Briefly Noted: To Examine or Not to Examine, That is the Question

I am left uncompelled. In a recent article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stacey Patton reports that an increasing number of graduate students and professors wish to get rid of comprehensive examinations as a requirement for completing graduate school.[1]

Traditionally, faculty and students have considered “comps” essential to a graduate education. However, as Patton notes there is a growing coalition of faculty and students who consider the exams to be arbitrary, punitive, secretive, and ultimately bereft of value. It is claimed that comps slow students in their education, and sometimes they are even scared out of a program.

Debate has given way to changes in some institutions. “Some programs,” Patton writes, “have already revamped their exams to tie them more closely to a student’s thesis or dissertation, and to be more relevant to what students plan to do in their careers.” In a study of English master’s programs at forty-three institutions only thirteen required comprehensive examinations. Nineteen of those programs allowed students to choose between exams or other projects, and eleven of the programs did not require any exam or project at all.

Patton illustrates by reporting about an interview with Linda S. Bessette. “Bessette, who is 60 and works as a financial planner, enrolled part time in Central Arkansas’ master’s program in English in 2007.” Her program required comprehensive examinations for successful completion. She knew this but was “shocked when she learned that five out of six of her classmates failed it in April.” Ms. Bessette claims that the failure of her fellow students indicates the failure of the department that tested them. “The information, she said, showed that the English department had a high failure rate. . . . In her complaint, Ms. Bessette asked some pointed questions: Why would so many of the English graduate students fail to pass the comprehensive exam if they had successfully completed their coursework? . . . Ms. Bessette argued that the department’s exam was ‘fatally flawed’ and ‘capricious.’”

At the base of Ms. Bessette’s frustration lies a belief that education must be collaborative and open. This is a belief shared by many in education. Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, expresses this view: “Exams, she said, should not be punitive or serve as a gatekeeping function.” She continued: “‘we owe our students a cogent explanation of how our assessment tools relate to our curriculum . . . That’s a basic contractual agreement.’”

So, in a nutshell, the accusation is that comprehensive examinations, unfortunately, are difficult, time-consuming, scary, and (gasp!) flunk-able. Well. You know that in these Briefly Noted columns I typically try to be candid, while at the same time staying on the nearside of disrespectful. But this time I find it hard to restrain myself. Any graduate student who shies away from difficult, time-consuming, and flunk-able examinations has no reason not to shy away from submitting an article or book for publication (imagine such a poor little lamb at the hands of double-blind peer reviewers!) or from taking a job as a professor (bless his heart, this graduate student will spend the rest of his life being “examined” via student, peer, and dean evaluations, and his job is in the balance).

The one criticism I will grant is Rosemary Feal’s point that the comprehensive exams must be tied to the curriculum and/or dissertation, and that the students must be given an explanation of the exams. But the other points appear to me among the silliest of this pedagogical silly season.

Comprehensive exams ought to be difficult, time-consuming, a bit scary, and eminently flunk-able. This is not to say that they are punitive or capricious. Quite to the contrary: comprehensive examinations offer the faculty committee an opportunity to evaluate the student’s mastery of his chosen field, assess his readiness to progress to the dissertation stage, and prepare for a lifetime of scholarly debate and discussion.

For this reason, the institution where I teach—Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary—requires both written and oral comprehensive examinations. The written examinations are six hours in length, and are divided into two parts. The first part of the written exams is designed to test the student’s mastery of some significant topics within his chosen field of study, while the second part tests their readiness in the narrower subject area of the student’s chosen dissertation. After the written examinations, the student sits for an oral examination that takes approximately two hours. In the oral exams, the professors engage the student’s written answers but also engage the student on any topic relevant to that student’s studies.

Take, for example, an examination in systematic theology. During the first part of the written exams (which evaluates the student’s mastery of significant topics within his field), a student might be asked to (a) build a doctrine of creation which addresses the notions of creation order, covenant, kingdom, the image of God, plurality/diversity, and Sabbath; and (b) make an assessment of N. T. Wright’s theological method, with special attention to his critical realism, his emphasis on narrative, and his understanding of the relationship between Israel and the church.  During the second part of the written exams (which assesses the student’s preparedness to write a dissertation in a narrow subject area), the student might be asked to explain the ways in which postliberal theologies have been shaped by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Barth (if, in fact, the student’s proposed dissertation would focus on post-liberalism).

Some time after taking the written examinations, the student enters a room with three faculty members. They will ask questions and make comments about any weaknesses shown on the written exams. They might ask questions that were not even addressed on the comps, just to make sure the student can address the doctrines of God, Christ, Spirit, Church, Salvation, or Eschatology. Further, they will push the student to drill deeper so they can get a feel for the student’s limits. To relate back to question “a” above, the professor might ask the student to put his doctrine of creation in conversation with fall, redemption, and new creation, showing the relationship between the concepts so as to bring out their meaning. In particular, he might be asked about the material world, whether God created it ontologically good and, if so, whether its (ontological) goodness was affected by the Fall. And so on.

In so doing, the faculty members not only assess the student’s depth and breadth in systematic theology, and his depth in the subject matter of his proposed dissertation, but also are able to evaluate his ability to handle himself in discussion and debate. If the student cannot argue a thesis on the spot with three interlocutors, he likely will not fare well when presenting a paper at a theological society, making an argument in a book or blog, or even answering the probing questions of a layperson in his congregation. However, if the student can hold his own in a discussion, and do so in a gracious and socially appropriate manner, he probably is ready to write books and blogs, present papers at a professional society, or handle publicly the questions of a congregant.

Should we get rid of comprehensive examinations? Nullo modo. Something is lost when a community refrains from taking part in constructive communal disputations. Such disputations offer a valuable venue for constructive dialogue and debate, socialization, evaluation, and hopefully encouragement of the student. The trend toward abolishing comprehensive examinations is a sad one, and one which we should not follow.

[1] Stacey Patton, “Graduate Students Urge Changes in Comprehensive Exams,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct 18, 2013: A16–17).

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  1. Greg Welty   •  

    Amen! :-) The last two paragraphs are solid gold.

  2. Nathan Saunders   •  

    Maybe I’m crazy, but I found my comps to be a very valuable and helpful exercise. I’m in the history Ph.D program at the University of South Carolina. Our comps take the form of 16 hours (!) of written exams followed by a two hour oral exam. After I was done I felt like I had a great command of my field. My department also tied in reading lists to dissertation topics, so while questions were broad and reading lists extensive, the exams were useful in terms of professional advancement. Anyway, I liked your post and agree with your opinion wholeheartedly.

  3. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Nathan, thank you for weighing in. Sixteen hours of comps should do the trick in terms of assessing and evaluating!

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