The QRR: Stumbling Toward the Future

Assessing the Core

It's part of the chaos that hits Harvard every year during orientation.

For first-year students who are unpacking their belongings and waiting on lines everywhere from the Coop to Cambridge Trust, the Quantitative Reasoning Requirement (QRR) is another headache that they must deal with.

But this year, the QRR headache is going to be worse than usual--for everyone concerned.

First-year students will face more rigorous exams, made tougher in response to criticism that the requirement was too superficial.

Four hundred sophomores--about one-fourth of the Class of 1992--will have an even worse time of it, as they must pass either the data or computer makeup tests or remain on academic probation. They have a month to pass the tests--and pay the $40 makeup fee.


And for the administration there is the burden of giving lectures, extra help and exams to the first-year students and to the 400 sophomores--double the number of students who failed two years ago--in a short time period.

In some ways, the administration has itself to blame for the logistal problems of the next few weeks, as its attempts to strengthen the requirement in the face of criticism from both outside and inside the University have resulted primarily in catching students unaware.

Faculty members have been taking stock of the QRR over the past two years--and finding that they don't like the way the requirement works in teaching students about analytical reasoning.

A Harder Test

The immediate solution was to make the computer and data exams more difficult. For the data test, this meant requiring less "number crunching" and more interpretation by students. For the computer tests, this meant asking students to write slightly more sophisticated programs--requiring loops, for example.

But the attempts to tinker with the exams caught members of the Class of 1992 off guard, administrators say, as students expected to pass without studying even though the difficulty of the tests had changed.

"Part of the problem was a history of older siblings and some advisors giving information to freshmen based on previous tests," says Yuriko Kuwabara, program advisor in the Core Program. "They can't cram for this anymore."

Instead, faculty members say they are trying to prepare this year's incoming class better for the two QRR exams in hopes of avoiding a repeat of last year's problems.

"Last year we were aware of what was going on," says Virginia L. Mackay-Smith, assistant dean of first-year students. "We were concerned about what this was going to mean for a student's academic progress. We decided to do things that we hope will make it easier for freshmen--and a little more straightforward."

Efforts to help this year's class of first-year students include rewriting the study guides for the QRR exams, which students have the option of ordering the summer before they arrive at Harvard.