The history of a module mark

It’s getting close to exam time and I’ve been thinking about how we do things. The mark a student receives for a module has a long history as told in the story below. Please read on if you have patience…………….


  • About 4 weeks into a 12-week module (which you may not have taught before), exams plus solutions (including repeats to be held 10 months later) are prepared and sent in hardcopy to an administrator in the Faculty Office.
  • Administrator sends hard copies of all exam papers and solutions by post to extern(s).
  • Extern(s) reply to administrator with comments of various degrees of rigour, ranging from nothing at all to spotting trivial typos to pointing out technical errors.
  • Administrator communicates comments to examiners.
  • Examiners correct papers if required and send hard copies back to Faculty administrator.
  • Administrator sends papers to Registry.
  • Registry organises printing of papers.
  • Examiners check copies of exams in the registry. (In DCU, this takes place in a tiny office run by an extremely friendly and competent woman who has to keep track of literally hundreds of papers, room locations, times and dates.)
  • On exam day, examiners visit terrible  exam hall(s) to make sure all is well and to answer any student queries. Examiner leaves after 15 minutes but invigilators may ring examiner if problems arise later.
  • Scripts sent to Registry.
  • Scripts collected by examiner.
  • Scripts marked by examiner(s).
  • Marks double checked and submitted via online system.
  • A few days later, examiners check once more the accuracy of the online marks ensuring that all marks have been recorded and computed correctly – especially important if the module has a CA component as well.
  • Preliminary exam meeting held (has an acronym, PBERC). Marks ‘moved’ for a variety of reasons ranging from the well justified to the, let’s just say,  overly-compassionate.
  • Formal exam meeting held (another acronym, PAB) attended in part by externs and marks finalised.
  • Publication of exam results online.
  • Examiners available for a set period for consultation with students.
  • Scripts archived by departmental secretary.


Is there a better way? Well, one of my modules which went through this elaborate process was examined last year by continuous assessment. (Work loads made us go back to an end of year exam.) I share the module with a colleague and we examined the students using a number of in-class tests. No Externs, Faculty staff or Registry staff were involved and we just submitted the marks via the online system in the normal way. No problems arose and that was that!

My view? Delegate a lot more responsibility for exams to Schools/Departments and have meaningful quality systems in place. That should cut out some of the administration. Furthermore, if screw-ups occur, it’ll be obvious who’s at fault and no excuses based on ‘systems errors’ will wash.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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6 Responses to The history of a module mark

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The history of a module mark

  2. Polly says:

    erm…it doesn’t matter what method of examining you use (exams, essays, in-class tests or interpretive dance on the night bus), the externs should still have been involved, and the marks must still have been considered at both internal and external exam board meetings.

    The only real alternative to all this (which I agree, if I’m reading you correctly, is not really suitable for the mass education system we are now operating, whatever we may think about that) is the American system where professors enter final grades into a computer, the computer calculates the student’s overall mark based on all their courses that semester, and…that’s it. No externs, no exam boards, nothing. The upside of this is that US faculty get – by my calculation – between 4-6 weeks’ research time which we spend on this process. The downside is that of course there’s no quality-control, and a professor who wants a quiet life will just give most students an A. Indeed, if you’ve ever wondered why soooo many US students are “A students” by comparison to the maybe 10% to whom we give 1st class honours – it’s this system. No-one wants their marks put down by the extern, it’s professionally shaming, so it keeps marks in line.

  3. foleyg says:

    I understand your concerns and I largely agree and that’s why I think we need a meaningful quality review process – especially regular reviews of the marking process which is an equally important part of any exam system. I don’t think you need to do the quality stuff before the every exam – it rushes the instructor and, anyway, it’s very difficult for an extern to make a good judgement on an exam paper without seeing how the subject was taught. Furthermore, externs don’t make any judgement on CA modules in my experience – so why is that not a problem?. I agree that it is a good idea for staff to get together to discuss questions in advance but since the system went modular, that seems to have fallen by the wayside in my institution. I think regular and detailed post-hoc reviews will act as a good deterent against grade inflation.

  4. foleyg says:

    Oh, by the way, I’m not suggesting getting rid of exam boards, but I think only one is needed. In fact I think we’re going to go that way from what I hear.

  5. Polly says:

    “externs don’t make any judgement on CA modules in my experience”. Really? I’d be surprised if that’s true anywhere in Ireland. It’s normal for externs to examine a sample of the student work during their visit to campus before/during the exam boards, and make recommendations on the marks and standard of work, based on that sample. They do that in every institution I’ve worked in. This is my point – only exam papers are sent to externs in advance of being set, but ALL student work of any kind is subject to externing before the marks are formally approved.

  6. foleyg says:

    Polly, I’ve never heard any meaningful comment from our externs about CA modules except, of cource, for final year projects. I’ve certainly never provided any reports from the labs I run.Maybe that’s one of the difficulties – everyone’s experience of the system is different and we all see, or don’t see, different problems.(Actually, now that I think of it, you’ve made a very good point because for years I’ve been putting loads of work into my labs and, without wishing to sound resentful, nobody in the system (except the students I hope) seems to take any notice!)

    What sparked this comment in the first place was a feeling that third level has been contaminated by second level and exam papers per se only tell some of the story.I have noticed quite a few times that where students have performed very well on a paper, it has looked, on the surface, as very impressive and challenging. Then it turns out that the lecturer ( including me I’m sorry to say) has done a very, very similar problem in class, perhaps in a revision tutorial just a week or two before the exam. In that case, looking at the exam papers is not a good gauge of standards. I think that externs need to sit down with the lecturers and ask questions about how the exam relates to what was actually done in class.

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