Is it true??!!

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Discus: College Search and Selection: September 2003 Archive: Is it true??!!
By Kimfuge (Kimfuge) on Saturday, September 13, 2003 - 05:34 am: Edit

A few years ago, I read articles that Harvard is so research-oriented and graduate-focused that it has less, if not none focus on the undergraduates. Is it still true at Harvard? Articles said Harvard offered less than their peers like Yale and Princeton. Some people told me that the new president at Harvard is focusing lately to change that but is it really changing? I would love comments from Harvard students especially. Thanks....

By Tennizpro06 (Tennizpro06) on Saturday, September 13, 2003 - 01:07 pm: Edit

Yes. Harvard's known primiarly for its grad. Its undergrad is often overlooked and compared to Princeton and others, the quality is probably a little below it, alhtough not by far.

By Bft (Bft) on Saturday, September 13, 2003 - 01:25 pm: Edit

It is known primarily for grad school, but despite that it is still without a doubt one of the best undergrad schools. Schools like Princeton who are undergraduate only can sometimes be better than Harvard, but the big H is still just one spot behind of tied with the top spot.

By Haon (Haon) on Sunday, September 14, 2003 - 02:44 pm: Edit

If you go to Harvard you should expect many large classes (300+ people). Don't expect anything representing a personalized education...they just mass-educate for undergrads at Harvard.

By Marite (Marite) on Sunday, September 14, 2003 - 03:33 pm: Edit

If you go to Harvard you should expect many large classes (300+ people). Don't expect anything representing a personalized education...they just mass-educate for undergrads at Harvard.

Not true. While there are some classes that have 300+ students (but hold sections for the students of no more than 18), there are many more small classes of fewer than 15. Some have enrolments capped at 11; departmental tutorials typically have 4-5 students.
That's why the faculty:student ratio at Harvard is 11:1 or so, and not 300:1.

My son is a high schooler who has been allowed to attend a math course at Harvard. The enrolment in the course last year was 7.

By Miakulpa (Miakulpa) on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 11:19 am: Edit

I'm in high school but I have friends and aquaintances at Harvard. They all tell me the same thing. They love Cambridge, Mass, but Harvard is definitely for the self starter! No one will hold your hand there. You're in a large lecture hall for many of the popular or intro level courses and then placed in a smaller breakout class with a TA. Some of the TAs are better than others. Sometimes the TA is a better teacher than the professor. One girl I know was really interested in science and pre-medicine, but she couldn't hack the competition and large crowds of kids in the same boat. Now she is undecided and searching.

By Marite (Marite) on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 11:46 am: Edit

One girl I know was really interested in science and pre-medicine, but she couldn't hack the competition and large crowds of kids in the same boat. Now she is undecided and searching.

Yes, Harvard is for the self-starter. But there is plenty of hand-holding: freshman advisor, departmental advisor, senior tutor, housemaster, etc... as well as the usual resources: writing center, bureau of study skills. Students do not take enough advantage of these resources. Ask professors: they complain not enough students come to their office hours.

Bear in mind as well that courses are large for a reason: A lot of students want to take them (and not everyone HAS to take them). Premed is a popular major and those in it are supposed to be the most competitive-minded students around. They are focused on getting into competitive med schools at an early stage, earlier than students not in the pre-med major. I heard exactly the same complaint from a student at Brown who is now in medical school. She felt that her freshman year was rendered extremely tense by the competition among students. By the second year, a lot of them had dropped out of premed.

By Jamimom (Jamimom) on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 12:15 pm: Edit

Premed by nature is a stressful undertaking. And, yes, Harvard is not quite as nurturing as many schools, particularly the smaller liberal arts colleges. My close friend's son just graduated from Harvard and was accepted by many medical schools. He had a wonderful Harvard experience and would recommend it to anyone even though not everything about it was ideal. The large classes did concern him especially when he had to get recommendations for some summer internships because he did not feel his professors knew him at all. He did not get a close relationship with any of his professors, but they apparently gave him good enough recs since he and his peers got into quite a few med schools at a time when med school acceptances are tough to get. He did say that unless you work on a special topic or project; if you take generalized course as he did--he just wanted to get his premed requirements to get into med school, it is hard to get to know the faculty. However, if you want to meet with the profs and make an effort to do so, it can be done. He was just interested in enjoying himself, taking a wide array of classes, getting to know his fellow students and did not make faculty relationships a priority or even an issue for himself. This is a very well rounded young man who enjoys love so very much. But this is just one person's feedback.

By Marite (Marite) on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 12:21 pm: Edit

Jamimom is right about not being able to form close relationships with instructors in large classes. The professors depend on the TAs to write recommendation letters and then endorse them. At least, the TAs at Harvard don't go on strike regularly as they do at Yale.
My son is at a LAC. Some of his classes have 40 students and no TAs. He does not feel he can cultivate a close relationship with professors in those classes.

By Carolyn (Carolyn) on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 01:46 pm: Edit

Still, given a choice between a "large class" of 40 students or 300+, I'd rather be in the 40 student class, TA or no, especially as a freshman.

By Sac (Sac) on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 01:57 pm: Edit

I think that's very individual. As a student, I discovered I prefered a brilliant lecture to a smaller class that was not as inspiring. The optimum situation, of course, is a brilliant seminar.

Forty students without a TA strikes me as having no advantage either direction. It's really too large for a seminar-type discussion or to feel "individual". Once you're in what is essentially a lecture class, you might as well be at 500.

The contact with professors is also individual. Some students will make contact even in a huge class. Others will stay anonymous in that class of 40.

By Marite (Marite) on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 02:32 pm: Edit

I agree with Sac.

I have also known students who prefer to be in larger classes because they want to be anonymous. They do not want to be called on by the teacher and put on the spot, so if a class has few students, they actually back out of it.

As I have argued elsewhere, a class of 40 with no TA not only does not allow a student to cultivate a close relationship with the instructor or the instructor to know the members of the class, but it also forces the instructor to tailor the curriculum requirements differently: more multiple choice questions, fewer and shorter papers, no class discussion. If a student is in a class of 300+ which has sections of 20, that student actually has an advantage: the TA will know him or her, there will be opportunities for discussion in section, and the assignments will take into account that there are TAs to read and grade them.

By the way, Harvard, like many Ivies and LACs, has freshman seminars whose enrolment is capped at 12.

By Sac (Sac) on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 02:50 pm: Edit

Thanks, Marite. Some of the large research universities, including UC Berkeley and UCLA, also have added freshman seminars in recent years. The difference is that there are not necessarily enough for every student who wants one, and that students who get them are only likely to have one. Later, seminars are often restricted to majors.

Personally, I feel the lecture can also be a wonderful educational experience. If it's a wonderful lecturer.

By Marite (Marite) on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 03:29 pm: Edit

I, too, think good lectures can be wonderful. I am actually less concerned about lectures vs. discussions than about the class requirements and the resources available for implementing these requirements.

Two years ago, someone who teaches middle eastern studies at a state university suddenly found her class swamped by students as a result of 9/11. She was not allowed to turn anyone away. So she ended up with 125 students, no TA or grader. I did not envy either her or her students.
I think the question should be, how large a class can be and still allow a teacher to know his or her students and to give assignments that will most promote student learning? And if there are more students than can be accommodated in such a class, what are the priorities? Limiting enrolments? Having sections? Giving out only multiple choice exams?

Personally, I would rather be in a 300+ class with sections than in a class of 40 without section or TA. The feedback I would get on exams and papers from a section leader responsible for 20 students would be much more copious and useful than the laconic grade I probably would get from an instructor faced with grading 40 exams and papers.

By Carolyn (Carolyn) on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 07:56 pm: Edit

You're right - this really is a personal preference. Between my undergraduate years and graduate school, I've taken classes that had 5, 40, and 200+ students --- and everything in between. I personally found it difficult to concentrate in large lectures by even the best, most interesting professors - there's too much going on in a large lecture hall. Asking questions is impossible in a lecture that size - and even if you approach the professor immediately after class, you usually have to compete with many other students just to get clarification on a point. Yes, you could go to the professor's office later or ask your TA but often by then the question would be forgotten. In large lectures the teacher has no real feel for whether or not those listening really are understanding the material. I often felt like my large lecture classes could just have easily been sent to my home via television.

In a class of 40, however, I found you could still ask questions (especially if you sat up front)during class at times and you could also talk to the teacher immediately after class without having to wait on line. You at least felt the teacher could read what was going on in the classroom to some extent and adapt accordingly. Teachers in a class of 40 still tend to know the outstanding students in class- at least by face, while prof's in a class of 200 or more have no idea who is who and no hope of finding out unless students are aggressive about approaching them.

But again, it's a personal thing.

By Uncchlocalmayor (Uncchlocalmayor) on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 08:31 pm: Edit

large classes suck. too bad i'll be seeing a few more of those 200+ classes.

By Marite (Marite) on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 09:51 pm: Edit

I've taught classes of 40. After the first couple of rows, I cannot see faces. My ideal is fewer than 20. I can see everyone, remember everyone's name, and not feel overwhelmed by the amount of grading and I have to do and feedback I have to provide.

There are some classes that are big because they are more or less mandatory, especially in the premed field. But I know that at many colleges (not excluding Harvard) that have core curricula, most of the time, the classes are large because:a. the professor is popular; b. the topic is popular. c. the course is deemed to be easy; d. it is held at a convenient hour (e.g not before 10) and not after 3. I have only limited sympathy for students who then proceed to complain about large courses.

By Kimfuge (Kimfuge) on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - 03:35 am: Edit


By Kimfuge (Kimfuge) on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - 09:03 am: Edit

How about YALE?

By Jamimom (Jamimom) on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - 10:20 am: Edit

I guess it is all about personal preferences. Some kids like being more anonymous in a class. Some like small nurturing classes. Many can work well with a TA. That should be a major consideration in looking at schools. Kids who are used to being in a small school with small classes and enjoy the personal attention might have issues with an Ohio State or Penn State wheareas the in your face approach of some of the smaller liberal arts schools might not appeal to others. Personally, I did not mind TAs augmenting a largish lecture but the bane of my college were the foreign grad students who spoke little English, were teaching only because they had to, had no knowledge of US college etiquette or students, and no idea what the professor was teaching. You see alot of those in the math, science and engineering schools and many of them are just plain bad news. A class or two with them is not so bad but when the department teaching structure has many of them, you will soon get a bad egg, and that really stinks. At my reunion, a bunch of us still remember a particularly ill tempered lab TA who spoke n'ery a word of English and seemed to have no idea what the prof was covering day to day, and he did not care. There were complaints galore about him, but he was around all 4 years that I was and every class of premeds or any chem taking undergrad had a chance of getting him. Any school that has a large graduate school with a large number of foreign grad students is going to have this type of creature, guaranteed.
Some schools also make it a tradition to get to know the undergrads and that always is nicer. It's tough being in a college where the profs disappear as soon as they finish their class, don't have an office , and spend little extra time hanging around campus. To avoid that scenerio, check how many adjunct professors are on staff. They operate out of a briefcase and may only teach a class or two, have no office and usually have another primary job. Some of them have several jobs, so their main priority is getting away as fast as possible. When you plop down that tuition money it is important to know what kind of instruction you are getting. Do check that out because many schools that have a small department in a particular major will often staff with many adjunct faculty members.

By Carolyn (Carolyn) on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - 10:54 am: Edit

Excellent points about adjunct professors and foreign TA's Jamimom. I remember as a freshman taking a world history class where the lecturer was African. When talking about ancient Egypt he kept referring to the "animal floods of the Nile" --- it took me a while to figure out he was really talking about the ANNUAL floods. LOL!!

One thing I found useful in large lecture classes was to ask the teacher's permission to tape the lecture with a small hand held recorder. It really helped to be able to go back after the lecture and clarify parts I missed. Most professors didn't mind this.

By Marite (Marite) on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - 11:17 am: Edit

Carolyn and Jamimom:

I don't know that smaller classes will make a teacher more intelligible. I had a Chinese professor in a class of fewer than 10. It took me half the semester to understand that when he said "roly" he meant "really." But taping lectures is a good idea; nowadays, course websites often provide the key points of lectures so that students can review more easily. Those did not exist in my days.
As for foreign TAs, they are to be found most particularly in math and science, at the most selective schools. Sometimes, first year graduate students are hired as TAs in these fields, whereas in other fields, they would need to have passed their Ph.D. general exams in order to qualify.
Adjuncts present a different set of problems altogether: not so much language difficulties as lack of access. They don't have office space, they hurry from institution to institution to piece together a career and a living, they are not part of the department in which they teach and have no say about policy, etc... Unfortunately, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 50% of the teaching staff in higher ed is part time.

By Momof2 (Momof2) on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - 11:48 am: Edit

Time for a little on-subject humor: S#1, a college freshman, has an Indian TA for one of his lab/discussion groups. After a couple of weeks, I asked about the language thing. His reply: "No, our TA speaks the Queen's English - it's the real professor from New Jersey that I'm having trouble understanding!" (hint - we're from TX)

By Thedad (Thedad) on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - 12:09 pm: Edit

At UCLA, there was once a prof of Physics or Math, something like that, with an impenetrable Chinese accent. He would lecture with his back to the class, covering the blackboard with equations, and when the board was filled he would turn around and say, "Everybody understand now. Yes? No? Maybe?"

One day the entire class, by pre-arrangement, shouted "No!"

By Marite (Marite) on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - 12:47 pm: Edit


Ah! But the prof probably had tenure, and was possibly a Nobel prize or Fields medal contender, no?

I love your story. My brother-in-law is from Texas and sometimes I do have a little trouble following him. My son spent a semester in Australia, and picked up a bit of a Strine accent; it's worse (they sell Strine dictionaries in England)

I remember one year when some TAs took exception to people writing British English (colour, honour) claiming that "when in Rome, write as the Romans do" They got shot down.

By Thedad (Thedad) on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - 02:56 pm: Edit

I don't know, Marite. 'twas a story handed down to me.

By Haon (Haon) on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - 09:46 pm: Edit

I'm in bio 101 at an LAC. It's a lecture class of 40. The teacher knew everybody's names by the end of the first week. We have once a week discussions (also with full professors) in groups of about 18.

Harvard's faculty to student ratio is thrown by the large amount of faculty teaching one class and/or only doing research.
In Harvard you won't GET lectures of 40. Almost all discussion groups are moderated by a TA and most (if not all work) is graded by TAs. This is the same (or worse) at basically every other university.

If you wish to remain anonymous in class and have to go way out of your way to get a professor to know who you are, attend a research university for undergrad.

If you prefer to have a more personalized educational experience, attend a small liberal arts college. While there are SOME universities that advertise their "undergraduate focus" even the most focused University does not offer near the level of focus that liberal arts colleges do.

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