I'm not really sure if this is the right place for a question like this - but it seems the closest.

I was reading about exams on wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exam

It makes it seem that the West did not really have exams until around the 1800's. To clarify, by exam I mean the ones we understand it to be today - standardised paper exams - but from what I'm reading, it doesn't seem there was even much of oral exams. There was a lot of push back from it's introduction from China in the late 1800's. Yet the West certainly did have universities that existed well before then.

So how did those universities, like Oxford for example, examine students? Was it all verbal? It seems strange to think of education without examination.

  • 1
    "It seems strange to think of education without examination." The modern focus on evaluation is what seems strange to me, when education should be about teaching, learning, sharing... Oct 29, 2022 at 8:04
  • Keep in mind that industrial scale paper is a 19th century development. Oct 29, 2022 at 13:34

1 Answer 1


Interesting question. The short answer is: yes, exams were oral (and in Latin!), but they were really more arguments or discussions than quizzes. Universities were smaller and the students and teachers knew one another well, so ultimately it was the teachers' opinions of each student, not a transcript, that mattered.

For the longer answer, we can start with Cambridge's website:

The teaching took the form of reading and explaining texts; the examinations were oral disputations in which the candidates advanced a series of questions or theses which they disputed or argued with opponents a little senior to themselves, and finally with the masters who had taught them. Some of the masters, but by no means all, went on to advanced studies in divinity, canon and civil law, and, more rarely, medicine, which were taught and examined in the same way by those who had already passed through the course and become doctors.

So exams were mostly oral; undergrads would have to argue with grad students, and grad students would do the same with the doctors.

The situation in the early US appears to be similar. According to Lester Hunt's book:

Initially, as at Harvard in 1646, exams were oral and aimed to assess nothing more than the amount of information the students had packed into their minds. Later, using written tests, student writing and reasoning skills were assessed as well. Eventually, exam by recitation would dwindle and disappear, lingering mainly in the dreaded doctoral "orals." According to Mary Lovett Smallwood's history of grading in five early colleges...the first known grading system comparable to ours was instituted at Yale in 1785...Essentially, it was a 4-point system using words rather than letters and numbers."

So again, mostly oral exams. It's worth remembering that these were smaller classes where the students would have personal relationships with the teachers over multiple years. So, exams leading to formal written grades were probably less important than the subjective opinions that the teachers would form. This is similar to graduate study or even seminary today -- there may be some "objective" graded written tests, but the student's reputation with the teachers (e.g., through letters of recommendation) is far more important.

It's also worth noting that when evaluating students (up until ~1830 or so), the criteria were not only academic. Behavioral conduct (e.g., keeping one's room tidy), social conduct, and chapel attendance were also explicit metrics to be considered (some discussion of this is here).

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    Yes, probably not the same questions for each student. But Newtonian physics didn’t make it into the classroom right away; most of the content would still have been from the Greek and Roman “thinkers” (e.g., Aristotle)
    – cag51
    Oct 28, 2022 at 3:09
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    So, quite a lot like oral qualifying exams that are still common in doctoral education. Note that we didn't have mass education back then. Numbers were smaller. Written exams are most likely a result of the change in scale and the need to regularize/normalize outcomes.
    – Buffy
    Oct 28, 2022 at 12:33
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    @JohnHon I'd argue that the traditional oral exams (which were widely used in modern times and are still in use) tend to be much more thorough than standardized written exams - I'd rather consider that trying to guesstimate competency by a multiple choice test is totally whimsical compared to an oral examination, standardized written tests are effectively a workaround for cases where you can't afford to do proper individual evaluation due to large scale.
    – Peteris
    Oct 28, 2022 at 12:48
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    This is similar to how many guilds accepted new artisans. A master or a group of masters has a great deal of leeway in how they determine who is eligible, rather than having a set of standardized criteria.
    – jpa
    Oct 28, 2022 at 12:58
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    @Buffy The largely increased number of students (or population, in general) is also a major factor in introduction of objective measures for testing
    – whoisit
    Oct 28, 2022 at 19:24

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