Report from my visit at Amherst College August-December 2006

Viggo Kann
Nada, KTH School of computer science and communication

Amherst College, central square


The Swedish internationalization foundation Stint funds the Excellence in Teaching Programme. The purpose of this program is to provide Swedish university teachers with experience from American liberal arts colleges. During the fall semester 2006 eight Swedish teachers visited eight colleges. I visited Amherst College in western Massachusetts. I am the first teacher from KTH in the program and also the first Stint fellow at Amherst. This might have influenced my visit. Neither I nor the college knew what to expect. Anyhow I am very satisfied with my stay. Amherst College is a very good institution to observe and learn from, and parts of what I have learned are possible to transfer to Sweden and KTH.

In this document I report some important and some not that important things that I have learned. After stating my goal and my course of action I give an overview of Amherst College and compare the educations at Amherst and KTH. The conclusion summarizes the many strengths and a few weaknesses of Amherst, and lists what might be transferred to KTH.

The reader who wants more details should follow the links in this document and read my longer Swedish report, where I describe Amherst College in more detail, flesh out the list of things that can be implemented at KTH, and tell how I and my family lived during the stay. Look at

My goal

Study the liberal education at Amherst College and find out what can be used at KTH to improve the education.


Passive observation

Algorithms class
The Algorithms class with Cathy McGeoch.

Active observation

Reporting the results

I have had help with the observation by my wife Linda, who followed CS11 and CS21. I have spoken to most of the central administration (from the president to the administrative assistants), a substantial part of the faculty and a bunch of students.

My main objectives of study have been the organization, administration and governance of the college, how tasks are distributed and decisions are taken, processes for evaluation, quality improvement, hiring of faculty, tenuring etc. I have also been interested in comparing the curriculum, pedagogy and examination to that of KTH, in particular comparing the Amherst Algorithms course with my own course Algorithms, data structures and complexity.

Apart from this I went to a dozen research seminars, mostly at UMass, the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and visited the other colleges in the region.

I have been lucky, since there have been several interesting processes and discussions going on at the college during the fall:

Overview over Amherst College

Amherst College is an independent liberal arts institution located at a beautiful campus in the town of Amherst in western Massachusetts. It is an elite college, ranked among the two or three best undergraduate colleges in the whole USA. It was founded in 1821 as a men's college but is coeducational since 1975. The number of students is about 1600 (400 per year), and they come from most of the United States and from several foreign countries.

Noah Webster
Noah Webster (left, the dictionary author) was a member of the college's first board.

The faculty consists of about 165 professors and a number of lecturers and visitors. The open curriculum includes study of the natural sciences, the humanities and the social sciences, combining a broad education with specialization (major) in one or more fields.

When recruiting faculty the college seeks persons who are both excellent teachers and scholars. In recruiting students Amherst College is perhaps the most selective in the United States, and the admission office makes a huge effort to seek and admit students of intellectual promise who are able to take full advantage of the curriculum. The college is explicitly looking for a diverse student body, seeking qualified applicants from different races, classes and nationalities. The admission is need-blind, which means that the college admits students without regard to their financial status, so it should be possible for every admitted student to attend Amherst. The full tuition is more than 43 000 USD per year.

About 98% of the students that start their education at Amherst College will also finish the education. 97% will finish in at most six years.

Amherst College takes part in the Five Colleges Inc. cooperation between five colleges in the area. The other four colleges are Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College and University of Massachusetts Amherst. The cooperation has existed for fifty years and consists today mainly of the following things.

Viggo's office
My office at the college.

Comparison of the educations at Amherst College and KTH

The most outstanding differences between Amherst and KTH are that Amherst is a rich, expensive and small elite boarding college with departments and courses in all disciplines, while KTH is a state-funded (relatively) big technical university with many students, graduate students and researchers. On the course level the differences are much smaller, at least in computer science: almost the same courses in computer science, the computer labs and assignments in the courses are similar, students have the same problems with programming and math, the same pedagogical questions are raised and discussed.

I will compare Amherst College and KTH in different respects in the following table.

Amherst CollegeKTH
Student/teacher ratio 8 20
Teaching duty 4 courses per year. Varies a lot: 1-5 courses per year.
Time for research Sabbatical semester every fourth year, continuous research is expected, no Ph.D. students. 20% "self-development" guaranteed, external funding can give you up to 50%, lots of time spent on advising and teaching Ph.D. students.
Appointments and promotion ladder Most appointments to tenure-track system: appointed as assistant professor for 3 years, reappointment about 4 years, tenure decision (very careful procedure, based on all evidence from the years at the college, good pedagogical qualifications essential), life-time appointment as tenured (associate professor), after about 7 years promotion to full professor. About 1/3 of the teachers are junior lecturers, often forever, most appointments are as lecturers (careful procedure, but may be hard to evaluate external candidates, research qualifications valued more than pedagogical), promotion to "docent" and to full professor possible.
Mean salary (SEK/month) Full professor: 72 000, associate professor: 47 000, assistant professor: 42 000. Full professor: 54 000, lecturer: 40 000, junior lecturer (adjunkt): 34 000.
Introduction of new faculty New-faculty meetings, new faculty gets to know each other. No introduction, at best a personal mentor (experienced teacher).
Courses in curriculum Free choice, diversity recommended. Almost no choice first three years, then a specialization is chosen.
Contact with parents The parents are invited to the introduction week, and each year to the family weekend. The parents are never invited.
Code of honor Every Amherst student has to sign the honor code. Every CSC student has to sign the code of honor.
Pedagogic equipment Simple, mostly black-boards (in the math building there are boards on three of the walls), sometimes computer projectors, electronic question-answering gadget used in the physics course. Black-boards, OH-projectors and computer projectors commonly used.
Interaction between teachers and students Interaction is encouraged in many ways: teachers know the names of all students in the class and ask them questions, students visit teachers in their offices, students may TYPO (Take Your Professor Out) for dinner, funded by the college. Little interaction: teachers don't know the names of the students, usually teachers don't ask questions and students don't want to answer questions in class.
Helping students in need The teacher should detect and report (to dean of students) students in need of extra help during the course. Together with the dean of students the teacher plans how to help the student. A student can get extra individual help from the professor or a teaching assistant, or get a tutor (an older student) or be sent to the writing center or the quantitative center. Teachers rarely detect and report students that need help during the course, but sometimes at the end of the course. The usual solution is that the student will try to take the course the next year instead.
Examination Always continuous examination. Written exam most common, continuous examination in more and more courses.
Examination monitors The honor code states that "examinations shall not be proctored". Proctors on all tests and final examinations.
Mean grade Between A and B in ABCD scale. Between 4 and 3 in 543 scale, between C and D in ABCDE scale.
Examination ratio of whole education 98% 75%
Tuition Full tuition is 43 000 USD per year (over 300 000 SEK). No tuition. The government pays 60 000 SEK per student and year.
Donations 60 percent of the alumni and 30 percent of the parents donate together about 9 million USD per year to the college. No regular donations from alumni or parents. A few stipend fund donations exist.
Decision-making The Faculty Meeting has the power, the departments are weak, the teachers are strong. The president, the board and the faculty board has the power, the schools are strong, the teachers are weak.
Administration Small and centralized, emphasis on recruitment and alumni contacts. Quite large, both centralized and decentralized, emphasis on scheduling and handling Ladok (student database).
Quality development Done in the faculty committees. Two ad hoc committees, the Special Committee on the Amherst Education and the Committee on Academic Priorities, have during the last five years investigated the inner work of the college and produced reports with recommendations for development. No organized quality development of courses is made. There is a system for quality development of courses. Overall quality is assured by lots of rules. The faculty board has started to look over the quality improvement work.
Information Good and updated information on the web, but not the course catalog. Some courses have course web pages. Some information on the web, partly updated. Recruitment information not good. The course catalog on the web for many years.
Course objectives Not written down. New course objectives in Swedish and English have just been formulated by the teachers.
Computers for students Windows and Mac for general use. Unix (Linux) in computer science. Windows, Mac and Unix (Solaris) for general use. Unix (Solaris) in computer science.

What is considered good education at Amherst and KTH?

Every university and school wants to deliver "good education", but the meaning of this may be very different. I will here give a comparison of what is considered as good education at Amherst College and at KTH.

Amherst CollegeKTH
Personal and intellectual development. Fostering critical thought and creative achievement in the sciences, arts, and humanities. Production of masters in engineering equipped with good problem solving ability and the necessary knowledge in math, science and engineering.
Broad competence is encouraged. Writing skills are necessary. Free choice of courses from a large supply. Depth in a specific area is required. Small possibilities to choose other courses.
Every student is supposed to pass each course and finish the degree. A student that is struggling with a course is identified in the middle of the course and gets help from the teacher, a tutor, the writing center or the quantitative center. Large amount of knowledge taught in each course. High demands, often set by a threshold on a written exam that only about 50 to 80 percent of the students will pass. A high performance ratio on a course is considered suspicious.
Close interaction between faculty and students. Small classes. Fairness. All students should be treated the same.
Diversity of student population, faculty, subjects, and pedagogy. Legal rights of the student. The rules (of examination and administration) of a course must be stated at the beginning of each course. Students may complain about decisions and take an exam over and over again.
Both the student and the teacher are responsible for the success in the course. Both the student and the advisor are responsible for the choice of courses taken during the four years. Only the student is responsible for the success in the course. The student is not responsible for which courses are included in the degree.
The competence of the teacher, assured by the appointment and tenure processes, is the guarantee that the students get high quality teaching. The fact that courses are continuously developed by student evaluations followed by teacher course analyses is the guarantee that the students get high quality teaching.


During the fall semester 2006 I studied the liberal arts college Amherst College in Massachusetts, observing how it is organized and how it works in practice. I have in particular been interested in how decisions are taken, how the administration works and how the college evaluates and improves itself.

When I met the President of the college the first time he told me: "The education is very good, but VERY expensive". This is exactly my impression after spending four months at the college.

Amherst College is excellent in most respects. I will here just give some examples.

My small student survey showed that the students are very satisfied with Amherst College, at least when they have understood how it works. One student wrote: Amherst has fulfilled my expectations only as I have been willing to openly seek all of the resources that exist here. I have found that the more I reach out to the college the more I get back, however, without reaching out I would not be able to fulfill my expectations.

What can be implemented at KTH?

It would be impossible to open a liberal arts college at KTH. The whole idea is too foreign for the Swedish educational system. Nor is it possible to transform the KTH faculty to as dedicated teachers as the Amherst professors. However, there are several things that could be exported to improve the education at KTH.
Computer room
Computer room at Amherst at night with campus screen savers.

Weaknesses of Amherst College

Even Amherst is not perfect. The system of faculty governance makes it hard to make changes. The faculty is conservative and does not trust the administration. The current President and Dean of Faculty are very good, but a disproportional part of the faculty meetings are used for criticizing their actions. Many faculty members seem to think that the administration tries to make changes too fast and without full faculty control.

Some professors have what seems to be a too heavy burden, having to participate in committees and be chair for a department without any relief in teaching load. The system keeps some people too busy.

The standing and ad hoc committees work continuously on reviewing, evaluating and improving the college in different ways. But there is no system ensuring that the individual courses at the college are evaluated and improved. There might be (and probably are) courses that are old-fashioned with respect to content or pedagogy, where the teacher is not engaged or attentive enough to see that there is room for improvement. This could be remedied by requiring the teacher to perform a course evaluation and then to analyze the results of the evaluation and the course.

The Amherst College Catalog describing all courses is not available on the web in its entirety. On the web you can only look up courses by semester and you cannot at all find courses not given during the current year. The general regulations and descriptions of the majors that can be found in the catalog are not on the web either.

All professors have been kind enough to let me visit their lectures, but when it comes to committee meetings they are not at all that open. Committee work at Amherst seems to be more delicate and internal than at other colleges (my Stint fellow colleagues at other colleges have not experienced the same problems).


I would like to thank all the people who made my visit to Amherst so pleasant and instructive. I am most grateful to Cathy and Lyle McGeoch whom I bothered almost every day, John Rager who was the first to welcome us to Amherst and made us feel at home immediately, Janet Tobin who always helped me to find whatever I looked for, and Greg Call who made my visit possible and who let me use his nice office.