GFC Recommendations—Proposal to Change the Plan C M.S. Final Oral Exam Policy

Proposal:

The oral examination for coursework only (Plan C) master’s degree programs shall be optional at the discretion of the department in which the programs are administered. Each department shall establish a policy regarding oral examinations for coursework only master’s degree programs. The policy established for a given program within a department must be applied to every student in that program.

  1. The rationale for the changes: MTU offers a variety of master’s degree programs that are coursework only. The current policy does not differentiate between degree programs and applies a one-size-fits-all approach. Consequently, it is reasonable to ask if the oral examination requirement serves as an effective qualitative measure of academic performance for some degree programs. Making the oral examination optional, at the discretion of the department, would transfer the decision regarding the appropriate means of academic assessment to the level at which the participants involved are the most familiar with the program in question.
  2. Analysis of final oral exam policies at a wide variety of institutions suggests that about half require a final oral exam and there is either no exam or the exam is optional, depending on the program, at the other half. (see Excel spreadsheet of archived oral exam data.)
  3. The vote in the GFC was unanimous in favor of the proposed policy change.

Support:

A member of the Graduate Faculty Council has collected data on 31 institutions of higher-learning that are believed to broadly represent a peer group to MTU. Of these, 26 institutions offer coursework-only master’s degree programs. Of these 26:

Ten institutions indicate that a comprehensive exam is not required or is optional:

  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Hawaii at Manoa
  • Georgia Tech
  • Lehigh
  • Purdue
  • Arizona
  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • Oregon

Two institutions indicate that a comprehensive exam is required for all programs except their MBA program:

  • Arizona State
  • Iowa State

Thirteen of the institutions surveyed indicate that they require a comprehensive exam for all master’s degrees:

  • California Polytechnic
  • Case Western Reserve
  • Montana Tech
  • Clemson
  • Colorado State
  • Michigan State
  • New Mexico State
  • Rutgers
  • SUNY Buffalo
  • Colorado
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Virginia Tech

At one institution the requirement was uncertain (phone calls & e-mails were not returned):

  • Washington

Conclusion:

A cursory glance at these lists would seem to suggest that there is no obvious qualitative difference between universities requiring comprehensive examinations and those where it is optional. It would be difficult to conclude that the oral exam requirement is a litmus test of overall quality. Therefore, it would appear unlikely that the adoption of this proposal should be viewed, on its face, as an attempt to unilaterally lower academic standards. Making the oral examination optional at the discretion of the department would transfer the decision-making to the level at which the participants involved are the most familiar with the program in question. This would permit the departments to determine the type of assessment that is most useful and relevant for their specific programs.