The Style and Format of Past History Exams

Manon Williams
Thursday 29 July 2021

When I began looking at University of St Andrews History examination papers from the twentieth century, I was surprised by how similar they were to the examinations that history students at the university sit today in style, format and content. Looking at the wording of the questions, the content that is being examined and the layout of examination papers from 1905, the 1950s, 1975, 1985 and 1995, compared to history papers from today, can offer a unique insight into the ways that teaching and studying history at St Andrews has changed over the last century, and all the ways that it hasn’t.

1905 Honours History Examination (ms38977/6/1/1/1/10)

Looking at a History Honours paper from 1905 it is clear that the actual style of the questions is fairly similar to the ones that we still answer today, with one significant difference. While the questions from 1905 were generally straightforward, asking students to briefly describe or explain historical events or trends, questions from our history examinations today are generally far more nuanced and broader. For example, one of the papers I looked at asks ‘State briefly Hooker’s views on government.’ This question asks the student to provide a brief overview of a historical figure and their views, as opposed to a more analytical view of the reasons for an event or the historical patterns that it followed. A similar Modern History paper from 2020 asks ‘What have been the primary factors facilitating the establishment and preservation of peace and prosperity in Europe following the Second World War?’ This question is far more detailed, requiring a thorough look into a number of factors and trends during a long period of time.

Another significant difference is in the number of questions that a student had to answer. The 1905 paper was three hours long and asked the student to answer eight questions, while the paper from 2020 that I am using as a comparison is two hours long and asks the student to answer two questions. This means that in 2020 a student has an hour per question and in 1905 a student had less than 30 minutes to answer each question. This suggests that the answers to the 2020 paper are meant to be far more in depth and analytical, compared to the questions from the 1905 paper, which were more about writing out memorised facts on historical events. This aligns with the questions themselves which, as previously stated, were generally simple and short. While history examinations these days usually take the form of long and detailed essays, the questions from 1905 seem to have been meant to be answered with short accounts of different moments in history. This implies that in the past hundred years there has been a fundamental change in the way teaching history at St Andrews has been conceptualised as the discipline has grown and become more varied and analytical.

As we move into the 1950s the papers generally styled pretty similar. One of the biggest differences was that there was now a range of papers for different classes, categories by different epochs. There were papers for Ancient, Medieval, Modern, and Colonial History, and these papers were often split further into specific categories, such as ‘Scottish Medieval History’ or ‘Colonial History before 1830’. Papers generally kept the three-hour timeline but the number of questions to be answered shrunk, with an average of 3-4 questions per paper. The questions were also starting to become more analytical in nature, asking students to describe the reasons for different trends and events or to discuss statements. For example, ‘ “Mercantilism was . . . a necessary stage in the replacing of a local and territorial economic policy of by that national state.” Consider this statement in the light of the seventeenth century successes, first of the Dutch, later of the English.’ This style of asking students to discuss or consider a quotation with reference to specific historical incidents is still popular in history examinations today.

The papers from the 1970s also display this trend of history at St Andrews becoming more nuanced and focused on specific topics. As well as the examinations being split up by period, I also found a wealth of papers for specific honours modules, such as ‘The American Revolution’ and ‘Anglo-French Maritime Rivalry’. The questions that students had to answer were also becoming more detailed and recognisable for current history students. There were a lot more of the quotation style questions and they were often focused on specific events. It is also clear that progress had been made in terms of the inclusivity of the history classes, as there are papers that ask about non-western histories, such as a paper on European History that includes questions on Byzantium and Jerusalem.

As we move to looking at papers from the 1980s and 90s, they become virtually indistinguishable from examinations that history students would take today. There are once again both papers on large time periods and specific classes, and the questions are also very comparable to questions from today. In a three-hour paper I looked at from 1995, the student was required answer three questions, which is very similar to today. Clearly the answers were becoming far more similar to the detailed essays that are required from current students.

Overall, there is a clear pattern with the papers that I looked at, one that mirrors the changes that were taking place more broadly within the within discipline of history. The questions asked were becoming more and more detailed and analytical, bringing us to the thorough and conclusive essays written by history students today. Despite this, the papers from the early twentieth centuries are remarkably similar to the ones that we sit today in style and content.



  • 1905 Ordinary History Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10
  • 1905 Special History Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10
  • 1950 Colonial History Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10
  • 1955 Medieval Scottish History Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10
  • 1956 Modern British History Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10
  • 1975 Medieval European History Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10
  • 1975 Medieval English Church History Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10
  • 1995 Modern British History Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10
  • 1995 ‘ME3006: Women in Early Medieval England’ Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10
  • 1995 ‘MO3953: Watergate’ Examination – ms38977/6/1/1/1/10


This post was written in 2021 by Amanda Stewart, who was then going into her third year studying History at the University of St Andrews.

This post is part of a collection examining the establishment of the History degree at St Andrews, looking at the increasing number of staff and students and the gender balance of those graduating with a degree in history. You can also learn about the progression of the history degree in the twentieth century or the or the first joint honours in History. To learn more about the past paper exams from key decades throughout the twentieth century, follow these links: 1905 Past Paper, 1950s Past Paper, 1970s Past Paper, and the 1980s/90s Past Paper.

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