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Research Suggests Teaching Changes

Study Questions Traditional Techniques

By Roger G. Kuo

A Harvard study released yesterday found that small adjustments in current teaching practices--the practices employed in most undergraduate classes here--can lead to a more satisfactory learning experience for college students.

The study was based on the experiences of Harvard undergraduates compiled over the last three years. Richard J. Light, a professor at the Graduate School of Education who also has ties to the Kennedy School of Government, directed the study, which involved faculty from many schools.

Light said there were three important conclusions from the study. First, Light said, students clearly enjoy courses more and have more fulfilling learning experiences when they study in groups of four to six members to prepare for their classes.

Second, Light said, students in the long run most appreciate courses that have frequent "checkpoints," such as quizzes, problem sets and reports. Professors who give immediate feedback on both written and oral work are best appreciated by their students, he said.

Third, the report found that an evaluation technique called the "one minute paper" has a significant impact on enhancing students' understanding of courses and allows their professors to better design course structures.

In this technique, a few minutes before class ends students respond anonymously to two questions: "What is the primary point you learned in class today?" and "What is the main, unanswered question you leave class with today?" Light said that this "one minute paper" forces students to collect their thoughts at the end of class and to synthesize the material they have learned that day.

David Pilbeam, associate dean for undergraduate education, contributed to the study and said he has implemented the "one minute paper" in several of his anthropology classes. "The 'one minute paper' is incredibly useful. It's a wonderful idea that is working very well," he said.

The "one minute paper" is also useful as an evaluation device for professors to understand the needs of their students, the report says. Although most colleges and universities use course evaluation forms that students fill out after each semester, such information is not useful to students currently enrolled in the course, according to the report.

Faculty members who participated in the study pointed out that feedback collected during a course, when immediate changes and midcourse corrections are possible, are more valuable than year-end assessments.

Other topics the study addressed included gender differences in the college experience, the effect of extracurricular activities on class performance and the accessibility of the faculty for students.

The study says that women are significantly more self-critical than men of their academic efforts. Furthermore, women are more likely to study alone than to study in groups.

Data showed that extracurricular activities generally have a positive effect on academic performance. Varsity sports, however, proved an exception, as students who play such sports on average had lower grades.

Involvement in other substantial non-academic commitments showed little detrimental effect on grades. In fact, involvement generally led to an overall satisfaction with college life.

The report also says that faculty members are usually more accessible than most students believe. The overwhelming majority of faculty members, it says, actively invite contact with their students on both a formal and informal basis.

Whether the report will have an impact on undergraduate education in the future is still unclear, said Pilbeam. He said the report's impact will depend largely on the faculty's willingness to change long-standing teaching traditions.

"Although the results are stimulating and suggestive, Harvard hasn't been good at change in the past," he said.

Elsewhere, responses to the report's findingswere mixed.

Dean of the Graduate School of EducationPatricia A. Graham lauded the research effort.

"It's good to see people concerned with theprocess of teaching and learning," said Graham."The study was unique because it focused onspecific structural questions of the learningprocess."

Canaday proctor Keith Light, who contributed tothe study, harbored reservations about thefeasibility of incorporating the study's resultsinto a college-level curriculum.

"I don't think it's being entirely realisticabout the problems it addresses," he said. "It'ssimply not possible to do as much testing andevaluating on a regular basis, especially in[introductory-level] classes."

Pilbeam, however, said that such logisticaldifficulties were not such a problem, and thatprofessors of large classes could simply takerandom samplings of their "one minute papers."

"Generally speaking, any improvement we canmake is good," said Pilbeam. "Although therealities of a research-oriented university likeHarvard renders unfeasible certain aspects of thestudy, even the smallest improvement we can makeis beneficial."

Despite the report's findings, some studentssaid that the appeal of subject matter in classesis as important as frequent tests and evaluations.

"A student's interest in a class, and thereforehis performance, depends on the interest one hasfor the reading material and the subject, not ontests," said John R. Stein '91.

"In core courses, tests and quizzes arenecessary, or else people will ignore thematerial," said Lawrence E. Tanz '92. "Indepartment courses, on the other hand, people areintrinsically interested in the subject matter anddon't need to be tested as frequently."

However, Stein said he has participated in manysmall study groups, and agrees with the report'sconclusion that they are helpful. He said theymade learning "fun and enjoyable."

The study was conducted by the HarvardAssessment Seminars, a project initiated byPresident Derek C. Bok in order to evaluateteaching innovations and techniques, Richard Lightsaid.

Although similar studies have been conducted atother institutions, such studies have focusedmostly on students' lives outside the classroomrather than examining their actual coursework, hesaid.

The Harvard Assessment Seminars will conduct afollow-up study on how to best advise students andhow to internationalize Harvard by making itsstudent body more diverse

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