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Exams for the first semester of 2013 will be over in a few days, but perhaps students will still appreciate a little advice, first offered a century ago. This comes from a wee gem of a booklet (165 x 126mm, 13 pages) written by Thomas Gilray and published in 1913: Rules for the Work of the English Classes in the University of Otago.

Rules for EnglishA “good examination paper”, wrote Gilray, requires “more than the possession of the requisite knowledge; candidates must know how to manipulate or arrange it.” The six elements making up the “good” paper were briefly summarised as:

  1. Accuracy – no blunders.
  2. Fulness – nothing essential omitted. [except the second ‘l’ now used in fullness!]
  3. Relevance – nothing put in unless it is asked for.
  4. Attention to neatness, orderly arrangement, and logical sequence.
  5. Good composition.
  6. Clear, precise, vigorous thinking.

Relevance was especially important: “Never insert irrelevant matter in an Examination Paper. Some examiners deduct marks for irrelevant matter; and, in any case, the candidate is wasting his, or her, time in writing it down; while, in addition, such a practice makes an examiner suspicious.” This was a period when exam papers were shipped “home” to England to be marked, so students did not have the advantage of a marker already familiar with their brilliance, who might perhaps offer them the benefit of the doubt.

Gilray’s philosophy on exams suggests that he would not have been the most forgiving of markers himself: “If Examination Papers are written according to good methods, they furnish a most valuable mental training to candidates; if they are written in a slovenly fashion, under the notion that anything will do, their power for good is greatly lessened, if it can be said to exist at all. Leniency in this matter on the part of a teacher or examiner is most prejudicial to the highest interests of students and candidates.”

Some of the “rules for examinations” are a little dated now – “Write your answers in black ink” – but other points remain just as valid today: “Read all the questions over carefully before beginning to write” and “Divide your time as well as you can among the different questions.”

Thomas Gilray was a Scot who excelled at the University of Edinburgh, continued his education in Berlin and Heidelberg, then returned to teach in the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. He was appointed Professor of English at Otago in 1889 from a field of 51 applicants, and held that post until his death in 1920, aged 69. An obituary noted that he had “a singularly kindly and affectionate disposition and his genuine unselfish interest in each one of his students has won him their constant gratitude and esteem.” Gilray’s death came suddenly and dramatically, during the University of Otago’s jubilee celebrations. He was reading the lesson at the service in First Church which marked the opening of the celebrations when he collapsed and died. His last words came from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind.”

The best of luck to all those sitting exams – just make sure you don’t write “in a slovenly fashion”!

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