MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVI No. 4
February / March 2004
The New President
The New President
Improving Our System
of Faculty Governance
Update on Women Faculty in the
School of Engineering
Recommendations for Improving
Faculty Quality of Life
FRADS Supports Faculty Fundraising
Reminiscences: Fifty Years on the Engineering Faculty
A Formal Recommendation
to the MIT Corporation
The Center for International Studies
The Clinical Research Center
The Operations Research Center
Beyond Fuzzy Definitions of Community:
A Report and an Invitation
Cambridge and MIT:
Exchanging Students, Exchanging Ideas
Information Services & Technololgy (IS&T):
The Focus is on Service
Campus Growth (1985 – Present)
Printable Version

Cambridge and MIT:
Exchanging Students, Exchanging Ideas

Margaret S. Enders and Robert P. Redwine

In the summer of 2000, seven MIT undergraduates in Mechanical Engineering and Chemical Engineering were recruited to spend a year at Cambridge University as part of a pilot program; these plucky students had a great time and proved it was possible for MIT and Cambridge University - with the help and support of the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI) - to establish a student exchange. We are now in the third full year of the Cambridge-MIT Undergraduate Student Exchange Program (CME). By the end of this academic year, about 220 students from both sides will have participated in the full-year program. Twelve MIT departments and a committed group of MIT faculty collaborate with their like-minded counterparts in Cambridge to provide the much needed support and guidance to the program and to the students in it.

The discussions between Cambridge and MIT that established the exchange program were taking place at about the same time that the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) was becoming more interested in the possibility of study abroad experiences as a way of providing educational enrichment for MIT students. (There are a few small study abroad programs within MIT departments, and the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program has had a long and successful record providing international internship opportunities. Roughly 30-40 undergraduates also choose to take a term or a year away from MIT on independent study abroad - that is, through programs not affiliated with MIT.) Cambridge, too, had been exploring connections beyond the Fens for its undergraduate programs and something similar was in the air. The UK government, who was the sponsor of the program, recognized the significance of the contribution that graduates of the university make to the society in which they live, an important part of the MIT effect. Both Cambridge and MIT recognized that the students on an exchange program would provide valuable insights into the strengths and weaknesses of both institutions and could be important sources of inspiration for change.

Central to overcoming the obstacles that have prevented both institutions from encouraging their students to study abroad was the unusual arrangement we put in place.

Neither school wanted to consider an exchange program that extended the period of undergraduate study beyond the normal time-to-degree, nor did they wish to lose good students. Consequently, a fully reciprocal program was established where, for example, a Cambridge mechanical engineer would exchange places with an MIT Course 2 student who would take the place of the Cambridge student in his or her College and course. This closely interwoven arrangement produced a pattern of connection and intimacy between students and faculty from the two universities that is rarely seen in such programs. This design enabled our colleagues in Cambridge to quickly pilot the program through the CU system and proved that even ancient universities can be very nimble when a good opportunity presents itself.

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An agreement was drawn up between Cambridge and MIT, and an assessment team was hired on both sides to monitor closely the student experiences as CME was established. MIT, with its more centralized student services, is better organized to initiate new programs, and the exchange became the responsibility of the Dean for Undergraduate Education.

Cambridge, however, operates on a much more distributed system, where responsibilities which are held centrally at MIT are managed by departments and Colleges. This produces a system that lacks homogeneity, but offers an interestingly different approach to the integration of student life and learning. The first two groups of students from MIT were totally dependent on this system, but from this year onwards it has been complemented by the new International Education Office at Cambridge. This office, which is being partially underwritten by CMI, now manages CME on the UK side.

The experiences of the exchange students revealed that we had a fairly shallow understanding of the differences between the two educational systems. MIT students going to Cambridge were sometimes disoriented by the more self-directed and independent teaching and learning environment – where the burden of learning is much more on the individual student.

At Cambridge, the special educational ingredient is the Supervision – which is a tailored tutorial session between a member of the academic staff and a student. Students are obliged to come prepared to Supervision sessions, since it is here that students get a chance to get help with material they don't understand. Lectures at Cambridge tend to be "off the rack;" the Supervision is tailored to each student's needs. A typical course at Cambridge runs the length of at least two 8-week terms without examination, and Supervisions for upperclass students are not always offered weekly. There are long four- or five-week breaks between each of the three terms; students are expected to use this time for intensive study and not just as vacation. At the end of the year, a comprehensive "tripos" examination is given, covering the year's work.

Since typical MIT subjects have frequent, graded homework and tests, MIT students must adjust quickly to a very different style at Cambridge – one that provides them more apparent free time. The best MIT candidates for this exchange are ones who are personally quite resilient and adaptable and who don't mind the challenge of learning in a relatively unstructured but equally challenging academic environment. Each year we introduce improvements in the way we prepare both groups of students for their exchange year. MIT students are now given "mock" tripos exams in January to help them prepare for the year-end exams. This year, with the help of Professor Duane Boning, MIT engineering students participated in seminars held at MIT to prepare them for their Cambridge coursework, and we are working with staff in the MIT Writing Program to help students satisfy the Communications Requirement while at CU.

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We worked closely with the program evaluators to examine both the mechanics of the exchange as well as the differences in the educational systems and the learning experience. Exchange program students have been invited to faculty committee meetings, dinners with senior academic administrators, and CMI-sponsored workshops. In March 2003 and again in August 2003, formal reports from the exchange evaluators discussed CU and MIT teaching and learning cultures based on surveys and interviews with students and faculty. These observations and recommendations resonate very strongly with what we hear in our individual conversations with students and are inspiring both institutions to examine their own educational practices. The students have been quite effective "probes," entering the exchange experience with a critical eye for the strengths and shortcomings of each system. Many comments from students have been memorable for their insights about MIT:

".at our [CU college] Matriculation dinner, the master advised students to put in a good day of work - which he recommended be 8-5 Monday through Friday with maybe some work on weekends – but he basically said that there was time to take to relax. At MIT.there is no unwind at the end of the day, ever, until the semester is over." [MIT student]

".at Cambridge I always try to celebrate my birthday by taking the day MIT I looked up from my problem set in the middle of the night and realized it was my birthday.." [Cambridge student]

In the first year of the exchange, MIT students talked about having a quality and quantity of time available to them at Cambridge that, in the words of one student, provided "a chance to think about myself, figure out who I am" that the pace of life at MIT never allowed. As early as the first year of the CME student exchange, MIT students talked about the very different learning environment at Cambridge and, in many cases, how they have profited from being able to acquire a more independent learning style. When asked to describe the benefits of the Cambridge experience, MIT students responded that they found they had to acquire the ability to learn on their own; to be disciplined enough to study even though no graded assignment or test was approaching; to teach themselves material that at MIT would have been taught to them; to read deeply for a change (and from books in the library, since subjects at Cambridge do not use single textbooks nor are any books required to be purchased); to be prepared in the small group supervisions in a manner that was not expected of them at MIT. In the words of one MIT student, "you learn to learn something really well," because the lack of emphasis on regular graded homework and tests directed attention toward improving understanding rather than focusing on the "right answer."

This is not to say that MIT students loved everything about their academic experience at Cambridge. They were particularly unhappy about the lack of feedback, given the absence of regular tests and graded assignments and the relative infrequency of supervisions compared with class meetings and office hours at MIT; the unevenness of the supervision system; the reliance on the single exam at the end of the year as the only performance datapoint; what struck many as rather dry and overly-theoretical lecture teaching when compared with what they were used to at MIT. And some missed the chance to do undergraduate research, since there is no formal UROP program at Cambridge.

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Students from Cambridge have had a lot to say about the strengths and weaknesses of the MIT approach to teaching and learning. They like much about MIT (including the positive aspects of working hard and being rewarded for it; the stimulation of passionate lecturers and lecture material that draws on real-world applications; the multiple opportunities for extra help; the chance to take HASS subjects; the exposure to undergraduate research, design competitions, and other co-curricular opportunities; the first-rate technical facilities) and reserve much of their criticism for what many regard as "mindless" hard work. Students at MIT, they claim, tend to lose sight of everything but what is due the next day; there is status associated with how many all-nighters someone might have to pull in order to finish a project or problem set. MIT students, we have been told, don't talk readily about much else except their work. It is quite the opposite at Cambridge, they say, where it is considered less acceptable to talk about school work or how hard one is working.

A recurring theme during our conversations with Cambridge and MIT exchange students has been the difference in how students spend their living and learning time as undergraduates at MIT and at CU. At MIT, the amount of work has frustrated some Cambridge students who are used to more balance, but others are thrilled to discover that work - for example, a UROP project – can be play. Both MIT and Cambridge students talk about the "balanced" life that is possible at Cambridge, but many also acknowledge that the intensity of life at MIT is stimulating in a way that is not so easy to come by at Cambridge.

At a meeting where Cambridge students were asked to talk about their MIT experience, one student said he studies ".much more at MIT, spending a lot of time simply chugging through problems.. At MIT, the problem sets keep you extremely busy, and for the most part, the only way to complete the sets is to share information with others in your class.. Cambridge students have said they received A's on many of the problem sets but do not necessarily feel they learned the material."

At MIT, continued this student, there is so much pressure to get the correct answer that "understanding the material is forgotten." The Examples papers at Cambridge are very important to students, but they do not feel the benefit of or need for copying from others' papers. ".there is no penalty for arriving at a supervision with blanks, as long as it is clear the student has attempted to work the problems." The student pointed out that another difference is that at MIT he completes his problem sets with his peers; at Cambridge he pursues what he doesn't understand on his examples papers with a staff member during supervisions. The student suggested that problem sets would be a more effective tool if there was a process that allowed for feedback prior to final submission. At the present time, MIT students are given homework, told to learn the material, complete the problem set and hand it in. At Cambridge, the order is somewhat reversed .

"At Cambridge students must meet with their supervisor and cannot hide the fact when they don't understand the material." [MIT student]

"At CU you do the homework questions to learn stuff, whereas at MIT you do the questions to prove you know it." [Cambridge student]

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In June 2003, a two-day workshop at Cambridge brought together nearly 40 faculty and a few exchange students from both Cambridge and MIT to review the program as well as to discuss possible changes to teaching and learning practices at both schools based on what has been revealed through the students' exchange experiences. Optimism was high about the future of the exchange and about the worth of the potential educational benefits for both institutions.

During the two-day meeting, discussions focused on certain recurring themes, including the great differences in the cultural values that undergird the educational practices of each institution. Cambridge and MIT are very different in the way they teach and expect students to learn – and in the way they expect students to spend their time as undergraduates. It was agreed generally that both institutions suffer from some of the deficiencies of certain rigid structures (at MIT, for example, the relentless nature of the problem set; at Cambridge, the dependence on the single end-of-year exam).

The exchange experiences of MIT and Cambridge students have stimulated a number of faculty and departments to think about ways to build on what has been learned to date about the strengths of the educational systems of both institutions. Several engineering and science departments at Cambridge are part of a CMI-underwritten summer UROP program. There is talk about experimenting with "hybrid" models that combine the best of both Cambridge and MIT teaching and learning systems. The School of Engineering, in particular, seems eager to profit from what the students (and faculty) have observed.

In 1985 MIT President Paul Gray spoke to students about his personal vision of the MIT of the future [ " The Future of MIT as an Educational and Research Institution," Paul E. Gray in The Tech , October 1985] . His words have relevance to what we are learning and considering as a consequence of the Cambridge-MIT exchange:

"In 1980 I said we should review the character of the MIT educational experience: the pace, the coherence, and the intellectual impact. MIT students are highly motivated and committed to high achievement. Sustained hard work is the norm. The members of the faculty hold responsibilities to the Institute, to their professional commitments, and to their personal families. This produces all too often a frenetic pace of life, self-rewarding, mutually reinforcing. But it is not without its costs.

"It would be foolhardy to argue against the virtues of hard work. But should we not consider the possible benefits of more time for contemplation, for pursuit of interests and activities outside the professional realm and for developing friendships and a sense of community?"

As the new Task Force begins its review of our students' common educational experience, we expect that they, too, will be interested in what our exchange students have to tell us.

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