Comprehensive Examination Guidelines (Higher Education)

The objective of the doctoral comprehensive examinations is to ensure that all students master at least one substantive research field in higher education and have the capacity to develop their own written analysis of selected issues within this field. The examination is designed to ensure that students are familiar with the literature and concepts associated with their special area of study within the field of higher education.

Comprehensive examinations are administered by your advisor or supervisor. Please contact your advisor or supervisor to start the process.


Students should finish all coursework before they take the doctoral specialization exam. Doctoral Comprehensive Examinations may be taken at any time throughout the year provided that the student gives six weeks notice to the coordinator and Liaison officer. Doctoral students must complete their Comprehensive Requirement before they can register their thesis topic and committee.   

Doctoral students preparing for the Doctoral Comprehensive Examinations should review the main authors, readings and course materials in their substantive area.

Examination Formats

Three Hour Sit-down

Ten-day Take-home

Doctoral Specialization Examinations

  1. Doctoral students may elect to take either a Doctoral Comprehensive Examination in one of the existing substantive areas:
    • Policy Analysis and Evaluation
    • Administration
    • Governance
    • The Community College
    • Comparative and International Higher Education
    • Professions and Professional Education
    • Teaching and Learning
    • Student Development and Services
    • Access and Equity
    • Organizational studies
    • Aboriginal Education
    • The Academic Research System  
    • Knowledge Production
    • OR, a unique, individual topic based on a core area above plus a student’s particular interests and course program which is described and submitted in writing (approximately 300 to 500 words) for review by the Higher Education faculty. Students choosing the unique individual topic option should work with their supervisor or other Higher Education faculty members to construct a 2-3 page list of relevant readings to be prepared for the examination, to be approved by the program. In the case of unique individual topics, proposal must be submitted six weeks prior to the desired date of examination. The proposal should identify at least one member of the program faculty whom the student believes is sufficiently familiar with the topic to oversee the examination. The program may accept the proposal as is or may specify revisions, for example, to expand the breadth of the topic.
  2. Doctoral Comprehensive Examinations will comprise of six or more questions, from which students must select three. In all cases, students may combine questions as long as they indicate that they are doing so and explain the connections between them.
  3. All types of doctoral examinations may be taken as:
    • A three hour written examination.
    • A written take-home examination due within ten days on which students will later be examined orally for one hour by at least one member of the HEG faculty, but two in total, one of whom will be in the area of each student’s specialization. The oral examination will take place within one month of the submission of the written examination. Academic expectations for the written take-home examination will reflect the additional time available, for example, synthesis and integration among questions, and the citation of references.

Writing the Examinations

For the sit-down examination, students write the exam at a previously agreed upon time in a room in LHAE using a Departmental laptop computer. Questions will be emailed and answers should be emailed to the Graduate Liaison Officer and the committee. The three-hour exam is closed book and students are prohibited from consulting any resources.

Evaluating the Examinations

All written examinations are read by at least two Higher Education Group faculty members. This includes the Supervisor and the second reader (approved by the Higher Education group if not a HEG faculty member) and may include Associate Instructors or other OISE professors. The assessment of the examination will be on a “pass/fail” basis. In any case, in which the first two readers do not concur with a decision, the examination will be read by a third Higher Education faculty member. A satisfactory student response to a question is one that is thoughtful and informative, well written, well organized, and logical. It will demonstrate the ability to assemble and apply detailed information to respond to a question, to define and illuminate concepts, and to synthesize disparate sources of information. It will demonstrate the student’s capacity for critical and analytical thinking.

Rewriting the Examinations

Students who do not pass an examination on the first attempt will be allowed to write the examination again. The examination may only be taken twice. Students who fail twice will have their registration terminated.