The Cambridge University History Faculty, which is set to put an end to prelimsCambridge University/Youtube

In a landmark decision on Tripos reform, Cambridge’s History and English faculties have confirmed that future first year students will no longer sit preliminary examinations, commonly known as ‘prelims’. Students will instead sit Part IA exams at the end of their first year.

The first English students who will sit Part IA exams rather than prelims will be those matriculating in October 2020, while the History Faculty will implement its revised Tripos structure beginning with students matriculating in October 2021.

Explained What are prelims, and what will they be replaced by?

The History and English courses at Cambridge are distinguished from most other subjects by their use of prelims, which sees students sit exams at the end of their first year.

The only other undergraduate Cambridge courses to have a preliminary exam structure for first years are the Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic Tripos and the Classics Tripos.

Prelims results do not contribute to their final degree classification, and students are typically awarded a pass or fail mark. They then have the entirety of their first two years at Cambridge assessed via Part I exams at the end of their second year, including subject matter previously assessed in their preliminary examinations.

Part IA exams, used in most subjects, provide students with an official result classification at the end of their first year. At the end of their second year, students sit Part IB exams, which assess only the subject matter from that year.

The third year at Cambridge then comprises Part II of the specific Tripos.

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Dr Emma Spary, Academic Secretary at the History Faculty, said that the Faculty’s proposal to reform Part I, including dividing it into a Part IA and Part IB, “has passed through several university committees and has now been approved.”

Professor Peter De Bolla, Chair of the English Faculty, told Varsity that the decision to scrap prelims was passed unanimously by the Faculty Board, and approved by the Council of the School of Arts and Humanities, followed by the General Board’s Education Committee.

The changes are expected to carry several benefits, as De Bolla said that the reforms will “reduce the number of examinations that English students sit across their first and second years” from the current eight to six, as the two prelim papers will not be repeated in second year. Spary said that “intermitting students will no longer face problems in how their marks on papers stretching over two years are carried forward”.

In full How are prelims being phased out?

As Spary told Varsity, the change to the structure of the History course “requires a very long lead time”. She added: “We can’t alter our teaching provision or the structure of the History Tripos for students who have applied before the new programme is on the books.”

The “three-year phasing-in process” in the History Faculty will mean all students matriculating before 2021 will sit prelims.

Overlap in the History Faculty will mean that “the cohort taking the second year of the old, two-year Part I will be taught alongside freshers taking the first year of the new Part I.”

In the English Faculty, Bolla said that “it takes time to introduce changes to the structure of the Tripos and so students matriculating in 2018 and 2019 will sit prelims under the existing regulations”.

According to Spary, the University is seeking to incorporate Parts IA and IB across the University “more generally”, therefore “the Faculty of History’s Tripos Reform has been designed to incorporate this particular change.”

As courses only introduced in October 2017, the joint History & Politics Tripos and History & Modern Languages Tripos have Part IA exams, but this has not been a push for the History Tripos itself to adopt prelims.

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The reform raises the question of how teaching will change in Easter Term of first year in History and English. History students are expected to complete a normal term’s worth of work after sitting prelims in week zero. English students spend the easter term of their first year solely studying the works of William Shakespeare in a typical arts course structure focused around supervision essays – De Bolla said that “teaching of Shakespeare will be largely unaffected”.

Spary said that while teaching plans were “currently under active discussion”, the Faculty expected “an increase in quality and interest of the teaching overall”, with the introduction of an “exciting and up-to-date range of new papers and themes”. She added that “the aim is to minimise or completely avoid any reduction in contact hours for each individual student”.

Kate Litman and Howard Chae, undergraduate representatives to the History Faculty Board, said they were “supportive of the move to phase out prelims, as it forms part of a much larger programme of Tripos reform”, including a “reduced emphasis on examination and a move towards more diverse modes of assessment”, as well as “more opportunities to study world history”.

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While Litman and Chae said that “it is very difficult to make generalisations that everyone will agree with”, they added that “there is a broad consensus that second year is very challenging for history students” sitting all Part I exams at once, and so “the proposed Tripos reforms will make the course workload more manageable, especially in first year”.

Their only concern is that “prelims provide excellent and detailed feedback for students on examination performance”, which they hope to preserve in the reforms by raising the issue with the Faculty committees they sit on.

Marcus Ansley, an undergraduate representative to the English Faculty Board, remarked that “it’s really important students get a taster of what exams are like here within their first year”. He told Varsity that the reforms are likely to “mean that students will complete a portfolio by the end of their first year, which should offer students some teaching and practice in terms of drafting, referencing, and submitting coursework” – useful practice for a dissertation.

“There is an argument that prelims allow students to practice exam technique without too much emphasis being placed on results”

The other undergraduate representative to the English Faculty, Alex Jacob, said the new exam structure “is indicative of a step towards a more evenly-weighted Tripos, whereby all three years of work contribute to the overall grade”, and that it would reduce pressure later on in the course. He added that “there is an argument that prelims allow students to practice exam technique without too much emphasis being placed on results”, but that the new Tripos structure provides its own benefits, including alleviating pressure in later years.

Jacob said that him and Ansley were “consulted by the Director of Undergraduate Studies” in the English Faculty, and “were invited to join in discussions which occurred at the Faculty Board”. They therefore felt they were provided “with significant opportunity to contribute to these decisions to which we both assented”.

History undergraduate representatives met with Dr Nicholas Guyatt, a reader in North American history, “to discuss the proposed changes, and were aware of the plan to phase out prelims”, and supported the proposed changes.

The Cambridge University English Faculty, situated opposite the History Faculty on Sidgwick SiteMichael Behrend

The experiences of students who sat prelims this year vary widely. Cecily Bateman, a first year historian at King’s, said she “enjoyed prelim term in the same way [she enjoys] a normal Cambridge term”. Although she noted difficulties over the examination period, when “your friends become hermits, and extracurricular activities stop”, she found that she “liked getting it all over early and quickly.”

While Bateman said she was nervous about “a proper exam term with no structure at all” next year, she found that sitting the same paper twice has made her feel more confident in her ability to improve.

Miguel Roe, a first year historian at Pembroke, echoed Bateman’s sentiment of being “happy to get the stress of exams out of the way early”, but said that having prelims meant he was “exhausted for Easter Term”, and that he found it “quite disjointing to be on a different schedule to the rest of the University”.

“I was expected to read 15 Shakespeare plays over the holiday while also preparing for our two 3 hour exams.”

Isobel Bickersteth, a first year English student at Fitzwilliam, said sitting exams at the beginning of term made it “hard to stay focused as it was difficult to switch from exams straight back into a normal teaching term”.

She also found that trying to revise over the holidays was complicated by the fact that she was “expected to read 15 Shakespeare plays over the holiday while also preparing for our two three-hour exams”.

Shameera Lin, a first year English student at Lucy Cavendish, said she found the system “counterproductive”, with the comments attached to her papers “hardly useful”. She also said “jumping into work right after prelims” made her “entire Shakespeare term more stressful”.


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Another first year English student, who is transferring into the first year of another arts subject next year, was left frustrated by his prelims experience. Despite achieving a high grade in his English prelims, he felt that “all the work and stress, technically and officially counts for nothing”.

He was told that the English prelims themselves as a practice were not considered “enough of an academic standard” to transfer directly into the second year of another subject, as other arts students who had sat Part IA exams may have been able to.

He also criticised the pressure to fit “a normal term’s worth of revision”, encompassing an entire academic year, into a five week Easter holiday period.

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