Acclimating to the academic challenges of MIT is a difficult task for many freshmen. For this reason, MIT has a number of programs that seek to ease new students into their collegiate academic life while engaging their curiosity to explore new subjects. Examples include the freshman Pass/No Record grading system and the sophomore exploratory subjects.
The Pass/No Record system provides students with the opportunity to gauge the difficulty of an MIT course load and to adjust their expectations without the pressures of dealing with grades. Instead of panicking after a poor performance, a student can learn from his or her mistakes and has a semester to work towards improvement. Many students believe that this program is well devised to provide a better transition to the coursework of MIT. Some others, however, believe that it provides a disincentive for students to perform up to their full potential when they first arrive, leading to increased difficulties in the following semester once they are graded normally. MIT must continue to strive to enhance the transition process for incoming students to encourage them not only to adjust, but also to excel for the remainder of their academic career.
The curriculum at MIT must also nurture the difficult transition into an extremely intense environment beyond the first semester. Exploratory courses offer a chance for students to try something new without worrying about the implications of a negative grade on their transcript. This prompts students to challenge themselves with classes they might otherwise consider too difficult, allowing them to further develop their academic abilities. The Institute should consider offering upperclassmen the same exploratory option. This move would allow students more latitude and encourage them to take academic risks that might pay off in the long-run.
The idea that all MIT undergraduates should receive grounding in mathematics, science, laboratory work, and humanities is a core value of the Institute. This grounding comes largely in the form of General Institute Requirements (GIRs), which encompass a set of 17 subjects to be taken by all undergraduates that include everything from physics to anthropology. Though students generally agree that obtaining a breadth of knowledge is important, many believe that there is room for further improvement of the GIRs.
Because they are required to take several courses unrelated to their chosen field of interest, students lose the opportunity and flexibility to thoroughly explore their majors. MIT should carefully consider which classes truly represent the intersection of all majors, of all students, and of all types of knowledge. These common threads must tie students together academically, serving as a source of intellectual strength across the Institute. In addition, too much breadth of curriculum may come at the cost of quality, causing material to be simplified so that all students may comprehend it. Equilibrium between a reasonable breadth and true depth of knowledge must be reached.
Some students believe that existing GIRs face tactical problems. For example, within the school of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) undergraduates are required to take three classes (called HASS-Ds) that fall into three of five different categories, as determined by a lottery. Students find this requirement too restrictive, the selection of classes too small, the lottery system too limiting, and agree that an effort to give students more of a choice would likely enhance appreciation of these subjects. In addition to the HASS-Ds, students must take two Communication Intensive (CI) courses within the HASS (plus two CI courses within their major). While students acknowledge the importance of communication skills, many see the current structure of CI classes as having arbitrarily added assignments that do little to help them improve their communication skills. Communication skills could be better developed in the classroom by emphasizing peer-review, smaller class sizes, and greater interaction with professors.
In addition to reexamining the existing structure, some students believe the Institute should consider ways in which new courses might be included in the GIRs. In particular, MIT is one of the few institutions that do not require all students to take a foreign language, and it has been suggested that creating such a requirement might better prepare students to become leaders on the international level. Some have suggested the creation of required curriculum that relates to diversity, in order to enhance students’ appreciation of other cultures. However, others argue that such a GIR would face implementation difficulties and that the addition of such a requirement to students’ already intense course load might actually promote disinterest or disdain for the topic altogether.
Outside of the GIRs, course requirements vary widely within specific majors. Some departments, such as computer science or chemical engineering, create rigid schedules for their students while others, such as biology or math, have fewer requirements, thus giving their students an opportunity to explore and to define their own personalized path. In general, students prefer flexibility in their program, and some are deterred from fields that are too rigid.
Although MIT students acknowledge the difficulty of their course loads, most students take much pride in the dogged intensity with which they pursue their studies. Within the context of curriculum, the effect of intensity on the quality of learning must be evaluated. Intensity can prepare individuals for challenges posed later on in life; however, it can also come at the cost of true interest in a subject and may cause or aggravate mental health problems. Intensity in classes sometimes is a result of difficult questions and conceptual ideas, while at other times a product of the sheer volume of the material. MIT students are always up for a challenge, but the quantity of expectations created by an MIT course load can be overwhelming. The Institute must remain vigilant in balancing quality with quantity, in order to steward students’ intensity in the most productive way.
Thorough, regular academic reviews of all components of the curriculum are essential to continued excellence. For the most part, the curriculum currently in place is accepted without question. Concerns are often answered with arguments based on tradition or a broad scale of learning. However, without serious student and faculty input, the administration cannot clearly gauge the effectiveness of its programs. Greater attention must be paid to the review and evaluation of the curriculum, particularly from the students who enroll in and help teach the courses.
1The Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons is currently in the process of reviewing the undergraduate course requirements