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Oxford examined.

EVERY few years it falls to the lot of a university teacher to become an examiner. It is not, I must confess, my favourite occupation, but it gives a keen insight into an aspect of university life that receives very little publicity and yet is closer to the heart of the university than the inane frolics that are considered worthy of the front pages of the national press.

This year I was asked to set and mark one of the mathematics papers that is taken at the end of the first year physics course. The examination was held one afternoon in June, in the Sports Centre up the Iffley Road, because there is no room in the Examination Schools in the Iffegh. It was due to start at 2.30, so as invigilator I arrived soon after two, in gown and hood, to find the Clerk of the Schools and his deputy already checking that all was ready. At about 2.15 they opened the parcel containing the question papers and put one on each of the desks arranged in serried rows in what is usually the gym.

We decided to let the candidates in at 2.25 to enable them to get settled in time for the beginning of the paper. The doors are opened and they stream in, dressed in the regulation sub-fusc of dark suit, white bow-tie under a black gown. It is often quite hot in the Sports Centre on a summer afternoon, but I was glad to find that it was reasonably cool. Nevertheless the candidates are allowed to remove their gowns and jackets. Just before 2.30 I tell them that they can start writing.

This is the moment to make sure that all candidates are present. The Clerk scans the desks and five minutes into the examination I can record in the log book 'All Candidates present'. This is a very necessary precaution. It is not unknown, especially for a morning paper, to find a candidate missing. The candidate's College is then telephoned and maybe he has to be woken up and dispatched post haste to the examination. I am careful to tell my own students to check that they are all present at breakfast.

The invigilator has to keep an eye on the proceedings, so one cannot bring some absorbing reading. The candidates have a good supply of paper, but some write more than others and need some more. They then raise their hand, and the Clerk or me, if I am nearer, gives them some more. Apart from this, one is left to one's thoughts.

There are 188 candidates sitting the paper. I wonder what they think of it, and if they realise that I have devised all those questions. I hope that I have not made any mistakes. The examiners have many meetings for months before the examination when they critically examine each other's questions, but it is still possible for a mistake, or an ambiguous expression, to slip through.

I remember when I was myself a candidate, so many long decades ago. The pain is not forgotten. So much depends on the outcome of a few hours writing. However, since it is a first year examination, it is not nearly so important as Finals, and even if they fail this one they have another chance in September. But if they fail a second time, that is the end of their university career.

I spot some of my own students, writing busily, I am glad to see. It is not too difficult to tutor students for a paper that one has set oneself. It was some time before they found out that I was one of their examiners. When they did, I told them that I could no longer initiate topics for discussion, and declined to speculate about likely questions. They did not know that the question paper was a few feet away, in the drawer of my desk.

An hour passes, with no events. In the morning, one candidate had a nosebleed, so for the afternoon he is put near the exit, with a plentiful supply of absorbent paper. Another, we have been informed by the Proctors, is liable to anxiety, so he too is put near the exit. The Clerk comes to relieve me, so that I can go and have a cup of tea. I feel guilty; it is the candidates who deserve a cup of tea, not me.

Towards the end, more candidates need extra paper, so have to keep an eye on them rather frequently. Some candidates have finished already, either because they have done all the problems or because they have nothing more to say. They sit in their places so as not to disturb the others. No one moves from their seat from the beginning to the end of the examination. This self-discipline is impressive; apparently it is not so in all subjects.

When the hand of the clock moves beyond five, I say |Stop writing please', and tell them to fasten their scripts together and put them in the boxes provided. They do so and stream out of the room. The deputy shoos out a few stragglers, and we set to work checking the scripts. Half an hour later I can write in the logbook |All scripts present'. They put them into sacks for me and carry them to my car.

It was the last paper of the examination, and it sometimes happens that friends come along to greet the emerging candidates with bottles of champagne, and it can get quite rowdy. Anticipating this, several bulldogs (plain clothes university police in bowler bats) arrive, but they find that all the candidates have already gone back to their Colleges.

Now the real work begins. With 188 candidates, each writing twenty to thirty pages, and some even more, one has to read and assess between four and five thousand pages of mathematics in three or four days. It is a rather special experience to have this close look at the abilities of the next generation of physicists. The vast majority are thoroughly competent, completing enough questions to guarantee success. About half a dozen are astonishingly able, dispatching all the questions without a single mistake. A somewhat larger group is rather out of their depth, and they will have to try again in September.

Contrary to the common view, examiners do not try to trip the candidates up. The questions are carefully devised to give the candidates a chance to show their knowledge. The marking is done most carefully for those near the borderline, and obvious slips of the pen are not penalised. Often one reads and re-reads a script to see if it is possible to give the candidate one or two more marks. The result is that several candidates pass who should really have failed; it would have done them good to have the incentive to do some more work over the long vacation.

Marking scripts does have its lighter moments, though rather seldom for mathematics. There are the spectacular spelling mistakes, and errors so bizarre that the candidate must have had a temporary blackout. Sometimes a poor method of solution is used so often that one suspects that the teaching is at fault, and one makes a mental note to remember this in future.

Until this year the examination has been a classified one, with candidates divided into those with first, second and third class honours, followed by pass and fail. This year, it has been decided to abolish the classes, and retain just pass and fail. There was a counter proposal that very able candidates could be awarded a distinction, but this also was defeated. I am very sorry about this; classified honours give the students a high standard to aim at, and a reward for success. Of course it can be argued that there is very little difference between those just above and just below any borderline, but even this can to some extent be met by publishing the list of candidates in order of merit. As it is, those candidates who did exceptionally well receive no reward. One fears that in future the result will be that some of those who know that they are able to pass without much effort will not work so hard as they would have done if they were aiming for a first.

When the marking is complete, and borderline cases double-marked, the marks are banded to the co-ordinating examiner and fed into a computer. The other examiners do the same. Very soon it prints out the list of candidates, each identified only by a number, arranged in order of total marks, with the marks for each paper also recorded. The marks of each candidate are then scrutinised to see if they pass or fail. To pass the examination it is necessary to pass each paper, but if a candidate only just fails one paper, and does much better on the others, this is allowed to compensate. Finally all the decisions have been taken, the lists are printed, signed by all examiners and posted in the Examination Schools. The last chores are to take the sacks of scripts to the Examination Schools for shredding, and to write a report on the performance of the candidates, question by question, for the sub-faculty. The only comment I receive is that my paper was rather easier than those of the other examiners, but I lose no sleep over that.
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Title Annotation:role of examiners narrated
Author:Hodgson, Peter
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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