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John Harvard's Journal

Curriculum, Classroom, Competence

January-February 2007

While acknowledging that the curriculum is the faculty’s “sacred domain,” President Derek Bok nonetheless said at the
October 17 meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that Harvard could make a special contribution to undergraduate education now, and if it could do so this year, that would make him “incredibly happy”—comments that won loud applause.

That said, Bok has made clear that he considers the sequence of courses only one element of education, and not necessarily the most important. On several occasions during the fall term, he highlighted the importance of changes in advising, now taking hold, and of incentives for better teaching—the subject of the separate Task Force on Teaching and Career Development (see “Taking Teaching Seriously,” November-December 2006, page 60).

Finally, Bok has long advocated assessment—objective measurement of learning outcomes—as the basis for iterative improvements in course design and pedagogy, most recently in his book Our Underachieving Colleges, published last winter. Bok’s unexpected return to the presidency has given him the opportunity to put the idea into practice.

According to Nina Zipser, the University’s director of institutional research, about 315 freshmen this autumn took the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a sophisticated examination of critical-thinking ability developed by the Council for Aid to Education and researchers at RAND Corporation (www.cae.org/content/pro_collegiate.htm). Students may be asked, for instance, to advise a corporate executive about the purchase of an airplane, based on evidence about the aircraft model and an account of a recent accident. Their written argument is then evaluated using more sophisticated criteria than can be captured in multiple-choice exams. A similar-sized cohort of seniors will take the CLA this spring. Comparative analysis will then suggest, in a rough way, how students in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences progress in acquiring critical-thinking skills during their College years, and how they compare to students elsewhere.

Zipser noted that this small sample cannot compare the same group of students over time, nor provide insights into speci c elds of study. But it will give some sense of the utility of the CLA assessments, which are being used at dozens of schools. (Duke, for example, has tied the CLA to its own activity-based learning in upper-level social sciences programs; that might be a model for current general-education experiments at Harvard College.) And the CLA, Zipser added, is unlike any kind of assessment the College does now. As such, this small initiative prompted by Bok might be the starting point for much larger changes in Harvard’s future learning culture.