In Guarding the Well-Being of MIT Students
We Should Emphasize Prevention
In The Healthy Minds Study 2015 Survey Results more MIT students, compared with the national average (to be accurate about twice as many), agreed with the statement “At my school, I feel that the academic environment has a negative impact on students’ mental and emotional well- being” (UG: MIT 77% vs. 36% National; Grad: MIT 65% vs. 38% National). Moreover, 15% of MIT UG and 23% of MIT Grad choose to take a “neutral” position regarding the above statement, which leaves only a tiny minority in disagreement with the same statement.
This result is worrisome. At a place like MIT, we should aspire to reverse this situation so that the majority of students would disagree with the same statement. That is where the bar must be set, acknowledging the potential positive impacts on students from sharing the excitement of discovery that routinely takes place at MIT. The difference between the current situation and where things could be is huge.
Given the serious potential consequences on these young minds and their well-being from studying in an academic environment that is persistently leaving negative impacts on their “mental and emotional well-being,” I call on MIT to take this issue seriously and respond by introducing fundamental structural changes.
Incremental improvements to counseling and mental health services are useful, but are not enough. We would be wise to choose prevention over treatment. We should introduce fundamental changes that restructure our academic environment so that the students would feel a significant and profound difference.
Here are two specific proposals offered as examples for the type of structural changes that I believe are needed:
(1) MIT should launch an initiative to offer and enhance innovative models of learning, other than the traditional graded (A, B, C, D, F; or P/F) subject model. Most of learning happens at MIT with the students taking subjects in which their performance is continuously monitored and eventually evaluated and graded. The absolute dominance and persistence of this model seems to enhance the level of stress among our students, leading to their negative feelings about the academic environment. In the future, to be clear, this traditional well-established model of learning will continue to be the main model of learning at MIT. However, there is plenty of room to explore other less stressful modes and models. The faculty can be called on to innovate and experiment by offering other models of learning that are more exciting and more relaxed, and where the students do not always feel that their responses are monitored, evaluated, and graded in a highly competitive environment.
One potential model would involve the engagement of a group of students from different departments to learn from a group of MIT faculty about a contemporary issue of strong interest to both faculty and students. A potential set of topics that may give some idea about the nature of the proposed activity include: autonomous cars; curing cancer; big data; bio-inspired materials; unlocking the human genome; global change; advances in understanding the human brain; quantum computing; spread of infectious diseases; life on Mars; water and food. Faculty engaged in each research center at MIT could be expected to offer a short learning activity designed around a theme relevant to the center’s activities, integrating research further into the educational process. A typical offering may go for about one month and with a format (3-0-3) that includes a three-hour weekly meeting, consisting of a 90-minute lecture and discussion session, followed by a conversation with faculty over dinner about the lecture topic, and preceded by three hours of online learning material. MITx could play a significant role in the development of such material. The students can get credit (~3 units for participation), and count that against the unrestricted elective requirements of any major. Reasonable limits can be imposed on the maximum units.
(2) MIT should take a serious initiative to enhance the quality of academic advising, and in doing that redefine the role of the academic advisor. The need to improve advising has been recognized for decades, but limited progress has been achieved. In my view, the most effective way to accomplish such change is by modifying the criteria for faculty promotion. Instead of the current criteria that consider only research, teaching, and service, I propose we move to new criteria that include research, teaching, advising, and service. Advising would be elevated, and redefined to include not only MIT faculty helping the student navigate the MIT academic environment, but also paying attention at early stages to make sure that the academic environment does not leave a negative impact on the student’s “mental and emotional well-being.” The latter may be viewed as a positive and preventive measure to avoid getting to the point where the student may need help from counseling and/or treatment from mental health services. The MIT faculty will need to be professionally trained on how to become successful advisors.
For similar reasons, I propose that we consider extending the current model of combining research and academic advising at the graduate level to offer a similar advising model to our undergraduates who are engaged in research. Integration of the undergraduate students into research groups would help improve their sense of community.
The nature of the changes in these two examples may seem dramatic and disruptive to the norms at MIT. However, dramatic and disruptive change is what I believe is needed when business as usual is negatively impacting “the mental and emotional well-being” of our students.