The exam season is upon us!

Monday 11 December 2017

Saturday, 9th December, was the beginning of St Andrews’ first semester examination diet. In this blog we thought we would examine the examination practices of the University, and share with you some of the 19th and 20th century exam papers we hold in our muniment collections.

In the medieval period of the University, students would have been assessed orally in Latin. The curriculum at St Andrews, modelled on the University of Paris, was focused on the student’s ability in disputation (or debate). [1] From the 15th century, at the end of two and a half years of study, in order to receive the Bachelor’s degree, students would have two main assessments: determination at Christmas and responsions at Lent. [2] These were ‘public acts’ in which students had to defend or oppose a particular position. [3] Until the assessment at Lent students were known as determinants:

Minutes of the Faculty of Arts – 8 December 1414 (UYUY411)

Summary translation from Latin:

Determinants to be admitted by Dean and Regents after making payment to the Beadle. [4]

G H Bushnell’s impression of Parliament Hall – the black stone would be next to the Professor’s chair and fellow students would sit along the benches

For final examinations candidates were called in turn to sit on the black stone to be questioned by four examiners. The process could be a costly one, as the successful determinants were expected to hold banquets and give gifts to their examiners.

Students though were given time to practice their orations. The Orator’s book from St Leonard’s College contains the text of practice disputes that the students would undertake on a Saturday morning. A letter of John Row to his uncle from 1691 describes the routine of College life and includes that Saturday morning ordeal.

Extract from a letter by John Row to his uncle (10 August 1691) detailing College life, including that ‘on each Saturday there are publick Dis-puts betwixt diverse philosophie classes’ (msLF1117.R6)

John Row graduated MA in 1682 and later became Regent of St Leonard’s College. The lecture notes of student Patrick Bayne (1694-1695) record Row’s dictates, perhaps in preparation for the oration Bayne himself would have to make. Early 18th century lecture notes of George Scott (1708-1709) also record the dictates of the Regent Colin Vilant.

Lecture notes of student Patrick Bayne (1694-1695) (reference msBC6.R6 (ms172))
Lecture notes of George Scott (1708-1709) (msBC59.V8 (ms5076))

During the 19th century the curriculum underwent substantial changes. A number of government reforms brought modifications such as the stricter regulation of medical degrees – degrees could no longer be conferred in absentia with testimonials. [5] The University Calendar for 1852 outlines the regulations for the medical degree examinations as taking place over two days comprising both written and oral assessment.

University Calendar for 1852/53 Medical Degree Regulations
The examining doctors for Medical degree at St Andrews (ALB-24-101)
University Calendar – 1852/53 Arts Degree Regulations

In the humanities, the 1827 regulations proposed that the M.A. degree was only to be conferred after examination in seven subjects: Humanity, Greek, Logic, Mathematics, Moral Philosophy, Natural Philosophy and Chemistry. [6] The regulations for the Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees in our earliest University Calendar (1852/3) outline the topics to be included in the examination, such as the first five books of Livy, elements of Plane and Solid Geometry and Statics, Dynamics and Astronomy.

Some of the earliest written exam papers we have are from the 1850s:

Logic class exam papers, upon entrance to the class, from the 1851-52 academic year
Logic class exam papers, upon entrance to the class, from the 1851-52 academic year

In the 1862, 1863, 1874 and 1876 M.A. exam papers (UYUY324(e)) would you be able to answer such questions as:

‘Give a brief notice of the translations of the Scriptures into English during the 16th and 17th centuries?’ [English Literature 1862]

‘What was the Principle of Pythagorean Philosophy; how was it applied to Ethics; and in what form did it show itself in the moral system of a subsequent Philosopher?’ [Moral Philosophy 1862]

‘Distinguish between Pure or Formal, and Mixed or Modified Logic.’ [Logic 1862]

‘What are Euclid’s tests of the similarity of triangles? Prove that in equiangular triangles the sides about the equal angles are proportional.’ [Mathematics 1863]

‘How is sulphuretted hydrogen prepared, and how may it be used for the separation of the metals into groups?’ [Chemistry, April 19, 1876]

‘Find the mechanical advantage of the Inclined Plane, where the power acts directly up the plane. Also find the mechanical advantage of the Wedge, by means of the principle of virtual velocities.’ [Natural Philosophy, 18th April 1874]

Translate the following:

Latin paper, April 1862
Greek paper, 14 April 1862

Special Collections holds in muniments the archive of past exam papers, including those now available in digital form. An example from the 20th century past papers are these 1950 Mathematics Examination papers:

Exam papers for Mathematics, 1950

We hope these examples of previous exams aren’t too daunting! To all the students taking their exams in the next couple of weeks, we wish you the best of luck!

Sarah Rodriguez
Reading Room Team

[1] Ronald Gordon Cant, The University of St Andrews A Short History (St Andrews, 2002), p.22
[2] Ibid
[3] Annie Dunlop (ed.), Acta Facultatis Artium Universitatis Sanctiandree, 1413-1588 (Edinburgh, 1964), page xci
[4] Ibid, page clxxv
[5] Ronald Gordon Cant, The University of St Andrews A Short History (St Andrews, 2002), p.123
[6] Ibid

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1 thoughts on "The exam season is upon us!"

  • The history of exams at St Andrews- Part II | Echoes from the Vault
    Wednesday 9 May 2018, 11.00am

    […] semester we looked at the former methods of examination and some of the past exam papers. This semester we take a further look at the history of exams at St Andrews, in particular the […]


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