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Do Students Need More Oversight?

Undergraduate Teaching Report

By Dhananjai Shivakumar

A Harvard report on teaching undergraduates released this week made quite a splash nationally.

The study, which was featured on the front page of The New York Times Monday, concludes that undergraduates learn best with frequent assignments and faculty oversight.

Despite the widespread publicity for the report, the reaction within the red brick walls of the University appears to be lukewarm.

About half of 20 faculty interviewed this week said that they were not familiar with the study. And many of those who were said that its recommendations were reasonable but by no means earth-shattering.

"As reported in The New York Times article, it's common sense and straightforward--what most experienced teachers already know," says Gary Ebbs, assistant professor of philosophy.

Among the major conclusions of the study, coordinated by Professor of Education Richard J. Light, is that students want an increase in assignments, quizzes, small study group interaction and direct feedback.

The study also recommends that at the end of every lecture, students should write an anonymous "one minute paper," summarizing what they learned in class and the questions they still have. The exercise will prevent students from leaving lecture without synthesizing new ideas and will provide faculty with student feedback, the study says.

The Light report, based on three years of research into the experience of Harvard undergraduates, was the first report by Harvard Assessment Seminars, a University-wide project initiated by President Derek C. Bok to make teaching more innovative.

The Need for Experimentation

Bok says he thinks that some of the study's proposals could eventually make an impact on the undergraduate experience at Harvard.

"What I hope is that people will be intrigued by some of the findings coming out of these reports and [will] want to do more studies," says Bok, who says he would like to experiment with some of the recommendations in courses such as Social Analysis 10 and Expository Writing.

And Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba '53, former associate dean for undergraduate education, says that the report's proposals are realistic precisely because they are not that sweeping or expensive to implement.

"It's something I see I can be doing in the classes I teach," says Verba, a professor in the Government Department. "I was intrigued by the specificity and reasonableness."

But other say that the recommendations may only appear "reasonable" to faculty teaching certain courses.

Paul G. Bamberg '63, senior lecturer on physics, says that daily assignments and student interaction are successful teaching tools in his introductory physics class. But when he tried them in an intermediate computer science course, the methods failed, he says.

The students in Computer Science 124, "Data Structures and Algorithms," Bamberg says, requested traditional teaching. "There was strong sentiment for my just getting up there and lecturing," he says.

Flawed Methodology?

Winthrop Professor of History Stephen A. Thernstrom says that the Light study relies too much on undergraduate perceptions of what constitutes good teaching.

"This study takes as a measure of good teaching student responses...Some of my colleagues would be skeptical of this," says Thernstrom.

Thernstrom says that there is a trade-off between having faculty regularly monitor student progress, as the study suggests, and treating undergraduates as adults.

"This is a high school model of how you learn, "he says. "But maybe we can do with a little more of this at Harvard."

Questions of Impact

Regardless of their views of the report, faculty members agree that any changes it could bring about will take time.

"It is not Harvard style to tell individual faculty how to teach," says Bamberg. "On one hand, it makes it harder to change teaching styles. On the other hand, it makes it a more attractive place to teach."

And Mark A. Peterson, the head tutor of the Government Department, says that it is up to individual professors to implement the Light study's recommendations.

"The nature of life and pedagogy at Harvard is that it is a highly autonomous, decentralized process," he says. "In the end there is no mechanism that compels faculty members to work in a certain way."

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