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Does the QRR Test Enough?

Quantitative Reasoning Requirement

By Eric S. Solowey

Every senior who marches down the aisles during today's Commencement Exercises has passed the Quantitative Reasoning Requirement (QRR), but Harvard faculty members are now seriously questioning whether members of the Class of '89 have been adequately educated in quantitative methods.

Created to insure a minimum level of proficiency in the use of computers and manipulation of data, the QRR can be fulfilled by passing two short tests.

The requirement, though, has come come under fire from educators outside the University in the past, and now Harvard's own faculty is considering bolstering the program.

One year ago, an accreditation report by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges criticized the QRR at Harvard for being superficial.

"The current quantitative reasoning test offers no guarantee that the students have a meaningful level of manipulative skills, much less an understanding of quantitative and logical reasoning and the essence of mathematics as a discipline," the report said.

Harvard faculty seem to have accepted the criticism and are now considering strengthening the requirement.

"There is a sense among us that we need to do a better job in teaching people how to think using quantitative methods far beyond what the present requirement actually defines," says McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis, who is a member of the QRR committee.

"The way the requirement is structured right now is not conducive to education in a basic sense. It is conducive to teaching a narrow bit of material," Lewis says.

In the 10-year review of the Core Curriculum, issued to the faculty last month, the QRR subcommittee reported that it was considering making the QRR part of the Core Curriculum.

Because the requirement is currently "extracurricular"--there is no required coursework--students do not take the QRR seriously, the report says. In fact, students spend little time on the subject, studying just enough to pass the exams, the report adds.

QRR faculty made both tests more difficult this year, and as a result more than 300 people failed the computer test, up from fewer than 100 last year, according to QRR officials. But they stress that the harder tests are not the answer.

"The idea is not to pass or fail people," says Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy Andrew M. Gleason, who chairs the QRR committee. "It's to get them to deal with quantitative methods. This has not happened as well as it should have."

The proposal the QRR committee will consider this fall would make the QRR an additional area in the Core, offering as many as 10 courses in quantitative methods applied to different disciplines, says Gleason.

But Gleason cautions that any consideration of the proposed change will be influenced by pragmatic concerns--like finding faculty and staff to teach the new courses.

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