Unintended Downsides to Recent Changes
to the P/NR Policy
As many readers of this newsletter will recall, in the summer of 2018 the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP), with the strong urging of the Vice Chancellor, authorized an “experiment” with the entering undergraduate class of 2022. The main goal of the experiment was to provide the students more opportunity to explore possible majors before having to declare a major. A critical change that was authorized involved allowing the students to take up to three of the STEM GIRs P/NR any time after their first semester. A number of us worried at that time that such a change would likely have significant unintended negative consequences.
This article describes some of our experiences teaching the GIRs last academic year, especially in Physics, and what the data tell us about the consequences of the change.
First, let’s look at enrollment. The class of 2022 did not see a very significant change in enrollment in the Mathematics and Physics GIRs last academic year compared to previous classes in previous academic years. This is presumably because students view Mathematics and Physics as foundational for many majors at MIT. There was, however, a very significant enrollment drop last academic year in the Chemistry and Biology GIRs for the class of 2022. So hundreds of students in the class of 2022 will be taking introductory Chemistry and/or Biology subjects P/NR when they are sophomores, juniors, or seniors. This will certainly be a challenge for the faculty teaching those subjects.
Now, let’s look at student engagement and performance. We will focus on the Physics GIRs because this is what we know best and where we have the most data. We and our colleagues compared engagement and performance of first-year students for 8.01 in the fall semester 2018 with similar measures in the fall semesters of 2016 and 2017. We also compared engagement and performance for first-year students for 8.02 in the spring semester 2019 with similar measures in the spring semesters of 2017 and 2018. The measures we considered were class attendance and completion of in-class assignments, problem sets completed and the resulting grades, a weekly outside-class online assignment, and of course the final grade. For students on P/NR this last measure was the so-called “hidden grade.”
We did not see significant differences in these measures for 8.01 in the fall semester. This is not surprising, as the enrollments were similar and the first-year students in all three fall semesters were on P/NR.
We did see significant differences in these measures for 8.02 in the spring semester. An example is shown in the figure below, which plots average problem set grades throughout the semester for the three spring semesters of 8.02 under consideration. It is striking how engagement and performance by this measure were significantly worse in spring 2019 than in the previous two springs, and how they got a lot worse as the semester progressed. Another example is shown in the table below, which contains the fraction of first-year students who received various final grades (A, B, C, D, or F) in the three semesters of 8.02. A small fraction (17%) of the first-year students in spring 2019 took 8.02 on a graded basis and most of those had early sophomore status; for the rest this represents their hidden grade. Obviously the opportunity to take 8.02 in spring 2019 on a P/NR basis led many students to underperform and some to cut it too close and not in fact pass.
The large increase in the number of first-year students who did not pass 8.02 in spring 2019 is especially frustrating, as we had seen a major decrease in the failure rate with the introduction of the TEAL model based on active learning 18 years ago (2001). Twenty-five more students receiving No Record in 8.02 is a tragic outcome and cannot be compensated by the fact that the rest of the class was able to explore options for their major. The 8.02 teaching team, with the help of the Office of the Vice Chancellor, will put measures into place to minimize the failure rate in subsequent semesters.
Final grade distribution for first-year students in 8.02 during the past several spring semester
(click on image to enlarge
Our understanding is that the Chemistry and Biology Departments did not see a significant reduction in engagement and performance by first-year students in introductory subjects during the academic year 2018-2019. Given that many students (presumably mostly those with less interest in those subjects) chose to postpone taking those subjects until later years, this is not at all surprising.
We do not know in detail the results of first-year student engagement and performance in the Mathematics GIRs during academic year 2018-2019. This would be very interesting to compare to our results in Physics.
So, what does this tell us? We believe that no one who has significant experience with the MIT GIRs should be surprised at the results we saw in 8.02 last spring. In 2001 the MIT Faculty voted to change second semester first-year from P/NR to ABC/NR. The reason for this change was because we were seeing many first-year students getting into bad academic habits with P/NR second semester. These bad habits affected their performance that semester but also affected their preparation and performance going forward. These phenomena are exactly what we observed in 8.02 last spring.
It is important to remember that P/NR was never intended to apply to individual subjects, but rather to the transition period from high school to MIT. Our experience is that the key transition period is the first semester and that P/NR really helps the students make this transition. After that period many students will simply use P/NR as an excuse to do minimal work, thus missing educational opportunities and developing bad habits.
In the meantime, the CUP has authorized a somewhat modified experiment for the class of 2023 (this year’s first-year students) that still allows them to take up to three of the STEM GIRs P/NR after the first semester. We will, of course, continue to monitor data on engagement and performance, but there is every reason to think that the problems we noted for the class of 2022 will exist for the class of 2023 as well. In this article we have been discussing the results of the experiment with the class of 2022 through their first year. The faculty and others at MIT will not know the full implications of the experiment until the class of 2022 has graduated and perhaps even beyond. It seems appropriate not to make any changes permanent, or to initiate significantly different experiments, until we understand all the consequences of the current one.
We understand that there is broad support for the idea of allowing first-year students the opportunity to explore majors, but the experiment that has been initiated recently appears to have significant downsides. Down the road we should find a way to provide such opportunities without so much collateral damage. One possibility that has been suggested by a number of people is the idea of allowing students to take STEM GIRs ABC/NR (not P/NR) any time after the first semester. This would give them flexibility to explore majors in their first year, while still preserving the importance of the GIRs. This seems like an excellent suggestion and we hope very much that the CUP will consider making this or some similar adjustment for future classes.
We would like to thank our many teaching colleagues in 8.02 for their dedication to our students’ education. Special thanks go to Michelle Tomasik and Peter Dourmashkin for their help in analyzing and presenting the 8.02 engagement and performance data.