The psychology comprehensive examination tests our majors' understanding of the broad field of psychology, based on the departmental curriculum.
The purpose, content, and format of the comprehensive examination for psychology majors is explained here to address general concerns and to reduce confusion or unnecessary anxiety. Given that we invest a large amount of time and effort to develop knowledgeable students who can think critically, we have every expectation that psychology majors who have progressed sufficiently well throughout the curriculum will pass the exam. The exam is also designed in such a way that students who have had difficulty fulfilling course expectations in the past will be able to compensate – to a reasonable degree – by working hard to improve their knowledge and skills prior to the examination.
Purpose of the Exam
As the name implies, the purpose of the “comprehensive examination” is to evaluate your understanding of the field of psychology as a whole - versus a narrow set of topics that you understand very well. Though the test format (described below) has its limitations, like any other type of exam, rest assured that it is an appropriate method for evaluating key curricular objectives of the psychology department, including knowledge and some key intellectual skills.
Although the experience is likely to generate normal levels of stress simply because it is an exam, students who have been meeting their psychology course objectives thus far should have little to worry about beyond general preparation and review of material already learned in courses. The exam is also a benefit for students who plan to practice psychology professionally, due to its resemblance to the GRE Psychology subject test.
To learn about the broad discipline of psychology, Occidental psychology majors must take courses in each “fundamentals” area. Many colleges have similar breadth requirements, and higher-level examinations (such as the GRE Psychology test and California licensing exam in psychology) require future professionals to have an understanding of multiple sub-disciplines in psychology. Thus, there exists a general expectation that any college graduate who has majored in psychology will be able to recall knowledge from different areas of psychology and adopt different theoretical perspectives.
More specifically, the exam is designed to evaluate students’ understanding of material that has been taught to them at Occidental, through in-class lessons and assigned work (e.g., readings and papers). As such, you are not expected to prepare for the exam by learning new material from courses that you have not taken. At the same time, you are responsible for material in courses taken, material that you may have forgotten or not learned well.
The departmental comprehensive examination consists of 170 multiple-choice items. Without special accommodations, 3 hours will be allotted for the exam. We recognize that misperceptions of the multiple-choice format may exist, particularly at a college where alternative test formats are used more frequently. Although alternative methods may also be appropriate, a multiple-choice exam is suitable for evaluating declarative knowledge and basic skills, if constructed appropriately.
For pragmatic reasons, all students will take a general exam containing questions about material reviewed in methods, statistics, and each of the fundamental courses at Occidental. This means that each student will encounter items that refer to unfamiliar material from courses not taken. As stated above, this aspect of the test should not affect your ability to pass the exam. The test is designed in such a way that students may pass even after answering a substantial number of questions incorrectly. The passing score will be determined by the amount of test material familiar to the average psychology major. Thus, most students will find that the majority of items do cover topics they have been taught.
This format may, in fact, provide a slight advantage to students. For instance, a student who encounters an unfamiliar item may be able to figure out the correct answer based on related material learned in a course taken; this reflects the interdisciplinary nature of psychological phenomena. Additionally, students will gain points simply due to random guessing; guessing does NOT result in an score penalty. The exam has been constructed with both of these processes in mind.
Suggested Preparation Strategies
1. First and foremost, students should review material from all courses taken. Also, be sure to use the feedback received from professors on assignments, exams, etc. to avoid past mistakes!
2. Although you should not expect to “ace” the exam just by studying an introductory psychology textbook, an effective review of a rigorous introductory psychology textbook may help you to identify key topics and research findings from different subdisciplines (including those with which you are less familiar) or material that you had forgotten or understood only vaguely.
3. Prepare over time and do not cram. Research clearly demonstrates that cramming, although seemingly effective in some situations, is far less effective than studying over time. Time allows more material to be learned, but also improves retention.
4. Test your understanding versus just reading over material. Discuss topics with your peers, or with a faculty member if you experience difficulty with a specific topic. Then quiz yourself.
5. Be ready to take the exam. Learn the basics about the exam format (provided above). Be well-rested the day of the exam.
6. Don’t “freak out.” Again, test scores are designed to reflect students’ mastery of material already encountered (if not also learned well) in prior courses.
7. Although students may be permitted one retest, the department uses multiple versions of the exam. Taking the exam more than once is unlikely to provide any advantage. Thus, you should prepare well the first time.
*If you have any questions about the exam format or preparation strategies, please do not hesitate to ask your academic advisor. We will not “teach to the test,” but will work to ensure that students succeed if they can understand their course material and can demonstrate that understanding.
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