Comprehensive Examination

UBC Calendar: http://www.calendar.ubc.ca/vancouver/index.cfm?tree=12,204,342,617

Doctoral Students

From the UBC Calendar:

"A comprehensive examination [is] normally held after completion of all required coursework. It is intended to test the student's grasp of the chosen field of study as a whole, and the student's ability to communicate his or her understanding of it in English or in French. The student's committee will set and judge this examination in a manner compatible with the policy of the graduate program concerned. Programs should make available to students a written statement of examination policy and procedures. The comprehensive examination is separate and distinct from the evaluation of the doctoral dissertation prospectus."

Recommended Guidelines for Graduate Programs' Comprehensive Examination Statement

Although all doctoral students in the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies are required to successfully complete a comprehensive examination before being admitted to candidacy, the nature of the examination may vary significantly from graduate program to graduate program. It is important that graduate programs develop and make available to all new doctoral students (and faculty) a written statement clearly outlining their policies and procedures for the examination including; purpose, timing, examination format, examination committee, scope, criteria for evaluation, and adjudication.

This document provides details about many of the topics that need to be covered in the program's statement of policies and procedures for the comprehensive exam. The objective is to help ensure that there is consistency in the nature of the comprehensive examination from student to student within a program, absence (and perceived absence) of bias, and overall fairness. The examination must be an academically useful tool and to be consistently of the highest academic standard.

Purpose of Exam

Clearly outline the purpose of the examination, including an assessment of whether the student has developed:

  • strong analytical, problem-solving and critical thinking abilities
  • required breadth and in-depth knowledge of the discipline
  • required academic background for the specific doctoral research to follow
  • potential ability to conduct independent and original research
  • ability to communicate knowledge of the discipline

Timing

  • Specify timing of the comprehensive examination, including the earliest and latest dates by which the comprehensive examination must be completed.

  • Inform students of the specific dates of their examination so that they have adequate time to prepare. This is crucial because of the importance of the examination and consequences of failure. The examination should be held reasonably early in the program. Students should not spend an unreasonable length of time preparing for it.

  • Specify prerequisites for the examination. For example, clarify whether all coursework, laboratory rotations, seminars, etc. must have been completed prior to the examination and whether the examination is the final step before advancement to candidacy.

Examination Format

Clearly state the format of the examination. The format should be consistent for all doctoral students within a particular graduate program. The following list provides some of the more common examination formats used in achieving the purpose of the exam. Some graduate programs combine two or more of these formats or provide an option of more than one format to their students.

Comprehensive exams can include:

  • oral examination of the student's knowledge of the field of study
  • oral examination of student's knowledge of a series of previously assigned research papers or research topic(s)
  • student prepares a research grant proposal which forms the basis of an oral examination (this proposal must not be the dissertation research proposal)
  • written examinations
  • take-home examination
  • student prepares an extended research paper(s)
  • student prepares an annotated bibliography
  • student develops a syllabus for a course

Oral Examination Format (if applicable)

The following elements should be pre-determined. They should either be included in the written procedures, or the procedures should include the method by which determination is made:

  • the order in which examiners ask questions
  • the approximate length of time for each examiner
  • the number of rounds of questioning
  • whether or not the examination will be held in camera

The following elements are frequently included in an oral exam, and if so, this should be specified in the procedures:

  • The chair reviews the exam purpose and exam format.
  • The student provides a brief oral introduction

Examination Chair

The procedures should include answers to the following questions:

  • What is the procedure for choosing the examination chair?
  • Is the chair an examiner?
  • Does the chair vote?

The procedures should also outline role of the chair (e.g., to ensure impartiality, ensure program's procedures are followed, file an exam report, etc.)

Examination Committee

The procedures should include answers to the following questions:

  • What is the procedure for selection of the examination committee members and chair?
  • Can examiners from outside the student's graduate program be included?
  • Can examiners who are not members of the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies be included?
  • Does the student's supervisor have a role in the examination?

There should be at least three examiners in addition to the chair.

ScopE

The content of the examination must be consistent with its purpose. Students must have the following information:

  • subject areas to be included in the exam
  • the range of material to be tested and suggestions as to how to cover this material (e.g., reading lists, courses, refereed journals, etc.)

Students are to be encouraged to meet with the examiners well before the examination and discuss the examiner's expectations.

Criteria for Evaluation

  • The evaluation must be relevant to the stated purpose.
  • The outline for the exam should state how each component of the examination is factored into the committee's final decision, or whether the assessment of the exam is global.
  • Does failure of one component of the examination (or one question) result in the student being required to be re-examined on this component?
  • What is the procedure if the student fails more than one component?
  • Can students be re-examined on more than one component?
  • What constitutes failure of the comprehensive exam?

Adjudication

  • Pre-determine whether the committee's decisions will be made on the basis of a simple majority vote or whether there must be unanimous agreement amongst committee members.
  • In most graduate programs the examining committee meets in camera to evaluate the student's performance in all aspects of the exam and renders one of the following decisions:

Unconditional Pass

Conditional Pass

If the student is given a conditional pass:

  • The student may be required, for example, to successfully complete a course or write a paper in an area in which the committee finds the student needs additional knowledge.
  • The additional academic requirements are to be provided to the student in writing by the examination committee and include expected standards of achievement and times for completion.

Adjournment

  • Conditions under which the examination is adjourned must be specified.
  • Procedures for continuing the examination must specified in writing by the examining committee. Most programs allow a student one examination adjournment or retake, provided the student has the opportunity to complete the examination within the first 36 months of his/her program.
  • If the student is allowed to resume the adjourned examination at a later date, the student must be informed immediately as to the conditions for resuming the examination. The conditions must be clearly stated, and include the time frame, potential dates, nature of the re-examination, consequences of a second failure, etc.
  • The examination committee membership usually remains unchanged for the subsequent examination.

Failure

  • Outline the procedure to be followed if a student fails the examination.
  • The student must be informed in writing by the examination committee of the failure.

Feedback

The assessment and reasons for the decision reached by the examination committee must be documented and provided to the student in sufficient detail to allow the student to understand the decision, including identifying strengths and weaknesses.

Some graduate programs have developed a standard form for the committee chair to complete following the examination to help maintain a thorough and consistent record of the program's comprehensive examinations.

In the case of oral examinations, the student should be given feedback on presentation, logic flow, ability to answer questions, clarity of responses, etc.

Other Desirable Features to Consider

  • The student's supervisory committee meets to confirm the student's readiness for the examination.
  • The student's peer group and supervisor may have a "dry-run" to help prepare the student.
  • If the oral examination is a retake, videotape the examination.
  • Allow the student to select a faculty member to act as a neutral observer.
  • Have one or two faculty members serve as neutral chairs for a graduate program (e.g. graduate advisor, department head).
  • Choose a chair who is outside the student’s supervisory committee – not the student's supervisor or supervisory committee member.
  • Have an examining committee member from outside the program or department.
  • Have the oral examination open to other faculty members.

Master's Students

From the UBC Calendar:

"There is no general requirement for a comprehensive examination or a final oral examination/thesis defence at the master's level. Graduate programs may, at their own discretion, require a comprehensive examination and/or final oral examination in the student's field of study as part of the degree requirements.

"Where a comprehensive examination or final oral examination/thesis defence is required, programs must make available to students a written statement of examination procedures such as the purpose, form, length, subject area(s) and scope of the examination, as well as information on the criteria for evaluation."

More Information

The written statement of examination procedures must be provided when the student commences his/her master's program. As with doctoral comprehensive examinations, format and choice of examiners is entirely up to the graduate program.