Archive for Thursday, November 7, 1991


November 7, 1991


College students who study together, meet frequently with advisers and enroll in at least one small class every semester are most likely to excel, according to a report made public Wednesday by Harvard University.

The report, which may influence the way many courses are taught at other colleges and universities, concluded that the undergraduate's most effective strategy is to form alliances with fellow students, faculty members and advisers, and not try to brave college alone.

David Ambler, Kansas University vice chancellor for student affairs, said the report did not surprise him.

"Higher education is not a passive experience," he said. "We tell students that, just as the university has expectations of them, they should have expectations of the university.

"They have to act on those expectations and assert themselves if they want to maximize their learning."

Joe Van Zandt, advising coordinator of the College Advising Support Center at KU, agreed.

"STUDENTS THAT are studying together are at least studying, and we believe meeting with an adviser regularly is very significant," he said. "Those things are the hallmark of students who are likely to be successful."

The Harvard report recommended that students should not try to get all their required classes out of the way as soon as possible, but each semester should mix in at least one small group or seminar class.

Dennis Quinn, an English professor who has been advising KU students for 35 years, said he warns students not to devote so much attention to their required classes that they overlook other courses that might be of interest to them. However, he said class size did not matter if the instructor was skilled and the students were interested in the subject matter.

He also thought most undergraduates were not prepared for the load of independent research required in seminar classes.

Ambler said students must develop skills to be successful. One of those skills is course selection.

"There is a science to being a student," he said. "To have at least one course you're taking out of curiosity rather than necessity is good advice."

THE REPORT also found that top students consider foreign language courses, where classes are small and there is frequent interaction between teacher and students, close to being an academic ideal.

But Robert C. Spires, director of Spanish and Portuguese at KU, said that because of understaffing, his department's classes were larger than the ideal size.

He said that although research has found that the optimum size of a foreign language class is 15, the average Spanish or Portuguese class at KU has 24 students and the largest has 36.

Ideally, advanced classes would have 12 students at most, he said. But his department's graduate classes have about 20, and its seminars, where students are supposed to get a lot of individual attention, average about 14.

The Harvard report is the second of two parts of a five-year assessment of what constitutes effective teaching and learning at Harvard and, by extension, at all universities.

The first part of the assessment, published last year, found that students learned better and professors were more effective in courses where progress could be tracked through frequent tests, quizzes and one-minute exams at the end of a lesson. Some of its findings and recommendations have been widely copied.

RESEARCHERS also found that although students were generally satisfied with their professors' availability during office hours, they did not feel comfortable trying to talk informally to faculty members about personal matters, a failing that often contributed to a sense of dissatisfaction with the academic environment.

Harvard officials concede the shortcoming. ``It is clearly the case that some faculty could do a better job of making themselves more accessible,'' said David Pilbeam, associate dean for undergraduate education at Harvard. But he said it was up to the students to buttonhole busy professors.

``We don't have Mr. Chips here,'' he said. ``If students want that, they should go somewhere else, to a small liberal arts college.''

Among the institutions that studied the first report was the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Henry C. Morlock, a professor of psychology there, said he has incorporated the one-minute exam into his introductory course, calling it ``one of those nice little tricks, effortless and cheap, that tells me what's not getting across to the students.''

This is one of the hardest things in teaching to know, especially in large classes, he said, adding, ``In small classes you can see the puzzled looks on their faces and ask what's wrong, but you can't do that in a big lecture.''

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