Comprehensive Examinations: The When, Who, What, and Why

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LET’S discuss the when, who, what and why of comprehensive examinations. For purposes of our topic on comprehensive examinations, and to provide the context of our discussion, we begin by broadly defining a curriculum of degree programs as a systematic prescribed set of categories of courses with number of credit-units for a particular degree program. We shall use the term “course” with same meaning as “subject.” In Philippine universities, a course, particularly a lecture course in language and literature, arts or social science is usually equivalent to 3 credit-units (54 hours) while laboratory courses (eg physical and life sciences) usually consists of 5 credit-units broken down as 3 credit-units lecture and 2 credit-units laboratory.

The set of courses may be categorized into three, — the foundation/core courses, 9 to 12 credit-units required for a masters degree and 12 to 15 credit-units, for a doctorate degree. Major courses of 18 to 21 credit-units for a masters and 21 to 24 for a doctorate compose the second category of courses. Free electives or cognates compose the third category. Free electives are courses not aligned to, while cognates support the major field of, the degree program. An example of a free elective is a music course enrolled in by a masters student in engineering management and a cognate could be a total quality system (TQS) course for a masters in nursing student, major in nursing administration services.

Together, these categories of courses constitute the total minimum number of credit-units required for a degree program – usually 36 for a master of arts and 42 for a master in science, and 60 to 66 for a practitioner or research doctorate. Part of these totals is the masters thesis equivalent to 6 credit-units, that is, 3 credit-units each for the proposal and final paper, while that of the dissertation of 12 credit-units is equivalent to 6 credit-units each, respectively.

Students returning after an academic leave of one school year or more, are usually required to take/retake 9 to 15 credit units of their major field; while transferees are required to take at least 50% of the course requirements of their degree program.


Comprehensive examinations are given not beyond 24 months after students pass at least 75% of course work or after finishing all course requirements. It is important to emphasize to students early in the course work that the examinations are meant to assist them in thinking about the most significant trends and problems in their major field.

There are different types of comprehensive examinations or “comps.” Often referred to as “generals,” these aim to determine the general knowledge of the student about the field covered by the degree program. More applied to doctorate programs is the preliminary examination type (“prelims”) sometimes referred to also as the “major field exam” type to determine whether the student is ready to undergo the rigorous “last lap” of postgraduate studies which is to write the doctoral dissertation.

Whether “generals” or “prelims,” comps are not tied to test the student in any single subject. Otherwise, the comps will be similar to or a repeat of the final examinations for a single course. Sadly, some comprehensive examinations seem to be such, although the questions may be worded differently. This usually occurs when the graduate school has no panel of academics to construct the examination which leaves academics to craft individually their own questions for each of the courses they conduct.

The rationale of the comprehensive examination of any type (generals, prelims or major field) is to evaluate the extent to which the student comprehends the fundamental knowledge in his/her field of specialization and to use this knowledge to inform research approaches, to ensure that the student has a solid foundation upon which the student will progress towards being considered an expert in that field upon degree completion.” Among the expectations for a doctoral candidate is the ability to be clear and concise both in writing and speaking, an understanding of principles of scientific investigation, “efficient search methods” or techniques for needed relevant information, an informed understanding of the concepts, theories, and practices introduced in the program which could anchor scientific inquiry of a study area.

Consequently, course requirements are expected to expose students to the literature and studies (abstracts, extended summaries, research reports) related to trends and contemporary issues in the major field to actually prepare students to begin reflecting on their research topic for their dissertation or thesis.

Here’s an example of one of two questions in my comps in British literature which was for one of two minors as required for my education doctorate, worded quite this way: “Explain and illustrate the characteristics of Victorian literature found in preceding and succeeding periods; after which, describe and illustrate with examples, each of the different literary genre during the Victorian period. Finally, choose any Victorian period literary piece and give a compact critique.” It is not easy to forget such a question. For a British literature exam, the tendency is to review on Shakespeare – the bard of Avon, which I did. What makes the exam truly comprehensive is that it covers “preceding and succeeding periods and having the examinee finally “land” on one Victorian piece. I chose Browning’s Prospice.

Passing the comps, qualifies the student to “candidacy” for the degree pursued and is a go-signal for the candidate to begin writing the thesis/dissertation proposal.

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Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon, Ph.D., is one of the Philippines most accomplished educators and experts on institutional management in colleges and universities. Her studies have included not only education and pedagogy but also literature. She has studied not only in the topmost universities in the Philippines but also in Germany, Britain and Japan. She is now the Vice-President for External Relations and Internationalization of Liceo de Cagayan University (in Cagayan de Oro) after serving as its VP for Academic Affairs for six and a half years concurrent to her ten years as dean in the Graduate Studies of the same university. She holds a Lifetime Professional Achievement Award from the Commission on Higher Education.

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