UC Introductions a Comprehensive Exam For All Bachelors Students

By Dr. Angus Munro

The standard practice at UC in the past has been that the last step towards graduating with a Bachelor’s degree was for a student to take and pass an Exit Exam comprising papers from two courses in the student’s major. Starting in Term I of Academic Year 2012- 2013, all Bachelor’s students who seek to graduate must now sit and pass a set of undergraduate Comprehensive Exams after satisfactorily completing all of their coursework.

This has been introduced in order to further ensure that graduates are of a good calibre and to encourage them to meet the high standards expected of them, so that they will have an even better opportunity to secure jobs or other openings in Cambodia or elsewhere.

The Exams will be held 4-6 weeks after the Final Exams in the preceding term, although the Exams may not be held after every term. However a student can postpone taking the Comprehensive Exam once (provided that the maximum allowable time to get a Bachelor’s degree - six years, as set by MoEYS – is not exceeded. Also needing to be considered is that MoEYS regulations require that a student take no more than two ‘full’ terms (equivalent to the University of Cambodia’s Terms I or II) off during the course of their degree programme. The recently-issued Undergraduate Handbook 2012 (the ‘Yellow Book’) provides further details on requirements and on registration procedures).

The exam itself comprises three 90-minute papers on the same day, under the oversight of officials from MoEYS: two in the morning related the student’s major, and a common paper done by all students in the afternoon. Students will be briefed about what is expected of them before and during the exam by the Associate Dean of their College.

The purpose of the first two exams is to test a Bachelor’s student’s overall grasp of the material covered by the respective major, rather than concentrate on any particular course. Thus candidates are expected to review all of the course work covered during their degree programme. They are also expected to do further background reading, based on a list of recommended textbooks and other materials. Depending on their major candidates may receive a pool of questions for which to prepare and from which the questions for one or both papers will be selected.

The purpose of the third exam is to test broader aspects of the student’s knowledge in relation to all courses taken at UC (not just those for their respective majors) as well as their outside exposure to books and other media, etc. They will be provided with a pool of possible questions to prepare for the exam, from which two will be selected for the exam itself.

If a student fails one or more of these exams, they must register for CEX402, with the necessary papers re-taken at the next scheduled Comprehensive Exam. Where a student scores zero marks in at least one of the papers in CEX401 (e.g. through absence or arriving too late to take the exam), then all three papers may have to be taken in CEX402. A second failure for one or more papers will mean that the student drops out of the programme: this will be noted on their transcript as having failed the Comprehensive Exam.

The first Comprehensive exam was run on 20 March 2013, and was a success overall: of the 232 candidates, all but five passed all three papers and their names were submitted to MoEYS for the latter’s approval. However four candidates failed either their Paper I or Paper II; and two failed the common Paper III (including one who failed their Paper I).

The following is an analysis of the results of Paper III (note that candidates were not given a pool of possible questions in this first running of the new system). The candidates were asked to write essays of each of the following in the 90-minute paper:

  1. Cambodia has a rapidly growing young population, with the problem of increasing competition for jobs. What could be done to create more jobs? Explain your ideas and discuss whether they might cause other problems. (50 marks)
  2. Climate change would appear to be an increasing reality. There is the need to deal with the causes of this problem, but national short-term interests mean that international efforts have failed. Discuss some of the issues involved and what could be done to resolve them. (50 marks)
  3. Since this was the first time, students did not really know what to expect although they had been briefed. Some general observations follow.
  1. Students should read the whole question, think about it and plan a skeleton for their answer.
  2. Many students only answered the first part of one or both questions: they failed to discuss the last part, which requires thinking about the consequences of their ideas.
  3. Language per se was only a minor consideration in the final mark: what was important was basic general knowledge and the ability to organise this and ideas into a logical whole.
  4. Thus a short, well-organised essay which was understandable despite spelling and grammatical mistakes scored higher than a long piece in perfect English which failed to address the question in a meaningful and insightful manner.
  5. Time is important: candidates should not waste it by re-writing the question as the first part of the answer – it is better to do an essay plan (which will not be marked – the final product is what counts) first to help you organise your ideas.

More specific observations on the content of answers were interesting. A common issue in the answers to both questions (not necessarily in the same script) was the problem of corruption and nepotism. For example, many expressed frustration that (Question 1) many unqualified older people got top jobs because of their connections; or that (Question 2) money and influence counted for more than legal procedures. Thus, there was discontent about the students’ own prospects in the job-market. There was also disquiet about foreigners coming in and taking things at the expense
of the local inhabitants.

A common limitation of the answers to each question was that students failed to see the ‘broader picture’: they made proposals to the first half of each question, but failed to follow through by considering the consequences of their ideas. For example, if you set aside land for forests or for factories or whatever, what do you do about the resident claimants affected by that decision? Life today is very complex!

The lack of informed comment in the responses to the second question was also revealing. Many students referred to the occurrence of tsunamis as a manifestation of climate change, which is at variance with the general conception. Another worry is that many students blamed nuclear power for climate change, whereas it was heralded by many as a potential saviour (by reducing greenhouse gas emissions) until the recent Fukushima incident in Japan, when public opinion about-turned globally.

There is further cause for concern regarding the responses to the second question. Apart from the fact that several students focused on the problems caused by damage to the ozone layer (now largely a secondary consideration), a major issue was the many students who referred to “people with mirror houses” (‘mirror house’ is the literal translation of the Khmer word for greenhouse). This points to the difficulty of the concept of greenhouse gases, just as with many people from colder climates who do not understand how a greenhouse works. Because most Cambodians do not know what a greenhouse is, never mind how it works, it would seem that individuals are being blamed because of the way that they have constructed their residences or offices. Also, while the US was blamed as a major contributor to climate change, no student mentioned the efforts of the EU to control greenhouse gas emissions – the latter has not been getting their message across. Clearly there is scope for further research to gain insights into whether there is a mismatch between what it is hoped that students understandabout this issue and what they actually do.

In conclusion, the introduction of the Comprehensive Exam has been a way to further enhance the quality of our graduates; but it has also highlighted some shortcomings in both the attitudes and thinking of our students and thus their understanding of the world around them. It thus provides pointers as to how we should further improve the education system at UC; and in Cambodia in general.