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Students Become the Masters?

Students take on teachers in BBC quiz show

It’s rare that a professor slips up on their subject. It’s even rarer that a student corrects a professor’s blunder in a packed lecture hall.

But a few weeks ago, this scenario was not quite so unusual as students took on their professors in BBC Radio 4’s quiz show The 3rd Degree in Younger Hall.

For over a decade, The 3rd Degree has hosted quiz tournaments at universities across the UK. The format is simple. Two three-person teams, one composed of students and the other of professors — or as the show prefers to call them, ‘dons’ — go head-to-head in a test of subject knowledge and popular culture. 

This year, after 78 episodes and visits to countless universities, St Andrews finally joined the lineup. 

With production in full swing for this summer’s series, The 3rd Degree team packed up their microphones and set off to Fife to record the show’s inaugural episode. Students and professors from the schools of Philosophy, English, and Computer Science eagerly awaited the opportunity to showcase their expertise to a live audience — and about a million Radio 4 listeners. 

The contest was fierce, with topics spanning from C++ to Biscoff to Aristotle. But even amidst the intellectual sparring and the eventual triumph of one team over the other, each contestant couldn’t help but wear a wide smile on their face as the showdown drew to a close. 

“There were a couple of times where I was really kicking myself,” said Dr Rosa Campbell — an English professor and one-third of the ‘dons’ team. “but I am also really delighted that the outcome was what it was.”

“There were a couple of times where I was really kicking myself,” said Dr Rosa Campbell — an English professor and one-third of the ‘dons’ team. A few months ago, the show’s producer emailed the team member application form to faculty and students who might be interested in participating. Campbell completed it in part to fulfil her longtime dream of going on the more well-known University Challenge. She said The 3rd Degree seemed like “the next best thing.”

Unlike Campbell, Callum MacKillop had never really considered himself a keen quiz contender. He replied to the quiz show’s email on a whim, he said. “I thought that I might give my unborn grandchildren a funny story,” he added. 

After putting their names forward to be team members, the show’s producer called the applicants to chat about their interests and academic pursuits. Whilst on the phone, they also completed a practice quiz. 

“By some freak incident I happened to get a lot of the questions right,” MacKillop said. 

He received a call the next week. He was in. 

Weeks later, when the day of the recording finally arrived, MacKillop said his heart was “really racing.” Not only was Younger Hall packed with dozens of audience members, but the show was to be recorded for a major radio station.

But as soon as he set foot on stage, MacKillop’s nerves vanished. “[It was] really really fun,” he said.

Much like the contestants, audience members were actively engaged, exchanging frequent whispers with their neighbours to confer answers and enthusiastically applauding absurdly niche knowledge. 

And though at times the scientific questions may have sounded like an entirely different language to the average listener, show host Steve Punt highlighted the beauty of their difficulty. 

“There’s a great satisfaction, I think, in realising that all this stuff that you don’t know about, someone does know about,” Punt said. “I’ve learnt a lot from the show.”

But Punt acknowledges that there’s a fine line between intellectual stimulation and potential boredom — especially for a radio show without visual aids. So, to ensure that the quiz is never in danger of seeming too dense, Punt peppers each question with a witty pun. 

“The show has a slightly different atmosphere to most series quizzes,” said Punt. “I like it to feel like an upmarket pub quiz.”

Punt also pointed out the importance of keeping the show accessible to the student contestants who, ultimately, are up against professors with years of education behind them. To level the playing field, Punt explains, the show includes a popular culture round and questions grounded in foundational subject knowledge — ensuring they remain within reach to students at the beginning of their academic journey.

“The whole point of the show is that it is inherently unfair so there are little ways in which we balance it up,” Punt said. 

A highlight of the show was when MacKillop swooped in to steal an answer to an English question that had stumped Campbell. The question was on Shakespeare’s Hamlet — a popular secondary school literary text that MacKillop had luckily covered in class the previous semester. 

Campbell said, shaking her head, that this should have been an “easy win” for her. 

“I have particular colleagues — Shakespearean colleagues — who are going to actually take me round the back of the school of English and murder me,” said Campbell.

She insisted, however, that MacKillop’s bonus point at her expense is nothing but a testament to the University and its English professors’ good teaching. “It just means that a, our admissions procedures are clearly going well, and that b, every time I teach someone something it falls out of my head and enters theirs,” Campbell added.

It’s moments like these that Punt says are his favourites whilst hosting the show. “I sort of like those spontaneous bits,” he said. “Either getting something right they didn’t expect to get right or getting something wrong they didn’t expect to get wrong.”

As for Campbell — her standout memory from the show was slightly different.

“My favourite part was seeing the Younger Hall lecture theatre more full than I have ever seen it for a lecture,” Campbell said.

She added that this could perhaps be a technique that English students find implemented in their future lectures. 

“Add in a quiz element in order to get people to come to lectures?” Campbell said. “Yep, maybe that’s the answer.”

Illustration: Lauren McAndrew


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