At Harvard, which often serves as a trendsetter for other universities, the movement has met a mixed reaction. Many professors, and even some students, reject the idea of publishing results of any tests, and they fear that a federal requirement would be damaging. Some professors also question the idea of measuring progress when students are spread among many disciplines. But some also express enthusiasm for improving teaching using whatever tools work.
Last fall, interim president Derek Bok paid $50 each to more than 300 freshmen to take a 90-minute exam that tested their skills in problem-solving and critical thinking. This spring, he's doing the same with seniors, and hopes to see whether freshmen progress in critical thinking and other areas. The test, known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, was touted by the Spellings commission as one example of what colleges could use. It requires students to analyze background materials and then write a memo or recommendation. Bok also is giving seniors a writing test, created by Harvard, and intends to compare the quality with students' freshman essays and use the results of both tests to show professors where students need instruction.
U.S. Department of Education officials "want to use it to say, How good is Harvard, anyway?' They want to use it as accountability for parents, students," Bok said. We want to use it as a formative exercise to help us improve."
The tension over publicizing results will likely intensify. Universities regularly publish data about their entering classes, including average SAT scores and GPAs. But employers and politicians want to know more about graduates. Can they solve complex prob- lems? Can they read critically?
ADJUSTING HIS STYLE
Mazur, who began teaching at Harvard in 1984, said it took him six years to realize he was not doing a good job of reaching students. In 1990, he read an article about a physics professor who quizzed students on their understanding of basic formulas and the students did poorly. Mazur thought the quiz was "high school stuff'' that his Harvard students could handle with aplomb. They did horribly.
After investigating, he realized that the students were solving physics problems by rote. They could not figure out a problem if they had to deviate from a familiar formula. 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.
"I'm going to have a few questions about flux," he said at a February class as he put a question on a screen.
The students at first work individually and type in an answer. Mazur sees the answers as they come in. Twenty more seconds," he announces, "and we have no unanimity here. Forty percent of you have the correct answer."
Mazur, who urges students to help one another solve in-class problems, gives traditional exams, but also administers pre- and post-tests to measure students' progress in a semester. He also occasionally gives a critical thinking test.
Students said Mazur is atypical of their professors, many of whom act as if they're in a race to cram in material.
"He takes responsibility that every student learn," said Samantha Parker, a 20-year-old junior.