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University of Colorado Denver College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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Master of Arts

Comprehensive Examinations

Comprehensive Exams

Examination Schedule

The comprehensive examination for the Master of Arts in Communication must be passed by all students. The examination is offered twice a year—usually on the last Friday of October in the fall semester and on the Friday following the week of Spring Break in the spring semester. The exact dates will be announced by the Director of Graduate Studies at the beginning of each term. Students must take the examination on the scheduled day or wait until the next semester. The examination is not offered during the summer.

Examination Committee

At the time they enter the MA program, students are assigned a temporary advisor by the members of the graduate studies committee. If students discover that another faculty member's interests match their interests better or if they do not get along well with the temporary advisor, they may change to another advisor. Advisors must be full-time, graduate faculty in the Communication Department; instructors or lecturers are not eligible to serve as students' advisors.

The student's advisor helps the student construct a committee of three faculty members, one of whom is the advisor and who serves as the chair of the committee. All committee members must be full-time faculty at the University of Colorado Denver. The committee members are typically from the Communication Department, but students may select a faculty member from another department to serve on the committee if that person's area of expertise contributes in crucial ways to the area of study. The committee is responsible for evaluating students' answers and conducting the oral portion of the examination.

Recruitment of the members of the committee is the responsibility of students. Students are encouraged to select the members of their examination committee at the beginning of the academic year in which they take their comprehensive examination. Asking faculty members to serve on their committee is a relatively informal endeavor. Students simply should make an appointment with potential committee members to discuss their willingness to be on the committee.

Once their committee is formed, students should complete the Committee Composition form, on which they indicate the composition. If students wish to change their committee members, they must complete a new "Committee Composition" form.


To be eligible to take the comprehensive examination, students must be in their final regular semester of their graduate program. Students may be taking courses in the semester in which they take the examination.


In the semester in which they take the comprehensive examination, students must:

  1. Register for a minimum of one of the following:
    • One or more credits of coursework
    • One credit hour of Thesis (COMM 6950)
    • Zero credit hours of CAND 5940, which is a special course registration number for students who are taking their comprehensive examinations and no coursework or thesis work. Students who choose this option will be charged tuition equal to one credit hour. Students must register by hand for CAND 5940 by completing the CU-Denver Special Processing Form. CAND 5940 should be written in the "Course Number" space on the form. The call number for the course, which changes every semester, will be distributed at the beginning of the term from the DGS. Students must take the form to the office of the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on the fifth floor of the North Classroom Building to obtain an approval signature. They then submit the form to the Graduate School.
  2. Students must file a Request for Graduate Examination/Thesis Defense form. The "Request for Graduate Examination/Thesis Defense" form should be submitted to the CLAS Dean’s office on the fifth floor of the North Classroom Building. There is a deadline for the submission of this form, and it must be turned in before the examination is taken. Students should pay close attention to the deadline for submission for the semester in which they intend to graduate.

Examination Format

The comprehensive examination has two parts—a written and an oral component. These two parts are completed on separate days, usually with no more than two weeks between them. The written portion of the examination lasts four-and-a-half hours, and the oral examination lasts approximately one-and-a-half hours. The oral portion of the examination is not open to friends and family.

The format of the examination described here applies to students entering the MA program in the spring semester of 2009 or later. Students who entered the program at an earlier date may choose to take the exam detailed in this document or the exam with 10 questions that was described in materials handed out when they began the program. Students who write theses may elect to submit their thesis as the "Written Examination" but will still be required to orally defend the thesis and engage in an oral article critique as outlined below.

Written Examination

In the written part of the comprehensive examination, students are given five essay questions and must answer four of them in a 4.5 hour period. The questions cross content areas and deal with methodological, theoretical and application issues in communication. They encourage students to make connections among constructs, theories, topics and courses. Students are expected to cite relevant scholars and sources in the answers to the questions. Students may bring in a set of notes limited to both sides of an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper. Students may take restroom breaks as needed during the examination.

Students take the examination in the Communication Department office suite on a computer provided by the department. Students are not allowed to use their own laptops for the examination. Paper for the examination is provided by the department.

Oral Examination

The oral examination is held in the Communication Department's library in the Plaza Building, room 102-L, generally within two weeks of completion of the written examination. Students should set the date for the oral examination in consultation with their advisor and committee members. Three hours should be allowed for the oral examination. The advisor will need to be in the department when the student begins the process (when the student is completing the critique of the article), but the other committee members will need to be there only for the last 1.5 hours of the examination period. The oral portion of the examination involves four steps:

  • Critique of text: When students arrive for the oral examination, they are given one and a half hours to read an article from a communication journal selected for them by their committee members and to prepare an oral critique of that article. Students are asked to evaluate the research question, design of the study, the methods used, findings, and any other aspects of the article they see as noteworthy or inadequate. Following the completion of the plan for the oral critique, students are given a 15-minute break before the start of the oral portion of the examination. Students should bring paper with them on which to take notes and develop their critique.
  • Oral presentation of critique of text: Students present a 10-minute oral critique of the article they analyzed at the beginning of the oral examination period. Students should treat this as a formal presentation and demonstrate their competence in presentational speaking. Following the presentation, students are questioned for approximately 15 minutes about their critique.
  • Repair of written examination: At the beginning of the portion of the examination when students are questioned on their written answers, students are asked to explain changes they would like to make to their written answers. Students should use the period between the written and oral portions of the examination to review material related to the questions and to assess their own answers so that they can provide additions and corrections to them. Students should come prepared to suggest some changes they would make to their answers; not wanting to change anything will lower students' credibility with faculty members. The kinds of changes suggested should not be typos or grammatical errors but substantive issues of addition or omission. Students should spend no more than five minutes on this portion of the examination.
  • Defense of written examination: Students are questioned by their committee members about their answers on the written portion of the examination for approximately one hour. Students are allowed to bring blank paper on which to jot notes.

Evaluation of the Examination

For both the written and oral components of the exam, students will be evaluated based upon the competency and professional attainment demonstrated. Immediately following the completion of the oral portion of the examination, the student is asked to leave the room, and the committee members caucus privately and assign an evaluation of satisfactory or unsatisfactory on each of the four examination questions. Satisfactory means the student has attained a degree of professional competence in her/his command of the theoretical material as well as in presentational style.

  • Oral Critique: For the oral part of the exam, students are expected to be able to read, summarize, evaluate and criticize a scholarly article. Students are required to accurately state the thesis of the article and evaluate the article using conventional criteria for assessing research.
  • Written Exam: The evaluation will be based both on the written answer and the student's defense of that answer. For the written component of the exam, students are expected to be able to cite major scholars relevant to a construct or theory, demonstrate solid understanding of the relevant constructs and theories, and express their work in a clearly organized and sophisticated manner.

A student must pass all four questions to pass the examination. If only one of the four questions is given a non-passing evaluation, the student is asked to rewrite a question within one week of the oral portion of the examination. Rewrites involve answering a new question and a half-hour oral defense of the answer. Students who are given a non-passing evaluation on two or more questions fail the examination and must wait until a future semester to retake it. Students are informed immediately of the evaluation decision following the oral portion of the examination. The decisions of the committee are final.

Students may retake the examination in a future semester only once. If they fail the examination the second time, they will receive written feedback within two weeks that explains the rationale. Students who fail the examination a second time are dropped from the program and are not allowed to complete the master's degree.

Successful Examination Preparation

The comprehensive exam is intended to be an educational and culminating experience of the master's program. It is designed to assess your ability to think critically about issues in the communication discipline; such critical thinking includes the ability to analyze, integrate and apply concepts/theories to what you have studied in the program. To engage you in this process, the exam questions are broad based and cut across content areas, methods and issues to provide a thorough context for inquiry. We conceptualize the exam not only as a measure of your understanding of the communication field but also as an opportunity for students and faculty to dialogue about key issues and for faculty to welcome you into the community of communication scholars. To this end, you are encouraged to follow some basic procedures as you prepare for the examination:

  • Study group with peers: You are encouraged to form study groups with your peers. Students who form such groups and meet regularly with them in the weeks preceding the examination perform much better than students who prepare by studying alone. Such groups are supportive, helpful and fun.
  • Course materials and syllabi as a basis for review: You are encouraged to review the courses you have completed in the program as a primary means of preparation for the examination. Look for linkages among the courses that were only partly visible when the individual courses were taken. A review of the discussion questions and other assignments for each course is also useful.
  • Preparation of summaries of articles and books read: As you go through your coursework, write and keep summaries of the articles and books read. Such notes might include:
      • One-sentence summary of the reading
      • One-paragraph abstract of the reading, including context, purpose, key findings and conclusions
      • Notes about the unique contributions the reading makes to its field, such as the ways it contradicts received wisdom or previous theories, new insights or arguments, what it elucidates, what it confirms, what it rejects, or what it puts in perspective
      • Brief discussion of how you can best use the reading, such as to make a case, to build or support an argument, to link, or to illustrate
      • Your primary critique of the article
      • Best quote
  • Review of sample questions: Students will be provided with sample questions prior to the examination by the Director of Graduate Studies. Although the examination students take will not have the exact questions as the samples, a review of these questions will help students anticipate the kinds of questions they are likely to be asked. In the study groups, students are encouraged to practice how they might answer the sample questions. Students will not be provided with sample answers from previous examinations to use in their studying.
  • Timely completion of the examination: Students who delay taking the examination by a semester or more do not perform as well as those who take it immediately after completing their coursework. Students who delay taking the examination risk losing touch with their peer groups and the material they have studied. A longer delay does not enable students to study longer, better or more carefully. The intensity with which students review over a relatively short period and a supportive, convivial social environment are most helpful in students' preparation for the examination.

Additional Information

Additional information about the comprehensive examination for the MA degree in Communication may be obtained from the Director of Graduate Studies.