Comprehensive exams

The comprehensive examination allows students to demonstrate the acquisition of a broad knowledge in the field of educational research and a global view on the subject; integrate the concepts, principles and theories they have studied during their course work; display the required knowledge to undertake and complete their research project successfully; and, present and defend their written work orally.

There are two parts to the comprehensive exam:

  1. written component where the student presents written responses to two questions. The comprehensive written exam consists of three questions focusing on fields of study that inform the student’s proposed research project. The nature of the questions is to be discussed by the supervisor in consultation with the student, then shared with committee members for their input and approval. The fields might include areas of scholarship, epistemology and methodology that are aligned with the student’s area of forthcoming dissertation research. The student must prepare responses to two of the three questions; and
  2. an oral presentation in the form of an oral defence. The oral component takes place after the written component is evaluated as successful. This oral defence consists of presenting the answers to the two questions orally and answering questions posed by committee members.


The comprehensive exam committee members are selected by the thesis supervisor(s) in consultation with the student.

The committee is normally made up of two professors. One member may be a professor from outside the Faculty of Education. The thesis supervisor is a member of the evaluation committee. Some variation on these guidelines may be permitted with the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies.

Prior to beginning their comprehensive examination process, students must send their doctoral Committee Member list to the academic secretariat at [email protected].

Preparation for the examination

The thesis supervisor(s) are responsible for organizing the comprehensive examination by bringing together committee members. The student prepares reading lists in agreed fields of study which are approved by the thesis supervisor(s) and the members of the comprehensive examination committee.

The purposes of the reading lists are to:

  • guide the student in answering the questions during the exam;
  • assist in the formulation of the examination questions;
  • create a common forum for discussion during the oral component of the exam; and,
  • provide historical and current perspectives on the issues related to the student’s area of study.

During the period while questions are being formulated, the student discusses the nature of these questions with the thesis supervisor. For example, the student may suggest elements requiring further development in relation to the thesis research topic.It is understood the questions will not be given to the student before the beginning of the exam.

When the committee agrees with the examination questions, the thesis supervisor(s) sends the questions to the program director. The Director of Graduate Studies will provide feedback on the questions within 15 days (including week-ends and public holidays).

Once the final version of the questions are approved by the GS Director the final questions are sent to the Graduate Studies office to complete the comprehensive exam instruction sheet.

The Academic Secretariat sends the examination questions and instructions to the student by email attachment. The following information is included:

  • the deadline date and time;
  • the questions; and,
  • the link to the “Comprehensive Exam Evaluation Grid”. This form includes the evaluation criteria (form and substance).

The student has a maximum of 30 days (including week-ends and public holidays ) to complete the written part of the exam. The examination text must be sent by email attachment to by the date specified on the instructions. Failure to meet the deadline, without prior arrangements, constitutes a failed grade.

In the event of unforeseen circumstances that interfere with the ability to write the exam, such as medical emergencies, students should contact [email protected] for guidance. Documentation of the circumstances may be required.

The primary resource for students is their supervisor(s), as well as the members of their committee, who are available to meet with the student prior to receiving the comprehensive exam. To assist students in their preparations, the Academic Secretariat has a compilation of sample comprehensive exam questions used in the past resource which may be consulted on request

The written examination evaluation

In addition to the criteria in the evaluation grid in the form “Comprehensive Exam Evaluation Grid” the text must follow the usual conventions governing the presentation of research papers, specifically those of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Modern Languages Association, or the University of Chicago Press, as appropriate to the disciplines involved. The following points require special attention:

  • The student must complete the examination independently. 
  • Length of Answers. Although length by no means indicates quality and certainly plays no role as a criterion of quality, answers for each question should be between 3500 and 4000 words. The text must be typed, spaced at 1.5 and in a Times New Roman 12-point font. Pages must be numbered.
  • Personal Synthesis. The answers should be such that they show the student’s ability to analyse, synthesize, and develop logical lines of reasoning. The student must demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the fields being written about.
  • Quality of Written Language. The student may write in either French or English. The quality of written language is essential; the committee members may reject any exam containing numerous grammar, spelling, or syntax errors.
  • The thesis supervisor and committee members have 21 days (including week-ends and public holidays) to evaluate the written portion of the exam using the form “Comprehensive Exam Evaluation Grid”. While the evaluation is in progress, it is important to avoid any discussion about the examination among the thesis supervisor(s), the other committee members and the student.

The supervisor and the committee members complete a written evaluation of the student’s answers to the two questions and must include comments for each question. The supervisor and each member of the committee must complete the “Comprehensive Exam Evaluation Grid” and submit it to the Academic Secretariat.

Each committee member declares one of the following verdicts:

  • the written portion of the Comprehensive Exam is accepted for oral defence; or
  • the written portion of the Comprehensive Exam does not satisfy the requirements.

The Academic Secretariat sends a copy of each committee member’s completed Comprehensive Exam Evaluation Grid to the thesis supervisor(s) and the student.

The thesis supervisor(s) meet with the student to discuss the evaluations by the committee.

If the responses to the two questions are evaluated as satisfactory, the student prepares for the oral defence.

In cases where the evaluations are not unanimously positive the following steps will apply. If the student receives unsatisfactory evaluation in a question (or both) from ONE or more of the THREE evaluators, the student is required to write the failed question/s again, taking into account the feedback received in the evaluation reports.

Supplemental examination

The student who fails the written component of the Comprehensive Exam has the opportunity to write a supplementary exam.

For the supplementary exam, the following applies:

  • As soon as the supervisor receives the evaluation reports, the supervisor must meet with the student to review the reports.
  • If the student chooses to do the supplementary exam, the student must re-register for EDU 9998.
  • The supplementary exam will commence within 30 days (including week-ends and public holidays) following the review of the reports with the supervisor.
  • If the supplementary comprises one question, the student has 15 days (including week-ends and public holidays) to complete.
  • If the supplementary exam comprises two questions, the student has 30 days (including week-ends and public holidays) to complete.
  • In all cases, the student will prepare responses to the same questions, no new questions will be submitted by the committee.
  • The supplemental examination follows the same requirements as written above in Section 5 a, b, c.
  • The evaluation of the supplemental examination follows the same procedures as written above in Section 5 a–g.
  • In cases where the evaluations for the supplementary examination are not unanimously positive, the following steps will apply. If the student receives unsatisfactory evaluation in a question (or both) from ONE of the THREE evaluators, the student is required to withdraw from the program.

Oral defence evaluation

The thesis supervisor schedules the date and timing for the oral defence, once the evaluation of the comprehensive exam written component is deemed satisfactory.

Normally, the oral defence will take place 15 days (including week-ends and public holidays) after all committee members have submitted their evaluation of the written component.

The purposes of the oral defence are to:

  • Clarify particular items
  • Examine personal perspective
  • Participate in a discussion
  • Verify the written work authenticity

During the oral defence, the committee can request from the student to summarize, defend, clarify, nuance, amend or expand on the written responses to the exam. The student can also be asked to formulate generalizations from ideas presented or to demonstrate linkages between ideas presented and concepts that are either contradictory or complementary to the field of research.

General criteria for the oral defence evaluation are the following:

  • In-depth knowledge of the topic
  • Critical analysis skills
  • Ability to synthesize
  • Capacity to express ideas and arguments orally

The committee will use the form Report on comprehensive exam oral defence to grant a mark of S (satisfactory) or NS (non satisfactory) for the comprehensive exam as a whole, including the written and oral components. This form can be obtained from the Academic Secretaria. The thesis supervisor submits both completed forms to the Academic Secretariat.

If the student obtains a satisfactory evaluation for the written component of the comprehensive exam, but fails the oral defence, the student has the opportunity to take part in a supplemental oral defence. The committee members must justify in writing the reasons for failure. The mark NS is logged onto the student’s file. There is no requirement to answer a new question.

If the student decides to undergo a supplemental oral defence, the supplementary oral examination must be held within 30 days(including week-ends and public holidays) following the date of the initial oral examination. If the supplementary examination falls within the next academic session, the student must re-register for the comprehensive exam (EDU 9998) for an additional semester.

If the student succeeds at the supplemental oral defence, the mark S is logged onto the student’s file and the student can proceed with the regular doctoral programme

If the student fails the supplemental oral defence, the student is required to withdraw from the program.

If the student succeeds at the supplemental examination for the written component of the comprehensive exam, and succeeds at the supplemental oral defence, the student will receive a mark of S and can proceed with the regular doctoral program.

If the student succeeds at the supplemental examination for the written component of the comprehensive exam, but fails the supplemental oral defence, the student is required to withdraw from the program.