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A Point of View: The age-old anxiety of exam time

Board outside Glasgow University reads: "Silence please, exams in progress"

These days, the historian Mary Beard marks university exams rather than sits them - but as the season of finals begins, she finds it difficult to avoid being caught up in her students' anxieties.

I am about to spend the next month or so doing exams - like hundreds of thousands of anxious young people throughout the land. I'm not actually taking them of course, although I do still, even now, regularly get those awful panicky dreams about turning up in the wrong place, for the wrong exam, having learned the wrong stuff.

For me now exams are all about preparing my students, advising them on revision tactics, then turning into the scary monster who marks them, before turning back again to the friend who congratulates or mops up. I can't honestly claim that this is worse than taking the exams yourself. But it still isn't fun to watch the tough, engaging and intelligent young people you have taught for three years suddenly morph into nervous wrecks, hanging a bit pathetically on your every word, as they have never, quite rightly, done before.

"Am I allowed to write in purple ink?" one will eventually ask (the last of a string of questions that begin "Am I allowed…", all of them exposing nerves and a desire for reassurance more than any real lack of information). "Yes," you say patiently, "but do you really need to write in purple?" Then you remember that none of these poor kids will have written anything much by hand over the past three years, beyond the occasional signature - or exam paper. So you quickly backtrack to suggest that they practice actually writing for three hours to get their hands in training. Presumably some time in the future, the country's universities will be equipped with ranks of secure, internet-disabled keyboards onto which the students will tap out their answers, without straining their unpractised muscles, but it will be well after my time.

On the day of any exam that I myself have set, I have to turn up in the exam room for the first 20 minutes or so (feeling, frankly, a bit of a prat in an academic gown). That's just in case any student has a query about the paper, or in case something has gone terribly wrong. You dread the moment when a student puts up their hand, having taken a quick look at the questions, and says: "I'm sorry, but our set book was Sophocles' Antigone, not the Oedipus" and asking that you put things right, instantly. It has, I'm afraid, happened.

Once the students have written their papers, then they let their hair down and we have to do the marking. I know that I can't really complain at the quantity of it. This year, when I am marking the finalists, I have only roughly 100 scripts to grade (if I compare that with the vast numbers you have to do at GCSE, this is nothing). All the same, it looks daunting when you have them piled up for the first time on your kitchen table.

After 35 years in this business, I have my own little rituals. First of all I sniff around the papers, dipping in, working out which questions have attracted the punters and which haven't (otherwise known as procrastination). Then I start with the first question and mark all the answers to that, then go on to the second question, and so on. When I've finished that process, I go back to each individual script and look it again as a whole, before giving it a mark. That probably takes about 45 minutes for each one, maybe 75 hours in all.

At least, that's what it takes until you come across one of those impenetrably illegible ones (another consequence of no practice wielding a pen). There is, I should say, a stern warning plastered on the front page of our exam papers: "Candidates who do not write legibly may find themselves at a grave disadvantage." But, to be honest, this has about as much effect as the "Now wash your hands" sign in the average public lavatory. You can end up struggling to decode some student's scrawl for almost as long as they took to write it.

So why persevere? Why not penalise? Well, partly it's because their career hangs on these exams - so you'd have to be very hard-hearted actually to inflict that "grave disadvantage". But for me it's a bit of a personal thing too. The truth is, my own son is one of those with ghastly handwriting, and I am forever grateful that some examiner at his university took the trouble to extract the sense out of his mess. As I sit there taking hours to do the same, I find myself muttering periodically: "I am doing this for this person's Mum".

But there's another side to the exam business. Never mind all the anxiety, overwork and stress that exams breed, or all those nagging questions about what exactly exams are for (which I've never found as easy to answer as I'd like). There is all the same something reassuringly traditional about the whole process. In fact, Mr Gove and his friends might like to take note that even endemic complaints about poor performance have been with us since at least the mid-19th Century when written exams, as we know them, first became fashionable in this country.

I'm not saying that nothing has changed over the last 150 years. For a start, all universities now have what they rather grandly call "alternative modes of assessment" as well as sudden-death exams. Students can take at least part of their degree by assessed essays or dissertation - it's what you'd call "coursework" if it was done in a school. And we now have whole areas of study that were unheard of back then, from particle physics to ancient homosexuality, while we have ditched others. I still wonder which students in Cambridge 100 years ago took the "Sanitary Science Examination", but they were faced with a whole array of such early 20th Century questions as: "Describe in detail the method you would adopt for the disinfection of ships in relation to plague, cholera and yellow fever." Must have been useful, I guess.

But a lot about the whole ritual is still instantly recognisable, from way back. In my own university it's not just the dons prancing round in their gowns. It goes right down to the almost unchanging layout and typeface of the exam papers (some are so similar that at first glance, without looking carefully at the date, you'd be hard put to distinguish the papers of 1870 from those of 1970). And, in my subject, it extends to some of the questions too. Some version of "explain the immediate cause of the rupture between Caesar and the Senate in 49 BC", as classics students were bidden in 1883, will - I'm sure - be appearing on ancient history papers across the world this summer, although I bet (and hope) the answers are very different. Occasionally, I must admit, the similarities can be deceptive. When geography students were asked in 1915 to "discuss the evidence for changes of climate in historic times", I don't think they would have interpreted "climate change" quite as our students would today.

The most familiar thing, though, about exams in the past is the general curmudgeonly gloom that greeted the students' efforts. We now live with the myths of a golden age of academic achievement years ago, of currently falling standards and of their evil twin "grade inflation" (I'm not saying "grade inflation" can never happen, but people do seem to be oddly resistant to the idea that students now could possibly do better, or know more, than they did a century ago). It comes as a bit of an eye opener to find dons and commentators back then regularly lamenting, just like now, what the students didn't know or couldn't do.

An Oxford University student celebrates the end of finals

Digging back through my own department records to the 1850s, I found a huge fuss about how completely useless these poor boys were (and they were then only boys) in the ancient history component of their classics degree. They couldn't do it, moaned the dons, they didn't put enough effort in, and the examination itself wasn't fit for purpose. Even those who got the top, first class, degrees in classics overall, had all failed the ancient history element, their average mark between 1853 and 1855 being 35%. Those worried about grade inflation might reflect on the fact that you could then romp away with a first even if you had failed a major paper. I don't think it would happen now.

I'd love to know what the truth was and whether, in our terms, those ancient history answers really were as bad as the bleating dons cracked them up to be. But, sadly, it's next to impossible to test these claims. Now our students' scripts get shredded after a decent interval, and the ones from the distant past are almost entirely lost. We have the questions in other words, but we'll never know how the students answered them.

We can be pretty sure, though, that the young gentlemen of the 1850s would have been writing with their elegant fountain-pens, in a clearly legible, beautifully formed hand.

Or can we? Maybe that's another nostalgic fiction.

A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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