MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXXII No. 2
November / December 2019
The Right to Vote; Prof. Woodie Flowers;
Undermining the Institute Professorships
A Bookstore Without Books
“A Peculiar MIT Concoction”:
Our System of Faculty Governance – Part I
The Schwarzman College of Computing: Giving Back
Woodie Flowers
Unintended Downsides to Recent Changes
to the P/NR Policy
What We and Our Students Value
A Peek Inside the Random Faculty Dinners
Comments at MIT Institute Faculty Meeting
September 18, 2019
An Open Letter to MIT Department Heads
Reflections on Epstein and MIT
Update on MIT’s Open Access Policy and
Continued Negotiations With Publishers
2019-2020 Academic Calendar Changes
Angered By Recent FNL Editorial
Back in 1949
Campus Research Expenditures FY 2019 (%)
Campus Research Expenditures FY 2019 ($)
Printable Version

What We and Our Students Value

Ian A. Waitz and Kate Weishaar

We were pleased to see the article by Professors Peter H. Fisher and Robert P. Redwine (“Unintended Downsides to Recent Changes to the P/NR Policy,” in this issue), about the CUP experiments, and to have the opportunity to both respond to their article and share what the study team has learned so far.

The study team are not the only individuals involved in this work. It has in fact been a community-wide effort. The experiments stem from ideas generated by faculty, staff, and students, draw upon past studies, and have been shaped by hundreds of conversations with MIT community members and within the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP), have been implemented by staff and various DLCs including the Registrar’s Office, the Teaching + Learning Lab, the Office of the First Year, and Institutional Research. Moreover, since the Phase I and Phase II efforts have been implemented, we have benefited from engagement with many stakeholders as we present interim findings from the experiment.

It is up to the faculty to craft any lasting policies for the first year, and we hope that this article will inform that discussion.

The Experiment in Action: What We’ve Learned to Date

First, it is good to remind readers that in the summer of 2018, building on the 2014 Task Force on the Future of MIT Education report, and with the support of student and faculty leadership including all five School deans, we worked through the faculty governance process, leading to a CUP-authorized educational experiment to promote flexibility in the first year.

The Phase I policy enabled students in the Class of 2022 (our current sophomores) to take up to three science core GIRs as Pass/No Record any time after the first semester (with all classes in the first semester remaining P/NR as they have been for many years). Passing is defined as C or better, where C corresponds with the Institute definition of grades and means “. . . adequate preparation for moving on to more advanced work in the field.”

We encourage you to read the full interim report of the study team. The following is a summary of the high-level results to date:

  • First-year students – who were selected to join the MIT community for their intensity, curiosity, and excitement – explored more fields and topics. The magnitude of the Phase I policy impact was 8.7 fewer science core GIR units taken in the first year for the class as a whole (or roughly one fewer science core GIRs taken by three-quarters of the class on average). In Fall 2018, 44% of the first-year class took three or more science core GIRs compared to 77% in 2017, and they used this extra schedule space on a broad range of subjects. In the past, first-years took about 280 unique subjects in the fall term. In Fall 2018, they took 318, an increase of 14%, spread across all five Schools. Spring term saw a 7% increase in unique subjects.
  • The two GIRs that the students most often elected to delay were Biology and Chemistry. In the year before the experiment, 27% of the class delayed Biology beyond the first year, and 25% delayed Chemistry beyond the first year. After the experiment, these numbers increased to 58% delaying Biology and 41% delaying Chemistry beyond the first year. While this shift will lead to a more diverse class composition in future Chemistry and Biology offerings, we have had hundreds of students taking these subjects as sophomores, juniors, or seniors in the past. However, we anticipate many students may be taking these subjects on P/NR grading in later years, which will be different from the past.
  • The ways the students used the flexibility were varied. Formal interviews with a cohort of students are described in more detail in our interim report, but examples shared by students include, “If I didn’t have [the P/NR policy], I probably would not have taken 6.00 last semester, but replaced it with a biology, so that it could still be P/NR. And then I wouldn’t have like realized, through 6.00, that I was not meant to be Course 6. Yeah, it’s been helpful.”
  • Many students took advantage of the P/NR option. In the spring, 60% of the class took one or more science core GIRs on P/NR. Their reasons for doing so included a desire to focus energy elsewhere, concern that their performance in a class would lower their GPA, or a desire to relieve grade-related stress.
  • There was no change in overall GPA. The full-year class GPA (including hidden grades) saw no significant change (it increased +0.01), but some component groups of classes saw statistically significant shifts: -0.05 decrease in science core GIR GPA and +0.07 increase in HASS GIR GPA. The overall picture that emerges is one of students redistributing their effort. The diagram below provides a visual representation of that redistribution. While we can point to quantitative and qualitative data supporting the paths, we cannot quantify how much effort is being spent on various activities.
incremental cost over budget
Redistribution of Effort
(click on image to enlarge)






  • The students reported a drop in stress related to the major selection process. They also appreciated the additional pressure relief and schedule flexibility that came with being able to select P/NR grading for a subset of classes. In the interviews some referred to the P/NR option as a “safety net.”
  • A large majority of the students was very positive about the experimental grading policy. When asked how they would describe the experimental grading policy on a recent survey of the Class of 2022 with 644 respondents, 78.1% responded “very positive,” 11.2% responded “somewhat positive,” 8.4% responded “neither positive or negative,” 1.7% responded “somewhat negative,” and 0.6% responded “very negative.”

Given the high-level summary of increased exploration, little or no change in class performance, reduced stress, and a large majority of students being very positive about the experimental grading policy, what is the basis for the concerns voiced by Professors Fisher and Redwine? That can be found by looking more deeply at the data collected for the spring semester, particularly in 8.02. The table below shows the component and overall changes in GPA semester-by-semester. Typically, students take one science core GIR class in the spring, which is why the reduction in GPA in that component averages out to a much smaller GPA change overall.


incremental cost over budget
Changes in Hidden GPA
for Experimental Cohort

(click on image to enlarge)






We also analyzed performance in the individual science core GIRs. We saw no statistically significant change in performance in 18.01, 18.02, 8.01, Chemistry, or Biology, but we note that many students chose to delay Chemistry and Biology until after their first year so we do not yet have the performance of the full experimental cohort for those GIRs. However, most of the students have completed 18.01, 18.02, 8.01, and 8.02, so the results are more meaningful for those subjects.

In 8.02, we observed an overall GPA reduction of 0.5 grade points after accounting for demographic factors, and we saw an increase in the rate of NRs. An additional 3.7% of the class got an NR last year (above the 2%-4% baseline). The detailed data which Professors Fisher and Redwine discuss shows that as the semester proceeded, some students participated less and ultimately did not perform as well. Note that this behavior happened in the past, but occurred to a greater extent under the experimental grading policy.

Given that first-year students took an average of 12.8 units of science core subjects in Spring 2019 (~1 subject), we have reason to believe that grade shifts are not evidence of students adopting bad habits as Professors Fisher and Redwine suggest, but rather reprioritizing their energy. Alongside the reduction in Spring science core GIR GPAs, we saw an increase in Spring HASS GIR GPAs, and also in GPAs in subjects in departments which students ultimately selected as their major. Overall the units taken were the same, and the GPA was nearly the same (-0.05) for the experimental cohort in the spring semester.

We certainly share the authors’ and Physics Department’s concerns about the performance in 8.02. The drop in performance may be linked to issues of motivation. While letter grades can provide one form of motivation, the education literature has long pointed to intrinsic motivation as a strong way to keep students engaged. The Physics teaching team is working closely with the Teaching + Learning Lab to implement changes focused on improving student performance going forward. This will be important for the Class of 2023 who are participating in Phase II of the CUP experiment. We must also reevaluate how we are communicating the value of the science core to our students. Since this is foundational content that every MIT graduate must have, how can we help ensure that our students share this belief? How do we build intrinsic motivation?

The experiment has also highlighted longer-standing concerns. For example, we now have greater clarity on the challenges related to enforcing prerequisites. We value this increased attention to our educational programs as it informs pointed efforts to improve our programs in collaboration with faculty and departments. More detail about our efforts to alleviate these concerns can be found in the interim report.

We have also gained insight into the ways different populations of students explore majors. Our students have varying definitions of “academic exploration” and varying capacities to explore. Many students with advanced credit for zero or one science core GIRs still chose to take three or four science core subjects in Fall 2018, citing reasons like feeling behind their peers. These students had no room for a 12-unit exploration subject until spring term at the earliest. Phase II of the experiment includes a separate credit limit for 1-3 unit First-Year Discovery Subjects to give these types of students, many of whom arrive undecided about majors, a chance to explore. For other students, 12-unit subjects worked well as exploration, and they chose to take classes during fall P/NR as a low-risk way to try out majors of interest.

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The Bigger Picture: Values

The experiments suggest to us that increased flexibility better enables students to prioritize their time and energy to align with their academic interests. Ultimately, the data we and others have gathered matters, but it comes down to what values we are (or ought to be) teaching our students in the classroom and through our messaging and policies. More than that, it comes down to how much freedom we give students to focus on what they value. We know from our colleagues in Admissions (an area of pride thanks to our clear and transparent practices) that the incoming students, whatever their disciplinary identities and values, seek guidance on how to use their many talents to make the world a better place, but they also value autonomy in their decision-making.

We, like many students, faculty, and alumni, want to keep the MIT rigor intact so that our graduates are prepared to tackle whatever comes their way. At the same time, our students, with faculty guidance and encouragement, deserve a chance to take ownership of their education and practice making tough choices. Good habits, experiences, and relationships built in the first year could keep students from burning out by the time they are seniors, as well as open them up to new possibilities they never imagined when first arriving on campus. MIT students arrive knowing how to work hard. What are we doing to help them determine what is worthy of their efforts, starting in the first year?

In a perfect world, we would wait until all the data were collected and analyzed before deciding on further changes, but we have another 1,100 talented first-years arriving on campus next August. We owe it to these students, the Class of 2024, to offer them what we believe to be the best first-year experience possible. Whatever it is, it will not be perfect.

The ideal first-year experience should strike a balance between rigor and well-being, and between structure and autonomy, while being simultaneously inspirational and foundational. We continue to believe that experimentation remains one crucial and necessary approach to determining how to get there.

Indeed, there are several alternatives to the current experimental policy for encouraging exploration in the first year that are in discussion. Professors Fisher and Redwine suggest one of these: to have the science core GIRs taken ABC/NR any time after the first semester. While this may address some of the concerns they have with the experimental grading policy, we do not think it will encourage exploration in the first year, which is the primary goal. We anticipate the difference between ABCDF grading and ABC/NR grading for the science core GIRs after the first semester would have little influence on student behavior and essentially be a return to the standing policies (i.e., those prior to the experiments). This is because few students are awarded grades below a C in the science core, and most of the grades below a C are already awarded on P/NR or ABC/NR within the first year. Specifically, only 4.3% of all science core GIR grades were below a C (for cohorts entering Fall 2010-Fall 2013, which have completed all of their GIRs); with more than 77% of these being awarded in the first year. Further, students who receive a D may prefer to get a letter grade, given that a D awards credit while a DN does not. Regarding alternatives to the current experimental policy, there are others that we are more enthusiastic about, especially some permutations of the flexible-P/NR option proposed by Professor Jesse Thaler. Some of these may have the affect of enabling exploration while simultaneously addressing some of the concerns expressed by Professors Fisher and Redwine.

It is up to the Faculty of MIT to continue to reflect upon our and others’ findings and to consider ways to improve the first year. As disciplines and pedagogy continue to evolve, we should adapt our first year accordingly as we have done with NEET and new joint degrees. We need a first-year experience that prepares our students to excel in the world as it exists today, and in the future. Given how important the GIRs are to the MIT educational experience – all of them, not just the science core – we hope the new insights about how today’s students navigate MIT will help inform conversations about the value, purpose, and potential evolution of the GIRs.

The faculty of MIT have the responsibility of shaping the first-year experience for future MIT students. We encourage you to share your ideas and to speak up for the educational experiences you believe our students should have, just as Professors Fisher and Redwine (and many others over the past year) have done. We are planning to host additional discussions at schools and DLCs in the coming weeks and months and are open to engaging with any interested groups. It is only together that we can make a better first year at MIT.

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