MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXXI No. 1
September / October 2018
Education for Credit/Education for Progress
MIT's Relationship to China
How Not to Teach Ethics
On Critical Thinking and Nerd Epistemology
A Collaboration in Learning
MIT Open Access Task Force Shares
White Paper on OA Landscape
The Transition to Retirement
Climate and Accountability
Stephen Hawking:
The Eminent Physicist vs. The Media Myth
Introducing the MIT
Academic Climate Survey
Study Abroad IAP Opportunities
Continue to Grow
Nominate a Colleague as a MacVicar Fellow
Request for Proposals
for Innovative Curricular Projects
from the 2018 MIT Survey of New Students
Printable Version

A Collaboration in Learning
“Designing the First Year at MIT” class
catalyzes experimentation in the first year

Ian A. Waitz

On August 2, the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) approved an experimental grading policy for the incoming class (2022), namely:

• First-year students entering during the fall of 2018 will be eligible to designate up to three core Science, Mathematics, and Engineering General Institute Requirements (i.e., 3.091, 5.111, or 5.112; 7.01n; 8.01n; 8.02n; 18.01n; or 18.02n) to be graded on a Pass or No Record basis (P/NR) after their first term.

• The first semester will still be graded P/NR, and the second semester ABC/NR.

• This added flexibility should encourage students to move some of their core SME GIRs out of the first year, providing more opportunities for students to take classes that enable them to explore majors and minors early in their time at MIT.

This experimental policy change is just one part of a larger effort spurred by the Office of the Vice Chancellor (OVC). Departments are creating more exploratory options for first-year students, promoting their existing options, and working with us to update the roadmaps for their majors (since creating greater flexibility for student exploration requires that we are clearer about downstream requirements).

In addition, throughout relevant web pages, orientation activities, and advisor training we have changed our messaging to strongly encourage academic exploration as part of the first-year experience.

Both the experiment and these related efforts were made possible thanks to a marvelous collaboration with our students, the CUP (especially Chair Duane Boning), and the thoughtful consideration and input of deans, department heads, and faculty during the last academic year and this past summer.

Why and why now?

We have arrived at this fortuitous moment in time thanks to a clearly defined set of needs for strengthening the first-year undergraduate experience, articulated in large part by the students in the spring 2018 “Designing the First Year at MIT” (DFY@MIT) class. Further, there has also been a growing sense of urgency at MIT that broader change is necessary. Many comments from those who provided input on the experiment echoed a recommendation from the 2014 Task Force on the Future of MIT Education: “MIT must engage in bold experiments that will help us learn about both the positive and negative aspects of pedagogical and curricular innovations.”

What is particularly exciting is that we now have a path and the necessary foundations to achieve this change. With the benefit of a well-studied control group (the Class of 2021 was the focus of a CUP study group on undergraduate major selection led by Professor Jeffrey Grossman), the new experimental grading policy will help us learn more about strategies to improve the first-year experience. It’s possible that more flexibility to explore majors will lead to increased confidence in and satisfaction with majors, as well as reduced stress and more interdisciplinary student work.

This experiment is also taking place against the backdrop of a broader reconsideration of the GIRs – a community discussion that Faculty Chair Susan Silbey and other faculty officers kicked off this past summer. Such conversation is rooted in some of the ideas generated by the students in the DFY@MIT class.

Members of the class drew upon years of student data, focus groups, and broad community engagement, as well as their own personal experiences, to highlight the importance of exploration and how it is currently lacking, especially during the first year at MIT.

Specifically, MIT’s curricular structure and messaging, namely that students are encouraged to complete all of their core SME GIRs in the first year so that they can be prepared to select any major, leaves many of them without an opportunity to investigate different majors to inform their choice (or minors, HASS concentrations, and other important dimensions of their education).

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Remarkably, some of the student recommendations from the DFY@MIT class echo concerns articulated by the Lewis Report of 1949:

One of the most damaging criticisms of our undergraduate program is that the students feel so harassed by rigid routine and so overburdened by the quantity of work required in the individual subjects that they do not have time for reflective thinking or for the social experience that should be an important part of a college education. We recognize this unrelieved tension as a serious evil and we think that steps should be taken to remedy it. We think it particularly serious in the freshman year. (Committee on the Educational Survey, Lewis et al., 1949.)

Beyond the findings of the DFY@MIT class, the need for more exploration in the first year was also underscored in the 2018 Perceptions of Majors Survey released in June 2018:

• 27% of students surveyed did not feel prepared to select a major; and only 33% strongly agreed that they were well prepared.

• 38% of those who changed majors (who represent 30% of all respondents) indicated that an unsatisfactory experience with introductory subjects contributed to their decision to change majors. (Traditionally, around 80% of the first-year class takes three or four core SME GIRs in their first semester at MIT while on P/NR grading, leaving no room in their schedules to take these introductory subjects.)

The problem is particularly acute for students with fewer advanced credits for core SME GIRs (through advanced standing exams or AP credit). The 2017 Student Quality of Life Survey found that students with fewer core SME GIR credits at the start of their first year are statistically more likely to say they are dissatisfied with “[their] ability to balance academic and other aspects of [their] life,” and are less likely to rate their academic experience as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent.’

We note that 77% of the respondents to the 2018 CUP Study on Undergraduate Majors Selection said that making the core SME GIRs P/NR whenever they are taken would have improved the major selection process for them, more than any other option they were asked to consider (with the highest ratings being from those with advanced standing credit for fewer than three core SME GIRs).

What’s next

Although the experiment will not help us understand how to address all the challenges first-year students report, we are optimistic that it will serve as a valuable learning opportunity for some of the most important challenges.

We also carefully considered the difficulties of running this experiment, from changes in course enrollments and associated levels of TA support, to potential confusion of faculty, advisors, and students, to the need for more exploratory courses.

We have been taking steps to address these through information-sharing and support for expanding the current inventory of exploratory classes mentioned above. We are already monitoring the experiment in real time and will be reporting back to the MIT community at different points throughout the year and beyond.

I share the sentiment of Undergraduate Association President Alexa Martin and Vice President Kathryn Jiang who described the experiment as “a real opportunity to be innovators in the field of education, to be leaders amongst our peers, and to send a message to our students that we are listening and responding to their needs.”
Based upon what we learn, we look forward to working with the MIT community in the coming year to determine what experimental policies we should consider for next year’s incoming class.

Our thanks

The process of approving an experiment of this scope over the summer was extraordinary – and it is not something we want to do on a regular basis. But it was a unique opportunity and we are pleased that faculty governance and the Institute community came together to consider, improve, and ultimately approve this experiment.

The final proposal benefitted greatly from two rounds of feedback from deans, department heads, leaders of the First-Year Learning Communities, individual faculty, students and staff, and members of the CUP. Additional feedback came in after we submitted the proposal and that was considered as well.

Finally, thanks are owed to the core team who developed the “Designing the First-Year at MIT” class, the students in the class, faculty governance, and the many faculty, students, and administrators from across the campus who provided thoughtful input.
Ultimately, we owe it to our students to keep improving, and I believe that we’ve taken a big step in the right direction. Already, the effort is fostering greater discussion among students and faculty about how to make an MIT education the best it can be. With this experiment and future ones like it, I am confident that we are poised to usher in a new era of curricular innovation at the Institute.

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