The Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons made an important observation about students in the first year. They found that students arrive “with an extraordinary sense of excitement and enthusiasm” but within a few months they have a “perceived lack of enthusiasm and excitement.” As students, this transformation is obvious in retrospect, and we urge the faculty to address this loss of excitement as the Commons are revised.
Increasing students' intellectual engagement and ownership of their education are key components of a successful set of GIRs. These goals can be achieved by stimulating the first years' interest through alternative pedagogies, increasing student choices in coursework, and encouraging mentor networks to allow students to discuss their long-term goals.
When reconsidering the Commons, most important to reconsider are the pedagogies of the courses and the modes of learning they employ. How we are taught matters as much as what we are taught. Flexibility in course selection will not alleviate the grind of the first year if most Core subjects continue to be taught in essentially the same way. We need dynamic instructors across the board, different kinds of assigned work, and more varied pedagogies inside and outside the classroom.
No matter how requirements are constructed, the success of the Commons relies on the quality of teaching in the first year. While there are many gifted instructors in the present Commons, the quality is far from uniformly excellent.
Mediocre instruction is perhaps the leading cause of disengagement. The classroom experience must provide something vital to an MIT education; OpenCourseWare makes the problem sets and tests available, for free, anywhere in the world.
One area the recommendations do not address effectively is the prevailing problem set culture dominating the first year. Every week in every class, students have a problem set, generally a set of questions consisting of the same “find the formula and apply it to the problem” format. The issue is not so much the quantity of work, but the lack of variation week to week and subject to subject. The current monotony of approach shifts students’ focus from learning concepts to completing assignments by the most expedient means. Far too few students take the time to explore material creatively or reflectively. Once the motivation becomes simply completing assignments, as opposed to learning concepts and engaging in the material, students optimize their habits around metrics, cramming for tests, copying problem sets, and then forgetting material once the marks are in.
Students need alternatives: more synthetic and reflective assignments, collaborative and creative projects, and work on a variety of time scales. Problem sets are effective, but incomplete, and when they are the only kind of work, the learning is not nearly as compelling as it should be.
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In general, students are more engaged in subjects they choose to take, and frustrated by requirements preventing them from taking the classes they want. This precept can be critically applied to three of the Task Force recommendations.
1) The “Mathematics” box in the revised Science, Math, and Engineering Core
The Task Force itself concedes that almost all students already take a third math class through requirements in their major. Why require what is already required? The proposed "mathematics" box is unnecessary and unduly confining. Since most departmental programs already require an additional mathematics course, the additional Institute requirement would only affect a small number of students, most of whom would take a math course anyway (e.g., 14.30, Statistics) that may not qualify for GIR status within the proposal.
2) First Year HASS Experience
If the goal of the first semester HASS experience is to engage students and excite them about future courses, the best way to accomplish that is to allow students more choice in the selection of that first course. Limiting options to a few, lottery-filled subjects deemed exciting by faculty will alienate students interested in other areas, and frustrate those who would prefer a different kind of learning experience. Students would be excited about new HASS classes that tackle complex issues taught by enthusiastic faculty, but only if the students take these classes because they chose them.
3) Pacing Requirement for the HASS Foundational Electives
In our discussions with fellow students, we found the HASS-D requirement to be among the most frustrating at the Institute. Students generally felt the designation of HASS-D to be arbitrary and the categories strange (challenge: find a student who can name all five). The proposed merging of HASS-D and CI-H into Foundational Electives should unburden and therefore enrich HASS education.
Requiring the completion of these Foundational Electives by the end of the second year, however, will frustrate students who would rather take their classes in a different order. Many students would rather embark on their concentrations earlier.
Students with strong backgrounds in HASS often find they are not challenged at MIT until they can take more advanced coursework. The proposed pacing requirement would also make the HASS classroom less varied in terms of student age and experience, a diversity students value. Finally, the pacing requirement would hurt students who intend to study abroad, as completing two Foundational Electives and the First Year Experience in the first four semesters would make significant study of a foreign language extremely difficult before junior year.
The current advising system could be greatly improved by encouraging more meaningful student-advisor interaction. Because each meeting is focused on the upcoming semester, less emphasis is placed on students’ overall plan. Midterm meetings would allow more discussion of the long term, and would connect students with their advisors when students are struggling the most. We would like to see advising made a part of the tenure and promotion process, much as teaching is, and we would like suggestions about how to be better advisees.
We value the intellectual energy and intensity of an MIT undergraduate education. The Task Force strove for a Commons that “ignite a persistent passion for learning,” and we believe this to be the most important goal. However, we would like to recall the words of former MIT President Jerome Wiesner, that “getting an MIT education is like taking a drink from a fire hose.” If indeed, in the words of Yeats, “education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire,” we must be careful that the experience of the Commons does not inadvertently extinguish the very flame we are trying to fuel.
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