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Lessons Learned from FIPSE Projects II - September 1993

Harvard University

The Harvard Assessment Seminars: Exploration with Students and Faculty about Teaching, Learning, and Student Life


The Harvard Assessment Seminars constitute the University's response to President Bok's 1986 call for program assessment designed to lead to policy recommendations. The ongoing Seminars gather 90 faculty and administrators from 15 northeastern colleges, and 60 Harvard graduate and undergraduate students.

Transcending the mere investigation of student knowledge, the Seminars aim to foster curricular and pedagogical experimentation and innovation. Participants congregate in small working groups that include at least one faculty member, one administrator and one student. Each group identifies a project, carries it out and evaluates it.

The groups that met during the 1986-1989 FIPSE grant period examined questions ranging from what undergraduates think makes for a good course or a helpful adviser to how involvement in athletics or employment affects academic performance. Various samples of the undergraduate population were interviewed, and groups of freshmen and upperclassmen were asked to keep time logs of their activities. Harvard and Radcliffe graduates now in their 30's, 40's and 50's were surveyed regarding their opinions of their college experience.

Project Impact

The Seminars' principal achievement has been the creation of an atmosphere of experimentation and innovation in teaching and the curriculum. As a consequence of the Seminars' findings and discussions, faculty are dividing students into small study groups, asking them to write one-minute papers at the end of class, and giving more quizzes and returning them more promptly.

As the project continues, its results will be translated into policy recommendations. In the meantime, assessment has become part of the Harvard campus culture, and the results of the investigations, although they frequently confirm what had already been established by research elsewhere, have been embraced by the faculty because they reflect the immediate campus reality.

Major Insights And Lessons Learned

The surveys and interviews yielded a collection of insights, some large, some seemingly small, but all of them pertinent to the process of teaching and learning. At the prompting of student participants, for example, one group undertook a study of gender differences in the perception of college. Results showed a much greater divergence between the sexes than had been anticipated: male and female students differ in their self-image, in the qualities they seek in their advisors, and in the way their academic performance affects their satisfaction with college. They also study differently: although both men and women (and especially female science students) perform better if they work in groups, women are much more likely than men to study alone.

Students show a high degree of consensus on what makes for a good course: frequent, detailed, punctual feedback that allows for revision. Although involvement in co-curricular activities does not affect academic performance, there is a strong correlation between such involvement and satisfaction with college. The passing decades have little effect on graduates' perception of their college experience. Harvard and Radcliffe alumni in their middle years express much the same views as current undergraduates.

One group's research debunked the venerable myth of faculty inaccessibility. Junior instructors and senior professors alike showed an almost wistful eagerness to meet with students who take even the most modest initiative, and they also turned out to have a lively interest in teaching innovations. Faculty did express reluctance, however, to adopt reforms that would necessitate adding material to already overloaded courses and to incorporate technology without the benefit of proper training.

What can the Seminars teach the higher education community about how best to conduct assessment? At Harvard as on campuses across the nation, faculty involvement--"ownership" of assessment by the men and women who write the syllabi and give the lectures--was the primary factor in success of the Seminars.

Despite the predominance of assessment as a topic of discussion during the last decade, not every academic has a clear idea of its meaning. Especially for faculty at private institutions, assessment carries connotations of standardized all-purpose instruments at best, and state-mandated "gateway" examinations at worst. Thus, it is important that every college define precisely what assessment should mean to its teachers and learners. Harvard faculty chose to extend the concept of assessment beyond simply finding out what students know, and embraced a philosophy that encourages innovation and creativity both inside and outside the classroom.

Student involvement in assessment can be extremely valuable. Although students initially were not invited to take part in the Seminars, many graduates and undergraduates soon began to manifest a desire to assist in the work. Their collaboration proved providential: they did much of the basic research and statistical work, interviewed their peers, and contributed energy and insights. In exchange they received a modest stipend and an unparalleled opportunity to work in a quasi-collegial capacity with faculty.

The Seminars began in response to presidential interest in assessment, and they would have been unable to continue in the absence of intellectual and financial support from the highest administrative levels. In addition, the Seminars gained impetus from the clear understanding that the various discussions and explorations would result in policy changes that would affect the very core of the educational process at Harvard. This assumption provided the continuing focus for the activities of each group. The mixed composition of the groups--faculty, students and administrators--ensured that the viability of each project was considered hand in hand with its academic merits.

A frequent outcome of the institutionalization of assessment is the creation of a propitious climate for ongoing experimentation, with its attendant disappointments as well as triumphs. This openness to failure as well as success, this acceptance of the inevitable chaotic aspects of intellectual ferment, is basic to the proper cultivation of creativity. As the Seminars continue the work of assessment on campus, no deadline is envisioned for their task, for it has become a major thread in the fabric of teaching and learning at Harvard.

Project Continuation

Nourished by the campus climate and spurred by the results of completed projects, the members of the Assessment Seminars continue to engage in various undertakings, many of them designed to put into practice the strategies suggested by the research projects outlined above. Thus, some groups are exploring how to improve advising, especially in view of gender differences. There is interest in promoting faculty-student interaction outside the classroom, and in finding out how faculty can encourage students to take academic risks. Still other participants are investigating how to put alumni wisdom to use in guiding undergraduates' academic choices, and how to internationalize the student body and the curriculum, with particular emphasis on the full integration of foreign students.


The Harvard Assessment Seminars have been featured in The New York Times as well as a number of academic publications such as the AAHE Bulletin. Over 3,000 copies of the 1990 Report, written by the leader of the Seminars, Richard J. Light, have been distributed. The second Report, published in 1992, has also had wide circulation.

Available Information

The Harvard Assessment Seminars' Reports are available from:

Richard J. Light
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Larsen Hall
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

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Last Modified: 02/22/2006