Teachers, is it worth becoming an examiner?

First published by the Guardian on Thursday 16 October 2014.

It’s often said that marking exams is the best professional development you can get. As an examiner, I would generally agree that it’s excellent training. Nonetheless, marking involves time and effort and any benefits need to be weighed against negatives: some teachers appreciate the opportunity to earn extra income whereas others find they’ve signed up for weeks of misery.

To start with the positives: exam boards pay you. The board I mark for paid £3.05 per exam script in 2014 which meant that by marking the standard 300 scripts allocated, I earned up to £915 before tax. I also received expenses and could request additional scripts if I wanted to. In the past I’ve led my own team of examiners, which not only developed my leadership and management skills, but also included further payments for supervising, moderating and reporting. It enhanced my CV, and the progression happened after just two years of general examining.

That said, I often feel like I lose any semblance of family and social life for at least a couple of weeks, especially because my school responsibilities continue so I have to consign marking to evenings and weekends. The particular exam I mark generally takes place just before the summer half-term so I usually spend the whole holiday marking.

And that’s if you don’t have to wait to get on with your marking. I’ve had to hold off for days before getting the go ahead; this can be drawn out if you have an inexperienced team leader who is unsure whether to give you the green light. One colleague of mine had to chase repeatedly to get a response from their leader.

Repeatedly marking the same question over and over again goes beyond the mere tedious to the mind-numbingly boring. I have to take breaks to stay sane and remember that life exists away from marking. If you get the chance to mark the actual exam papers you can have at least some variance in questions as you go through the script, but with the increasing use of online marking the repetitiveness gets worse as you tend to mark scanned responses to the same individual question (this gave me blisters on my fingers from repeatedly pressing the same buttons).

That said, you do gain an invaluable insight into how examinations are assessed. My own ability to assess has massively improved, especially as the standardisation process gave me an opportunity to check my own skills against a range of pre-marked answers from candidates of differing abilities. This acted as an audit of my subject knowledge and a crash course on what the principal examiners expect from candidates, which is essential in the arts, humanities and social sciences as teachers’ views of strong or weak responses may be slightly different from examiners’.

Besides general examining, my experience of leading a team of examiners has led to changes in how I teach students to apply content in answers. I found that there are limits to what some examiners know and in-depth teaching at GCSE level could result in confusing the examiners if the candidates’ knowledge is greater than theirs in a certain area of the syllabus.

Understanding the assessment process could also improve your students’ exam technique as you will be able to highlight the dos and don’ts of answering questions. For example, my colleagues and I have embedded recent changes in the assessment criteria into our teaching, especially in relation to the development of explanatory answers and the increased emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar.

We have built exam practice into all our key stage 4 lesson plans. Each lesson objective is designed to meet an aspect of a question mark scheme. For example, the mid-way point of a lesson would cover a short answer question and the end point an extended answer. We use a variety of activities to teach the content before zoning in on the questions and exploring how we would apply the knowledge. The short answer acts as a mini-plenary and the extended answer the plenary. These are peer assessed using an adaption of the mark scheme and it is here that my knowledge of examining can be used to ensure students have understood what the examiners are looking for and do not make common mistakes.

If I’m honest, I would recommend marking exams at least once to gain the insight; after that, you really need to question whether your free time is worth more to you than the extra income. It is rewarding once complete and you will learn a lot, but unless your school gives you time off (some do and also offer additional incentives), you will be hearing the voices of students answering the same questions over and over and over again.

The featured image is by ‘Comedy_Nose’ and is used here under a Creative Commons license.

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