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Academic Structure and Issues-Junior Qual

The Junior Qualifying Exam is given in the spring of the third year. Without successful passage, students cannot go on to their fourth year. This is a college-wide policy, but the form of the Jr Qual varies widely from department to department. In Physics, it is a systematic and integrative review of material presented during the first two years, a warm-up for the graduate qualifying exam. A closed-note, written, four-hour exam of 26 problems testing eight broad areas of physics, it is given in early February.

Students who fail are allowed to take the Jr Qual a second time. Borderline cases may receive a conditional pass. "We invented the latter, which has now been adopted college-wide," says David Griffiths. "If students do marginally, they must retake the subjects they did poorly in, and we find that that really helps them. Most then pull through the exam well on the second try."

"College-wide, faculty rarely fail students," Griffiths adds, "but we fail more than any other department. The physics Jr Qual is harsh, but we don’t want students getting into the field if they are not cut out for it. Most students who do fail don’t leave Reed; instead they transfer into Math, where most do very well. We have found over the years that most students who do poorly on the physics Jr Qual do poorly on their thesis, so it is a helpful indicator."

Johnny Powell feels somewhat more conflicted about the use of the Jr Qual. "This department (and the college in general) cares a lot about students who are in trouble," he says. "But what is the best way to do that? Give hard grades and be prepared to fail students in all their classes, or let them get as far as Jr Qual and then face harder choices? I don’t believe that passing weaker students is holding them up to the standards that we should.

"In the last three years, this has been changing. We’ve been doing a better job of identifying who will have problems in their junior year, and sending letters to students who are having trouble in Physics 200, advising them to think seriously about their choice of major."

The Reed Physics Department
The Era of Experimentalists: 1911-1963
The Era of Theoretical Physics: 1963-1897
Achieving Balance: 1987-Present
Academic Structure and Issues
Junior Qual
Senior Thesis
The Role of Research and the Integration of Research and Teaching
The Curriculum
Relations with Students
Teaching Style
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