When I have been involved with running exams (I wasn’t, really, this year), special care seems to be made to spread these out so that where possible students don’t get exams bunched together. Still, I’ve heard students complain “we only have one day off between the Monday and Wednesday exams, that isn’t enough time to revise for the second topic”. I have a lot of sympathy for this; assessing a module (or proportion thereof) by how you perform in a one-, two- or three-hour window is quite a problematic arrangement, and if you haven’t had sufficient time to get up to speed on the topic, even more so. But I have had in mind that, essentially, “when I were a lad, we had it much worse”. Clearing out some boxes to move house, I found exam timetables from five of the six semesters I spent as an undergraduate, so now I can confirm or refute my feeling on this, in the latest of my series of posts that are surely only of interest to me.

Year 1, Semester 1: I had three two-hour exams. One was 9am on Monday, the second was 9am on Tuesday and the third was 4.30pm on the same Tuesday.

Year 1, Semester 2: I don’t have this exam timetable, for some reason. (The real question is why I still have five out of six, not why I’m missing one!)

Year 2, Semester 1: six two-hour exams over two weeks. Week 1 started fairly well, with exams on Monday 9am, Wednesday 4.30pm and Friday 4.30pm, then the fourth was Saturday 9am, so I finished at 6.30pm on Friday and took another at 9am the following morning. The remaining two were on the following Tuesday, at 9am and 4.30pm.

Year 2, Semester 2: another six two-hour exams over two weeks. The first week was Tuesday at 4.30pm, Wednesday at 9am, Wednesday at 4.30pm and Thursday at 4.30pm. Notice I am given a whole 22 hours off between the 3rd and 4th, a comparative luxury! Then the last two were Tuesday and Wednesday the following week, both at 9am.

Year 3, Semester 1: much more relaxed this time, five exams mostly 2.5 hours on Monday at 1.30pm, Wednesday at 9am and Thursday at 9am one week and Monday 9am and Wednesday 9am the following week.

Year 3, Semester 2: three 2.5 hour exams, two on Friday, 9am and 4.30pm and the other on the following Monday at 9am.

So it seems I was expected to either do minimal revision before each exam or to do revision in advance of the exam period and simply retain a good level of knowledge and practice for, say, six hours of exams on three different subjects in a 34-hour period (Y1, S1) or eight hours of exams on four different subjects in a 50-hour period (Y2, S2).

This doesn’t change my sympathy with students who feel their exams could be more spread out. This is important so that they have plenty of time for revision and can fairly represent themselves, refreshed and at their best. It strikes me that with the sort of exam schedules I had, and with the weightings given to exams, if a student woke with a cold that lasted a few days, that could seriously damage half a semester’s work.

I’m trying to tweak what I’ve written above so it doesn’t sound whiny – that isn’t my intention, I’m aware that others have it worse. I’m reminded of the bit from my George Green talk (listen here), where when Green sat the Cambridge Tripos in 1837, this was a five-day examination, 9-11.30 and 1-4pm on Wednesday-Saturday and Monday, that determined the order of merit for the Bachelor’s degree!

Another memory confirmed by these papers is that the Monday 9am exam at the end of year 3 served as both the end point of my degree and also my 21st birthday. One thing I am genuinely surprised by is that I didn’t take a 3 hour exam on any of these timetables – I’ve definitely claimed in recent years during a conversation on exam lengths to have regularly taken three hour exams. Funny thing, memory.