Comprehensive Examination, Academics | Earlham College
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Comprehensive Examination

The Psychology faculty believes the psychology comprehensive examination should function as a means of allowing graduating majors to engage deeply and broadly within the discipline.  To that end, we have designed the comprehensive examination as a two-part assessment of these dimensions:  An in-depth research project encourages students to focus on a particular question in psychology and a written examination covering multiple sub-areas of psychology pushes majors to explore the different theories and practices of the various disciplines.

Depth – Comprehensive Research Project

Majors engage in an independent senior project during the Comprehensive Research Project (PSYC 486) course for the depth component of the comprehensive examination.  They choose a psychological question to research and then find and familiarize themselves with the literature relevant to their topic.  They then apply knowledge of research methodology by designing a study to address that question.  Students conduct the investigation as designed, analyze their data and then synthesize their findings into a formal presentation to the college community and a written research report.

Example Projects

Here are a couple examples of recent student comprehensive research projects:

A Couch Potato Sack Race:  Motivating the Unmotivated - Joshua Ray Graetz '15Raygraetz 15

Who is more effective, a coach who pats you on the back and says you did a good job, or a coach who throws you into a competitive rage?  I had participants do a potato sack race to test this, finding that the aggressive, "controlling" coach got people hopping faster!

Crime and Punishment - Megan Huffmeyer ‘15

Meghuffmeyer 15

Numerous studies have shown that stigma continues to be an issue for the mentally ill so I designed a study measuring fear, lack of sympathy, and stigma towards a person who had committed a serious crime.  Participants read an article wherein the criminal had no psychological condition mentioned or was identified as having schizophrenia or depression.  The criminal also was presented as either male or female, which resulted in six total conditions. Results indicated that participants were most afraid of the criminal in the control condition where he/she had no diagnosis in comparison to committing a crime with either schizophrenia or depression.  Compared to male participants, female participants reported being more afraid of the criminal, but also reported more sympathy.

Zoewolfe 15The "Eyes" Have It:  Measuring Attitude through Pupil Dilation - Zoe Wolfe '15

Past research has shown that pupil dilation is an indicator of autonomic activation and can be used to gauge the interest or attitude of a participant toward a stimulus.  In my study, I measured participants' pupil dilations while they viewed a photograph of an individual.  I took measurements from before and after the participants had received information about the individual, in hopes that I would be able to see a difference in pupil diameter as their impression of the individual changed.

Breadth – The Examination

To demonstrate breadth in their knowledge of psychology, all senior students take a written examination in the spring semester of their senior year.  Through studying independently and with their peers, students re-familiarize themselves with the materials they learned in their psychology courses and establish deeper connections through the materials.  The exam includes questions from multiple sub-areas within psychology to test for functional knowledge across the disciplines.

Areas Covered

The breadth examination covers five major sub-areas of psychology, specifically developmental psychology, social psychology, abnormal/clinical psychology, the brain and behavior and statistics.

Exam Format

Senior majors complete the exam prior to spring break.  There is a 3-hour time limit but the exam takes most students 60-90 minutes.

There are two components to the breadth examination:

  • Sixty multiple-choice questions drawn from the five sub-areas listed above. This section of the exam is similar in structure and format to the GRE Psychology Subject test.   Students earn one point for each correct response.
  • Four essay questions, from the sub-areas of developmental psychology, social psychology, abnormal/clinical psychology, and the brain and behavior.  The grading scale for each essay is 0-10.  The maximum point value for the essay portion of the exam is 40.

To pass the comprehensive exam, the student must earn an overall grade of 75 out of 100 possible points. Students who successfully pass the examination are eligible to graduate with a psychology degree.

The Psychology department reserves the right to change the exam format in order to best assess for breadth of knowledge.

Studying for the Exam

The exam format might seem intimidating but the psychology faculty distributes both a concept list and essay list to assist majors with their studying.  We distribute these materials during the last week of fall semester and encourage students to study both independently and in-groups during the intervening weeks.  All multiple-choice and essay questions for the exam are about the theories and diagnostics from the concept list.  The essay list features about 20 essays and includes the 4 that are on the current year’s exam.  Students are well-prepared for the exam if they focus their review upon the topics outlined in those materials.

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