“It all hangs on one day”

One of my soon-to-be-ex-students remarked recently how fragile results are, all hanging on the outcome of one day. At one level he’s right: a few clicks to your results page, and it’s done.

But it struck me that this year I wanted to tell that story, the stuff I’m in the thick of now, the narrative that leads to results day. It’s much the same story in many Universities, and I’ve talked about this before, although without so much of the step-by-step story.

“When first the college rolls receive his name…” Well, it’s not quite like that – but there is a problem as to where we begin. The tutor deciding the assessment? The Programme Development team determining the learning outcomes? We’ll start in the library, and since this is a Brookes-based narrative, that means here (a bit arbitrarily). The student is working on an assignment, the last of the umpteen assessment points in his degree. It is week eight of a twelve-week semester, because he is a virtuous and well organised person. Whether or not that is the case, let’s make this a no-hiccups process: hand-in deadlines come and are met.

And then the marker, often the tutor, starts. There are twenty, thirty, sixty similar scripts to mark, decide on, comment on. A sample is checked – moderated – by another tutor, to make sure the team’s standards are being upheld.  Marks are uploaded into the massive database of marks, according to a centrally determined deadline. The wheels in the computer crunch and click (yes I know there aren’t really wheels in a computer, and to call this huge set of processes a “computer” is a bit silly) the marks, not just to record them, but to check them against the course regulations. Administrators check, double-check, produce reports, communications with wayward tutors, and the next stage – here at Brookes at any rate – is a set of decisions to be made by course leaders and managers: do we know why Student B has no marks for this module? Should Student C be asked about this or that? Decisions are made by real people, ones in general who are conscious of the delicacy of this or that letter being sent to to this or that student.

Then the Examination Committees convene. Tutors from other Universities have been recruited as External Examiners to look at standards, at decisions, at processes to ensure good order, compliance, fairness. The meeting processes all the marks it needs, and all the degree classifications, and this is fed back into the University central systems as if they were a cross between a refecting rabbit and Deep Thought from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. More rushing for paperwork follows, more checking. This part of the cycle ends here at Brookes with a meeting of all the Programme Leads with more External Examiners, a Vice-Chancellor (or similar), and lots of central administrators, ironing out any difficulties, checking any serious cases. Questions are asked, eyebrows (occasionally) raised, final decisions taken on Student Q and Student R.

The computers are fired up again, and a few days later, the results that have been determined by the complex interaction of assessed marks, University regulations and this series of meetings are available: we are at that “one morning” on which it all hangs. Then the final rush to graduation, and I try to scrub up well enough and learn to pronounce everyone’s names for the ceremonies, and then it’s academic dress, and bubbly and meet-the-parents…

…et ceux qui vivent encore vont commencer tout doucement à les oublier et à confondre leurs noms.  And those who are still alive begin imperceptibly to forget them, to mix up their names… [Interesting that I had misremembered  the quotation until I checked it here]. But we don’t always subside into forgetfulness, and it really is nice when you keep in touch.


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