2. University framework

The pattern of undergraduate examinations in Oxford involves a first public examination (primarily Preliminary Examinations, but in a small number of subjects Moderations or Honour Moderations) usually at the end of the first year, and a second public examination (Final Honour School) which concludes the programme. The second public examination may have more than one part, spread over years two, three, and (where applicable) four. It is designed to assess the success with which students have mastered the overall body of knowledge, and gained the skills and understanding required by their programme. Questions may be both specific and integrative. 

Within the University’s examination regulations and policy framework and subject to approval by Education Committee and the relevant division, Education Committee regards the nature and pattern of assessment to be a matter for the academic judgement of those responsible for designing courses and programmes of study, who will be best placed to relate the desired pattern of assessment to the learning outcomes of the programme concerned. The Committee endorses the position that a range of assessment and examining practices may operate across the University, see Annex D: Good practice guide to assessment design.

The University’s general policy on the question of second-year undergraduate examinations was established in 2000, when it was agreed that subjects might make a case for the introduction of second-year examinations on an individual basis, on the understanding that changes in some subject areas would not lead to wholesale change where this was not felt to be academically desirable. Education Committee recognises that in many subject areas there is a clear rationale for a pattern of examination that leaves the second year free of formal public examination (for a statement of such thinking, see Annex C: Rationale for Final Honour Schools without a second year examination).

The University does not support the principle of modularisation of courses (modularisation here being defined as a system in which degree courses are assembled by the selection of building blocks of modules with quantitative credit ratings, levels and common examination conventions within an institution-wide framework). It considers that widespread modularisation of courses, with the concomitant need for central institutional directives on module weighting, strict definitions of level, etc., would necessitate a uniformity of examining structures and practices which is neither essential nor appropriate within the University. Annex I: The University's courses and the English credit framework indicates the normal understanding of the University's courses in relation to the credit framework for England.

While it is divisional, faculty or departmental bodies which are responsible for the methods of assessment used to decide the final outcome and level of the student’s performance on a course (summative assessment), the responsibility for the routine and regular informal assessment provided in tutorials and supervisions is shared throughout the University by academic staff teaching in colleges, faculties and departments. Within the University, this form of assessment (formative assessment) is an important element in providing personal and immediate feedback on a student’s work, so as to indicate to the student how he or she is progressing with academic work and in which direction it should develop.

It is recognised that types of feedback may legitimately vary from individual to individual, college to college, or subject to subject (within the bounds of guidance laid down by colleges or subjects). Students recognise that this is the case while putting a high premium on clear and regular feedback which both informs the work which they are undertaking and gives some indication of the standards which they are achieving. Where more formal methods of formative assessment are involved, e.g. trial papers for college ‘collections’, then particular weight is placed on clear and speedy feedback.

Graduate taught courses 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 course which is completed within a year is the equivalent of two three-hour examination papers and a dissertation or thesis of 10,000 – 20,000 words.

The University requires external examiners to prepare a report addressed to the Vice-Chancellor at the end of each year of their period of office. External examiners are asked to comment on the following points (which are drawn from the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, chapter B7 ‘External Examining’ 2011). According to the QAA guidance, examiners are asked to provide informed comment and recommendations on:

(a)      whether or not an institution is maintaining the threshold academic standards set for its awards in accordance with the frameworks for higher education qualifications and applicable subject benchmark statements;         

(b)      whether or not the assessment process measures student achievement rigorously and fairly against the intended outcomes of the programme(s) and is conducted in line with the institution's policies and regulations;

(c)      whether or not the academic standards and the achievements of students are comparable with those in other UK higher education institutions of which the external examiners have experience;

and, in relation to process, clear and informative feedback to:

(d)      confirm that sufficient evidence was received to enable the role to be fulfilled;

(e)      indicate whether issues raised in previous reports have been, or are being, addressed to their satisfaction;

(f)       address any issues as specifically required by any relevant professional body;

(g)      give an overview of their term of office (when concluded).

The annual reports of external examiners are an important part of the University’s quality assurance procedures. Education Committee monitors all external examiners’ reports on receipt to identify any matters of urgency and forwards them to divisions, highlighting areas of particular concern as necessary, for consideration with the relevant examiners’ reports. External examiners are specifically asked to return their reports as soon as possible after the completion of the examination process in order to assist academic committees with their consideration of the reports. All reports are considered by the relevant committees in faculties and departments and by divisions; composite reports are then provided for Education Committee and a consolidated report highlighting key points emerging from the year's reports is considered annually by or on behalf of Education Committee