Postgraduate Taught Courses: Assessment

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The University’s educational philosophy is that students should acquire a range of critical skills in testing and judging evidence or propositions as well as a sufficient grounding in a particular discipline. Courses are designed to foster independent work and thought, and students learn how to think rather than being  taught what to think. Accordingly, examinations should seek to assess the identified range of skills, knowledge and understanding identified in the learning outcomes for the course. The diversified approach to teaching and learning also means that candidates in the same examination might not have been taught exactly the same knowledge of the subject.

Education Committee regards the nature and pattern of assessment to be a matter for the academic judgement of those responsible for designing and delivering courses, who will be best placed to relate the  desired pattern and type of assessment to the intended learning outcomes of the course concerned. The Committee endorses the position that a range of assessment and examining practices may operate across  the University, within the University’s Examination Regulations and policy framework, and subject to approval by Education Committee and by the relevant division.

Overall, assessment practices should:

  • Promote the academic coherence of planned programmes of study. In designing courses it should be borne in mind that the mode of assessment, and the range of subject knowledge assessed, have a significant impact on students’ learning and therefore their understanding of their subject
  • Encourage students to develop higher order intellectual skills as they progress through their programme of study. Assessment practices should therefore focus on synthesis, critical evaluation and the application of knowledge to unfamiliar problems, and should avoid reliance on testing of factual recall
  • Promote the integration of different strands and topics within the subject of study. The process of revision for formal examinations encourages students to integrate separate  elements of knowledge and promotes a deeper understanding of underlying disciplinary issues. These benefits may, however, be lost if students are subject to excessive assessment or assessment focussed on factual recall
  • Test students’ ability to meet multiple academic demands, manage their time and prioritise their activities
  • Allow tutors and students freedom to explore the subject and take intellectual risks free of excessive pressure of assessment

The Oxford Learning Institute is able to provide advice on course design and development, including assessment.

Postgraduate taught courses may make use of a range of examination and assessment methods according to the elements within the subject to be assessed. The assessment or examination norm for a Master’s level course which is completed within a year is traditionally the equivalent of two or three three-hour examination papers and a dissertation or thesis of 10,000 – 20,000 words. However, there are many imaginative ways in which postgraduate taught courses have designed their assessment to equate with this basic benchmark.

Approved forms of assessment include:

  • Timed, written examination papers–usually three hours, although this varies in some subjects.
  • Timed, computer-based examinations.
  • Dissertation/thesis/report of a research project–this constitutes an extended piece of writing of substantial length relating to a piece of supervised research.
  • Extended essays–usually of several thousand words based on a particular topic or question.
  • Oral examination–may be a compulsory element of an examination usually focused on a piece of research, or may be used to confirm a student’s result(s) in borderline cases.
  • Take-away papers–the amount of time available to students will be much more restricted compared to that available for an extended essay.
  • Practical or fieldwork requirement
  • Portfolio–a submission involving a selection of pieces of work.
  • Oral presentations–usually associated with a piece of supervised research.
  • Poster presentation
  • Group work–this involves students collaborating formally to produce a piece of assessed work together, such as a presentation (which may be delivered orally or as a poster) or project output.
  • A mock research grant application.

The University attaches great importance to both the rigour and the fairness of its public examinations. The Policy and Guidance for Examiners and Others Involved in University Examinations sets out Education Committee’s expectations for the design and conduct of examinations.

Departments should keep the nature and methods of assessment for each course under review, taking into account student feedback. In reviewing the assessment procedures used throughout the University or  any unit or sub-unit of the University, departments should pay attention to:

  • the extent to which the assessment methods used:
    • remain a valid, fair and reliable means of assessing student achievement
    • provide appropriate evidence of the academic standards of the course being met by the majority of candidates
    • are appropriate to the teaching methods employed and the intended learning outcomes of the course
  • any evidence that the amount of assessment or its timing is having a detrimental impact on the work of candidates
  • the evidence of the teaching quality and methods as revealed through the examination process and the reports of examiners

Oxford maintains as a principle that those who examine students should be, as far as possible, independent of those who directly teach them. This principle is reflected in the arrangements for the appointment of the examination board which takes its instructions from, but is independent of, the supervisory body for the course. The principle is also reflected in other regulations and policies that seek to ensure, as far as possible, an independence of judgement by the examination board, not unduly influenced by close knowledge of students’ performance in class. However, there are a number of circumstances in which a supervisory body for a course might consider it necessary to appoint a student’s supervisor as one of the markers of their dissertation; for example, where there is difficulty finding sufficient specialists in a particular topic within a small department. If a department does elect to appoint the supervisor as one of the assessors of the dissertation, the following steps should be taken:

  1. The supervisor should always be formally appointed as an assessor if not already an examiner.
  2. The second marker should either be an examiner on the Board of Examiners or an assessor with the closest specialist knowledge to the project topic.
  3. The two markers should mark the student’s dissertation independently of each other, i.e. double blind-marking.
  4. As for all types of assessment, the Examination Conventions should explicitly state how marks are reconciled when there is a significant difference between the mark of the supervisor and examiner/assessor. In such cases the Chair of Examiners may request an additional assessor or examiner.
  5. One of the external examiners should be asked to give particular attention to the marking and reconciliation of marks for dissertations where supervisors are involved in marking.

Departments should keep under review the mechanisms for their part in the nomination and appointment  of examiners, including the chair and external examiner(s), and for ensuring the suitability of, and avoidance of conflicts of interest, in relation to all examiners, including external examiners. Departments should also be conscious of the need to ensure there is a sufficiently large pool of examiners for a course to continue to be viable. In exercising their overall responsibility for the membership, powers, procedures and accountability of examiners, departments should take care to ensure that boards of examiners are aware of:

  • requirements relating to declarations of personal interest
  • the minimum numbers of internal and external examiners who must be present for decisions to be valid
  • the keeping of appropriate records of examiners’ meetings and the reasons for any specific decisions in relation to individual cases

Within departments, particular care should be taken to ensure that appropriate mechanisms are in place for   the nomination and appointment of examiners for all postgraduate taught courses, and to ensure that all courses have an external examiner. Such appointments should be made in good time, and departments should ensure that those holding office both as internal examiners and as external examiner have sufficient  information for the proper fulfilment of their tasks. Examiners should be made fully aware of the extent of their powers, and where to seek guidance if they have questions or concerns.

The qualifying test is the academic hurdle set in some postgraduate taught courses to ensure that students have sufficient grasp of the preliminary material (usually core units) in order to progress to the second part of the course (usually options and a dissertation). The test normally occurs at the end of the first year of an MPhil degree, but may apply in other courses as well at an early point in the year.

In many two-year courses, the qualifying test will simply consist of the examinations at the end of the first year, for which students may be required to achieve a minimum or average mark in order to progress to the second year. Whatever format is followed, it is important students are made aware of the hurdle and its timing at an early stage both in pre-application material and at induction – with clear guidance as to what is required and the consequences of failure.

Education Committee has a specific policy on the provision of feedback in postgraduate taught courses1. The policy has three parts and requires responsible bodies to:

  1. ensure written feedback on at least one designated piece of formative assessment, e.g. essay or assignment, during the course of the first term. The purpose of this feedback is to:
    • provide guidance to those for whom extended pieces of writing are unfamiliar forms of assessment;
    • indicate areas of strength and weakness in relation to the assessment task;
    • provide course members with an indication of the expectations and standards towards which they are working2.
  2. endeavour to provide feedback, via examination boards, on any elements of summative assessment which are undertaken prior to the final term of the course. This may include Trinity term assessments for 12-month courses. Supervisory bodies may direct examination boards to provide feedback in one of the following ways:
    • Final marks: the exam board must meet in full (the external may be included by teleconference) to confirm and release marks to students via the Academic Records Office. In circumstances where final marks cannot be confirmed, i.e. where the examiners consider that scaling may be required, the board may, exceptionally, apply for permission from the Proctors to release unconfirmed marks.  Unconfirmed marks should be provided to students by the department accompanied by the wording: ‘The marks provided are provisional andmay be reviewed and amended at the final meeting of the  Examination Board.’
    • Written feedback: this may accompany final marks or be provided without marks. Where examination boards wish to give written feedback without marks, they are not obliged to meet  in full, but the chair is required to approve the feedback on the board’s behalf before it is released to students.
    • When providing feedback for part-time courses, boards may, alternatively, follow the  arrangements forprovision of feedback established by the Department for Continuing Education.
  3. implement (via boards of examiners) written feedback according to an agreed divisional template or framework for all PGT dissertations or theses of 5,000 words or over.

This policy permits academic advisors and supervisors to be provided with copies of written feedback.

Regulations should indicate what arrangements will be in place for resits. For postgraduate taught courses Education Committee’s normal expectation is that any resits will be taken at the time the subject is examined the following year, unless the special regulations permit an alternative practice. However, departments are encouraged to consider alternative (earlier) re-sits or re-submission dates that will enable students who have incurred a fail, or who have had to withdraw from the examination at the end of the course for urgent  reasons, to complete the award in a shorter time-scale. These arrangements should be reflected in the regulations and other course information.

Where an element of an examination has been successfully completed at the first examination, the mark  for the successful element can be carried over to the succeeding year and only the element or elements  which have been failed at the first examination re-taken unless otherwise specified by the special regulations for a course. In this context, ‘element’ refers to an individual paper, submission, or other exercise and not all the written papers or all the submissions3.

 [1] This policy is also stated in the Policy and Guidance for Examiners, Section 13

[2] See also Section 5.4 of this Policy and Guidance

[3] This policy is also stated in the Policy and Guidance for Examiners, Section 13. 

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