Comprehensive Requirement Guideline (Educational Leadership and Policy Program) 2023 and Later

Please note: These guidelines apply to students entering fall 2023 and later. Students who entered before fall 2023 may opt into either these guidelines or the old comprehensive exam guidelines. (Students must select one or the other full set of guidelines; they may not design a hybrid exam that combines aspects of the old and new guidelines.)


The purpose of the comprehensive exam for Doctoral degree programs in the Educational Leadership & Policy program is to:

  • Evaluate and support the development of students’ knowledge in the substantive field(s) of their research in relation to educational leadership and policy.
  • Determine students’ preparedness for undertaking dissertation research, identifying strengths and weaknesses.

The comprehensive exam has two components:

  1. A comprehensive paper that critically reviews and synthesizes the literature related to a problem of practice (for EdD students) or thesis topic (for PhD students), as selected by the student in consultation with the supervisor.
  2. An oral presentation during which the preparedness for undertaking dissertation research will be discussed.


The ELP Comprehensive exam is comprised of two parts:

Comprehensive paper:

  • The comprehensive paper should be between 6,000 and 8,000 words in length (not including references and appendices).
  • The topic of the comprehensive paper must be within the field of educational leadership and policy and must be selected by the student in consultation with the supervisor. The topic should normally be in the student’s proposed dissertation area. However, the topic need not remain completely fixed after the comprehensive exam; it is allowed to evolve in response to feedback and the student’s ongoing consultation with the supervisor.
  • The comprehensive paper should critically review and synthesize existing literature related to the topic area. It should demonstrate knowledge of the chosen substantive field; and the abilities to select literature that defines the scope of the field, to read critically, and to use literature to support an argument.
  • It should normally include both empirical literature (demonstrating knowledge of the key findings and major methodologies used to investigate the topic and the advantages and disadvantages of each) and theoretical literature (demonstrating an understanding of the major theoretical and conceptual debates related to the student’s proposed dissertation area).
  • It may be a revised, updated and/or expanded version of a literature review paper written for a class, as long as it is approved by the supervisor for use.
  • The comprehensive paper is not equivalent to a full dissertation proposal but may form the literature review for such a proposal.

Comprehensive oral examination:

  • Students will prepare and deliver a 15 minute oral presentation in which they provide an overview of their proposed research question, the comprehensive literature review, and their reflections on their preparation for dissertation research (including relevant coursework). The presentation will be followed by questions from an examining committee comprised of the student’s dissertation supervisor and a second faculty member.

The oral examination committee is comprised of two faculty members:

  1. The dissertation supervisor. Students are strongly encouraged to secure a supervisor before starting to prepare for the comprehensive exam. In rare cases where the student does not yet have a supervisor before the comprehensive exam, the faculty advisor may act in this role, though this is discouraged.
  2. The second examiner. The second examiner is chosen by the supervisor, in consultation with the student. The second examiner normally has expertise in the student’s topic area and is a potential member of the student’s dissertation committee.

At least one of the two faculty examiners must be an ELP faculty member. In rare cases where the supervisor is not in ELP, the second examiner must be in ELP.

Faculty leaves: If the supervisor is on research and study leave/sabbatical when the student is preparing for and/or sitting the comprehensive exam, they would still consult with the student in developing the comprehensive paper and serve as first examiner. If the supervisor is on another type of leave (e.g., medical, caregiving or parental leave), the student should consult with the supervisor (if available) or the program coordinator to designate an alternate examiner. The ideal first and second faculty examiners in such a situation would be the two future dissertation committee members (assuming at least one committee member is in ELP).

The comprehensive examination should take place after the completion of at least 6 courses (this excludes courses designed to be taken after comps, such as LHA3003: Designing Research Proposals in Educational Leadership and Policy and LHA3008: Professional Seminar and Dissertation Workshop in International Educational Leadership and Policy). Ed.D and full-time Ph.D. students should normally sit the comprehensive exam at the end of the second year of study and must complete the exam no later than the end of the third year of study. Flex-time Ph.D. students should normally sit the exam at the end of the third year of study and must complete the exam no later than the end of the fourth year of study.

Exams are scheduled on a rolling basis and may take place at any time of the year. However, students should be aware that faculty availability for exams is limited during certain months of the year (e.g., December, July, and August) and should plan their timelines accordingly, well in advance of relevant deadlines.

Students should expect to revise at least one draft of the comprehensive paper under the supervision of their dissertation supervisor before it is ready for the oral examination. Therefore, students are advised to begin working with their supervisor at least 6 months before they wish to sit the comprehensive exam. Ed.D and full-time Ph.D. students should normally secure a supervisor no later than December of the second year of study; flex-time Ph.D. students should normally secure a supervisor no later than December of the third year of study (though earlier is encouraged). Students should plan to meet with their supervisor at least twice and share at least two full drafts of the comprehensive paper for feedback well in advance of the desired exam date. They should also remember to allow a 2-3 week turnaround time for feedback on drafts. Below is a sample timeline:

  • 6 months before comps: First meeting with the supervisor to finalize comprehensive paper topic and preliminary reading list
  • 4 months before comps: Submit the first full draft of the comprehensive paper to the supervisor
  • 3.5 months before comps: Second meeting with the supervisor to discuss feedback on the first draft and assign revisions
  • 2 months before comps: Submit revised comprehensive paper to supervisor
  • 6 weeks before comps: Supervisor approves comprehensive paper or assigns additional revisions. If the supervisor judges that the paper is ready for examination or will be ready after minor revisions, the supervisor proceeds to select a second examiner in consultation with the student. At this point, if the exam will be held virtually, the student, supervisor, and second examiner may simply schedule the comprehensive exam at a mutually convenient time. If the committee requires a room booking for an in-person exam and/or assistance in scheduling the exam, the student must contact at least 6 weeks in advance of the desired exam date with the names of the student, supervisor, and second examiner, and modality (online/in person) of the oral exam.
  • 3 weeks before comps: Student submits the final, revised version of the comprehensive paper to both faculty examiners

The supervisor/advisor serves two roles in comps (1) consulting with the student in preparing for the comprehensive exam, and (2) serving as an examiner. These roles are distinct. Although the supervisor may give feedback on the comprehensive paper as the student prepares, these comments are not indicative of the outcome of the exam. By approving that the comprehensive paper is ready for examination, the supervisor is confirming only that the paper is examinable (i.e., it is within the word limit of 6,000-8,000, contains the appropriate sections and number of references, etc.) On the day of the exam, the supervisor and second examiner will evaluate the outcome of the exam (pass or fail). 

The oral examination is scheduled for 1.5 hours. On the day of the examination, students will make a short presentation of their paper and respond to questions from the examination committee. Presentations are to be no more than 15 minutes long and are followed by questions and discussion.

Students will be evaluated on both the comprehensive paper and its oral presentation on a pass/fail basis.

The examiners may ask questions about the comprehensive paper and about the student’s preparation and readiness to pursue dissertation research on the topic of the comprehensive paper. In particular, the examination committee will be interested in exploring with the student their preparation in relevant theoretical, conceptual, methodological, and analytical knowledge and skills for their proposed dissertation topic (including relevant coursework). Consistent with the practices of academic peer review and critique, examiners respond to the material before them. The questions asked in one exam will not be identical to the questions asked in another.

At the end of the oral exam, the examiners will inform the student of their status (pass or fail) and give direct verbal feedback and comments on the work. Students who pass the comprehensive exam should collect their supervisor’s signature on the OISE Comprehensive Requirement completion form and email to (cc’ing the supervisor).

The oral exam is normally recorded and the audio file is saved in the student’s private and confidential departmental file.

Students who are not successful in their first attempt will be given written feedback to enable them to revise and resubmit their comprehensive paper for examination. Students wishing to re-sit the exam should usually reschedule the oral examination within six months of the first attempt. Students who are not successful a second time will not be allowed to continue in the program. Students can appeal the decision of the examiners by following the standard appeal process.