As a lowly graduate student, I'm on a committee (I'm not sure how important my role really is) trying to evaluate how effective different approaches teaching undergraduates. We are looking at all sorts of methods like the standard lecturing style seen in most schools, the Moore method, a Dewey/Montessori approach, Polya, etc. Now, my question is this: how do you go about developing some sort of effective criteria evaluating these different approaches?

One of the reasons I'm asking is that I'm sitting on the committee with another graduate student, and we were discussing what we thought about our measure theory class. It was taught in a slightly different manner; basically the students gave the lectures to one another. Our prof sat in the back and would occasionally ask a question directing us to a subtle point or an important topic to be covered. Now, I loved the class. It was challenging and forced me to work very hard to understand the material. Further, I enjoyed reconstructing the entire theory with my classmates. And being asked pointed questions by my prof was traumatizing but also very good preparation for my quals. Now, in contrast, my classmate didn't like the method at all, felt it went too slow, and he didn't think that many of the standard tricks, techniques or approaches that one ought to get out the class is what he actually got out of it. I'm not interested in debating the merits of our respective conclusions, but what I am interested in is developing some sort of analysis that would help us objectively evaluate various approaches/methods to teaching students. Our dept is looking at implementing some of these methods next academic year. We'd like to come up with a way of objectively evaluating the a particular method based off of firmer ground than anecdotal evidence and end of semester surveys. In sum, I was wondering if anybody here had experience in this area of curriculum analysis/development? If so I'd love to hear about it.

I hope this question isn't too far off from the mainstream questions of MO.

Regards, Ben

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    $\begingroup$ The focus of the committee is on undergraduate courses, but your example is taken from your experience in a graduate course. Is the committee solely focused on undergraduate courses? This should be clarified. The hard problem you are facing is that everything depends so much on the particular person chosen to teach the class. You can pick method A, B, C, etc. as the approach to the course, but if you assign the class to someone who sucks then it really doesn't make a difference: the course will suck (except for the enlightened students who can teach themselves the material on their own). $\endgroup$
    – KConrad
    Mar 5, 2010 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ Besides, you're not going to be able to require faculty to teach courses in a certain way: try telling someone they must teach abstract algebra, for instance, by the Moore method and the instructor could very well say "Screw that, I'm running the class the way I want." $\endgroup$
    – KConrad
    Mar 5, 2010 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ Argh my original comment did not go through. I just chose my analysis class example because I wanted to point out that anecdotal evidence isn't adequate. I was wondering if there were better metrics one could use to determine the success of a particular method. The entire dept (which is quite small) is on board to trying new things so I'm not worried about that. Anyways, I think this entire study/analysis is geared towards lower level courses. $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Mar 5, 2010 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ Are there standard references explaining what the Moore method, the Dewey/Montessori approach, &c, are? $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2010 at 4:12
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    $\begingroup$ Your question could use more focus, as KConrad indicates. The Moore method would be impossible to use for an intro calculus course intended for a wide range of arts and science students (and 100+ student population), for example. $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2010 at 17:48

1 Answer 1


You may find it interesting to observe how Eric Mazur, professor at Physics at Harvard, determined that his own teaching methods were inadequate. The whole talk is fascinating in its description of an alternative teaching approach he has developed; However to your question I think the important point is the method used by Mazur to initially observe that something is not going well at all.

Starting at 00:04:00, Prof. Mazur describes the initial criteria which led him to believe he was doing a good job (success at the end of term questionnaire). Then - more importantly - starting at 00:06:30, he describes how a survey of conceptual understanding helped him realize that something was very fundamentally wrong. The specific proposal is running an identical pre-course and post-course test which attempts to examine the quality of basic understanding of the concepts.


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