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General Exam

Before the General Exam, students must have completed at least 60 hours of coursework, 18 of which must be graded credits. It consists of both a written exam and an oral exam.

Note:  When preparing for the General Exam, enroll for credits under HCDE 600, CR/NC

The General Exam is administered by a three-member faculty committee and is overseen by a fourth committee member serving as the Graduate School Representative (GSR). The members of the committee are responsible for drafting and evaluating the charge for the student’s Written Exam and Oral Defense.

General Exam Process

Establishing a General Exam Committee 

The graduate school recommends forming your doctoral committee at least four months before your general exam, and even earlier can be better to give you and your committee ample time to develop your reading list and work through new readings. Many students find their précis (see below), or a draft of it, helpful for having conversations with potential committee members.

More information about doctoral committee formation and membership.

Preparing for the General Exam

Students taking the General Exam in a given period will be required to submit to their committee an approximately 2-page précis describing (1) their intended area of study, (2) a summary of existing research, and (3) a general idea of directions they hope to pursue for their thesis proposal. The intention of this precis is to help the student develop a reading list collaboratively with their committee and to help the committee draft a charge to strike a balance between the breadth of the field and how it applies to each student’s area of interest.

Once the precis is provided to the committee, the student will work with their committee members to prepare a reading list covering three areas: Theory, Method, and Concentration. Any given reading may appear in multiple reading lists. For planning coverage of the theory and methods reading lists, consider the same guidance as for theory and methods courses.

Readings in the methods category support one or more of:

  1. Understand the many different research paradigms (e.g. experiments, ethnography, survey, qualitative, quantitative) that guide inquiry in our field
  2. Articulate and identify appropriate criteria, particularly strengths and limitations, of different methodologies for producing knowledge
  3. Formulate a question that is important in terms of the field and in terms of extending or critiquing theory
  4. Describe how to apply one or more methods to a research question
  5. Formulate a research design that is manageable and executable
  6. Articulate the practical and theoretical contributions that different methods can play in design research

They might also include inspiring examples of the application of one or more methods.

Readings in the theory category support one or more of:

  • Recognize the most prominent epistemological frameworks (e.g., cognitive theory, social psychology, semiotic theory, actor-network theory) that inform research in HCDE
  • Understand the intellectual implications of those different frameworks for the processes and results of scholarly inquiry in HCDE
  • Explain how theory motivates and supports the practices of knowledge-making
  • Apply theory appropriately and productively to the framing or analysis of research issues in HCDE

For Concentration, this will relate to the student’s self-defined course of study relevant to their research as part of their course curriculum.

If the student wishes, they may designate a committee member to each of the three areas or they may have the committee weigh in on all three components of the list. The reading list will vary in length and content from student to student and may consist of books, journal articles, conference papers, or any other relevant readings to the three topic areas covered by the General Exam.

Students with disabilities may request accommodations for their exams and should reach out to their committee chair and the Graduate Program Coordinator to create a plan for accommodation. Accommodations might include adjustments to the timing of the written or oral exams, though it is important that changes in timing do not inadvertently lead to added expectations. 

Scheduling the Written Exam and Oral Defense

Students must first take their Written Exam over a 14-day period and then have a 2-hour Oral Defense that takes place within one month after completing the Written Exam (occasionally, scheduling constraints may require this be longer than a month - if you find yourself in this situation, please talk with your mentors and academic services manager). The PhD student must schedule the General Exam Oral Defense through MyGrad in advance of the written exam, and must also secure a room for the event. The Director of Academic Services will approve the exam request in MyGrad.

When determining the dates for the Written Exam, the student selects a 14-day period, typically commencing one month prior to the Oral Defense.

  • Questions and writing period. The student should plan to receive the committee’s charge, instructions, and deadline for submission from the committee chair on or before the first day of the 14-day written exam period and submit responses on the 14th day. As part of this, the chair should develop a plan for sending the questions to the student on the first date, or, if unavailable to send the questions, they may work with the Doctor of Academic Services, in advance of scheduling the exam, to develop an alternate plan for sending questions.
  • Reading responses. The committee will need time to read responses after they are complete. Students should work with their committees to ensure there is sufficient time to between the deadline for responses and the oral exam; Discuss if anyone has planned time off that could require a longer period between when responses are due and the oral exam.
  • Oral Defense. This should be scheduled for two hours, typically between a week and two weeks after the written exam. Quarter breaks or vacations may lead to adjusted schedules, but we recommend completing this within a month of the writing period commencing, so that responses are fresh in the student's mind.

Once the student and their committee have determined the dates for the Written Exam and Oral Defense, the student must:

  • Schedule the General Exam Oral Defense defense through MyGrad in advance of the Written Exam, after which the Director of Academic Services will approve the exam request;
  • Identify and reserve a suitable location for the General Exam Oral Defense, with help as needed from the department’s student assistants; and
  • Email committee members and the HCDE Director of Academic Services with the dates, times, and locations of the Written Exam and Oral Defense so they will have the charge prepared in time.
  • If a student chooses to take the Written Exam on campus and does not have ready access to a location, they can request that one of the department’s student assistants reserve a suitable room for the Written Exam. If the student plans to use a department laptop, they should also request that through the department’s student assistants.

Scheduling cautions: Because of processing time with the grad school for generals, we recommend not scheduling your oral defense for the last few days of the quarter. Additionally, you must be enrolled for credits during the quarter in which you take your general exam. Because most summer quarter appointments are hourly and do not include tuition, summer quarter general exams rarely work -- if you have questions, please talk with Kathleen, Sean, your summer funding source, and your advisor(s).

Taking the Written Exam

On the first day of the scheduled 14-day period, the student will receive a written charge from their committee that details three components of the exam covering the areas of Theory, Methods, and one related to their declared Concentration. The charge may consist of a list of questions to answer, essays to write, and/or specific prompts relevant to the student’s research (e.g., a statistical analysis, description of a designed artifact, development of a design space). The student should self-pace their response, but should expect the exam to take no more than 8 hours per question (including both writing and editing), for a total of 24 hours for the three components across the 14-day period. Students can divide up the writing however it works best for their schedule (e.g., doing it all in a few days, breaking the time for each question across the 14 days, etc.). Student responses are expected to be between 2500-4000 words per question, unless otherwise specified by their committee. The department encourages students to use the time for both writing and revising the answer for each component of the charge. Students may use literature, notes, or other preparatory materials made while studying for the exam.

During the written exam period, students are expected to work independently. You may share responses with someone, or take them to the writing center, for proofreading, but this should be limited to proofreading. For this reason, peers or others in your field who cannot resist providing more feedback may not be appropriate proofreaders. Please acknowledge any proofreaders in your submission.

Taking the Oral Defense

The Oral Defense will be a 2-hour discussion between the candidate and their General Exam committee members. The Oral Exam will engage students in a discussion of issues related to their responses on each of the three areas on the Written Exam.

Committee members may use this opportunity to ask for further elaboration and clarification on responses, with the format and agenda determined by the Committee Chair or co-chairs. A typical agenda is:

  • 5 minutes for introductions, as needed
  • 10 minutes for committee members to privately discuss priorities and process for the oral defense, based on the written responses,
  • 5 minutes for the student to share any reflections since the written responses
  • 20 minutes of discussion per question (60 minutes)
  • 10 minutes of discussion across questions
  • 15 minutes for the committee to privately discuss, including the outcome and recommended next steps for the student's scholarship
  • 10 minutes to share the outcome and discuss next steps

but this may be tailored based on the student's written responses or other considerations.

The committee will evaluate the candidate’s responses from both the Written Exam and the Oral Defense based on the evaluation criteria described below. At the end of the Oral Defense, the committee will recommend an outcome for the entire General Exam.

Exams may be in-person, hybrid, or completely virtual, see guidance from the Graduate School.

Criteria for Evaluation

The General Exam committee will evaluate both the Written Exam and the Oral Defense components of the exam. Possible outcomes of the General Exam are:

  • Candidate is encouraged to proceed with studies leading to the doctoral degree.
  • Candidate must be reexamined after a further period of study; requires resubmission of a Request for General Examination to the Graduate School.
  • Candidate is not recommended for further work towards the doctoral degree. The effect of this recommendation is termination of the student’s enrollment in the doctoral program.

The criteria for evaluation for the General Exam are based on the student’s ability to (1) engage with, analyze, synthesize, apply, and critique the material covering the three areas of the exam, and  (2) express ideas both in written and oral format in a complete and scholarly manner. Students are encouraged to speak with their committee members about how these criteria may be explicitly applied to their area of study.

Overall Timeline

When Who What
At least four months in advance of the oral exam Student
  • Form your committee
  • Notify Director of Academic Services to update MyGrad.
Typically, 1-2 quarters in advance of your general exam Student
  • Develop a précis, working with adviser(s) and committee. Note: a draft précis can also be useful to share with potential committee members while forming a committee.
  • Develop a draft reading list, with input from committee
Typically, 1-2 quarters in advance of your general exam Student & Committee Agree on the final reading lists. (Note: even after a reading list is considered final, it is common for there to be some changes as the student reads. The student should make these changes in consultation with the committee.)
As soon as you have your writing period and oral exam scheduled Student Make a request for the exam in MyGrad
At least one week before the written exam begins Committee Share a draft of questions among committee and ensure that they are within scope, cover the goals of the exam, and do not have excessive overlap.
The day the written exam begins Committee chair(s) Unless you have made prior arrangements with the PhD program adviser and director of academic services for sending questions, send the questions to the student, copying the committee members and director of academic services. (Note: please make any alternative arrangements at least a week in advance.)
During the written period Student Communicate any concerns (e.g., illness) that could affect your schedule to your committee chair, the doctoral program director, and director of academic services so that we can work together to adjust plans as needed.
At the conclusion of the writing period Student Send responses to your committee, copying the director of academic services.
Between the conclusion of the writing period Committee Read the written responses. Committee members should communicate any significant concerns to the chair as early as possible.
At the conclusion of the oral exam Committee chair(s) Circulate the general exam report and return it to the director of academic services.
After the exam Student and committee Complete any revisions or re-examination as decided by the committee.