Best Practices for Qualifying/Comprehensive Exams

Prompted by the Graduate Student Experience Survey that identified the Qualifying Exam/Comprehensive Exam as the leading cause of stress among graduate students, the Georgia Tech Graduate Studies Office did a study among schools to identify best practices to avoid undue stress in administering this exam. The following list was discussed heavily and then endorsed by the Georgia Tech Institute Graduate Curriculum Committee in September 2017.

For programs:

  • Make detailed information regarding exam formats, rules, and scope (e.g. course syllabi on which exams are based) available and easily accessible to promote timely preparation.
  • Archive written and oral exam questions with solutions (where possible) and make accessible to all students sitting for exams.
  • Schedule exams for students, and offer more than one opportunity each year for them to complete comprehensive exams. “Opportunities” can be interpreted broadly and could include re-takes to demonstrate proficiency scheduled on a case-by-case basis shortly after a failed attempt, for flexibility and to avoid unnecessary delays in exam completion.
  • Maintain historical records of student performance.
  • Seek feedback from students who take exams, for review by program faculty, as well as feedback from all students regarding exam reforms.
  • Develop and promote exam preparation support programs in partnership with students (see Item 1, for students below).
  • Communicate information regarding stress management and mental health resources available for students regularly, and include with exam support and preparation materials.

For faculty:

  • Provide appropriate latitude in work schedules to allow for exam preparation by students whom faculty advise/supervise. (See the Policy Library on schedule flexibility under assistantships.)
  • Participate in a collaborative, collective exam formulation and evaluation process that reinforces shared understanding of core knowledge requirements for the exam area.
  • Grade exams with multiple faculty to reflect a common understanding of core material so as to avoid one faculty member having sole control over a student’s exam result.
  • Give constructive feedback to students on exam performance within a reasonable timeframe. For example, feedback on written exams might be notes on a student’s responses or an explanation of point deductions on problem sets. Feedback on oral exams might be a rubric with scores and comments that can promote standardized evaluation and feedback across sub-groups of the faculty.
  • Acknowledge the stress exams create for students, watch for warning signs, and be prepared to provide information on where students can go for help in dealing with it.

For students:

  • Develop and promote peer-led exam preparation support programs (e.g. mock oral exams, one-on-one exam mentoring, study groups).
  • Provide constructive feedback to programs regarding the comprehensive exam experience when solicited.
  • Keep an eye out for fellow students having difficulty managing stress and encourage them to seek stress-management resources (academic advisors, counseling center, etc.