Assessments in the current academic year


The below information will detail what is in place for UG and PGT students regarding assessments in the 2020/21 academic year. 

Published: 8 January 2021.

Background/Context 

Immediate actions for all students

Looking further ahead to summer examination boards

Background/Context

We are all facing continuing disruption from the pandemic. The announcement on the 4 January of the latest national lockdown will have implications for all aspects of our lives. There is also a weary sense of déjà vu as we think back to the first lockdown in March 2020. As a university, we can’t control the pandemic or the ways in which Government actions will impact society.  Our aim, therefore, is to try to ensure that as many students as possible can continue to progress with their education and then graduate successfully with a degree qualification that reflects their abilities and will remain credible and respected into the future.   As members of the Russell Group, the UK’s leading Universities, we share a commitment to supporting students in fair assessments that uphold the quality and integrity of our awards. 

One positive thing to say is that our experience from the first lockdown has taught us much about how to operate in a pandemic. Obviously this was new territory for all of us last time, and we had to develop and adapt emergency policies in a matter of days and weeks. It is important to note, however, that even though students and staff faced considerable uncertainty and disruption, we graduated our 2019-20 cohorts successfully and on time – which was one of our main aims. Staff worked around the clock to make this happen and to prepare for this current academic year. We also worked closely with our Guild and we are continuing to consult with them to help us to develop fair and appropriate assessment policies.  

This time, things are both the same and different. We face many similar challenges in ensuring assessments are submitted and marked (taking into account all the personal challenges students and staff face in a lockdown) and then moderated externally. Last time we had to put in place – very quickly - emergency measures to ensure students could progress and graduate. This time we were prepared, which is why we designed teaching, assessment and support with mitigations to help us to be as resilient as possible in the event of continued or further disruption.  You might recall, for example, that some of those mitigations will already apply to students entering their final year; for example, when we reach the final exam boards for students on a three year undergraduate degree, second year marks will only count towards a student’s overall degree classification if they confirm or improve final year marks (with comparable mitigations for those on four year degrees).   

We also recognise that current students are experiencing the cumulative effects of disruption to their education so we are considering whether any additional measures might be required as we go through the rest of the academic year. As we did last year, we have already committed to considering each individual student’s total marks profile at final exam boards to ensure students secure an outcome that is a fair reflection of their abilities. At the same time, it’s critically important we are able to guarantee that a Birmingham degree retains its academic standing nationally and internationally such that all students can use it confidently as a valuable passport into their futures. It is important to remember that it is in the interests of every Birmingham student and graduate that employers and professional bodies retain confidence in the integrity of your degrees.  

We have noted the calls from some students for the same ‘no detriment’ policies as last year but this may not be appropriate this year because it could result in us attempting to graduate students who have very few marks in their profile. While we recognise the anxiety that this new lockdown is generating, we do need to ensure we are fair to all students. Some students have also called for a  ‘safety net’ based on what would be – for many current students on a three year programme – a small number of marks from the autumn term of their second year, and for many postgraduate students, a small number of marks from the autumn term of this academic year. This would clearly be inappropriate, but we do already have a fair policy in place for final year students with regards to second year marks – as noted earlier. There are also some calls to add a set number of marks to each student’s profile but this would not only be unfair given the different challenges that individual students face, it could also breach some professional body rules, rendering your degree worthless.

So, what is the best way forward given the circumstances in which we find ourselves?

Immediate actions for all students

We do have a way forward based on the planning we have already done in preparation for continued disruption. Students will benefit most by working with staff who will continue to provide support to help each student to secure marks that are an accurate reflection of their abilities – just as they did in the last academic year. What does this mean in practice?

  1. Prior to the announcement of this latest lockdown, all assessments were already scheduled to be online, so please continue to work through these online assessments to the best of your ability and as originally planned (if you can). Remember, these assessments have already been designed to be taken online, so this is very different to the situation last year.
  2. You can review the latest Government guidance that allows for some students to return to campus to access WiFi and study spaces if they are unable to access these in any other way. You can read the latest Government guidance here. Clearly the aim of a national lockdown is to reduce the number of people who travel or gather, but the Government has identified student access to campus as a legitimate reason to travel under specific circumstances. Please read the guidance carefully to find out whether this might apply to you and we will let you know if there is any further guidance from Government.
  3. Try to meet your original assessment deadlines – if you are able to – because this will help us to get marks back to you in good time and will leave you in the best possible position to engage in your modules from the beginning of Semester Two (which we now know will be online initially for many students). If you need an extension you can apply using your School’s usual processes but please do check as some Schools have already made plans for these eventualities and have set assessments/exams that can be submitted at different times or with long submission windows.  
  4. Let your School know if you hit problems meeting any assessment deadlines. We have already made the Extenuating Circumstances (EC) process as light touch as possible and we know that students can’t provide evidence for all types of disruption. Submitting the EC information is important because it helps us to take decisions in your best interests at exam boards later in the year.  You are also able to submit coursework up to 5 working days after the published deadline without penalty on your work, by using the extension process. For online exams, there will normally be submission ‘windows’ to account for the range of circumstances you might encounter, and/or additional arrangements if you encounter difficulties on the day of the sit. You can also submit ECs in relation to online exams. Please follow the guidance available locally from your School/Department because in some programmes there are specific professional body requirements to be considered.
  5. Draw on all the work you did through Assessment Support Week (before Christmas) and consider referring back to the resources there. To date, we have had over 60,000 visits to these online resource pages and students have reported that the information is very useful. In addition, many modules have live discussion boards.
  6. For all final year UG and PGT students, be reassured that you will be able to undertake your final year project/dissertation because adapted pathways have already been designed to ensure that you can complete academically rigorous projects in lockdown circumstances. Further details will be provided locally from your School/Department.
  7. Keep in close contact with your Personal Academic Tutor (i.e. in your weekly group meetings) who can help with general queries and who can set up a meeting if you need it.

In summary, the best way forward right now is for you to focus on completing your immediate assessment tasks to the best of your ability. You can then engage with the virtual UoBe Festival in the week beginning 25 January to build additional personal and employment skills (during which time staff will be marking all the assessments you have managed to submit), and prepare for teaching in Semester Two (from 1 February). 

Looking further ahead towards summer examination boards

We will continue to work with Government, the Office for Students, relevant professional bodies, colleagues in other Russell Group universities, and a range of regulatory and quality assurance bodies to ensure that the policies we have in place for University of Birmingham students are aligned (as far as is possible given differences in our course structures) and compliant. This is critical to ensure the integrity of your degree is not compromised. The Russell Group has now issued a statement to that effect. 

We are revisiting all the policies we had in place for continuing and graduating cohorts last year (both UG and PGT) and gaining a student perspective from the Guild. The aim is to consider which policies can/should be carried forward, and which should be adapted to reflect the changes we have already made. We cannot take these decisions quickly or lightly, and please remember that staff are unlikely to be able to provide further information at this stage. Staff will also be heavily involved in marking and it would be unhelpful to divert them from that because it will delay the return of marks to you. We need to consider carefully whether we need to take further steps in the academic interest of all current and future students and we are doing this work now and over the coming weeks as more information becomes available.

Please remember that although staff will continue to work in the best interests of students, just as they did in the last academic year, they are also under considerable pressure at the moment as they grapple with their own personal, family and health challenges as a result of this latest lockdown. These are difficult times so we all need to be supportive of each other if we are to secure the best outcome for everyone under the circumstances.

Professor Kathy Armour (Pro-Vice-Chancellor Education)
Professor Jon Green (Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor Education)
Dr Celia Greenway (Director of Student Academic Engagement)
Professor John Curnow (Director of Education, MDS)
Professor Elaine Fulton (Director of Education, CAL)
Professor Catherine Mangan (Director of Education, CoSS)
Professor Jeremy Pritchard (Director of Education, LES)
Professor Nicola Wilkin (Director of Education, EPS)
Dr Andy Hodder (Director of PGT for the Graduate School)

 

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