Monday, June 13, 2011

Minimum requirements for graduating physics majors

To me there are certain minimum core skills and knowledge that a student must have if they are to be allowed to graduate. What might be good way to measure this? Different professions (accounting, medicine, law, ...) have quite strict standards and administer national (or international) exams with quite high failure rates, leading to people taking the exam several times before they pass.

One simple, but far from perfect, way to test basic physics knowledge and skills may be via the GRE Physics exam, which is required to be taken by all applicants to graduate programs in Physics and Astronomy in North America. Significant advantages of this approach is:
  • it is internationally bench marked
  • it tests basic knowledge of first and second year undergraduate physics
  • some one else designs, administers, and marks the test. (This reduces faculty workloads, and also reduces the chance of prejudice and/or favortism towards individual students).
Disadvantages to the test include it is multiple choice and largely tests speed of problem solving. It also needs to be acknowledged that high marks on the exam are widely acknowledged as not a good predictor of success at graduate school. But, that is not the goal here. It is simply to test basic knowledge and problem solving ability.

To me the primary benefit is it will stop students from graduating who have benefited from soft marking (or too much group work), who have forgotten most of what they learnt (or never learnt) in the first 2 years of their degrees, or do not integrate knowledge across subjects.

But what should be a minimum score required for students to graduate?
Searching the net I have struggled to find measures of "good" and "bad" scores. One reference point I found is that at Carnegie-Mellon the middle 70% of students admitted into the Ph.D program obtained scores in the range 665 to 980 (out of 1000). This placed them in the 47-94% percentile of those who took the exam.
Hence, I would think that a reasonable proposal is that a physics major should not be allowed to graduate until they obtain a score of at least 500.

I welcome comments, particularly people from North American universities who are more familiar with the exam.

I also welcome alternative proposals on minimum graduation standards.


  1. Another disadvantage of the GRE physics exam (and any ETS exam) is the cost involved. When I took the exam, I believe we were allowed to send our results free of charge to a maximum of four universities. After that, we were charged $15 for every university that we sent our results to. Couple this with the cost just to register for both the general and physics exams and one can easily spend over $200 on the GRE alone.

  2. This kind of feed back is important but right before graduation is way too late!! Id like to see universities do a better job of delivering skills appraisals througout the 4 year process. If a career in physics isn't going to work out for them, how can we let them know as soon as possible so they can get on with trying something else?

  3. In this context I do not see cost as a major obstacle. I am just proposing that students do one GRE exam (Physics). I believe this is US$160, which is comparable to the price of an expensive textbook, and insignificant to all the other costs of the degree.

    Tim, I agree that earlier feedback would be desirable. This is what grades are meant to do! But the problem is that there is too much "soft" marking and so students are sometimes led along that they are more capable than they are.
    Also, I am not talking about whether students should go and do a Ph.D, just whether they have some of the core skills that a Bachelor of Science graduate should have.

  4. Ross, first, I really enjoy this blog.

    Its too bad that the grading process isn't marketed as a service that provides valuable feedback. In my experience as a student it was just something that had to be overcome as an end in itself.

    I see your comments were intended for undergrads but I think this could apply equally to grad students.