External examining: issues in languages, linguistics and area studies

Author: John Canning


This is a brief report on the issues raised at the LLAS discussion group at “External examining in the humanities” held at the University of Sheffield on 18 February 2011. Please contact John Canning with any comments or suggestions about how LLAS might support current and future external examiners. Further resources from the workshop including a presentation on UUK’s review of external examining are available from the workshop website

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Table of contents

Discipline specific issues

  1. Content courses and language courses may or may not have different external examiners. Where a language centre is organisationally separate from a language department two different external examiners for the same language may be appointed, one examining provision for ‘specialist’ students in the ML department and the other looking at ‘non-specialist’ provision in the language centre.  Other departments make no distinctions between language specialists and non-specialists.
  2. Where a department teaches a lot of languages a lot of external examiners will be needed. It can particularly difficult to identify suitable external examiners for less widely taught languages e.g. Ukrainian, Urdu. It can also be difficult for external examiners who are only looking at one language to see how the language fits into the bigger picture of the department or university.
  3. Questions arose about the external examination of oral examinations. Some departments video record assessed oral presentations, others audio record. Whilst there was a discussion about whether videoing students might increase anxiety, it was acknowledged that audio-only recordings could be difficult for external examiners to assess, especially in group oral contexts.
  4. Some colleagues would like to become external examiners but do not know how to go about it. Others were unsure about whether they were sufficiently ‘senior’. Some subject associations, e.g. The Association of University Professors and Heads of French (AUPHF) maintain lists of who is external examining where. It was suggested that a list or database might be set up by the LLAS Subject Centre. Another suggestion was that people could mention external examiner activity or their availability for external examining on their Humbox profile www.humbox.ac.uk.

Generic issues

Some group members used the opportunity to ask experienced external examiners questions, many which are more generic. Experienced external examiners reported differing experiences on a variety of topics ranging from remuneration, hospitality, amount of the time spent with colleagues in the department and the necessity/ requirement for external examiners to attend all exam board meetings. In cases where a large number of external examiners are used they might only be present at smaller language-specific board meetings while a ‘chief’ external examiner is the only one who attends all the meetings.