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Thursday, May 03, 2007

What (if anything) do Harvard students learn?

How do you know whether students at Harvard are actually learning anything? Some people would think that’s a ridiculous question: of course they’re learning something, or they wouldn’t be at Harvard!

But that doesn’t follow; perhaps their presence at Harvard proves that they have learned something, but it doesn’t show that they’ve added to their knowledge after their arrival in Cambridge. In fact, Linda K. Wertheimer (presumably not the same reporter as Linda Wertheimer) relates an anecdote in the Boston Globe and in a follow-up piece on NPR:
Charles W. Eliot, Harvard’s president from 1869 to 1909, once quipped that the reason Harvard was known as the nation’s greatest storehouse of knowledge was that “the freshmen bring so much in, and the seniors take away so little.”
So perhaps it’s true that some students learn nothing at our leading institutions of higher learning, such as Harvard or Yale (no comment). Wertheimer’s article reports two interesting attempts to measure student learning at all colleges and universities, not just these two.

The first attempt is a broad but wrong-headed effort by the U.S. Department of Education to impose tests on all college students just as they now do on K–12 students. Wertheimer effectively identifies some of the flaws in this effort:
[It] could also bring the same problems as mandatory testing has to the K–12 world — a culture of “teaching to the test” that would undercut the very idea of a liberal education.

“Should everybody be learning the same thing? Should students at MIT be able to learn the same things as students at Williams, at UMass?” said Jack Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts System. “Diversity is one of the great things about higher education. I say, ‘Vive la difference.’ ”
The second attempt is something that’s actually being done right now at Harvard by physics professor Eric Mazur:
Rather than lecture, he flashes questions on a movie-sized screen and asks the roughly 125 students to input their answers in hand-held devices. Then, their responses pour into his computer, and he sees an immediate answer to a question that many professors rarely ask: At $43,655 for tuition, room, and board, are Harvard students getting their money’s worth?


In 1990, he...began adjusting his teaching style. He now rarely lectures and gives students his past year’s lecture notes at the beginning of the semester. He asks them to read certain portions each week, and e-mail him about concepts they do not understand. In class, he poses questions based on the feedback.
There are some obvious objections to this testing method — you can think of seven right now — but it sure provides more feedback than a professor would usually get from a class of 125. For that matter, it provides more than a high-school teachers usually gets from a class of 20 — until the next quiz rolls around.

But note that the standards are being set by the professor, not by the U.S. Department of Education. Some think that’s a bad thing.

Or maybe it’s not, as long as we’re talking about Harvard. Standards like MCAS, of course, are not really designed for universities like Harvard or K–12 systems like Weston, as I often tell my students. Weston High School students often think that they’re attending the Harvard of public high schools, and in both cases the school can afford to set its own standards, since they will be so much higher than the standardized ones anyway. But we still need to know whether students are meeting our standards. As Grace Hopper (and probably many others) said, “The wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from.”

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