Comprehensive Exam

The comprehensive exam is the second major component of the curriculum and instruction doctoral degree. Learn more about the exam and how to adequately prepare.


The comprehensive examination is a written and oral examination given to curriculum and instruction students to ascertain their ability to apply acquired knowledge and skills.

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The comprehensive examination covers three major areas in the program:

  • foundations/curriculum and instruction
  • focus studies
  • research

Exams are usually taken in the semester following the completion of all coursework and planned in a face-to-face meeting with the doctoral committee. At that meeting, a comprehensive exam scheduling form is completed to identify:

  • who will author each set of questions
  • who will be the second reader
  • what kind of exam it will be
  • the dates for these exams to take place

Committee members are often chosen to write and/or be second readers, but non-committee members may be chosen as well. It is the student’s responsibility to gain permission from each author and second reader in advance of the exam.


The following tips and information will help you prepare for the exam:

  • Meet with the committee to determine formats, dates, authors, and second readers for the three exams.
  • Only curriculum and instruction resident faculty and those who are qualified in the area can write questions unless you are teamed with faculty.
  • The sit down exam takes place in a room with a computer and no materials
  • You have 8 hours to complete the exam. Go to the Teaching and Learning Department office for help with arranging a room and computer.  
  • The take home exam occurs over a two week period. The writer of the question e-mails you the exam question on the start date and time. You e-mail back your answer to the writer and second reader.
  • You are allowed 16 weeks (four months) to complete all three exams and must be registered for three units in one of the included terms.

The Examination

Each of the three areas may address questions related to:

  • history and philosophy
  • concepts and interpretation
  • applications and problem solving

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Three examples of the foundations/curriculum exam

1. Given the current policies and laws of the country and your state, explain the common structures and elements of curriculum in your school system. How are Dewey, Tyler, and one other thinker of your choice represented in the curriculum and instruction and in what ways would you recommend that these thinkers be more or less represented?

2. Trace the history of two curriculum theories (humanism and pragmatism), identifying the major thinkers for each, the basic tenants of each, and show how each are alike and different in their basic characteristics. If found in the curriculum of a school today, what would each look like in terms of broad themes, approaches, and philosophical underpinnings?

3. You have been asked to develop a sequence of professional training workshops in literacy acquisition for an elementary school district which has a high percentage of students from minority cultures and many low SES students as well. What bodies of literature constitute the core of knowledge from which you would draw in developing this curriculum? What conceptual framework do you bring to this development process and how is this framework revealed in the curriculum you would develop? (Do not develop the actual curriculum in response to this question.) In your response make clear what paradigmatic perspective you are using, which curriculum theorists you are drawing on, and what role critical inquiry plays in this discussion.

Four examples of the research comprehensive exam

1. Present as thoroughly as possible three paradigms for research (traditional positivism, logical positivism, and interpretive) by explaining each perspective’s history, earliest thinkers, and any associated schools of thought, and how each paradigm defines ontology, epistemology, causality, generalizability, and validity.

2. Compare and contrast the epistemological perspectives of Bacon or Hume, Carnap or Popper, and Dilthey or Husserl. Show how each would design a research study including purpose, problem/questions, methods, data collection, and data analysis.

3. Examining the research study in the article provided, carefully identify and critically analyze the methodology, methods, sampling, data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Be detailed in your response.

4. Using an outline format, carefully present your dissertation study from methodology to analysis. In using a full narrative format, show how, by reformulating your study question, your dissertation study would be designed using an opposite paradigm.

Post exam

The following are statuses and options available to you after the exam:

  • conditional pass: conditions are provided
  • fail: one more chance is allowed but not in same term (for part failed only)
  • obtain questions from authors/readers to prepare an oral presentation
  • oral meeting may be used for dissertation status review or proposal meeting