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St Andrews exams go back to the future

1 April

St Andrews students will be transported over half a millennium back in time this year when the University re-introduces a medieval-style system of exams.

Candidates sitting the May 2012 exam diet at St Andrews will be given the option of an all-oral exam during which students may be asked about any of the subjects they have studied, at any level.

The new style exam is being introduced during the University of St Andrews’ 600th Anniversary celebrations and is intended to give undergraduates an oral examination option as well as a unique insight into the life of their predecessors in the 15thCentury.

Scotland’s oldest university has won special dispensation from the Association for Scottish Higher Academic Marking to re-introduce the oral exam, which will count towards the final degree award. If the 2012 trial is a success, St Andrews will seek permission to make it a permanent feature of the curriculum. Other Scottish universities are watching the St Andrews trial closely.

There will be no set duration for the optional tests, which may last for as long as the panel of examiners remain interested in what each candidate has to say.

Panels comprising senior professors from the Faculties of Medicine, Arts, Divinity and Science will convene to grill students in the university’s four largest lecture theatres, to allow exams to be held in front of all members of the class, as well as interested members of the public.

The University has however dropped the requirement for Latin to be spoken and will take steps to prevent heckling and food-throwing by the audience, a common occurrence in medieval times.

The move was initiated by the Proctor and Deans of the Faculties at St Andrews and introduces a strong academic element to celebration of the University’s 600th anniversary.

It draws heavily on the ancient French academic tradition of “la profilo” (literally meaning to profess one’s knowledge publicly) practised in the University of Paris from the
12th century.

St Andrews has strong links with France – in May 1410 a group of masters, mainly graduates of Paris, initiated a school of higher studies in St Andrews, the precursor to the foundation of the university by Papal Bull in 1413.

St Andrews Proctor, Professor Lorna Milne said:

“Oral exams like this were the norm for hundreds of years and are still common practice in many leading European universities today, so there is no reason why we shouldn’t reintroduce them here as an acknowledgment of our heritage and an established and effective means of thorough academic examination.

“I expect exams to be much more lively affairs this year: there will probably be queues of spectators for assessments by some of our more temperamental academic colleagues.”

The changes have won a cautious welcome from some sections of the student body, including the Debating and Theatrical Societies, but resistance from others.

Students’ Association President Patrick O’Hare is reportedly ‘furious’ at the potential loss of anonymous marking, something that has been practised for years for written exams, and which students fought hard to extend to coursework in 2007.

He was unable to give a statement however having instigated a campaign of silence in protest at the re-introduction of oral exams.

A spokesperson for the University acknowledged Mr O’Hare’s concern, but suggested the problem was not insurmountable.

“For those who prefer anonymity, we’re discussing the possibility of exams sponsorship with several paper bag manufacturers,” he said.

“This may in the end be a win-win situation”.


Issued by the University of St Andrews

Further information:

Niall Scott
Director of Communications
Tel 01334 462244
07711 223062
niall.scott@st-andrews.ac.uk

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