Why not give back to students their marked examination scripts?

Well, the examination period is over and we’re now in that curious interregnum in the academic year that lasts until graduation, when we get to congratulate students properly and send them on their way into the big wide world. I hope the weather is a bit cooler for that event. It’s no fun at all for either staff or students wearing a suit and tie with a heavy gown on top when the temperature is 30°!

Anyway, yesterday I had a meeting with a (Masters) student about one of his recent examinations, and it prompted me to write a short post about the reason for our discussion.

Here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University we have a system whereby students can get access to their marked examination scripts. By `script’ I mean what the student writes (usually in a special answer book), as opposed to the `paper’ which is the list of questions to be answered or problems to be solved in the script. This access is limited, and for the purpose of getting feedback on where they went wrong, not for trying to argue for extra marks. The students can’t take the scripts away, nor can they make a copy, but the can take notes which will hopefully help them in future assessments.

When I was Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University I tried to introduce such a system there, but it was met with some resistance from staff who thought this would cause a big increase in workload and lead to  difficulties with students demanding their marks be increased. That has never been the experience here at Cardiff: only a handful take up the opportunity and those that do are told quite clearly that the mark cannot be changed. This year I had only one student who asked to go through their script. I was happy to oblige and we had a friendly and (I think) productive meeting.

If I had my way we would actually give all students their marked examination scripts back as a matter of routine. The fact that we don’t is no doubt one reason for relatively poor performance in student satisfaction surveys about assessment and feedback. Obviously examination scripts have to go through a pretty strict quality assurance process involving the whole paraphernalia of examination boards (including external examiners), so the scripts can’t be given back immediately but once that process is complete there doesn’t seem to me any reason why we shouldn’t give their work, together with any feedback written on it,  back to the students in its entirety.

I have heard some people argue that under the provisions of the Data Protection Act students have a legal right to see what’s written on the scripts – as that constitutes part of their student record – but that’s not my point here. My point is purely educational, based on the benefit to the student’s learning experience.

Anyway, I don’t know how widespread the practice is of giving examination scripts back to students so let me conduct a totally unscientific poll. Obviously most of my readers are in physics and astronomy, but I invite anyone in any academic discipline to vote:



And, of course, if you have any further comments to make please feel free to make them through the box below!




5 Responses to “Why not give back to students their marked examination scripts?”

  1. Adrian Burd Says:

    I have been continually astonished at the lax manner that examinations are set here in the US system. There are no examination boards, no external examiner, nothing. The setting and grading of exams is entirely in the hands of the individual lecturer. When I describe the UK system to colleagues here, I get a variety of reactions from shock to complaints about academic freedom. I’ve offered to review other (mostly junior) faculty’s exams, and asked if others would be interested in reviewing mine; I never had anyone even be remotely interested in taking me up on these offers.

    I recall the vast quantities of red ink on the first exam I ever set. Bernard Schutz was the external examiner and he went through my exam and answer key with a fine tooth comb. He helped me make it a far better exam, and although he apologized for his zeal, I thanked him for helping me.

    I do make it a policy of allowing students to see their exam scripts, but no-one has ever taken me up on that in the umpteen years I’ve been teaching over here.

    • In the UK, to some extent, the course *is* the exam. In the US, the course is the whole thing: lectures, problem sheets, midterm exam, final exam. And (so) each individual exam is a much smaller fraction of the course marks in the US than the UK (there are more exams per course, and “problem sheets”, etc., are a much larger fraction than the piddling sop to “continuous assessment” here in the UK). So exams are less important and hence vetted less carefully.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    The standard procedure is that examination scripts are archived for future reference. This could mean they might be inspected if a student complained at a future date, including in extreme circumstances involving legal action. They might be inspected if there were complaints about the professionalism of a lecturer. The teaching quality assessments of the 1990s involved checking sample exam scripts to look for errors in marking and mark entry.

  3. […] “Well, the examination period is over and we’re now in that curious interregnum in the academic year that lasts until graduation, when we get to congratulate students properly and send them on their way into the big wide world. I hope the weather is a bit cooler for that event …” (more) […]

  4. You should also poll whether we think giving the scripts back is a good idea (I agree with you: we certainly should).

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