Comprehensive Exams

Notes from CEHS faculty discussion include the purpose and common expectations and concerns regarding comprehensive exams.


What is the purpose of the comprehensive exam?

  • Comprehensive exams are a university requirement for candidacy in a Ph.D. program.
  • Comprehensive exams are independent work products that demonstrate students’ breadth and depth of knowledge.
  • Comprehensive exams are used to identify students who lack the necessary writing skills and/or knowledge basis to successfully write their dissertation proposals.
  • Comprehensive exams allow supervisory committees to provide feedback to students on their writing before they begin their dissertation proposals.

What are common expectations and concerns regarding comprehensive exams shared among the college?

  • Comprehensive exams differ across degree programs. Common comprehensive exam formats in CEHS include:
    • Grant proposals + literature reviews
    • Take-home examinations
    • Written examinations
    • Praxis exams
  • Departments should provide clear expectations for graduate students before the comprehensive exam is administered.
  • Departments should clearly communicate the purpose of the comprehensive exam to graduate students.
  • The evaluation of the comprehensive exam should match the purpose.
  • Departments have the common goal of developing proficient learners with quality capacities, but departments attain the common goal through a diverse process.
  • Should departments share common parameters for comprehensive exam (i.e. no resources)?
  • Should departments share a common system in administering comprehensive exams (i.e. multiple readers, opportunity to re-take exam, etc.)?

What are the concerns regarding comprehensive exams across the college?

  • There is not a formally defined purpose of comprehensive exams shared among departments.
  • A substantial amount of variability exists among departments/programs’ expectations regarding comprehensive exams.
  • There is a lack of specific guidelines for the evaluation of comprehensive exams.
  • Some formats of the comprehensive exam (e.g. a grant proposal) have more potential for faculty feedback, which complicates the evaluation of students’ independent work.
  • Not all programs provide students with sufficient opportunities to develop the writings skills needed in order to successfully complete comprehensive exams.
  • New faculty members need mentoring in how to function on supervisory committees.

Handout for Students with Competence Problems