Dons and Students: Examination Practices

I was reading The Times, the article by Mary Beard on examining the Cambridge essays. I am aware of this fundamental difference between the Russian and British education systems (although the Russian one is currently evolving): in Russia, exams are oral; in Britain, they are written. I have rather fond memories of my student life in Moscow, so I thought I would narrate them here.

What do students do?

When I was a History student at the Lomonosov Moscow State University between 1997 and 2002, doing my BA and MA there, we had the following structure: during the year, we’d have lectures in certain subjects, some of which were accompanied by seminars. In a seminar, we discussed different topics, and wrote an essay. There were usually two-three “main” essays per year, on the topics of a seminar, marked. At the end of each semester we had ORAL exams, either with a “pass”/”no pass” mark, or “excellent/good/satisfactory/fail” mark.

My History programme at the MSU saw me attending courses in Archaeology, Ethnography, Palaeography, Latin, Modern Languages, Prehistoric Societies, World and Russian History (Ancient to Contemporary), Philosophy, Art History, Methodology of History, Source Criticism, Quantitative Methods in History, and Computing. Once I started specialising in Medieval and Early Modern History, I had to read not only in my “specialisation proper” (i.e. Tudor History), but also in Source Criticism, Methodology, Heraldry and Numismatics, Onomastics (Onomatology), and Historical (i.e. Medieval and Early Modern) European Geography. On top of that there were “special courses” of my choice: The Bible in the Medieval West; Irish Folklore; Reformation in Germany; The English Reformation.

Just to give you an example, in my 2nd year exam in Early Modern History I had to come to the oral examination with the knowledge of: a textbook (405 pages); lectures (about 50 pages of my A4 notepad); a selection of primary sources (printed in various books and collections, amounting to another 100-150 pages); and a selection of literary works (think of volumes by Rabelais and Servantes). Add to this the compulsory knowledge of Art History for the period, as well as maps…

… and the fact that each of us had to choose an exam ticket with two questions, one usually fairly generic, another more focused. We’d have about 40 minutes to prepare. The exam itself could last anything between 40 minutes and 1 hour, including questions. The duration would depend on both examiner and student. Additional questions could focus on discussing a literary work.

A wonderful writer or a terrible speaker – what to choose?

The oral exams demand that you possess the full knowledge of a subject and can “swim” in it freely. What I personally like about oral exams is that they allow the examiner and student to look each other in the eye – precisely the lack of which Mary Beard as a don seems to be struggling with, when assessing written papers. I also think that oral exams, as well as the focus on developing conversation on a topic, make the very “school of life” that the high education institutions supposedly represent. Why? Consider the following.

When I came to do an MA at the University of Manchester in 2003, in the first semester we sat through the Presentation Skills module, secretly deemed by many students as useless. We were taught “team skills” by predicting how long a paperchain we could make as a team in 10 minutes, and then trying to execute the plan. A lot of groups in that exercise actually cheated. But what stayed with me was the phrase uttered by one of the course leaders in a lecture. She said: “Our academics are known for writing wonderful texts, but when they start talking they are appalling“.

When I was asked for feedback at my department, with my usual honesty I responded that there was no opportunity for students to get involved in oral presentations and debates, other than seminars. Why not organise a student conference? Funnily enough, the conference was indeed organised, and I even took part. But, unlike at the Moscow State Uni, here it was open to MA and PhD students only, who were already involved in research to some degree.

Presentation Skills module was designed in a hope to give us, Humanities folks, the chance to survive in the business world, should we come to realise that it was too hard to get a job at the academy and that an art clerk position in a local archive didn’t pay well. I’m uttering things, but the module in question tried to teach 20-something (and older) students the skill that I was developing “naturally” in the course of seminars, conference papers and oral exams since I was 16.

It’s not just about skills…

Many fond memories of “strange” answers visit me when I think of my life as a student in Moscow. In a short preliminary exam in Archaeology in the first year I was asked why Upper and Lower Paleolithic Period (anthropology) were called so. It was the very last additional question and wouldn’t have any bearing on the mark, and yet… Before then I, a person who never camped in her entire life (this still stands true), managed to explain how to best choose a place to lay out a camp: close to the water stream, not too windy, etc. But “Upper Paleolithic” vs. “Lower Paleolithic” was so simple that it got me stuck. My examiner, himself an MA student, came to the rescue: “Well, think about how archaeologists dig..?

Another example was with the history of the World War One in which Italy was “a defeated one among the victors“. I managed to change that into “a victor among the defeated“. This came out naturally because my actual question was about social and economic history of Italy in between the Wars, and I wanted to skip to it quickly, but the remark about Italy’s status at the end of the WWI was important. Strangely enough, as you may see yourself, my mistake wasn’t altogether wrong: Italy swapped sides shortly before the end of WWI, and thus Italy became indeed a victor among the defeated by virtue of defecting from the German alliance.

Yet it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the best exam stories happened to other people rather than me. I told you the story of Discobolus that was reportedly sculpted by Homer; and when I was once an examiner I was told that the German Reformation was begun by Martin Luther King. Oh, and I was told that some students called the Habsburg dynasty “the Hamburgers”.

Another story, exactly on Mary Beard’s subject of Ancient History, says that the Professor of Ancient Greek History asked a girl whose exam performance was far from good or satisfactory to tell him the difference between a prostitute and a hetaira (ancient Greek courtesan) in Ancient Greece. As a matter of fact, he made a point about this during his lecture on Greek culture. The girl mumbled helplessly. Eventually, Professor interrupted her and quickly recapped on the difference, concluding: “With hetaira, it was a high-cultured sex“.

And yet another story saw a student explaining the examiner how Monsieur Convent was fighting for the progress of the French Revolution… with his faithful spouse, Mme Convent, of course.

…but, actually, it is about skills

These experiences, however, only look non-sensical or funny. In hindsight, they teach many a valuable lesson. They teach resilience: OK, so I misworded something – what do I do? They teach “working under pressure”: imagine reading through all the hundreds of pages I mentioned above – and that is only for one (!) exam, there could be another three or four. They make your reaction sharp and quick: an enviable skill to make one able to work in different routines, professions, and environments. They teach you to structure your answer by making a plan, and to speak coherently. They teach you to come back to where you were interrupted without making a mess of your presentation. An oral exam can develop a wide array of qualities, provided you take your studies seriously.

And the last thing I like about oral exams is that the student stands the chance of proving the examiner that she or he knows the subject they are discussing. Likewise, the examiner stands the chance of seeing how well the student “swims” in the subject’s “sea”.

Who was the “real” Cicero?

And now I looked again at Mary Beard’s article, and I see exam questions like “Why did some Roman emperors punish Christians?” The question sounds almost school-like to me, especially because of “punish”. I would rather have it reworded altogether, so that it pointed to the “problem”. And the problem, of course, is that Christianity was a new religion that challenged the Old Order – among other things.

The question “do Cicero letters help us understand his “real” feelings and motivations?” runs strongly against Barthes’s essay. But I doubt that the examiner would take in nicely a remark from the student that, since Cicero had long been dead, we cannot use his works to “understand” the “real” Cicero.

Most importantly, though, I’m asking: why would a British examiner compare answers to questions one by one, and then student by student? The way I see it, an examiner has already read all Platos, Ciceros and Senecas, to understand their “real” feelings and motivations. They already know why emperors punished Christians. Surely, when they read an answer to the question, they can quickly spot logical flops and the lack of knowledge. Why would they compare the answer of a student A to the answer of a student B? Do they themselves have no clue about what they are marking?

Image is courtesy of CPD Test.


2 thoughts on “Dons and Students: Examination Practices”

  1. Hello Julie,

    Thank you for your very interesting post. I didn't realise that Russian universities concentrated on oral exams. I think that there should perhaps be a balance between learning how to do oral presentations and written work. Shy students are really not made to develop their speaking skills in many Western countries. America is probably an exception.


  2. Hello Viola,

    Thank you for your comment! I agree, there should be a balance, but even the undergraduate essay at my University could not be less than 30 pages long – which is just a tad bit shorter of MA dissertation I wrote at Manchester Uni. Comparing my Russian degree course to the one in England, I have to say that the Russian one was way too more “academic”. 🙂

    But yes, education should help us develop the skills we will need in “life”, so developing speaking skills is certainly important.


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