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Role and Responsibilities

This page provides brief answers to frequently asked questions about the role and responsibilities of external examiners.

These are detailed in full in the University’s Code of Practice on External Examining, which can be read below.
Read the Code of Practice
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Role and Responsibilities

More detailed information and guidance on all the matters discussed on this page is available via the online handbook for external examiners, which you are advised to consult.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the role of the external examiner at Durham?

As an external examiner, your main duties are:

  • to evaluate all forms of assessment which contribute to students’ degree results;
  • to evaluate, and help ensure fairness and consistency in, the assessment process;
  • to moderate summatively assessed work at module and programme level;
  • to comment on draft examination papers and assessment tasks as appropriate;
  • to report on the structure, content, academic standards and teaching of programmes;
  • to comment, if invited to do so, on any alleged cases of assessment irregularities.

These duties should be carried out in the context of your expertise and your knowledge of the academic standards of other HEIs, and of key internal and external reference points.

How should I prepare for external examining at Durham?

You should familiarise yourself with the programme(s) that you will examine, and the modules that make up these programmes. In particular, you should look at the programme aims; the intended learning outcomes, curriculum, and teaching and assessment strategies of the programme and modules; and the link between particular modules and the programme as a whole. This information can be found through programme specifications(available from departments) and module outlines (undergraduatepostgraduate). You should also familiarise yourself with key internal and external reference points, such as the University’s core regulations and qualification descriptors, QAA subject benchmarks, and the requirements of accrediting bodies (if relevant).

You should also consider how you wish to carry out your duties. You need to decide whether you wish to see every piece of assessed work, or a sub-set. If the latter, you should agree the principles for the selection of this sample with the Chair of the Board of Examiners. The sample should provide sufficient evidence to enable you to make a judgement about the standards and consistency of internal marking. You should also decide if you wish to know internal marks before looking at student work or wish to moderate ‘blind’ and refer to internal marks later. Having decided these matters, you should liaise with the Chair of the Board of Examiners so that arrangements can be made, and to agree a timetable for your work. 

What information should I receive?

You will receive from Durham’s Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service a copy of the University’s qualification descriptors and core regulations, and the Handbook for External Examiners 2021-22, on appointment. The department in which you are examining will send you specifications and assessment criteria for the programme(s) you are examining. You should also consult the outlines for modules within these programmes. All of this information is available online. Links to the relevant web pages are provided through the ‘Further Information’ tab. 

Will I be briefed by the department in which I am examining?

The department will provide you with a briefing prior to the meeting of the Board of Examiners. It is the responsibility of the Chair of the Board to arrange this. This briefing will cover the provision for which you are responsible, and the way in which the assessment process (including meetings of the board) is administered by the department.

The Chair of the Board will ascertain whether you wish to meet with staff or students as part of your induction to the department. The Chair will also notify you of dates of meeting(s) of the board, and will discuss when you will receive student work and examination scripts.

Will I be asked to comment on assessment questions in advance?

You will be asked to scrutinise draft examination questions. For modules assessed entirely by coursework (except dissertation and major research project modules) you will be asked to comment on draft questions for a sample of assignments. You may also be asked to scrutinise draft coursework questions for other modules. Although this is not a requirement, you have a right to be involved in setting summative coursework assignments (except those on dissertation or major research project modules) upon request to the department.

What is my role in the assessment process?

You have two main roles in the assessment process. Firstly, you should use the scripts you have received to check whether the marks awarded by internal examiners are in line with those that would be awarded for similar performance at comparable institutions. If you find systematic variance between the marks you would have expected and those given by external examiners for any module, you should discuss how to resolve this with the Chair of the Board of Examiners, taking into account University policy on this issue.

Secondly, you should also use the scripts sent to you to check the consistency of internal marking, i.e. whether internal examiners are using assessment criteria consistently across the range of assessments. You should find that answers of a similar standard attract similar marks. If you find inconsistency, you might wish to consider recommending alteration of marks (see the ‘Can I change marks’ section of this page).

On rare occasions, you may also be asked to reconcile unresolved differences between internal examiners over the mark to be awarded for a particular piece of work. In such cases, you should communicate your decision to the Chair of the Board of Examiners. Keep a note of the rationale behind your decision in case this becomes an issue at the board.

Can I change marks?

You may wish to consider recommending an alteration in marks if you feel these are over-harsh, over-generous, or inconsistent with assessment criteria. University policy states that you can only change marks for individual pieces of assessment if you have moderated the full run of that assessment task. In such cases, you should make a note of marks altered and the rationale for doing so. You should not change marks if you have moderated only a sample of work for a particular task, but should instead make recommendations for steps to be taken to address your concerns. In situations where you have moderated a sample of assessed work and identified issues/concerns about the marks awarded, you can recommend to the department that systematic action be taken to amend marks for the full run of scripts/assessments you have marked a sample of. Further guidance is available in the Handbook for External Examiners 2021-22

Do I have to attend Board of Examiners Meetings?

You are expected to attend all meetings of the board of examiners in person where:

  • marks for Levels 2, 3 and 4 undergraduate students are confirmed following the University’s May/June assessment period;
  • undergraduate degrees are classified following the University’s May/June assessment period;
  • taught postgraduate degrees are awarded at the end of a programme of study.

In addition, the attendance of one external examiner is required (normally the most senior examiner, where seniority is determined by the length of appointment served) for mid-year meetings of postgraduate boards of examiners where classifications are routinely considered.

If you cannot be present, you should report this to the department in which you are examining, who must seek permission for this from the relevant faculty. The department should also ensure that you are consulted on the marks and qualifications awarded.

What is my role at the Board of Examiners?

You will have four main functions at a board of examiners. These are to assist the board in arriving at the degree classification for each candidate; to assist the board in the exercise of discretion to award a higher class of degree, in the context of the University’s policy on discretion; to provide brief oral feedback on the programme; and to certify the outcomes of the board in terms of progression and recommendations to award degrees.

All cases which require detailed consideration at the board (for instance, those involving the exercise of discretion) will be drawn to your attention, and you should see papers and assessments for such cases, on which you should be able to comment using your notes.

What authority do I have at the Board of Examiners?

You have the right to speak on any matter at the board of examiners. The board is required to take your views into account, but need not defer to them in reaching a final decision. Your views must be treated as particularly influential in the case of internal disagreement over marks for a particular assessment, or over the final classification for a particular student. In such circumstances the final decision nevertheless rests with the whole board of examiners.

Can I conduct viva voce examinations of students?

No. University policy is that students cannot not be asked to attend vivas outside the University’s modular structure, although departments can prescribe an oral presentation or examination as a mode of assessment for a particular module or modules.

Will I have the opportunity to meet with students?

The University encourages external examiners to meet with groups of students in order to obtain feedback on the student learning experience and the programme(s) that they are examining. You should liaise with the appropriate department to arrange this. There is, however, no requirement to hold such meetings. When such meetings take place, the discussions should not inform the consideration of the marks of participating students at the board of examiners. Such meetings should also not be used for viva voce examinations.

What happens after the Board of Examiners?

Following the board of examiners, external examiners must make a report to the University. Further information on what this report should address, and how it is treated by the University, is provided online.

Combined Honours, Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Programmes

The University’s Combined Honours, Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences programmes have external moderators rather than external examiners. External moderators are advised to contact the Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service to discuss their roles and duties, as these are slightly different to those set out here for external examiners. 


Find out more

Information about External Examiners for Taught Degrees

Annual Report

At the end of their term of office, external examiners are also asked to complete a final overview report.
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How to get to the University

Information on how to get to Durham University, including by car, taxi, train and foot, as well as a link to the campus map.
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Further Information

Additional guidance relevant to the process, including procedures, regulations and external reference points.
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