Spring 1997

Their Finest Hour
By William R. Grogan '46

For an incredible 13 years, life under the WPI Plan was dominated, not by projects or courses, but by the Competency Examination, the most daring, far-sighted and, perhaps, presumptuous of all the Plan's original features.

The Comp was the Sword of Damocles hanging over every student's head. At the same time, it was a spectacular rite of passage; the great common experience shared by every graduate of that period and the anticipated experience that focused the programs of those yet to graduate. Those who passed it developed a sense of self-confidence unequaled in times of peace.

The original WPI Plan offered total flexibility in course selection. Students and advisors could make up any program they wished. Qualification in a major field was established only by successful completion of the MQP and the Comp. A total of 12 units of courses or projects and an advisor's approval were all that were needed to take the exam.

Early on, deep concern arose over the exam. The faculty of each department found they had to define just what sort of creature it was that they thought they were producing. What is a B.S.-level electrical engineer or chemist? Once, one could say it was someone who had passed a particular series of courses. Now we had to ask, for the first time, "Just what should a WPI graduate be able to do and how will we know if he or she can do it?"

Some of the most soul-searching discussions in WPI's history took place between 1971 and 1972. The faculty spent hours agonizing, fighting and philosophizing about what their professions were all about. Then they had to decide how students could demonstrate - in one week - that they were competent to enter the profession they were trying to define. What sort of exercise can demonstrate that the student is able to satisfactorily organize data, solve complex problems, develop original creative designs, display a knowledge of fundamentals, communicate the results, and all the other qualities the catalog promised would result from a WPI education?

It was decided to set up a maximum of four one-week periods per year for the experience: three between terms and one after graduation. The exam was to consist of one or two complex problems - usually difficult design problems for the engineers. One chemical engineering Comp, for example, said, "Design a designated section of an ammonia plant to meet the following specifications...." About 120 pages of specifications were presented.

The written examinations were usually open-book and took several days. The grand finale was the notorious oral exam. Each student appeared alone before a board of three faculty members to defend his or her problem solutions. The student then had to answer any questions the faculty wished to pose.

The formats of the exams were supposed to be similar for all departments, but they quickly diverged. We tried to keep a degree of conformity, since it was an all-college requirement, but from my standpoint and that of the Committee on Academic Policy (CAP), the whole exercise was like herding cats.

Most departments passed out the exams on Monday morning, and told the students to come back with solutions in three days. Some departments allowed faculty consultations, provided the name of the consultant and time involved were accurately recorded. The suspicious Chemical Engineering Department would have none of that. They required students to be in classrooms under faculty proctorship for six 3-1/2 hour periods. Following this came the 30-minute orals.

The Computer Science exam grew longer and longer over time until, finally, CAP insisted it be pulled back from a 10-day to a 5-day period to protect the sanity of the exhausted students. In mathematics, a student had to investigate an assigned open-ended theoretical problem for 50 hours. After a day of rest, the student then faced a grueling 90-minute examination at a blackboard.

The departments developed their own rituals for announcing the results, but by 6:30 on Friday night, just about everyone had learned their fate. In those days, the Goat's Head Pub (now Gompei's) was the focus of student and faculty life every Friday afternoon. But never was the Goat's Head as filled with electricity and people as on those Fridays when Competency Exam results were announced. Happy seniors bounded down the stairs screaming, "I'm Competent!, I'm Competent!" Toasts flew. Others came in holding back tears seeking the solace of buddies and beer, wondering how they would ever pull together their shattered lives. Meanwhile, wide-eyed underclassmen absorbed seniors' stories of outrageous departmental demands, impossible faculty expectations, and, of course, the hair-raising orals.

The faculty, feeling that the administrative and emotional problems associated with running an exam just before graduation were too great, had voted that no Comps would be given between the March exam period and graduation. It was a prudent rule, but it enraged parents who had been looking forward to graduation.

The importance of the graduation ceremony assumed leviathan proportions in the minds of parents unable to participate. One set of parents would not leave President Edmund Cranch's office. Some students who failed the March exam could not bring themselves to tell their furious parents until the last minute. We became increasingly concerned about what some failing students might do in their state of depression following the exam. One student actually disappeared for two weeks, which caused enormous concern until he turned up in Marine boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. The name of the examination was also a problem. One father wrote to me complaining that he had spent $50,000 only to have his son declared "incompetent."

The percentage of students failing the Comp became a constant, like Pi. It was right around 30 percent every single time the examination was given. About 20 percent of students received a grade of Distinction (equivalent to an A). Many of us became increasingly concerned about the cause of the failures, their validity, and our ability to deal effectively with failed students. If a student failed because he did not know enough thermodynamics, the answer was simple - take the needed course work. But some students had top grades in all the courses they might be expected to take, but could not handle a comprehensive problem. We organized problem-solving seminars for them, tried to boost their self-confidence, and let them practice with old examinations. It helped, but not that much.

The feedback from the examinations had great potential for providing the faculty with important insights into our educational program. There were some thoughtful departmental studies to determine why there was such a gap between what we thought we were teaching and what it seemed students were really learning - or not learning. But we lacked the time to adequately explore this golden opportunity for educational discovery.

One clear finding did emerge and brought about some changes in curricular approaches. The most common reason examiners gave for failures was lack of understanding of fundamentals. While we worship fundamentals and introduce them at the freshman or sophomore level, we seriously neglect to reinforce them in later years. We become absorbed in presenting techniques and state-of-the-art ideas with little if any reference to the fundamental principles behind them. Reviewing fundamentals absorbs time, and everyone is driven to "cover new material." The Comp told us clearly that for many students, we were expecting one outcome, while our teaching was often producing quite another.

We had in the Comp an educational MRI that could have provided us with an unparalleled, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look into ourselves and relate the outcome to our teaching process and to our goals. Our inability to pursue more extensive analysis of the relationship between Competency Examination outcomes and the educational process was, I feel, unfortunate. It was our most serious lost opportunity in the long implementation campaign that produced so many achievements.

While the internal pressures surrounding the examination were growing, the external pressures were worse. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) simply would not accept the Competency Exam in lieu of course distribution requirements.

It had also become clear to many of us that even without ABET's pressure we were going to have to have some sort of distribution requirements in the sciences, as we had done in humanities from the start. Students did try to retain material they expected to encounter on the Comp, but avoided other important material. We eventually adopted minimum distribution requirements reluctantly, for we knew they were biological in nature and would soon start growing - as they did. With the distribution requirements, the rationale for the Competency Examination faded. We could not sustain at WPI the overlay of this demanding examination when by meeting only the distribution requirements a student would have qualified for a degree in any other engineering program in the land.

So on April 10, 1986, while some students carried a mock coffin around Kinnicutt Hall labeled "The Plan," the faculty voted to phase out the examination. Some faculty were opposed, as were many alumni who had gone through it. Passing the Comp had become a matter of great pride, both personally and collectively, for over 7,000 alumni who shared the experience. These alumni are indeed a special group. For many of them, passing the competency exam was their finest hour at WPI.

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:51:30 EDT 1999