Religious Studies Senior Comprehensive Exam

Purpose of the Senior Comprehensive Exam

Students who choose the Religious Studies comprehensive take a two-part examination in their final year. The comprehensive offers students the opportunity to demonstrate a certain breadth and depth of knowledge: breadth in the selection of texts, and depth in their ability to engage the texts critically and constructively. In preparing for and completing the examination, students show that they have grown in ways specific to their courses within the Religious Studies major, both by becoming familiar with important ideas and by gaining facility in theological reflection. The exams are designed to allow them to synthesize and strengthen their understanding, allowing them to reflect on what they've learned, to design an important part of their program of study, and to collaborate closely with faculty.


Structure of the Comprehensive: An Overview

The comprehensive is constructed in dialogue with each student who, in consultation with her advisor, proposes a bibliography for each part of her examination. The first part covers historical materials and is comprised of four texts representing the history of religious thought until 1950; the second examines contemporary sources and is comprised of four texts written after 1950. The parts of the comprehensive may be taken in either order.

Since one aim of the examination is to assure the student's breadth of knowledge in the field, the bibliographies should reflect a broad range of materials. The department approves the list and assigns readers who work with the student and formulate questions drawn from the approved texts. Each semester's exam consists of three essay questions. Depending on a student's goals, sometimes a question will relate two of the texts; other times, the questions formulated by the readers focus on three individual texts from the list of four. The student responds to these essay questions in a twenty-four-hour, open-book examination. This exam format has been developed in order give the student enough time to write thoughtful essays while minimizing the disruption to her ordinary schedule.


Preparing for the Examination: Initial Steps

Students planning to do the comprehensive begin in second semester of their junior year by reviewing their course of study, their goals in the major and their scholarly interests, and the department's bibliography for exams. Each student is encouraged to use the process of selecting texts as an opportunity to think about the works and ideas that are important to her as a student of Religious Studies.

Because students complete the major in a variety of ways, either part of the comprehensive can come first. The texts chosen for each part should represent a breadth of perspectives, but two or more of them may be connected by a theme, approach, or question the student would like to explore by specifically comparing texts. Usually, students choose texts that they have studied in previous classes and would like to return to in more depth. They sometimes choose texts from courses they will take their senior year and expect to find especially important to their program of study. However, students are not limited to texts they have encountered, or plan to encounter, in their courses; it is most appropriate for a student to propose a text she would like to study for the first time. Moreover, a student may request a text that is not on the department bibliography.


Working with the Department Bibliography

The department maintains a large bibliography from which students may draw. Part A of this bibliography contains works dating from ancient times to the early twentieth century; these works provide the suggested materials for the historical part of the comprehensive. Part B of the department's bibliography covers texts from 1950 on; these materials constitute suggested sources for the contemporary part of the examination. The department's bibliography reflects works deemed important in historical and contemporary religious thought. It also represents works used in Religious Studies courses from recent semesters. The bibliography is posted online on the department's web page and is available in hard copy from the chair of the department. Selections in the bibliography may be entire works of book length, but they may also be individual essays or excerpts from longer works. When a selection is an excerpt from a longer work, the student may have to become familiar with the argument and approach of the entire book. Her advisor and readers will work with her to help her gain the context needed.

As noted above, a student may ask to include a text in her bibliography that isn't on the department's list. This process ensures both that the student's bibliography meets the department goal of including representative texts and that it expresses the student's own interests and goals as a Religious Studies major.


Consulting with Faculty

Once a student has reflected on which texts she would like to explore in her exams, she schedules a meeting with her advisor. This initial meeting should take place before the end of her junior year, and since the process of finalizing bibliographies can take some time, students are strongly encouraged to contact their advisors no later than April 15th. In this initial meeting, the student will explain which texts she would like to include in her fall exam bibliography and discuss her interests in these particular texts. If possible, she should also have looked forward to her spring exam so that her final eight-piece bibliography will represent the depth and breadth of her work in the major. However, the final list for the spring examination does not need to be proposed and approved until the student has completed her fall exam. She should contact her advisor in time to secure approval before the end of the fall semester.

Once the student and advisor decide on a bibliography, the advisor submits the list to the department as a whole. The department then approves it or recommends changes if needed. Once the department approves each bibliography, the chair assigns two readers who will work with the student as she prepares for the exam and then read the students' essays. The chair will notify the student of the official approval of her bibliography and her assigned readers. At that point the student sets up an appointment with the readers to discuss her interests in the texts, any work she has already done on them, and the areas she would like to focus on during her exam. The readers will help the student clarify these areas of focus for each text. In addition to the two assigned readers, all Religious Studies faculty are available to consult with the student in her work on individual texts and to suggest relevant secondary materials that will help her understand the texts more fully.

Usually, the student and readers will decide on four possible essay topics. The readers then choose three of those four topics and put them in the form of essay questions for the comprehensive examination. As a result of this collaboration, each student has considerable input into the questions she will be asked on her exam. Though she won't see the final form of the questions until she takes the exam and won't know which three of the four topics will appear on the exam, she will be very familiar with the issues the questions raise. Exam questions, then, ask students to compose essays based on this extended period of collaboration and preparation.


Taking the Comprehensive Examination

One part of the comprehensive is taken before Thanksgiving and one is taken before spring break of the student's final year. The department, in consultation with the student, sets the exact time and place for taking the exam. The student and her readers usually schedule the twenty-four-hour exam period over a weekend, so that there is time for sleep, meals, and a reasonable pace in completing the three essays. The student arranges to pick up her question on the scheduled day and time and returns two copies of her responses at a designated time and place. Students ordinarily work where they can use their own computers.

Our experience has been that students do best when, having prepared well, they allot no more than four hours per question. That may mean organizing thoughts on each question for approximately two hours, with the rest of the time allotted to the actual writing; or it may mean spending more time on the writing, working from detailed notes or outlines prepared in advance. As a rule, complete answers consist of approximately four typed, double-spaced pages.

In writing the exam, students are welcome, and encouraged, to consult the texts they are writing on; in fact, strong essays will refer to specific points in the texts, with accurate quotes and paraphrases accompanied by parenthetical page references when needed. Students are also welcome to use other books and articles relevant to the exam and any notes and outlines they have prepared in advance. It's to be expected that, in preparing those notes and outlines, students will draw on the work they have done in previous classes. However, the exam essays should be fresh considerations of the texts, written specifically for the examination. If a student consults sources other than the assigned texts, she should cite them accurately and include a Works Cited page with her essay.


Evaluating the Examination

Student responses are read and evaluated by the two readers who have worked with the student throughout her preparation for the exam. In each response, they look for a coherent, thoughtfully demonstrated thesis and accurate reporting of points from the text. They take into account both the importance of good preparation for the exam and the limited time the student has to write the final essays. The exam is not graded, but, for each part of the exam, students receive a letter with the results and written comments on each response. If a student does not successfully complete all parts of the exam, she is expected to revise the response(s) that did not meet department standards. The student is invited to consult with her readers as she works on her revision, which must be completed by the date specified in her letter (usually before the end of the semester in which the exam was taken). Once both parts of the exam have been successfully completed, the chair enters on the student transcript "RLST 999: Comprehensive Exam Passed."


Final Words of Wisdom to Students Taking the Exam

At its best, the comprehensive exam can and should be a learning experience that allows you to pull together and display proudly what you've learned and the skills you've acquired. As with other work you've done in the department, each comprehensive question asks that you engage texts critically and not just summarize an author's arguments. A successful essay response presents a strong thesis that reflects your own thinking on the question, and it supports that thesis with solid, well-organized evidence from the relevant texts.

Though the exam itself may take only two twenty-four-hour periods, the preparation for it will take several months. The best way to succeed on the exams is to start early. If at all possible, plan ahead so that you can begin your studying over the summer. Work closely with your advisor so that your lists are approved in plenty of time, and prepare well for your meetings with your readers so that you can take full advantage of your time together. Remember that your exams are a time for you to show your ability to put together a solid, broad-ranging bibliography and to write thoughtfully, perhaps even astutely, about the texts you've chosen. The faculty is happy to help you, but the initiative and thought must be yours.