sense of the meeting - everyone sort of gets into line and starts agreeing with each other.  In my own department in Workaday Uni, back then, I'd noticed this and put it down to the ever-so-slightly bullying demeanour of the HoD who always chaired the faculty meetings.  My Mathy friend was absolutely convinced that the, wholly unarticulated, sense of the meeting was that they had all been a little too generous at the top of the list and had to "show academic rigour" and "maintain standards" and accordingly they had tied bells round the necks of these two marginal students and sent them out into the wilderness.

I'm sure that nothing like that will happen at our Examiners Meeting tomorrow at The Institute

No comments:

Post a Comment