This paper explores the politics of monitoring at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a new United Nations human rights monitoring mechanism which aims to promote a universal approach and equal treatment when reviewing each country's human rights situation. To what extent are these laudable aims realised, and realisable, given entrenched representations of the West and the Rest as well as geopolitical and economic inequalities both historically and in the present? Based on ethnographic fieldwork at the UN in 2010-11, the final year of the UPR's first cycle, we explore how these aims were both pursued and subverted, paying attention to two distinct ways of talking about the UPR: first, as a learning culture in which UN member states 'share best practice' and engage in constructive criticism; and second, as an exam which UN member states face as students with vastly differing attitudes and competences. Accounts and experiences of diplomats from states that are not placed in the 'good students' category offer valuable insights into the inherent contradictions of dehistoricised and de-contextualised approaches to human rights.