A New Way of Looking At Comprehensive Exams

Special Education Concentration

Arizona State University, Department of Education

Description of innovative element

Instead of traditional comprehensive exams, Dr. Robert B. Rutherford has taken an innovative approach to working with his students to satisfy this requirement. Rather than cramming for exams near the end of their coursework, students can be found working on a variety of projects throughout their programs. The result of their efforts ultimately become part of their vitae as well as better prepare them to be effective future faculty members. His approach requires students to complete four major products prior to advancing to candidacy. The products are as follows:

1. A Literature Review

2. A Single Authored Article

3. A Co-authored Article

4. A Grant Proposal

With the exception of the single authored article, students work directly alongside their advisor and their peers on completing these products. Each of the articles written is submitted to leading refereed journals for possible publication. The grant proposal is submitted to potential funding sources within the field. Some students have completed grant applications for student-initiated grants through the Office of Special Education Programs and have received the funding necessary to complete their dissertations! Through working with their cohorts to complete these four products, students have learned how to write professionally while in a supportive environment.

What educational purpose does this element serve?

Work on these products emulates activities much like those required of assistant professors in academic settings. Students have the opportunity to build their professional resumes while still in the doctoral program.

What data or evidence tells us that this works?

Approximately ten students have completed the PhD and fulfilled these requirements. Their collective work has resulted in numerous publications and several grants. All students have gone on to pursue careers in or directly related to academia.

We have collected the professional resumes of all current students and program graduates. Fortunately, we have been able to maintain contact with all program graduates as well.

Details of the element

  • Work on the four products typically begins the second semester students are in the program. The first semester students are acclimating to the new environment learning to balance the demands of their coursework with their work as graduate assistants. The timeline for completing the products differs for each student in the program depending on his or her needs and interests.
  • Doctoral students are ultimately responsible for initiating and conducting work on their products. Drawing from their own interests and strengths in the field, students work with their advisor and other committee members to determine the direction of their research and to begin to carve out a niche for themselves. Students have an opportunity to complete three out of four of the products with others in their cohort. At least one of the products most be the sole responsibility of the student.
  • Since the four products replace the comprehensive exams, all students are required to complete the products.
  • Traditional written comprehensive exams result in a great deal of study and preparation that typically do not lead to any permanent product. Since students are increasingly expected to have published articles prior to entering the job market, we knew our approach needed to change. The new approach was instituted in 1998 at the inception of the United States Department of Education Leadership Preparation Grant here at Arizona State University.

  • Reflection from a faculty member

    I believe the products approach to comprehensive examination has had a positive impact on the program. Students are more focused and invested in the work that they do. In my opinion, students are more relaxed about this approach than the comprehensive exam process. And frankly, I believe it results in better student outcomes.

    Robert B. Rutherford, Professor of Special Education

    Reflection from a student

    I have watched other students participate in the traditional comprehensive exam process. I have seen them experience a great deal of anxiety and frustration. My experience has been much more positive and fruitful. I have felt like, and have been treated as, an equal. I will leave Arizona State University with three publications, an instructional video, and experience in grant proposal writing. These products, in addition to my participation in the Preparing Future Faculty Program, leave me with a better understanding of the expectations of an assistant professor.

    Katie Barclay, Doctoral Candidate, Special Education Program

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