The federal government wants to start tracking how well the nation's colleges teach. This could spur some of the biggest changes campuses have seen in decades -- and perhaps threaten the very idea of a liberal education.
With neon green and purple chairs in tiered rows, the auditorium in Harvard's science center looks like a stadium theater. But the physics professor at the front of the room, Eric Mazur, takes pains not to behave like a sage on the stage.
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?
Mazur is a pioneer in a growing movement that sees more aggressive evaluation as a way to transform higher education. Professors like Mazur have been experimenting with the idea for a decade. But over the last two years, an increasing number of colleges and universities, including Harvard, have begun using critical thinking and writing tests to see if their students are learning what they should. And now the federal government is pushing to require all colleges to regularly assess students' progress -- and reveal the results to the public.
The movement could spur some of the biggest changes to higher education in decades. Proponents say it could dramatically improve teaching and give consumers a new measuring stick -- potentially boosting colleges that teach well, and bringing down those that rely on reputation. But the movement, critics say, 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.'"
This month, the US Department of Education is working with accrediting agencies to design new rules, pushing to require colleges to produce evidence that they're making progress with students and to require accreditors to compare the results of similar schools. Now, many accrediting agencies ask colleges to show how they're measuring students, but not all demand actual data. By Nov. 1, new rules have to be approved, and by July 2008, accrediting agencies must begin implementing the changes. But the effect on colleges, which are accredited every 10 years, would be staggered over time.
The rules are inspired by work of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, a bipartisan panel convened by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Last fall, the commission called on colleges to do a better job of measuring students' academic growth. The commission, chaired by Houston investment banker Charles Miller, former chair of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, also proposed incentives for colleges and states that collect and publicly report how students do. The government, Miller said, may eventually decide to deny federal funds for research or student aid to a college, even Harvard, if it refused to measure how well its students are doing and reveal results.
"I don't necessarily think a rich powerful university like that should just say, 'Trust me, and we'll do whatever we want,'" said Miller.
Charles W. Eliot, Harvard's president from 1869 to1909, 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."
Nearly 100 years later, Harvard and other universities have few ways to prove Eliot wrong.
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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 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 deeper instruction.
US 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 problems? Can they read critically?
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.
Mazur has written a book about his teaching and evaluating methods, and professors around the nation have begun to use them in recent years. Roughly 250 colleges, including Harvard, are using a critical thinking test just developed a few years ago. The schools include the University of Texas System, Florida State University, Duke University, Lesley University in Cambridge, and Wheaton College in Norton.
A task force set up by two national college groups, which represent more than 600 schools, including public ones as well as Cornell and MIT, are evaluating various new options for measuring students' progress. The panel intends to create a voluntary system of accountability to respond to the Spellings commission's recommendations.
Arthur Kleinman, a Harvard professor of medical anthropology, is particularly worried about the effect of more testing and of publicizing the results on higher education. He fears the outcome could be standardization and unhealthy competition.
"We live increasingly in an audit world, in a regulatory world," Kleinman said. "Once you start this, there's no stopping it. It's going to become a part of the culture of higher education."
Lesser-known colleges have everything to gain by revealing results because unlike Harvard, they often take students with mediocre academic records and turn them into great scholars, said Ronald Crutcher, Wheaton's president. The college plans to post results of the critical thinking test and other evaluations on its website, aiming the information at prospective students and parents.
Several Harvard professors said it was more important to evaluate students for the sake of improving teaching than to give information to consumers. Some caution against putting too much stock in certain tests because Harvard students -- so smart to begin with -- likely would progress if professors did nothing.
"You could put every Harvard student in a subterranean vault for four years, and they'd still grow," said Louis Menand, a Harvard professor of English, American literature, and language.
But parents of all students have a right to know how well they're doing, said Sara Martinez Tucker, an Education Department undersecretary working with the national commission and accreditors.
"We can't get away from the fact that we're in an era of greater accountability," Tucker said. "People want to know where their dollars are going."
Bok is not keen on sharing results with the public, partly because the tests are unproven, but he is insistent about the need for the testing.
"It's particularly important at a place like Harvard," he said. "One can go on in fool's paradise and say, 'They're going off and doing great things.' No one knows how much we contribute to that. They came in as good students."
A January report by a Harvard committee of professors called for the university to do more to improve teaching and evaluate learning. Harvard rewards cutting-edge academic research, but tends to shove the importance of improving teaching to the side, particularly in tenure reviews, the report said.
The report recalled the comments of a faculty member who had sat in on tenure proceedings during three Harvard presidencies. The professor either heard nothing about teaching or, if something was said, it was simplistic: "Teaching is either 'up to snuff' or 'not up to snuff,' but the 'snuff level' is unclear."
Harvard and other universities eventually might have to go public with results, predicts Bok.
"If the college faculties continue to make so little effort to figure out how well they're doing, then they have only themselves to blame if the government comes out and imposes accountability," he said.
Linda K. Wertheimer, the Globe's education editor, can be contacted at email@example.com.
(Correction: Because of a reporting error, an article in Sunday's Ideas section about measuring what college students learn included Wheaton College in Norton in a list of schools already using a critical thinking test. Wheaton plans to pilot the test with students, but has not used it yet.)