Portfolios Are Replacing Qualifying Exams as a Step on the Road to Dissertations

July 11, 2008

To hear Eve Levin tell it, five years ago the graduate program at the University of Kansas' history department was like many others — filled with small cohorts of anxious, fearful procrastinators.

When she looked at the paths of the department's doctoral students, Ms. Levin, an associate professor of history, found that they were taking an average of eight or nine years to complete their Ph.D.'s, a length of time that, while not that unusual in academe, was hardly ideal for either the students or the faculty members involved.

In the process, Ms. Levin identified a bottleneck: the written qualifying exams that mark the students' passage from course work to dissertation. The exams, taken in a series of four-hour, in-class sessions or as 24-hour take-home tests, were meant to be completed immediately after finishing the initial course work. But many students were putting them off, sometimes for two or three years.

"The amount of literature available for any field is really large," says Ms. Levin, "and they were always afraid there was more to read."

So the professors decided that the exams had to go. In their place, each graduate student in history at Kansas now receives a three-ring binder during orientation. The students are instructed to begin filling it, from the start, with documentation of their intellectual endeavors and professional aspirations.

Where the students once spent the first years of their graduate work dreading the comprehensive exams, they now amass a large portfolio of materials that include a dissertation prospectus and a 20-page professional essay that lays out how the candidate's major and minor fields of study relate to each other.

The switch to portfolios has made students more focused and better prepared for the research demands of the dissertation, says Ms. Levin, a former director of graduate studies at Kansas. It has also accelerated their progress toward doctorates, with a far larger percentage of students on track to receive their Ph.D.'s within five or six years.

Kansas' history department is among a handful of graduate programs that have replaced qualifying exams with portfolios. Advocates like Joseph Heathcott, an associate professor of urban studies at the New School's Eugene Lang College, who oversaw a similar change when he taught at Saint Louis University, say the portfolios promote greater student-faculty interaction and give students a more accurate sense of the profession than do traditional exams. As a result, he predicts, as more degree programs turn to the portfolio model, this innovation could produce salutary changes in how students and administrators approach doctoral education.

"The portfolio system is not just an exam alternative," says Mr. Heathcott. "It really is a cultural shift."

Acceleration and Acumen

Conventional wisdom holds that, across the disciplines, the average time to degree for doctoral candidates has crept steadily upward in recent decades. As a study on Ph.D. completion rates in the humanities, where completion rates are lowest, found in 2007, only half of the students who entered degree programs had earned their doctorates by the 10-year mark, with 3 percent abandoning their studies after nine or 10 years.

But time to graduation isn't the only factor in the decision. Ms. Levin, at Kansas, says her faculty colleagues also found the "data dump" exams to be an outmoded form of assessment. And the students weren't performing particularly well on the exams.

"The kinds of essays students seemed to write when they were put into a room like undergraduates were essays that were like undergraduate essays," she says. "In many cases they certainly didn't represent the students' best work."

Historians are rarely called upon to work on a four-hour deadline without access to research or source materials, she observes. So it made little sense to evaluate students based on such an exercise.

Ethan A. Schmidt was one of the first students to complete a portfolio when Kansas' history department began offering the option, in 2005. He says the process kept him focused on the kind of historian he wanted to be. "It makes you think, Every class I take, every paper I write, should be aimed at this end product," he says.

Mr. Schmidt, who is now an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University, says the professional-essay requirement was particularly helpful in his job search. "We were already answering those questions about what we want to contribute to the field and how do we see our research agenda," he says. "We had already been forced to think about that."

The portfolio system also allows faculty members to monitor student progress as it unfolded. "We don't end up with any nasty surprises," says Ms. Levin.

When the department first considered portfolios, some professors, wondering how other institutions would view their graduates, expressed concern about whether the portfolios could measure breadth of knowledge in the same way the exams did. So Kansas' history graduate students are still required to take a two-hour oral exam, which tests their ability to think on their feet.

Control of the Process

While Kansas keeps the portfolios in paper form, Duke University's history department asks its graduate students to learn basic Web programming and assemble their portfolios online.

The department swapped timed comprehensive exams for portfolios three years ago. By the second semester of their third year, students give oral defenses of portfolios that include grant proposals, a dissertation prospectus, and an "intellectual agenda" for their scholarly development.

The emphasis on research helps faculty members identify students who probably won't make it to the Ph.D. early in the process, says John H. Thompson, a professor of history and director of graduate studies at Duke.

The university provides financial support for students' first five years of graduate study. Under the previous system, Mr. Thompson says, halfhearted students often waited until the fifth year to drop out. Since introducing the portfolio, the department has seen a slight increase in the number of students leaving earlier in the program or opting to take only a master's degree. It's a weeding-out process that saves the university money and students time.

"In some ways, it's like a two-year-long take-home exam," says A. Mitchell Fraas, a graduate student in Duke's history department. When the system was introduced, in 2005, he and his peers could opt to complete either a portfolio or the traditional exams. Mr. Fraas chose the portfolio, he says, because it offered a measure of control and a permanent record of his progress.

"I liked the sense of being able to see in a tangible format everything I was doing working up to exams," he says, "rather than blurting stuff out in a four-hour oral and never seeing it again, or scribbling something down on a 24-hour exam."

Felicity M. Turner, a fifth-year graduate student in the department, says the portfolio gave her an opportunity to revise her papers and think through an issue until she was happy with the result. In the portfolio model, she says, "the responsibility is on you to formulate your own argument, so the process of creation is yours."

Managing Time

The American-studies program at Saint Louis University ditched qualifying exams in favor of portfolios in 2003. At the time, says Jonathan C. Smith, an assistant professor, the department had seven faculty members overseeing 45 graduate students, and the portfolio system seemed like an efficient way to manage students' and professors' time.

"We all concluded that the timed written exam is just not the most useful activity," he says. "After you do that last one, in your professional life you're never called on to do that again. There are some ways it shows a mastery of material, but not professional development in any sense."

In place of the exams, the department began requiring that each student write a publishable research article and prepare a literature review that could serve as the first chapter of an eventual dissertation.

Mr. Smith adds that he has observed an increase in the number of student papers accepted to scholarly publications and conferences. That trend, he says, will make the Saint Louis history graduates more competitive on the job market.

Mr. Heathcott, of the New School's Eugene Lang College, was an associate professor of urban studies who oversaw Saint Louis's change to the portfolio system. He remembers his own doctoral qualifying exams at Indiana University at Bloomington as a "shattering" experience that is not worth replicating.

"You have two weeks of exams where you end up writing 100 some pages, and in the end you're left with a bunch of writing that is almost useless and doesn't really advance you in any way," he says. "It creates needless anxiety that should be channeled into other things."

http://chronicle.com Section: The Faculty Volume 54, Issue 44, Page A8