by Kieran Healy on December 19, 2005

All over the U.S. at the moment, academics like me are complaining about end-of-semester woes like administering exams and grading papers. Cheer up! It could be worse. For instance, take this “despairing page”: put up by the economist “John Hey”:, who spends some of his time teaching in England, and the rest as Professore Ordinario at a University in Italy. Pretty nice gig, you might think — “except when”: it comes to exams:

The intention of this web page is to draw attention to large differences in the number of examinations in different countries of the world, with the particular intention of revealing Italy as an outlier. I also want to draw attention to an associated bureaucratic procedure called “verbalizzazione”:, which I do not think exists anywhere else in the world other than in Italy. … Here is a broad summary of the number of examinations in different countries of the world. …
* ONE exam per course each year with no right to resit: Canada, United States
* ONE exam per course per year with at most one resit: Denmark, France, Germany, Mexico, Switzerland, United Kingdom.
* ONE exam per course per year with at most two resits: Austria, The Netherlands
* (Up to) TEN exams per course per year with the right to resit as often as you wish: *Italy*.

His page summarizing the “verbalizzazione”: business (what it takes, once you administer all those exams, to actually get the grade recorded) is enough to give a public choice theorist an aneurysm.



agm 12.19.05 at 10:26 pm

So to resit it to retake the exam?


Kieran Healy 12.19.05 at 10:29 pm

Yes. Sometimes — at least, I seem to remember this was true in Ireland when I was an undergrad — resitting (repeating, we called it) was allowed in the Autumn if you’d failed the Summer exams, but the restriction was you couldn’t get an honors degree if you’d ever had to repeat the exams.


Robert Waldmann 12.19.05 at 10:35 pm

I too am a Professore Ordinario at a University in Italy and I never imagined that anyone would want to read about the verbalizzazione nonsense. In fact when I read the first sentence I though “not me I’m done with exams before Christmas (although I do still have to set the 3 exam dates in January/February for one course).


Miriam 12.20.05 at 12:07 am

What does Hey mean by “course”? The UK’s definition of a “course” doesn’t necessarily mesh with the USA’s definition of a “course.”

Don’t most of us Yanks have at least two exams per course–a midterm and a final? (There have even been some instances when I’ve given–eek–three exams.)


ogmb 12.20.05 at 1:22 am

The German system as I know it (might not be universal), has an exam at the end of a sequence of courses, usually two, sometimes four semesters. No required midterms, although end-of-semester exams sometimes exist and are either required to be admitted to the final exam or optional to improve the final grade. The number of conflict points (every grading opportunity being a conflict point) is far lower than in the American system.


Ginger Yellow 12.20.05 at 6:32 am

Also, bear in mind that Oxbridge is different from most of the rest of the UK system. For many courses Oxford only has two exams over the entire length of the course.


Z 12.20.05 at 7:06 am

While it is true that France normally has only one final (and thus required) exam with one resit, the standard practice (at least in the university I know off) is to give students three to four exams per courses so that they can keep track of their progress.


Robert Waldmann 12.20.05 at 9:32 am

Indeed. I think a reasonable compromise between students fear of all depending on performance on one day is to have hourly exams as in the USA.

Also I have to say that, in addition to the 9 official exams I had one extra informal (but allowed) exam session so I must be crazy or something.

The really horrible part of examining in Italy is that students can refuse to accept a grade. Thus they bargain with the implicit threat that if you don’t give them a slightly higher grade, they will make you read the nonsense they write the next exam session.

Still, all in all, it beats working.


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 12.20.05 at 9:53 am

I think the NUI undergrad system in Ireland was (maybe still is);

Can repeat Summer exam in Autumn.
Can repeat entire year and take Summer exam again.
If degree programme divided into Pass and Honours streams (eg Arts, Science),
Autumn repeats will put you into Pass stream – must repeat year to get Honours degree.
Don’t remember if you actually had to do Autumn repeat first but people always did anyway as
there was nothing to be lost. No grants or fees paid for you if repeating the year –
sometimes people were allowed to audit classes w/o fees for first semester and pay just for second semester.


Peter 12.20.05 at 12:08 pm

One of the many absurdities of national government meddling in the affairs of British Universities is that the English authorities have redefined the word “course” from its prior and customary meaning of a sequence of lectures on a single topic given over one term or semester, to mean a degree programme taken by a student over one or more years.

The prior meaning (and the one still used by anyone outside British academia) is that numbered IV/23.a in the OED Online:

“A planned or prescribed series of actions or proceedings: as of medicine, diet, study, lectures, etc.”

Now, the UK academic bureaucracy calls such a lecture course, a “module”. I find this usage immensely confusing and refuse pointedly to use the newspeak.


Buce 12.21.05 at 12:11 am

Uh, I’d like a bit more thick-on-the-ground info re Italy. Twenty-five years ago, I went along with a friend who was a law prof at Roma Due. The “exam session” entailed il professore sitting in the middle of the room while students approached him one by one and he asked them questions–orally! orally!–and they, well, they did more or less what students do. Others milled around: the “public” setting was regarded as essential for fairness. I never saw anyone (neither prof nor student) so much as take out a pencil, much less reduce anything to writing. It struck me as a profoundly silly way to spend a summer afternoon–for everyone, student and teacher alike–but it wasn’t much like slogging through bluebooks.

Was my experience somehow distinctive? Have things changed?

[BTW, these were law students–they could indeed sit, and sit, and sit, which meant that they went on into their 30s holding down a bureacratic job somewhere and telling the world “I’m working on my law degree.” I suppose there was some government $$$ in the equation, too. YOu ask the prof how many students he had and he’d say–I haven’t any idea– becaus they could sit, and sit, and sit. And yammer and yammer.


maidhc 12.21.05 at 4:31 am

US universities usually operate on a semester or quarter system, whereas in other countries courses often run over an entire academic year.

Grading in US universities generally takes into account homework, essays or lab projects (depending on the subject), one or two midterm exams and a final exam.

The advantage of the US system is that the student has more opportunity to demonstrate achievement in different contexts. The disadvantage is that since some of the work takes place outside the classroom, there is increased opportunity for cheating.

As I usually teach, a particular type of problem is assigned for homework (I allow this to be done in a group}, again on a midterm, and then again on the final. This means that the student has already encountered that type of problem (and seen solutions) twice before the final exam. Surely this makes things as easy for the student as could possibly be expected–but some still fail.

It seems to me that the European “one exam for everything” system requires a lot more self-discipline from the students. While I am not opposed to students having self-discipline, I teach at a working-class university where most of the students hold down jobs to finance their education, and often have family responsibilties as well. Unless they are forced to do work throughout the semester because it affects their grade, their academic work could easily slip behind because of their other responsibilities. In this sense, the American system may be perhaps more “democratic”.

I don’t know how typical this is in the US, but at my university we have “academic renewal”, which means that a student can pay the fees again, take the course again, do all the work again, and the new grade will replace the old. You can do this twice per course. After that you can still take the course over and over, but your results are averaged together. I think my record so far is that one student has taken one of my courses 5 times without passing.

P.S. While I am discussing primarily US universities, from experience I know that Canadian universities follow a generally similar policy. I can’t claim direct knowledge of any other countries.


ajay 12.22.05 at 7:04 am

For many courses Oxford only has two exams over the entire length of the course.

Two? Try “between eight and 26”. You have a mid-course exam, either at the end of the second term of first year, the start of the third term, or the end of the third term, called either “Prelims” or “Mods”; you have “Finals” at the end (duh); and you have “Collections” at the start of every term except your first term and your finals term and except any term in which it might clash with Prelims or Mods.
However, only Prelims/Mods and Finals count in terms of your degree; the rest are just to keep an eye on your progress.
And if you are studying more than one subject (say, History and Economics, or PPE – Politics, Philosophy and Economics) you have separate Mods, Prelims, Finals and Collections in each. But the minimum is eight – one every term except the first term of first year.


Danny Yee 12.22.05 at 7:24 am

I read “resit” as “resist” initially, which gave me “one exam per course each year with no right to resist”…


mpowell 12.22.05 at 12:19 pm

I’d have to disagree w/ the claim made about the US system, as other posters here have as well. Very rarely in the US is your entire course grade dependent on one exam. In fact, from my understanding of how other systems work, I greatly prefer the US approach where students’ performance is measured in a variety of contexts. This seems much more fair to students with different skills sets and maybe not the best pure test taking skills. Moreover, I think the continual learning and studying process this encourages is much better for long term retention of information.


Stephen M (Ethesis) 12.22.05 at 2:28 pm

I read “resit” as “resist” initially, which gave me “one exam per course each year with no right to resist”…


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