Writing Comprehensive Exam

Comprehensive examination (comps) is a milestone for most PhD students. It’s not necessarily the biggest one but still quite important. As the guidelines from my program say:

The general purposes of the doctoral comprehensive examination are to assist doctoral students to integrate and deepen their understanding of major current theories and alternative views in scholarly literature in the field of curriculum studies, and in a particular area of study within curriculum.  Equally important, this examination requires students to apply some of  these ideas from scholarly literature to outlining and justifying a research method for an intended thesis study in a chosen area of specialization.

It took longer than I expected to start writing my comps, mostly because I wish what I write for the exam could turn out to be also useful for my thesis. After I eventually got started, it took me longer than I expected (again) to finish my writing. The topic I chose is in lack of literature (what?!), and writing a literature review requires more thoughts. Anyway, my comps got submitted two weeks ago, and I’d like to write a couple of words about it.


It might be wired to start with this word because it might not mean anything to many people, especially to folks in social sciences. If you don’t know it, LaTeX is a document markup language that you can use to mark up the structure and details of your paper, written in plain text, with a variety of commands, and convert it to nicely formatted PDF or other formats. It’s widely used by science and engineering folks because these guys need to deal with math formula and LaTeX is very powerful in this.

I have never used LaTeX before writing my comps, but I somehow decided to experiment with it this time. The results didn’t make me regret, for a couple of reasons:

  1. LaTeX saved me from dealing with (unstable) formatting issues in MS Word and allow me to focus on content when writing. By changing a few words, you can the whole paper from an APA draft format to a double-column format looks like a journal.
  2. LaTeX deal with bibliography and referencing gracefully. With help of some special reference packages, it allows you to finish tiring things with reference in a simple and easy way.
  3. Playing with LaTeX brings me more joy than getting a new HDTV (but less than getting a new iPad maybe).

The down side is that it may take some time to setup a LaTeX environment on your computer and to learn some commands. But once you get through that process, you will not go back to use MS Word for a big writing project like thesis. So I am pretty determined to use LaTeX for my coming thesis writing.

I am attaching some resources that I found useful at the end of this blog.


Okay, this word is the biggest word in my comps, and it used to drive me crazy. The following is an excerpt from my comps:

The term of “promisingness” was originally introduced in the book Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry into the Nature and Implications of Expertise (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993), and was further elaborated in a later book Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age (Bereiter, 2002). However, in the past two decades this term has seldom appeared beyond the knowledge building community and there is little research to address this concept. This makes a literature review on promisingness difficult.

In this chapter, I am trying to broaden the scope from education to various domains, to present research or practice that can inspire our thinking of promisingness. In order to deepen our understanding of promisingness, I attempt to answer the following basic questions about promisingness: what does promisingness mean, why is it important, and how people make promisingness judgments. The first section will discuss the literal meaning of promisingness, by consulting respected dictionaries and thesauri. The second section will explore extensive presence of promisingness in various creative processes. The third and fourth sections will try to construct a descriptive model of promisingness, by mapping promisingness in the idea space with that in the nature and venture capital industry. Then, in order to get a deeper understanding of promisingness judgments for pedagogical and technological design, the fifth section will dive into psychology literature looking for psychological foundations of promisingness judgments. In the last section, I will try to situate the proposed research on promisingness into education and curriculum studies.

Bringing literature from several different fields (e.g. natural selection, venture capital, decision-making and judgments, and curriculum studies) was challenging, but the biggest breakthrough for my writing was to make those connections. Although my comps is far from making any breakthrough, the process of writing it echoes Dunbar’s (1995) finding on the important role analogies play in scientific inquiry.

The path ahead

From the official guide of doing PhD at OISE, the next step after completing comps is to write a thesis proposal and forming a committee. At the same time, I’m planning a study that will be carried out soon dealing with developmental issues around promisingness judgments.


Appendix: Resources of LaTeX

1. Setup

  • basic LaTeX setup – Windows: MiKTeX; also install some useful packages
  • editors
    • TeXworks – default one comes with MiKTeX, with very simple UI and functions
    • Texmaker – I found this tool the most handy one!
    • TeXnicCenter – also powerful but with messier UI.
    • LyX – a WYGIWYM editor, closer the gap of user experience between LaTeX and Word

2. Citation & Bibliography

  • Choosing citation package
  • Read this page first
  • biblatex – seems to be the best choice
  • natbib – a package for customizable citation; I used this one for my comps.


4 thoughts on “Writing Comprehensive Exam

  1. Hi Bodong,
    would you consider sharing your comps, either publicly (which I think would be great!) or privately? I think we have a lot of ideas in common, so it would be very useful to me.

    Interesting to see you playing with LaTeX. I am also very much in favor of avoiding Word, but I’m more inclined towards something like MarkDown, LaTeX just seems incredibly cluttered to me (since I am not using any mathematical formulas, etc), and also, the output is not semantic… Generating nice PDFs is a necessity (and I’d be interested in ways of formatting a MarkDown document to UofT thesis standards for example), but I’m much more interested in generating flexible documents that can be displayed in many ways, parsed etc.

    I really like this idea of “executable documents” http://www.carlboettiger.info/archives/4325 – where you can just embed your data, and R code, and it gets rendered on display, this someone else downloading your paper could choose to visualize the graph differently etc. Don’t think LaTeX can do that.

    What did you do about citations, did you use BibTeX or just do it manually?

    • Hey Stian,

      I was thinking of sharing it publicly, but was worrying whether I should wait for it to be passed because it might violate the anonymity regulation of review. Will send it to you by email.

      LaTeX worked just fine for me. I got addicted to building the file after making some minor revisions. Its integration with BibTex is almost seamless, and there a few packages you can choose from for reference management. I also found a LaTeX template for UofT thesis.

      But I’d love to know more about MarkDown. I just did a google search and found someone is actually using it to write a thesis. http://blog.pilsch.com/past/2009/10/4/how_im_writing_my_dissertation/ Executable document is also new to me. But at this point I don’t see it very meaningful for writing my thesis. But will keep my mind open. :)


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