Plant Sciences


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Student Guidelines for Written Preliminary Exams

16 Red leavesA comprehensive written preliminary examination is required of each student in Plant Sciences following the semester that 2/3 of Ph.D. didactic course credits (excluding Master's degree credits) are completed. The exams will be given approximately April 15-16 and October 15-16. Although this examination will undoubtedly provide some stress, this stress can be better managed when students know what to expect and how to prepare. Students will learn helpful advice through discussions with their advisor and other Plant Sciences faculty members. The purpose of this document is to provide general comments relative to the written preliminary examination, in order to help students be successful and manage stress relative to the written preliminary examination.

  • Although a successful preliminary exam directly depends on the student taking the exam, most successful students have the support of family, friends, and coworkers. Don’t forget to take the time to communicate to them what you are doing. For a few weeks, you may not be as available as they are accustomed, but you will be there if a true need arises.
  • Questions for the written preliminary exam will be requested only from faculty members in the Department of Plant Sciences. The Graduate Studies Committee will select ten questions for each student’s exam, and five will be grouped for the first day of the exam and five for the second. Each day the student can pick up the five questions from the PLSC Graduate Program Administrator at 8:00 am, and the questions and answers must be returned to the graduate student secretary no later than 5:00 pm that same day. If the PLSC Graduate Program Administrator is not available that day, another administrator will be designated for that purpose. Each student will have a designated location for writing the exam.
  • Most questions on the exam are expected to be “concept” in nature, versus detailed course knowledge questions. This impacts how you prepare for the exam. Concept questions are generally answered better by using critical thinking, which involves visualizing the broader picture and thinking or reasoning more deeply and intellectually about the content. Although there is no universal way to think critically, it does go beyond the lower levels of learning (knowledge and comprehension) and uses the higher levels of evaluation and synthesis. Although no one thinks critically all the time, you can practice and improve your critical thinking abilities.
  • The written preliminary exam will cover more than one body of knowledge, e.g., genetics, plant breeding, statistics, etc.. Generally, one to a few questions will be chosen to evaluate selected knowledge areas based on each student’s program of study.
  • It is possible that you will have questions in knowledge areas on the periphery of your major area of study, where you have had fewer opportunities to learn that known knowledge in depth. It is possible that you will have questions that integrate related knowledge areas. Do not be frustrated by these questions, as your critical thinking skills will be most useful. Also, graders will know your course background and based on that coursework background will be asking “what is the expected learning level of this student?”
  • The name of the faculty member who will grade the question will be included for each question. When the student would like clarification for a question, she/he can go directly to that faculty member. If that faculty member is not available, another faculty member in that knowledge area can be identified.
  • When writing answers to the preliminary exam, the first paragraph of the student’s answer should provide the student’s interpretation of the question. The interpretation will help the grader better understand the answer provided. The interpretation should provide the student’s thinking regarding what is being asked; one possibility is to paraphrase the question in the student’s own words. A shallow or misguided interpretation will not mean that a shallow or misguided answer is a satisfactory answer.
  • A student’s answer to each exam question will be graded pass or fail to determine if the question was passed or failed. However, the grader will also include adequate explanatory comments to help the student understand not only what she/he knows adequately or well, but also where knowledge and understanding are deficient.
  • If no more than two questions have been failed, the student will be notified by letter that the written exam was passed, and the advisor and student can schedule the oral preliminary exam with their supervisory committee.
  • Students who have failed the written preliminary exam may take a second exam. Normally, the second exam will be taken at the next scheduled offering (April or October). However, in cases of extenuating circumstances, the graduate studies committee may schedule the exam at an earlier date. The second exam will be developed, conducted, and assessed as stated for the first exam.
  • The graduate studies committee will notify students within about five business days regarding the results of their written preliminary exam. If extenuating circumstances extend this planned timeline, students will be notified as to when the results can be expected.
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