20th Century Comp. Exams vs. 21st Century Comp. Exams

Authentic assessment is a major area of research in the field of education in the early 21st century. Scholars have experimented with modes of assessment. Overall, most find that evaluators receive more accurate results when students are provided a rubric prior to completion of the assessment. Testing conditions may vary; however, the rubric (e.g., objective analysis) is essential to meet one of the thresholds of authentic assessment. Indeed, the 20th century comprehensive exam style for PhDs (and Masters) was very subjective and arbitrary and would not qualify as authentic assessment. Providing a rubric to students does not mean, what-so-ever, that the assessor is giving the students the “correct” answer.

For the evaluators: authentic assessment means (1) getting the question right, (2) determining a reasonable answer for the question via a rubric (some use other mechanisms), and (3) a non-partisan application of the rubric to the student’s work. Of course, creating a rubric is difficult. However, using backwards induction will most readily create the necessary rubric. This carries the benefit of increased question reliability; meaning, the comp. question does have an expected answer. This does not mean that there is only one answer, particularly since prolific students may answer via recent scholarship or other extraordinary means.

For the students: authentic assessment is a mechanism to better engage student learning and promotes observable proficiency. Authentic assessment promotes student learning because a rubric explains what a student is expected to learn. For instance, students should be given the bank of questions and the corresponding rubrics to those questions upon entrance into the PhD program. Therefore, the professional threshold is established [which is not so under the arbitrary and subjective 20th century system], so that 21st century students are aware of comp. answer expectations. Authentic assessment suggests that the student will have learned much more at the time of comp. exams than students not under the mechanism of authentic assessment.

The Rubric Hurdle: First, written comp. questions and answers should be useful for professors and students alike. For example, political science has come a long way since the 1950s. Comp. questions should resemble real questions in the sub-fields of political science. Second, the rubric must address the paths which would constitute a “pass.” For example, there could be an American question investigating interest groups. The question can be written once these rubric tenets are formulated:

  1. What’s the big normative question being addressed?
  •        how do interest groups distort the public will?

2.  What are the major perspectives needed to answer this question?

  •         pluralism
  •         transactions
  •         neo-pluralism

Notice, there are no specific authors, even though “the cannons” should be mentioned under each perspective. The rubric clearly does not tell the student anything about the answer, while telling the student everything about the answer! Most importantly, if you cannot create this rubric, then the question is unanswerable, and should be discarded.

I look forward to the 21st century. Authentic assessment should create much better life-long learning students…

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3 thoughts on “20th Century Comp. Exams vs. 21st Century Comp. Exams

  1. Down with the comprehensive exam!

    Today’s discipline demands specialization, but comprehensive exams prepares for generalization. Students are expected to have an understanding of an entire field of political science (well, I guess at most institutions two or three fields of political science). That brings with it a huge opportunity costs. Instead of spending time crafting their own research, they are learning literature that has no importance to their research agenda. For example, if a student’s research interests is in the influence negative campaign advertisements it seems unless for them to spend the time to become knowledgeable about the literature on social movements. To be sure, the student should know the piece of the literature on social movements that might be relevant to negative advertisements but to have a working knowledge of the entire literature is a complete waste.

    When publications are basically the sole (!) indicator of success and most weighted consideration for candidates on the market it seems like a waste to require a student to learn and regurgitate a literature that has no practical use to them.

  2. So instead of comp. exams, what are you suggesting? Like, I want to believe that all PhDs have experienced rigorous training. So there must be some type of assessment…

    Perhaps you would change comp. exams so that the PhD student would need to have a “publishable paper” in each of his or her Major and Minor fields, considering his or her research interests? …of a quality that the department deems a success–via a rubric–like Caltech Rules and definitive qualitative / quantitative research?

    And then Prof’s would jump on board and help publish the paper–a co-author? And those papers would qualify as rigorous assessment? Or maybe a compromise–if a student publishes in a reputable journal, then s/he is exempt from that comp. sub-field? Or, if profs are life-long learners, then shouldn’t departments be judged on the % of students who attend conferences and publish papers–considering the goals of the department?

    A working knowledge of the complete lit. is not a complete waste… to be an erudite is better than being a biased and nuanced researcher. The erudite, I think, has a much better chance of being “helpful” to the field… If a radical is someone who invents new paradigms, I doubt there will be many radicals left when the field is a bunch of blind, straying cats; just sayin’

    ps. for some reason, I expected that you would respond to that post 🙂

  3. I think there are a few alternatives to the status quo.
    1: Get rid of comp. exams all together. Successful completion of course work and dissertation is enough to demonstration competence.
    2: Some departments already do this, the comp is a take home exam. Students have a few days to complete the questions.
    3: The basic format of comps. stays the same, but questions are individualized to each student’s research interests.

    The department I am in already has a requirement for a “publishable paper” by the end of the second year. The students hate it, mostly for the same reason they hate comps. The standards are very ambiguous and there is a huge variance in how the staff applies the standard of “publishable paper”. I think many departments have such a requirement. So I guess you guys at Wayne are lucky not to have it.

    I think requiring students to present at conferences is a good idea in theory but would probably be bad in practice. Conferences are already flooded with so-so work. If departments started to require conference participation this would only increase the problem. Most departments offer students carrots to participate, i.e., travel funds/recognition in a newsletter. I think that is a fine way to encourage participation without over doing it.

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