Oxford Figures, Chapter 1: 800 years of mathematical traditions

The examination tradition

Over the past two centuries, examinations have come to occupy a prominent place and now form a key role in the Oxford undergraduate experience. Indeed, in the words of Baden Powell, the examination process `will always be the first moving principle of the whole machinery'. The situation in the late eighteenth century is sometimes felt to be symbolized in the reminiscences of John Scott (later, Lord Chancellor Eldon), a student at University College, who called the examination `a farce in my time', recounting his experience with the examiners on 20 February 1770 in these terms:

"What is the Hebrew for the place of a skull?" I replied "Golgotha." "Who founded University College?" I stated (though, by the way, the point is sometimes doubted) "that King Alfred founded it." "Very well, Sir," said the Examiner, "you are competent for your degree."

Perhaps Scott exaggerated his memories for the sake of an after-dinner joke; even so, that it could be told at all indicates that things were different then.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the examination process was refined, with several changes being progressively introduced in the final examinations. Fresh examinations, too, were introduced at different stages of the undergraduate career, alongside changes in the structure of the Schools of the University. By the early twentieth century, examinations had begun to weigh heavily, not only on students but also on their teachers. J. J. Sylvester had already in the previous century described the setting of examination papers as `this horrible incubus', and William Ferrar, a Fellow of Hertford College, wrote in his memoirs about the toll the examination process exacted from the small number of mathematics dons:

In 1926 or so I began my chore of examining for Oxford University; at first easy tasks like Pass Mods or Science Prelims, but later a steady round of Mods, Finals & the Junior left me with a major examination every year. Further, every year required a paper to be set for the scholarship (entrance) examination in the Hertford group of colleges. Altogether the work of examining within the University was, on looking back on it, unduly heavy. There were only 10 or 12 full time mathematical dons & professors & with so few qualified examiners and so many annual examinations the pressure on each individual don was considerable. I wonder how any of us found either the time or the energy to pursue our own researches; in fact many Oxford dons gave up & confined their mathematics to their tutoring, lecturing & examining.

The numbers given by Ferrar for the 1920s may be compared with the early 1990s, by which time there were twelve professors, five readers, and over forty university lecturers, a five-fold increase. Since the student numbers have more than kept pace with this rise, and examinations have certainly not diminished in quantity or importance, it is to be hoped that there are economies of scale for the continued academic effort involved.


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