The Physics Department has been forced into a policy U-turn on exam paper corrections after its current policy was overruled by a University Committee.
The change, announced to Physics undergraduates by email, came about after the University’s Standing Committee on Assessment criticised the department for holding a policy which differed from that followed by all other University departments.
In the original email sent out last Tuesday, the department informed students that “from now on, when you are in an examination, if you find a possible error on an examination paper, the invigilators will not respond to such a query or make a general announcement to correct any printing error.”
The Physics Department had decided on this policy as “some students may have attempted a question at an early stage in the examination, and later during the same examination another student may notice a possible correction before he/she attempts the same question.”
“This is the fairest way to treat the small number of errors that are found during an examination, and if you do spot an error please make sure that the lecturer concerned is made aware of it after the examination is finished,” the email’s instructions continued.
A number of students strongly condemned the announcement. “It’s ridiculous,” commented one second year Physicist. “If you are a confident student you could spend hours on a question which the invigilator knew to be impossible.” Others felt the measures were not the best approach to ensuring fairness in examinations.
However, two days later Physics students received a second email from Dr Mike Cohler, the Chair of the Physics Board of Examiners.
Cohler informed students that “having notified you all recently about the response to queries in examinations, I can tell you that we will of course respond to any reported important errors in examination questions during an examination, where it is deemed important that everyone is aware of a corrected version.”
Apparently unaware of a contradiction between the first and second emails, he wrote, “we will respond in a professional manner to any substantive corrections that are deemed necessary.”
Cohler went on to defend the Department’s record of mistakes on exam papers. He explained that the process of proofreading exams involved an “intense level of checking”. Once a Physics exam paper is written, it is checked first by an independent academic, then a group of external examiners. Then, it is proof read a further three times. The Chair of the Board of Examiners then proof reads the paper before finally it is passed on for review by the Deputy Head of Department, Dr Hugh Barr.
However, Cohler admitted that “there have been some errors that have crept through on a few papers this year despite the very intensive checking system that we operate.” He later revealed that there have been five errors on Physics exam papers this term t of a total of 34 module examinations. One of these errors had been “an omission of attachments.”
Cohler explained the reason why the Standing Committee on Assessment had forced the change in department policy, claiming that “they had a different viewpoint than me on the question of the fairness of not making a response to queries during an exam.”
However, some students still remain dissatisfied with the Physics departmental policy.
“What is most appalling about the present system is that when exams have mistakes, the department makes no apology to students and gives no visible reassurance to students that answers to flawed questions will indeed be marked appropriately to the seriousness of the error,” commented third year Physicist, Tom Simon-Norris.
“I know the department does always try its best to mark students fairly. But sometimes, from the students’ perspective, we can get worried that messages might sometimes get lost somewhere along the line,” Norris added. He went on to suggest that the department should email any students who had been affected by an examination mistake.
Cohler replied, saying “it is important to realise that the staff work a huge number of hours to get the exam papers written and marked fairly as you can see from the description I sent.”
“Most students in fact understand that we are doing our best for an optimum outcome,” Cohler continued.
The incident follows the revelations that essays in the Economics department took 11 weeks to mark.