Times Higher Education ‘exam howlers’ competition, and the sharing of students’ errors for entertainment

From:  Dr Sjoerd Levelt, on behalf of the signatories

To:       Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow, President, Universities UK

Cc:       Nicola Dandridge CBE, Chief Executive, Universities UK

Chris Hale, Director of Policy, Universities UK

Re:      Times Higher Education ‘exam howlers’ competition, and the sharing of students’ errors for entertainment

Dear Dame Julia,

and the executive heads of the higher education institutions of the United Kingdom,

We are writing to you regarding the yearly invitation by Times Higher Education for lecturers to submit ‘exam howlers’ for a competition in which the winning submission (i.e., the lecturer submitting the ‘funniest’ student error) is awarded a magnum of champagne. A selection of submissions is published online and in print.[1] For a number of years, Times Higher Education has reported that the item was the most viewed on its website; the cited ‘exam howlers’ have been reported and reprinted in the national press, including The Telegraph and The Daily Mail. We believe it is incumbent upon you to make a statement about this practice, as the current situation is unclear and potentially breaches existing university rules, both formal and informal.

Proponents of the practice of publishing anonymized ‘exam howlers’ claim that it is harmless fun, and that it is a healthy way to let off steam during marking. Opponents of the practice argue that it undermines trust between tutors and students, that it breeds an unhealthy atmosphere where ‘punching down’ is seen as acceptable among teaching staff, that it disregards the fact that errors can be caused not only by stress but also by disability, and that there is no real anonymization when those who submit the ‘howlers’ are identified by name and affiliation, and thus students can hypothetically self-identify. We believe it is self-evident that there should be no place for the public sharing of students’ mistakes in educational establishments that value dignity in the relationship between educators and students. A Guideline to Dignity at Brunel, published by this year’s ‘winner’ Brunel University West London, states on its cover page: ‘Dignity is the state of being worthy of honour and respect.’ If we are truly committed to fostering a learning environment which is accessible and respectful, is there space for a practice which endangers trust relations through smug superiority? A practice, moreover, which has the potential to harm students with learning disabilities through mocking bullying, and which could thereby undermine the self-confidence needed in learning processes?

While having theoretical significance, however, discussion of the merits of the practice carries limited practical consequence, as it is already implicitly banned by many universities’ examination regulations. Particularly relevant are those regulations relating to intellectual property and to the confidentiality with which examination scripts should be treated. Is it permitted for tutors to share excerpts from students’ work without their permission, with the aim of publication? In their regulations, several universities, including this year’s winner, Brunel, explicitly confirm students’ intellectual property over their own work. And with what level of discretion should exam scripts be handled? Many universities’ examination regulations specify their confidential nature. Thus, to give a few examples, the University of Oxford states that examination scripts are ‘strictly confidential and in no circumstances may be shown to or discussed with anyone other than examiners or properly appointed assessors’; the Open University stipulates that ‘all information you [i.e. students] give in assignments is regarded as confidential to you, your tutor or practice assessor, and the University, and won’t be divulged to anyone outside the University’; Ulster University urges that ‘staff should ensure confidentiality at all times’; King’s College London states that ‘scripts … are confidential’; Canterbury Christ Church University refers to exam scripts as ‘particularly confidential’. Nevertheless, all of these universities have been cited as sources of entries in the Times Higher Education ‘exam howlers competition’ in recent years, and in one case a competition ‘winner’, a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, even boasts of that accomplishment on their university staff profile; the victory was also announced in the University’s magazine, Inspire.

Not only does the practice harm student/teacher trust and breach regulations, it also puts lecturers at risk. In the current situation, lecturers submitting ‘exam howlers’ as entries in the yearly Times Higher Education competition risk falling foul of their institutions’ written or unwritten rules concerning the handling of examination scripts. Such transgressions have in the past been condoned (and as we hear from reports, in some institutions apparently even encouraged), with only occasional repercussions when a lecturer was felt to have gone too far and embarrassed the institution, as in the widely reported case of a lecturer at Nottingham University who evidently crossed that unspoken line. Obviously, it will never be the publication or the university that receives punishment, but always only the individual academic employee. In such cases, punishment for staff on temporary contracts is likely to hold greater practical repercussions than for those with permanent positions.

Each of these arguments, we believe, should suffice to put a stop to the practice, and each has been raised in the past, yet every year Times Higher Education announces a new ‘competition’. We therefore believe it is pertinent both for the well-being of educators throughout the higher education sector, and for relations between students and teachers, that you and your colleagues as executive heads of the universities of the United Kingdom once and for all clarify the universities’ position, with a clear statement of your stance on the treatment of exam scripts, and the sharing of students’ errors for entertainment.

With kindest regards,

Signed (on personal title),

Dr Rob Alexander, University of York

Dr Lucy Allen, University of Cambridge

Prof. Dave Andress, University of Portsmouth

Dr Alex Bamji, University of Leeds

Dr Sara Barker, University of Leeds

Dr David Baume

Prof. Joanne Begiato, Oxford Brookes University

Dr Alice Bell

Melissa Berrill, University of Cambridge

Michael Best

Hannah Boast, University of York

Antonia Bosanquet, Free University of Berlin

Christopher Burlinson, University of Cambridge

Sarah Burton, Goldsmiths College, London

Prof. Jeffrey J. Cohen, George Washington University

Dr Liesbeth Corens, University of Cambridge

Dr Malcolm Craig, University of Edinburgh

Dr Adam Crymble, University of Hertfordshire

Dr Nicole Guenther Discenza, University of South Florida

Dr Oliver Duke-Williams, University College London

Philippa Earle, University of Exeter

Dr Elizabeth Evenden, Brunel University London

Dr Lucy Finchett-Maddock, University of Sussex

Dr Amy Fuller, Nottingham Trent University

Dr Costas Gabrielatos, Edge Hill University

Dr Christopher Geissler, University of Calgary

Dr Gabor Gelléri, Aberystwyth University

Dr Jaap Geraerts, University College London

Dr Thomas Gobbitt, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften

Dr Steven Gray, University of Portsmouth

Steffen Hope, Syddansk Universitet

Dr Johanna M. E. Green, University of Glasgow

Prof. Stephen Guy-Bray, University of British Columbia

Robbie Hand, King’s College London

Pat Hill, University of Huddersfield

Dr Jennifer Hillman, University of Chester

Prof. Matt Houlbrook, University of Birmingham

Dr Martin Johnes, Swansea University

Shannon M. Kennedy, University of Sheffield

Dr Andy Kesson, Roehampton University

Mr Alexander Latham, University of Sussex

Dr Sjoerd Levelt, Bilkent University

Dr Dan Lockton, Royal College of Art

Dr Caroline Magennis, University of Salford

Dr Mike Mantin, Swansea University

Prof. Luke Martell, University of Sussex

Dr Lucinda Matthews-Jones, Liverpool John Moores University

Kathryn Maude, Swansea University

Dr Kate Maxwell, University of Tromsø

Dr David McGuinness, University of Glasgow

Dr Janette Myers, St George’s, University of London

Dr Liz Oakley-Brown, Lancaster University

Emma Osborne, University of Glasgow

Dr William Pooley, University of Bristol

Dr Eoin Price, Swansea University

Dr Samantha J. Rayner, University College London

Dr Emily Robinson, University of Sussex

Dr Kirsty Rolfe, Queen Mary University of London

Dr Jessica Sage, University of Reading

Dr Laura Sangha, University of Exeter

Dr Alison Searle, University of Sydney

Karra Shimabukuro, University of New Mexico

Dr Tom Stafford, University of Sheffield

Dr Hannah Tweed, University of Glasgow

Dr Brodie Waddell, Birkbeck, University of London

Dr Helen Webster, Newcastle University

Dr Fiona Whelan, University of Oxford

Emily Whetsel

Dr Rachel Willie, Bangor University

Jessica Wing, University of Cambridge

Dr Helen Young, University of Melbourne

[1] Recently, e.g., here: https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/chimp-implants-amazonian-pungency-and-sub-human-scholars-–-exam-howlers-return

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