Sunday, March 11, 2012

On comprehensive exams

I was reading an opinion piece on the Chronicle of Higher Education this past week on Comprehensive exams. The article deals mostly with PhD level comprehensive exams, the types of exams that serve as the gatekeeper between the coursework in a PhD program and the dissertation stage. The main thesis of the author, at least what I got out of it, was that comprehensive exams seem to be looking backward on the curriculum, a memorize and regurgitate model, rather than looking forward toward a synthesis of existing information (gained through coursework) that leads to new knowledge.

From my own experiences, I had to take comprehensive exams for one of my masters degrees (Applied Linguistics) and the buildup toward those comprehensive exams was nerve-wracking because the comps were like the academic boogey man. Everyone (students) in the program, who had not done comps before, was feeding the fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) of every other student who had their own FUD. People who took the comps were more easy going about the comps. The main thing that really scared everyone was that

  1. We hadn't done written comps before so we didn't know what was required of us
  2. We only had 2 chances to pass the exam, so if we didn't those 30-credits, in the end, meant a lot of wasted time and potentially money, since you wouldn't be receiving a degree if you didn't pass.

In the end, the great majority pass on the first try, and even those who don't pass on the second try - since they receive coaching and mentorship from the faculty if they don't pass the first time. I passed as well, with a high pass, something that surprised me given my anxiety over the exams. Our comps didn't focus on regurgitation, but rather on information synthesis. We were given broad statements and we were asked to explicate and take a stand, based on the literature that we had come across. Some of the questions were modified or expanded versions of what we had done in class, so it wasn't completely out of the blue.


Going back to the author, I do agree that written, or oral for that matter (even though I haven't done oral exams), comprehensive exams, even those that I took, focus on the quick-wittedness of the student. How are they able to perform under pressure, and with questions that they potentially haven't seen before. While it is true that in a real world environment those questions do come up, and you do have to take an initial stand on them, you often have the ability to take a break from the debate or conversation and look things up, or come back to issues later on. It is infrequent that people are asked for a major decision, or in-depth explication on the spot.


Perhaps a better assessment of a student's prior learning, and their ability to synthesize information, lies with some sort of Qualifying Paper (or series of Qualifying papers), where they take what they've done in class, they take their own individual readings, and put forth a series of papers that are of publishable quality. It might even be a bonus if these papers tie into the dissertation process (for PhD students anyway) so that they QP work ties into what they are doing, they are demonstrating that they could be successful in the dissertation stage, and they have some work on their dissertation done already before they are officialy a PhD Candidate (not to mention that they come out of the experience with a couple of papers published, or nearly published, which is important in that line of work).


I am wondering what others think about comprehensive exams in general. Like? Dislike? Love-Hate? :-)

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