My first exam session in Italy

The consequences of not receiving university emails and my impression of the University of Ferrara’s examination process.

To recap part of my last blog and put this one into context – a trouble I faced in my first term here at the Università degli Studi di Ferrara was being unable to have my address put on the class emailing list. By the time exams came around in February, I was still yet to receive any emails related to one of my courses, and any others seemed to appear in such a random fashion that I was unable to work out what sort of system was running, assuming there was one.

Therefore, having checked my online student area multiple times for the hour and location, one morning in mid February I headed off to my first exam since joining the Italian uni system. Despite being nervous at the prospect of an oral examination in Italian (the most common format for exams in Italy), I was happy with my revision for this contemporary history exam and felt that even if I didn’t know the answer immediately, I would be able to bide some time or prompt myself thanks to the oral set-up. I arrived at the allocated room with 10 minutes to spare before my exam, trying not to overthink possible questions/answers whilst I waited. As it got closer to the proposed start time however, I became increasingly confused as to why more and more of the other students from the course were arriving – surely they weren’t going to wait for the x times 20 minutes given for each student’s exam before their own? Eventually noticing that everyone also had their books and pens with them, a sense of unease joined my confusion. Deciding to seek some reassurance from a man stood next to me, I got chatting to him. He was a mature student, this was his first experience of Italian university exams too and I was pleased to hear that he was also expecting an individual oral exam. We realised that we were both mistaken however when our professor arrived 5 minutes later, laden with a huge pile of exam papers. As we entered the classroom, I hoped that my oral-exam prep would suffice, and that my fellow bemused student had a pen to spare. Luckily he had more than one biro.

Before beginning the exam the professor said a few quick words. He greeted the room full of students sat shoulder to shoulder, asked us to please not peek at each other’s exam papers and reiterated that the reason for the change in exam format was due to the oversubscription to the course…all of which we knew of course, since he had already explained this in his email. What a shame that I had never received it!

A couple of days later and it was time for my next and final exam, this time on iconology and iconography. Although the class for this course had been much smaller than that of history, I learnt from my first experience and arrived with a couple of pens and a pencil in hand just in case. This time they weren’t necessary as the exam was an oral as expected. What I hadn’t expected however was to have to wait 7 and a half hours in the same room until my turn came to face the professor at the front of the class for a short twenty minute grilling in front of everyone else. Although not big enough to warrant a written exam, there were enough students for the examinations to take all day, during which my emotions swung continually between nervousness, extreme boredom and amazed disbelief at this format that is so different to the one used in the UK.

Here I’m going to mention my favourite Italian phrase ‘boh’ again because at the end of the day that is exactly what I said, without thought and with the authenticity worthy of a true Italian! I still couldn’t get my head around why the university employed what I considered such an inefficient system and by that point, I was giving up on trying to figure it out. At 8 o’clock in the evening I was content with just getting back to my apartment. Furthermore, what I found most interesting was that clearly none of my Italian classmates felt the same, probably because unlike me, they were all used to this time-consuming format of examinations. It was a great example of one of the differences between British and Italian culture and in this particular scenario, the difference between student attitudes in Italy and those in the UK. I can now really appreciate the numerous and effective opportunities to have my voice heard and have a say in my education that are available to me as a student at the University of Leeds – I sure that there would be some noise if exams were done in the same manner back home. Perhaps if Italian students had the same Union system that is so strong in the UK, they would be more bothered by the methods in which they are taught and assessed. Nonetheless that all comes back to the proactivity of the student body – which here in Ferrara appears to be almost non-existent.