Oral Comprehensive Examination in Ethics

Oral comprehensive examination in ethics


The examination is offered annually, and is taken in the third year of the Graduate Program in Clinical Psychology.  A sign-up sheet is posted.  Individual appointments should be arranged for the identified date. 


Two faculty members appointed by the Director of Clinical Psychology Training. Reading: Recommended readings are as follows:

(a) The Companion Manual (current edition) to the Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists, together with its bibliography. You should use your own judgment in selecting materials from the bibliography for further study.

(b) Ethics-related articles in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice (most recent five years).

(c) APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct


The examination will consist of a 50- to 55minute discussion with the examiners. The format will be similar to the oral examinations which are required for registration/licensing as a psychologist in most North American jurisdictions. You will be asked to present one case, preferably from your own practicum experience, that involved difficult ethical decisions. You should be prepared to discuss application of ethical principles to the handling of the case. You may keep notes with you during the exam, but since the exam is in the form of a conversation, you should minimize your reference to these materials.  You will also be given three vignettes to look over 60 minutes before the oral examination begins, and you will be asked to discuss one or two of these cases.  The vignettes may pertain to clinical practice, teaching, or research. You should be prepared to state any assumptions you wish to make about details that are not specified in the vignettes but that are necessary to resolution of the dilemmas. You should be thoroughly familiar with the current Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists (but you will not be asked to quote passages from it!) as well as the Practice Guidelines for Providers of Psychological Services. You will be asked to demonstrate your understanding and good judgment concerning (a) clear delineation of the ethical dilemmas faced in the vignettes, (b) the principles underlying the Code, (c) the difference between ethical principles and rules of conduct, and (d) the process for resolving ethical dilemmas presented in the Companion Manual.

The CPA process for resolving ethical dilemmas should be used with the following additional features:

(a) Ethical principles, values, and standards should be presented in their order of importance or salience to the situation, rather than in the order in which they appear in the Code. Each should be explained in terms of the situation.

(b) Before presenting alternative courses of action, concisely outline what the core dilemma is, in a sentence that incorporates the most important conflicting values, standards, and biases as well as the practical aspects of the situation.

(c) Also before presenting alternative courses of action, explain what consultation you would seek and why.

Recording and results of examination

The discussion will be audiotaped and the Director of Clinical Psychology Training will keep the tape until after the results are final.

The examiners' evaluation will normally be relayed to the student by the Director of Clinical Psychology Training within a week after all examinations are complete. The evaluation report will be one of the following:

  1. pass with distinction;
  2. pass;
  3. pass with suggestions for self-directed study of identified areas of minor weakness;
  4. pass with required remediation (written or oral) to be assigned by a specified date and completed by a specified date;
  5. fail with re-examination required, normally one year later.

Under option 4, if the recommended remedial work is completed to the satisfaction of the examiners by the specified date, the examination result will be reported as a pass to the College of Graduate Studies and Research. If not, the result becomes a fail. 

In the event of two failures, procedures are governed by policies of the College of Graduate Studies and Research.

Options 4 and 5 may be appealed to the Director of Clinical Psychology Training in writing within 30 days of notification of the examination result. Depending on the nature of the appeal, independent examiners may be appointed to review the audiotape of the examination.

Common difficulties

Over the years that this exam has been offered, most students have passed the exam on their first try.  For the minority who do not get a full pass the first time, some of the more common difficulties encountered include the following.  Each of these would be a less serious deficiency on only one dilemma, and more serious if repeated on two or three different exam questions/dilemmas.

  1. Describing a situation well in practical terms but never identifying what the ethical dilemma is in terms of conflicting principles.
  2. Being too exhaustive and wordy in attempting to mention every possible standard in the Code, so that no time is left to identify and analyse the really important issues.  (Discernment is required to tell the forest from the trees.)
  3. Failing to identify important parties affected by dilemmas and by the psychologist's choice of action.
  4. Considering too few alternative courses of action, or missing important possible courses of action other than the obvious ones.  In other words, lacking creativity in addressing the problem.
  5. Limiting oneself entirely to standards and interventions at the individual level, without considering the system within which the individual is functioning.
  6. Failing to mention consultation, supervision, or codes, laws and professional guidelines where these are relevant.
  7. Citing terms from the Code only in generalities or in vague language, without explaining their application to the case at hand.
  8. Prematurely taking one side in a conflict without considering the other side's point of view.
  9. Speaking so much from previously prepared notes that the examiners are left wondering how well the student would handle ethical issues as they arise in face-to-face sessions with clients, colleagues, and supervisors.