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Teaching and Testing

Brass Tacks

By Frederic L. Ballard jr.

The Faculty Committee on Educational Policy has recently opened discussion on an old and firmly entrenched Harvard tradition: the written, three-hour final examination. During the next few weeks the CEP will attempt to compile a series of essays on the subject written by a variety of professors and College administrators. Eventually, the essays may be printed in a small booklet, perhaps for public distribution. The CEP project will most certainly result in a searching analysis of the present examination system, and it could lead to an increase in the number of courses offering such alternatives as the final paper or the prepared question.

A long-standing Faculty policy requires that a three-hour written examination conclude every undergraduate course, and exemptions are granted only upon petition to the CEP. Until the mid 50's nearly all of these exemptions went to elementary language courses, courses in composition, or courses with a large amount of laboratory work. Since that time, however, the CEP has become more and more lenient with its dispensations. The number of petitions has increased correspondingly. In the spring of 1953 there were 19 requests to substitute papers or other alternatives for the standard final; last year this figure had risen to 51. Moreover, in 1953 only about a sixth of the exempted courses were not of the laboratory-language type; in 1961, the corresponding fraction was greater than a quarter.

The problem of determining the criteria for exceptions came to a head last fall. When President Pusey left the country to tour Asia, Edward S. Mason, a professor in economics and public administration, temporarily took over the chairmanship of the CEP. He soon received the usual number of petitions, including several to which no clear answer was evident. Mason first discussed these specific cases with the CEP and then suggested that the general topic merited a formal and thorough investigation, in the form of the essay collection. In November, CEP member Leon D. Bramson, an assistant professor of social relations, took the responsibility for collecting and editing the essays.

The idea of writing about examinations has appealed to many of the University's best-known and most articulate professors. Paul Buck, who was Dean of the Faculty under President Conant, is writing an introduction on the history of exams at Harvard. Franklin Ford, the present Dean, will also be a contributor, along with Stanley Hoffmann, Gerald Holton, George Goethals, Mrs. Bunting, David Reisman, Sanford Lakoff, Sam Beer, Oscar Handlin, John Monro, and others. The finished essays should be before the CEP by Christmas and will be reviewed by the full Faculty sometime during the spring.

The CEP has encouraged its contributors to approach their topic from any point they desire. They have not been urged to defend or criticize any particular sort of examination question. According to Bramson, "The people have been invited to speak both as representatives of a particular field, and as individuals. We are hoping for contributions covering a very wide range: some persons are going to want to write about exams they have actually given; some may want to talk about the broader questions involved in what you might call the 'philosophy' of examinations."

This philosophy has always assumed that examinations should teach the undergraduate as they test him. This assumption creates difficulties in devising questions, yet the value of a test which draws together the material covered in a term is so apparent that the teaching function of exams is almost never challenged. Ideally, the CEP will promulgate new ways to ensure that an examination--or its alternative--is not a separate entity tacked on to the end of a course, but an integral part of the educational process.

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