Low Q Score Prompts Changes to LS1b

At the start of the first lecture for Life Sciences 1b, lecturer Andrew Berry said to his students, “Welcome to Harvard’s most unpopular class.” A round of applause followed.

Life Sciences 1b’s famously low Q score last year—a 1.8 compared to the 3.7 out of 5 that is average for natural sciences classes—has prompted a number of changes to the course, including a new set of lecturers and curriculum reforms.

Berry is teaching the course for the first time this semester, taking over for Daniel L. Hartl, a professor in the department of immunology and infectious diseases. Hartl declined to comment for this story.

The switch in staff was accompanied by a change in curriculum inspired by suggestions in students’ end-of-semester evaluations.

Berry said that students, for example, will no longer be responsible for completing online quizzes, which required students to answer questions about the reading before lecture. He explained that students and some faculty agreed that the quizzes’ purpose was unclear.

After attending Berry’s first lecture, many students said that his enthusiasm for the subject encouraged them to take the course.

Although almost 70 percent of students say that they were “unlikely to recommend” or would “definitely not recommend” the course in the most recent Q guide, enrollment rose this year by 16 percent.

“What I’m trying to do as an educator is communicate that sense of excitement and hope that students at the end of the day are on board,” Berry said.

“If we get this right, this should be a course that students look forward to taking.”

In theorizing why the course received a low Q score in the past, Berry said the method in which the course was delivered may have been a factor.

“Harvard professors who just deliver the facts and nothing more—however sagely they do it—are sometimes penalized by undergraduates in the Q,” Berry said.

Berry also spoke of a symptom he dubbed “mega-course fatigue,” which he said may have been one reason that students did not enjoy the course in the past.

The course fulfills requirements for almost every science concentration, so the large size may be impossible to avoid, he said.

Students said that they are excited about the course this year and the energy that Berry brings to the material.

Johnny F. Li ’15 said that Berry “pays attention to the class and how [the class] is reacting”—waking up students who are falling asleep, for example.

Sheila O. Ojeaburu ’15 expressed similar sentiments.

“The mood of the class is very upbeat, it’s very different from what I would have expected,” Ojeaburu said.

Maryellen Ruvolo, a professor of human evolutionary biology, and Hopi Hoekstra, a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and molecular and cellular biology, teach the course alongside Berry. Neither Ruvolo nor Hoekstra responded to multiple requests for comment.

—Gina K. Hackett contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Nathalie R. Miraval can be reached at