Comprehensive Exams for Undergraduates

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At the end of their second year of graduate school, many PhD students take comprehensive exams. These tests make sure that everyone has adequately mastered the discipline’s canon and is ready to embark on their dissertation. Law students, architecture students, accounting students, and medical students also take comprehensive exams before they are allowed to practice their crafts. I believe there would be big benefits to many undergraduates taking similar exams before getting their bachelor’s degrees.

This might not make sense for all majors, but certainly the hard sciences and social sciences have fairly standard bodies of knowledge and methods. I envision these exams taking place during second semester senior year, and covering a wide range of material from all four years with required questions from the required classes and optional questions from the optional classes. Several questions would require students to combine ideas from different classes.

So why would anyone possibly want to do this? Exams are no fun to take and even less fun to grade! First off, students would have an incentive to review what they’ve learned in their discipline over the full four years and see connections that might have been missed in the moment. I see this happen all the time at the course level with final exams. At the end of the semester, after students see what can be done with the basic concepts they learned at the beginning of the class, those concepts make a lot more sense.

In two key ways, this exam would be an improvement over GPA as a measure of mastery. Because students forget things they haven’t thought about in a while, the GPA doesn’t provide a measure of current skills. A comprehensive exam would. We also live in a world of rampant grade inflation. The exam score would give students a way to distinguish themselves from their peers when a 3.9 GPA doesn’t mean what it used to.

I am a big fan of the senior essay as an opportunity to think deeply and apply recently acquired methodological tools to a specific problem or issue, but that’s not at all the same as what students would get out of reviewing and studying broadly. Someone smart said a long time ago that real learning happens not in the moment, but afterward, when we reflect on what we learned (citation needed).

In addition to helping students, potential employers, and graduate schools, the exam could be used to evaluate undergraduate course quality. I would love to be able to compare comp scores of students that took their introductory classes with different instructors.

I’ve brought this idea up with a few people, and to be honest, it hasn’t been very popular. The main objections have had to do with extra work involved on behalf of both students and faculty. I think we could give half a class credit for taking this exam to incentivize students to invest time throughout their final semester studying. This would also provide a mechanism to give teaching credit to the faculty that write and grade the exam and hold office hours during the semester to answer questions along the way.

I think giving undergraduate comprehensive exams is a pretty good idea, and I hope someday a department will be brave enough to try it.

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