Abitur Examination Practices and Respective Essays From 1882 to 1972

The project "Abitur examination practices and respective essays from 1882 to 1972. Knowledge (re)presentation in a historical-praxeological pilot project" successfully competed in the Leibniz Competition 2016, funding line for innovative projects. The project will focus on historic transformation processes of exam practices which are compared across Prussia, Bavaria, Baden and Wuerttemberg.

Project Description

The research project intends to reconstruct and analyze one of the central examinations in the higher secondary school track in Germany, German essay, from a historical-praxeological as well as a knowledge-historical perspective.

The German essay written for higher education qualification exams (abitur) and related exam practices emerged as a hybrid  with the onset of a “modern”, meritocratic and achievement-focused education system. From the beginning, this essay was meant to assess general skills like judgement competence and individual general knowledge. The essays were only loosely related to subject- specific knowledge, for example about the history of German literature. In its long history, the German essay adapted to ideological trends and zeitgeist fairly easily, as did German instruction in general. Exam procedures did emerge and became standardized as well as regulated in sometimes very detailed ways, yet what exactly was to be assessed according to which criteria largely remained unclear right until the end of the period studied here. Marking standards did, however, emerge in the grading and evaluation schemata of male (and later also female) teachers; this possibly resulted in (formally unexplained) patterns of reception and assessment patterns.

The project aims to study exam practices for higher education qualification entry, particularly German essays, in a longitudinal historical design. Based on new methods of analysis offered by eHumanities procedures, the project aims at a reconstruction of exam and essay marking practices in Prussia (respectively former Prussian territories), Bavaria, Baden and Wuerttemberg between 1882 and 1972. Within the project and associated qualification theses, the exams and German essays will be subjected to a detailed educational historical and subject-didactic analysis. Given the loose relation to subject-specific knowledge and imprecise regulations concerning the contents examined and the assessment standards employed, the following aspects are of particular interest:

  • What is the relationship between essay requirements, curriculum and instructional practice?
  • Does this relationship change over time?
  • Is there a (close) relationship between the students’ success and their (social) background?
  • Does the German essay thus reinforce the privileging of students with certain social backgrounds in school examinations legitimized by merit?

To answer these questions, a corpus of digitized and transcribed essays with the respective teachers’ comments and marks will be compiled, ranging from the unification of curricula and exam regulations for all higher secondary schools in Prussia in 1882 to the reform of the upper secondary school level in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1972. This corpus will be described by metadata and annotated in a virtual research environment. It is bases on exam records and essays from Berlin, stored in the BBF archive. Further sources  will be sought from Bavaria, Baden and Wuerttemberg, where unlike in Prussia, various types of central examinations existed or were introduced at particular points in time. The corpus  from Berlin will be complemented with essays from these regions. Thereby, the virtual research environment brings together research findings from the ongoing project on the one hand, and on the other hand provides a foundation for usage of the corpus for other scientists and future research projects.

Connected Projects


The project successfully competed in the Leibniz Competition 2016, funding line for innovative projects and and is being continued by DIPF.


Project Management

Project Team

Academic staff:

Student assistants:

  • Jasmin Daehn, B.A. (BBF) (until 2018)
  • Rebecca Duncker (BBF) (until 2020)
  • Rosalie Klehm (BBF) (2016–2017)
  • Marco Lorenz (HU/BBF) (until 2019)
  • Jakob Rau (HU) (until 2019)
  • Clemens Schulz (BBF)

Project Details

Project type: Third-party funded project
Completed projects
05/2016 – 12/2021
Research field: Historical Practice of School, Instruction and Education
Contact: Denise Löwe