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-practeological 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 analyse one of the central examinations in the higher secondary school track in Germany - that is the German essay, from a historical practeological as well as a knowledge historical perspective.

The German essay written for higher education qualification exams and related exam practice emerged according to a “modern”, meritocratic education system based on achievement in terms of a hybrid. Right from the outset, 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 fairly easily and it demonstrated a susceptibility to zeitgeist regarding topics, as was German instruction in general. Gradually, exam procedures emerged and became standardised as well as being 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 and appraisal measures did, however, emerge in the grading and evaluation schemata of male (and later also female) teachers; and possibly this resulted in (unexplicated) patterns of reception and assessment.

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. Subject to 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 respectively the measures of appraisal, the following aspects are particularly interesting:

  • What is the relationship among requirements for the essays, 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 (particularly) serve the legitimisation of background in aschool examination procedure that is legitimised 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 orders 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. The basis of this corpus is first of all provided by a stock of exam files stored at the BBF archive, and archived essays from Berlin. Further sources of stocks will be sought from Bavaria, Baden and Wuerttemberg, where other than in Prussia, different types of central examination existed or were introduced at particular points in time. The corpus from Berlin will be complemented with essays from the respective corpora. 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 was funded by Leibniz Competition 2016, Funding Line for Innovative Projects and and is being continued by DIPF.


Department of German Literature, Humboldt University Berlin: Prof. Dr. Michael Kämper-van den Boogaart (Project management)

Project Management

Project Team

Project Details

Completed Projects
05/2016 – 12/2021
External funding
Contact: Prof. Dr. Sabine Reh, Deputy Executive Director of DIPF