Final Report of the CUP Subcommittee on the Communication Requirement

2. Subcommittee Activities

The Subcommittee began meeting in the Fall of 1997. It adopted the following general design principles articulated in the original 1997 report to the Faculty by the Committee on the Writing Requirement proposing a new Communication Requirement

The Co-chairs met with each of the school deans and began meeting with heads of academic departments. Following these discussions, the Subcommittee decided to delegate the responsibility for defining, developing, and supervising communication-intensive pilot programs to academic departments and schools. Moreover, the Subcommittee decided that these academic units were better suited than the Subcommittee to evaluate the efficacy of these programs. Consequently, in early 1998, the Subcommittee published "Guidelines for Departmental Development and Assessment of Communication-intensive Curricular Activities" (Appendix C). This document asked departments to submit proposals for expanding existing communication-intensive activities within their current undergraduate programs or for developing new ones. In addition, the Subcommittee delegated to the HASS Overview Committee (HOC) the primary responsibility for identifying existing communication-intensive subjects in the humanities, arts, and social sciences and for developing new ones.

Professor Rosalind H. Williams, Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education and Principal Investigator for National Science Foundation Grant DUE 9653732, "Developing a Communication-Intensive Undergraduate Curriculum in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology," delegated substantial authority to the Subcommittee Co-chairs to disperse funds from this award. The grant was specifically solicited to support the Faculty initiative to develop a communication-intensive curriculum. This support, along with other financial support from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Office of the Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education, and the Barker Foundation, was crucial in developing and maintaining the pilot programs.

 

2.1 Summary of Communication-intensive Experiments

2.1.1 HASS Pilot Programs.

Beginning in Fall 1998, the HASS Overview Committee (HOC) initiated experimental CI subjects within the HASS curriculum. Over the past three terms, over 300 students have taken these HASS CI subjects. In October 1999, the HASS Overview Committee concluded in its review of the HASS curriculum that there is "hard and convincing evidence for the success of the HASS CI experiment." Excerpts from the HOC Review, including student survey data and summaries of discussions by HASS Faculty teaching CI HASS subjects, are included in Appendix F of this report.

2.1.2 Departmental Pilot Projects and Experiments: Descriptions of Representative Projects.

The diversity, ingenuity, and effectiveness of departmental initiatives confirmed the wisdom of decentralizing the development of a communication-intensive curriculum. Of the 16 pilot projects in 11 departments, 10 were evaluated by the faculty involved as significantly improving student communication skills. Some of these projects are already serving as models for instruction at other universities. The following are brief descriptions of some representative projects. (A complete list of these projects with summary evaluations appears in Appendix D.)

2.1.3 Findings

In reviewing departmental reports on these experiments, the Subcommittee has come to the following conclusions:

2.2 Required Expository Writing In The First Year And Changes In The Freshman Essay Evaluation

Initiatives by departments to integrate writing into their subjects has drawn attention to the need for the proper sequencing of writing instruction within the undergraduate program. If faculty are going to require their students to write more, they need assurance that all of these students possess basic competency in writing. However, each year approximately 20% of the students in an entering class are identified by the Freshman Essay Evaluation as severely deficient in expository writing skills. Previously, these students received only a strong recommendation to enroll in a writing subject during their first year­a recommendation that most of them ignored. Instead, the majority of students in this group unsuccessfully tried to complete Phase One of the Writing Requirement by other means and finally took an expository writing class as juniors or seniors.

This group of students has long been a major impediment to making writing an integral component of the undergraduate curriculum. There have been consistent anecdotal reports from faculty in HASS, engineering, and science subjects that, although these students usually constitute only about one-fifth of a class, responding to their written assignments demands an excessive amount of faculty time. Furthermore, permitting these students to delay receiving instruction and practice in expository writing until near the end of their undergraduate careers is inefficient. Students end up taking a writing subject only when it will have the least effect on their undergraduate performance.

The Subcommittee concluded that requiring these students to take an expository writing subject during their first year at MIT is a critical first step in developing a communication-intensive curriculum. This policy not only presents a logical sequence of writing instruction, but it also encourages faculty to include more writing in their classes by ensuring that all of their students will possess a minimum level of competency. Furthermore, these benefits are achieved with almost no long-term increase in net cost. Because most of these students eventually take an expository writing subject, such a requirement will produce no long-term increase in overall enrollments, although there will be a transitional increase in enrollments for two to three years.

The Subcommittee and the Committee on the Writing Requirement then requested that the CUP sanction a two-year experiment that would require students displaying significant deficiencies in writing skills on the Freshman Essay Evaluation (previously receiving the designation "Not Acceptable- Subject Recommended") take an entry-level expository writing subject during their first year at the Institute. The CUP approved the request, and the experiment began in Fall 1999.

2.2.1 Changes in the Freshman Essay Evaluation

This experiment changed the function of the Freshman Essay Evaluation (FEE) from that of a diagnostic instrument making recommendations to a placement test requiring some students to take specific subjects. Consequently, the test needs to be both a reliable and valid measure of student writing. In 1998, acting on a suggestion from the Chair of the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid (CUAFA), the Committee on the Writing Requirement experimented with giving the test online to students during the summer before they arrived at MIT. Because the online essay questions are now based on readings and students have the opportunity to revise their work, this format provides a closer approximation to undergraduate writing contexts at MIT. By its second year, the pilot had become the default, with 70% of the class taking the online evaluation.

2.2.2 Findings

The following conclusions can already be made from enrollment data and from a recent review of the FEE by the Committee on the Writing Requirement.

Although it is too early to assess the overall educational benefits of requiring weak writers to take an expository writing subject during their first year at MIT, these findings provide positive and encouraging preliminary data.
 

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