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The QRR: Stumbling Toward the Future

Assessing the Core

By Eric S. Solowey

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.

But those efforts won't work, administrators say, unless first-year students begin to take the requirement more seriously.

"There need to be increased efforts to try to urge on students the importance of the requirement," says Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57.

A review of the Core Curriculum--issued last May at its 10-year anniversary--found a main problem with the QRR to be its "extracurricular" status. Because there is no required coursework unless a student is unable to pass the two exams, undergraduates tend to "focus their attention on passing the tests rather than learning the material," the report concluded.

"The requirement is not significant enough to gain the respect of the students," Jewett says.

To attack this problem, Mackay-Smith says, proctors are being told to find out from their first-year students exactly when and how they plan to fulfill the QRR. "Advisors will approach the QRR the same as they approach language requirements...not just say, `Oh yes, and there's a QRR--you better get it taken care of.'"

First-year students will also be given an incentive to take the computer exam early by making it easier to get a testing date near the beginning of the year, Mackay-Smith says.

Last year, more than half of all first-year students put off taking the computer exam until the second semester, leaving them fewer opportunities to retake the exam if they failed, says Core Director Susan W. Lewis.

Fundamental Reform?

But in addition to the steps taken to ensure the success of the new first-year class, structural changes in the QRR are being considered by the faculty panel that monitors the requirement. Reforms are needed, professors say, because even students who do take the exams seriously might not be learning enough about quantitative reasoning.

"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," McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis said in an interview after the 10-year Core report was released.

One year before that report, an evaluation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges said the QRR did not ensure that students have an adequate "understanding of quantitative and logical reasoning," the very topic that the QRR is designed to address.

This fall, the faculty group will consider whether to include the QRR as a required course category of the Core, according to Hollis Professor of Mathematicks and Natural Philosophy Andrew M. Gleason, who heads the QRR committee.

Finding professors and teaching fellows for the courses could be difficult, Gleason said last spring, and a lack of faculty could prevent such a proposal ever being carried out. But should the plan be implemented, the quantitative reasoning area of the Core would offer a number of courses in quantitative methods as they apply to various academic disciplines, Gleason said.

But for now, the QRR staff has been doing its best to accommodate the 400 members of the Class of 1992--this year's sophomores--who did not pass both the computer and the data tests.

QRR staff members will be holding office hours and be available to answer questions regarding the tests. Sophomores will have one more opportunity to pass the data test and five more chances to pass the computer test this month. If the sophomores do not fulfill the requirement, they will be required to take an introductory quantitative reasoning class.

Returning sophomores were also given opportunities to prepare themselves for the test during the summer. Some students living locally sought extra help from QRR staff members, while approximately 45 students got extra help by mail, says Kuwabara.

As part of what she calls "tutoring through the mails," Kuwabara says QRR staff members sent problems to students to complete and return. "Instead of bringing a paper to the teacher, you mail it," she says.

Some students sought to complete the QRR requirement this summer. At the Harvard Summer School, 17 people took "Quantitative Reasoning A" (QRA), a course that fulfills the QRR requirement in lieu of the exams.

Despite the hassles of re-evaluating the requirement, Core officials say they are optimistic that new and better ways to teach quantitative reasoning will eventually be found.

"The QRR is supposed to be part of your education--an enlightening experience, not a punishing one," says Mackay-Smith. "And the approach has to be an encouraging one, not a nagging one."

"While it is probably true that no student would give priority to learning the material over passing the tests, it is also true that with the more difficult tests of this year, the two issues are not so easily separable as in the past. It may be possible that better tests, perhaps including essay questions, and some revisions to the current content will result in a stronger focus on learning the material."

From "The Ten Year Report of the Subcommittee on Quantitative Reasoning," 1989.

"We are gratified that Harvard declares its expectation that undergraduates demonstrate or reach a level of competence in quantitative reasoning. This sends an important signal to the rest of the academic world. Unfortunately, however, the current quantitative reasoning test offers no guarantee that the students have a meaningful level of manipulative and logical reasoning and the essence of mathematics as a discipline."

From an evaluation of Harvard University by the New England Association of Schools, 1987.

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