Comps 1

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Commitee, EPAC Review CompsEdit

Due to the consensus in the Shimer community that the structure of the comprehensive examinations is unsatisfactory, a comp review has been initiated. Proposals are presently being considered by The Committee, and this is the primary current concern of EPAC. A meeting was called on October 7 by EPAC to discuss the comp review with the student body. Special speakers included Don Moon, Bob Richardson, Al Ettinger, and Alan Copeland (Shimer AB ’66).

“In rebellion against the idea of the acquisition of a degree by means of accumulating little pieces to a total of 120 (credits), the U of C defined the bachelor’s degree by 14 comprehensive examinations.” This was the idea first instituted. Shimer’s affiliation with Chicago in 1950 resulted in a wholesale adoption of the Chicago comp system, and a concomitant adaptation of the existing courses. This affiliation also entailed the use of the Chicago Board of Examiners, who directly controlled the administration and evaluation of the comps. Shimer staff and faculty members helped staff this board.

At that time, the comps were both objective and essay in nature and lasted six hours. They were administered at the end of each of the (then) 14 general courses. Each course was included as one-third of a three- year sequence. For example, the Soc Sci are was divided into three year-long courses, as was each of the other areas. The academic year was based on a quarter system, and the comps were administered at the end of each course. No final exams were given.

Hence, the comps included three in each of the three areas: Nat Sci, Soc Sci, and Humanities. There was a foreign language comp, one in mathematics, one in history, and the OMP (organization, methods, and principles), roughly corresponding in material to the current Phil. 5 course. (That adds up to only 13, I can’t seem to locate the 14th comp in my data. )

It was around 1958 that the last of the original comps was administered. Gradually, Shimer and the U of C went their separate ways. The system was revised; for example, the Logic, Rhetoric and Analysis comp was developed, and others were dropped. Eventually the College Examiner became defunct and the comps were administered jointly by the dean and the faculty. The format moved to all essays, and did not correspond to individual courses.

A statement in the 1958 report on the state of the college asserted that “the most outstanding characteristic at Shimer is the comprehensive examination system for general courses.” In the October discussion, Al Copeland asserted that in the early ’60’s people still generally felt that the comps were still a key, or even perhaps the key, to the curriculum.

But this is no longer true. Only a very small minority of the Shimer community feels that the system is still viable as it is. Criticism has been advanced on many fronts.

Bob Richardson expressed a broad dissatisfaction with the system. To begin with, he says that “the comps are a relic”; they were instituted as part of a system that had no final exams. Now that the finals are back, the comps are redundant. Feedback is a central issue; most critics agree that feedback to the students under the current comprehensive system is inadequate-partly, Richardson maintains, because several professors are involved in the evaluation process. The meaning and terms of the comps are often unclear. Because of the large area they supposedly cover, it is impossible for the student to prepare adequately for them. This causes unnecessary anxiety, particularly when the comps hang over vacations. And when specific texts are used, in their preparation, the result--as one student pointed out--is that the comp is little better or even different from an ordinary final.

Another problem is the writing of the comps. Copeland contended that because of the current high turnover rate of the faculty, the situation is even more unstable that before; comps are frequently written by faculty with little or no experience in comp writing; revisions are lacking in originality-they are "scissors and paste jobs." Many attribute this deterioration to the absence of a College Examiner.

In any case, it is clear that the quality of the comps is unpredictable. Fees and penalties associated with retaking and failure are an increasing irritant to students. Faculty and students alike feel that the time involved in the preparation and writing of the comps could be better spent in direct interaction.

The Committee has formulated one alternative to the comps, and EPAC is currently working on a modification of this approach and others. The approach outline by the Committee entails the following innovations: the Basic Studies comp would be replaced by Diagnostic quizzes to be administered during the progress of each 1, 2, and 3 level courses These quizzes, designed and administered by the curriculum coordinator, would be ungraded but mandatory. They would serve in evaluating the progress of each student. The area comps would be incorporated as an integral part of each of the 4 level courses, and these courses would be adapted to encompass more independent work than is presently possible. And “the final exam of assignment would be comprehensive in character”. To implement those changes, graduation requirements would be reduced to 24 courses.

The proposals considered by EPAC include portions of the Committee's proposal as well as others. Ideas considered were 1) a Senior Thesis, approved by many students during the October discussion; 2) the comp as an optional honors project, most elaborately defined by Bill Harnew; 3) revision of the 4 level courses to include integrative work, and 4) the option of a comprehensive exam or a senior thesis.

EPAC reached a general consensus that the three major elements to be incorporated into the new system were 1) effective feedback; 2) “integration” (this concept is generally recognized as the highest ideal at Shimer but is as yet lacking in substantial definition or specifics, particularly among EPAC members); and 3) the comps should be not merely an evaluative device, but also "a real learning experience". Conceivably, any of the above proposals could encompass all these factors if successfully engineered.

Al Ettinger, an EPAC member, is presently elaborating in detail a proposal encompassing the diagnostic quiz replacing the Basic Studies comp and the senior thesis replacing the area comps.

The status of EPAC in the ongoing review may be somewhat uncertain as Fran Kostarelos, the chairperson, has resigned her position. Her comments concerning the reasons for her resignation were somewhat cynical, indicating a very low level of morale, competence, and communication among EPAC members. She feels that the review should be engineered principally by persons possessing an in-depth mastery of education philosophy and thorougly familiar with the history of the comps at Shimer.

As an editorial note I am inclined to agree with this perspective. In light of the fundamental value and significance of the comp system as perceived by its original designers, it is apparent that the superficial salvaging attempts by the Committee and by EPAC, neither of which possesses members with substantial credentials in educational philosophy, is a farce. My own suggestion is that the comp system be suspended in favor of regular finals until the community is stable enough to appoint a special group willing to perform in-depth research in these areas and formulate a new system based not solely on structural jugglings, but also on content innovation consistent with a viable definition of the role of integration at Shimer.

This page is part of the Shimer College Wiki, an independent documentation project. Shimer College, the Great Books college of Chicago, is not responsible for its content.

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