A couple of my online graduate students were sharing their mutual concern about their upcoming comprehensive exams. Since I went through my qualifying exams a couple of years ago, it seemed like a good idea to share some tips with you, my readers, on how to successfully go through these difficult tests.
First, check any recent written material you have from your university that states what the exams will cover. For example, we had a handbook that indicated that every assigned article and every book for every class was fair game for the examinations. This also included every discussion board topic.
Next, go back through all of your classes and print out or save as a Word document everything that has the possibility of being on the exam (ideally, you would have done this as you took the courses, but this is not a perfect world, so get together everything you or your classmates have on a given course). Save this to a thumb drive or other storage device, in case your computer crashes. (I lost two computers to the black screen of death during my graduate programs).
If you have other people in your classes that have the same work ethic that you do, offer to join a study group with them. Do not latch on to non-productive classmates. Stick to the serious students who want to pass these exams the first time. Agree to meet on a regular basis, giving one another homework assignments to summarize various books and articles so that you don’t have to do all the work yourself. (One of my classes had 11 books, so sharing the summarizing load was absolutely a must!) Share notes generously with others in your group. Be prepared to explain your summary during group time. If you can teach it, you really know it.
Set up a timetable for getting the studying done. Work backwards, starting with the date of the tests and then figuring out how much time that gives you to study each class. For example, my study group decided to spend two weeks on philosophy but a week and a half on some of the other classes because we felt like we had a good handle on those classes. You will be doing a personal every-other-day review of the classes that you aren’t focusing on while studying as a group, so that you won’t forget the information.
Keep in mind that you will be studying on your own for many hours when you aren’t with the group, especially if you have some classes that you alone took. Other teammates may have courses in common that they want to study for outside the larger group.
Finally, practice writing the answers. For example, my program had two-hour questions for each of the 7 topics in the qualifying exams, so I prepared sample questions based on the discussion board topics and practiced sitting at my computer, writing answers for two-hour blocks of time. It was very difficult at first, but got easier as I practiced writing for extended periods of time. I used my notes at first, just to get the swing of things, and then gradually made myself answer questions without my notes.
This blog is getting rather long, so my next part in this series will discuss how to study for an individual subject. If you would like to comment or ask a question, please use my name in the body of your comment, so that I know you are not spam. Thanks!