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Degree Completion - Comprehensive Exams


The comprehensive exam is a major step in completing the Master's degree and students need to have the best information possible. All students who choose the coursework/comprehensive exam option are required to complete a tutorial on the exam in the semester prior to the semester they take their comprehensive exam. The University of Oklahoma, College of Professional and Continuing Studies delivers Master's level degree programs to students around the world. Just like all accredited university graduate programs, the PACS graduate degree programs include completion requirements such as a thesis or non-thesis completion such as research project. We have developed an additional non-thesis degree completion option for our students to provide increased flexibility for our on-line students. This is the coursework/comprehensive exam option. Students who choose this option will take 6 hours of subject area elective coursework and write a comprehensive exam. The coursework/comprehensive exam option does not differ from the other options in terms of degree of difficulty or expectations.

Enrollment for Degree Completetion

Students who choose the thesis or research project option are required to enroll in six hours of thesis or project credit if allowed by the degree program in which you are enrolled. Students who choose the coursework/comprehensive exam option will enroll in six hours of subject area elective coursework (additional elective courses in your degree program area). These six hours will form the basis for the fourth question on the comprehensive exam (see below). The credit hours for each completion option are the same, and all students are required to complete 33 hours to earn their degree.

What is the Comprehensive Exam?

The comprehensive exam assesses a student's knowledge of a field of study. For the Master's Degree, that level of knowledge is expected to be advanced. The comprehensive exam is not based on specific course(s), but it is meant to test students' comprehension and familiarity with their discipline and their ability to synthesize concepts and ideas that they have learned over their entire course of graduate study. Many Master's students perform quite well in the individual classes and expect to pass the comprehensive exam easily. Sometimes students presume that if they received good grades, they will need little or no preparation for their comprehensive exam. It is important to remember, however, that the comprehensive exam requires students to go beyond what they have done in individual courses. Earning good grades throughout the coursework phase of the degree does not automatically translate into passing the comprehensive exam on the first try. While a student may have mastered the concepts, theories and ideas in individual courses, the comprehensive exams requires students to demonstrate that they can bring these ideas and concepts together and provide a coherent analysis for each of the exam questions. In some ways, the comprehensive exam can be compared to the bar exam. Law students may complete all of their coursework, but they must still pass the bar exam in order to practice law. Likewise, Master's students may complete all of their coursework, but they must still pass the comprehensive exam in order to earn their degree. Like the bar exam, not all students who take the comprehensive exam the first time pass. For example, in the summer of 2002, an average of 72.5% of all law students who took the bar exam passed. Those failing the exam the first time are required to take the exam again and pass it in order to practice law. This is the same with the comprehensive exam.

Comprehensive Exam Policies

The Graduate College has specific requirements that the College of Professional and Continuing Studies must adhere to in administering the comprehensive exam. 

How is the exam received?

  • The exam will be mailed to your OU email account only. Do not forward your OU email account to another provider as they may block the exam. Your OU email account is the only official email for the University of Oklahoma.

When Can you Take the Comprehensive Exam? 

  • A student must complete the required and core courses and at least 75% of all coursework listed on the approved Admission to Candidacy form to be granted authority to the take the comprehensive exam. 

Retaking the Comprehensive Exam 

  • Students may receive a second opportunity to successfully pass the comprehensive exam at the discretion of the exam committee. A failure on any part (area) of the exam results in a failure of the entire exam and necessitates a retake of the exam. 
  • If a student fails one or two areas, he/she only rewrites those two areas.
  • If a student fails three or four areas, then the entire exam must be rewritten
  • New questions are provided for the rewrite.
  • Students who are rewriting one or two questions have one week to answer the questions. Students rewriting the entire exam have two weeks.


All written academic work, including comprehensive exams, must be composed entirely of words generated (not simply found) by the student, except where words written by someone else are specifically marked as such with proper citation. When students misrepresent the origin of ideas or writing, this is plagiarism. Plagiarism is grounds for failure of assignment, failure of a course, or even removal from the university.

Plagiarism is any of the following:

  • To copy words and present them as your own writing.
  • To copy words, even if you give the source, unless you also indicate (with quotation marks and citation) that the copied words are a direct quotation.
  • To copy words and then change them a little, even if you give the source.
  • To present someone else's ideas as your own, even if you express them in your own words.
  • To re-submit your prior work for additional credit in a different class or on the comprehensive exam (i.e. self-plagiarism)

If you have questions about what constitutes plagiarism, review OU's

Enrollment During the Comprehensive Exam

Students must be enrolled in at least two hours during the semester that they take their comprehensive exam. This policy, established by the Graduate College, also applies to the semester that any re-take of the comprehensive exam is attempted. So if you have taken and failed the comprehensive exam in one semester, you will be required to re-enroll for at least two hours in the next or subsequent semester to re-take the comprehensive exam. Students will not be eligible for financial aid during the semester that they retake their exam. Financial aid rules require students to be enrolled for at least five hours and that all of those hours are required to earn their degree.

The Exam

Each exam is developed for each individual student by the exam committee. There are no standard exams. The Comp Exam is emailed (between 8:30 and 9:30 am on the start date) to each student's OU email account and they have two weeks to answer all areas and return the exam by email and submit it to Canvas under the Assignments drop box in this tutorial (by 5 p.m. on the exam return date). The exam will be reviewed by the plagiarism program TurnItIn. The start dates for the exams are established each term and students will be given a date range during the term in which they can start the exam. Exams cannot be started on weekends or holidays. If the exam is not returned by the deadline (5 p.m. on the exam return date), it is considered a failure.

The Committee

The Committee consists of three members. The committee will be selected from faculty who work for the College of Professional and Continuing Studies. Normally you will have at least one faculty member you have had during the course of your degree program. All three members will grade your papers on a scale of one to ten and the average for each area will be your score for the area. A score of seven on each area is the minimum passing score.

The Questions

  • The comprehensive exam is a two-week, take-home examination consisting of four questions (areas) approved by the College for the student which is emailed to the student. The student will return the exam by email within the time limit to all committee members and the College of Professional and Continuing Studies. The exam consists of the following:

  • One question covering the content in the Interdisciplinary Studies portion of the Master's program. 
  • One question covering the content in the Research Preparation portion of the Master's program. 
  • One question covering the content in the Specialized Study portion of the Master's program. 
  • One question related to a critical analysis of the readings required in the Master's Program.

While the exam questions are not based on a particular course, they are generally based on areas of study within your degree program that were covered in courses. 

Question One:

  • For all degree programs, question one is based on literature, theories and concepts covered in LSTD 5003 and LSTD 5013.

Question Two:

  • For all degree programs except Criminal Justice, question two is based on LSTD 5043/5083 and research theories, methods and concepts covered in LSTD 5043/5083 and all other LSTD courses where these were used.
  • For the MSCJ program, question two is based on LSCJ 5063 and research theories, methods and concepts covered in LSCJ 5063 and all other LSTD or LSCJ courses where these were used.

Question Three:

  • For Administrative Leadership students, question three is based on LSAL 5113, LSAL 5133 and LSAL 5153. 
  • For Museum Studies students, question three is based on LSMS 5113, LSMS 5190 and one of the following: LSMS 5133, LSMS 5163, LSMS 5173 or LSMS 5183. 
  • For Health and Human Services Administration students, question three is based on LSHA 5113, LSHA 5133 and LSHA 5153.
  • For Prevention Science students, question three is based on LSPS 5113, LSPS 5133, and LSPS 5173.
  • For Criminal Justice students, question three is based on LSCJ 5113, LSCJ 5133, and LSCJ 5153.

Question Four:

  • For all degree programs, question four is based on any courses which were taken that are related to the degree option.

The Answers

  • Students are expected to write a 1,500 to 2,100 word paper for each question.
  • Be sure to include literature reviews in your answer. You need to demonstrate that you are familiar with the literature in your field and can use it to support or debate your argument in each question.
  • Be sure that your list of references is adequate. You will need to include citations from books as well as articles in peer reviewed journals. Wikipedia, for example, is simply a compilation of ideas, opinions and unverified facts and will not be viewed as a legitimate reference in a comprehensive exam. In general, encyclopedias should not be cited as sources. They may be read as background and to help you get a sense of what is important, but they are condensed secondary sources. Scholarly work should be based on examination of primary sources such as original articles and books.
  • Be sure that your citations are complete and accurate and that you have properly cited material that is not your own. Plagiarism on the comprehension exam will result in dismissal from the university and failure to earn your degree. Be aware that instructors have many on-line tools and programs to help them control for plagiarism, and they use these on a regular basis.
  • You may include an outline of your answer, though it will not be graded.
  • Be sure to complete a spell and grammar check before submitting your exam.
  • You will include the exam question you are answering as the first part of the response; it does not count as part of the 1500-2100 word count.
  • Your answer should close with a concluding statement that relates to the original problem and pulls your essay together.

Sample Questions

Below are three sample questions. These questions do not necessarily pertain to any specific course but are examples of what the questions will look like on the exam.

  1. Present a definition and trace the history of the concept, "intelligence." Howard Gardner has presented a theory of multiple intelligences and Daniel Goleman has popularized the idea of emotional intelligence. How do these contrast with the concept of "g" in intelligence theory? Discuss the nature/nurture controversy in intelligence theory.
  2. Briefly outline the history and current status of the theory of evolution. In your answer discuss or comment on the following:
    1. What does it mean to call evolution a theory?
    2. What is wrong with social Darwinism?
    3. What is evolutionary psychology?
  3. What are the philosophic roots of rational living as described in A Guide to Rational Living by Ellis and Harper? Give an example of how the concepts that Ellis and Harper discuss can contribute to successful leadership.