They come in different formats and are required for different reasons in different departments, and can take anywhere from 40 minutes to 6 hours, but they all go by the same name: comps.
Most majors offer comprehensive exams sometime during the spring semester senior year, but there is no formal requirement or preference from the provost’s office about whether departments must give a comprehensive exam to students in their major, Provost David Whalen said.
For some departments, including chemistry, biology, physics, psychology, and sociology, the comprehensive exam is a standardized, discipline-specific multiple-choice exam offered by Educational Testing Service, the same company that offers the GRE.
In some departments, such as the department of Psychology or Sociology and Social Thought, comprehensive exams are as much about evaluating how the department compares to other colleges as it is about evaluating an individual student’s performance.
“It measures how our students’ knowledge in sociology compares to a national sample,” Chair of the Sociology and Social Thought Department Peter Blum said. “What the comp does is gives us this indication whether the core gives students familiarity with what people expect sociology majors at other places to be familiar with. The measures have indicated that we’re doing pretty well with that.”
In the foreign languages division, comprehensive exams often have both an oral and written component. For Spanish, French, and German students, the essays evaluate students’ understanding of the books and themes discussed in upper-level literature classes. Later in the semester, students also must complete an oral exam, although the length of the conversation and the topics discussed can vary.
For American Studies majors, whose coursework can vary greatly from student to student, the comprehensive exam is an oral conversation. Director of American Studies and Professor of Politics Kevin Portteus said this allows him to tailor each conversation to the particular student’s coursework.
In the history department, each professor prepares a bank of multiple-choice questions consisting of material they cover in their upper-level courses. A computer program selects questions from these banks based on the courses each history major has completed.
For politics majors, comps consist of essay questions. For religion and philosophy majors, there is both an essay and an oral component.
For rhetoric and public address or theatre majors, the departments don’t offer a comprehensive exam. Instead, students complete a senior project that allows instructors to assess a student’s ability to apply the concepts they’ve learned in their concentrated areas of study.
“When we used to do comps 30 years ago, if you failed somebody, they weren’t going to graduate. It wasn’t like something they could readily do again to make up a deficiency,” Professor of Theatre George Angell said. “With senior projects, there’s more oversight over the whole process from beginning to end. The projects attempt to roll together all aspects of the program, from the academic to the practical.”
In most departments, comps are graded on a pass or fail basis for graduation, although a specific letter grade or percentile is required sometimes for departmental honors. Professor of Spanish Sandra Puvogel said she tells her students that no one can fail the oral comps, and if a student has difficulty with a particular portion of the written exam, they will be allowed to re-take that portion.
For the most part, though, students enter the exam with clear expectations and ample preparation, and performance isn’t a problem. In the psychology department, seniors scored in the 99th percentile nationally, according to Psychology Chairwoman Kari McArthur.
The provost said coursework requirements are more frequently the cause for people not completing their degrees, not comprehensive exams or capstone projects.
“It might just be a necessary class for their major, or they don’t turn in a final paper so they never get a grade, and never get a degree,” Whalen said. “It’s very frustrating for someone to be that close and have so little left to do. Very often, they get jobs, and they’re already employed or get married, and life carries them off on its own currents. They may have every intention of finishing, but then life gets busy. But do we end up here at the end of the year with weeping students and irate parents over a 59 percent? No.”