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Four years of pass/fail would provide more personal education

Note: We may not actually run this letter, depending on what happens with Antico's letter on pass/fail.--MG

In all the current debate about the future of freshman pass/fail, we have been dismayed by the failure of administrators, faculty, and students alike to look at the overall value of grades in educational reform. We would like to take this opportunity to propose that MIT adopt pass/fail for all four years of undergraduate education.

A grade is supposed to convey to a student how well he is doing in a particular class. But how can a professor grade a class in which all students have similar levels of ability? Most professors grade on a curve. But the average in the class, especially at MIT, does not accurately reflect the average in all similar classes around the world.

People have a destructive tendency to focus on relative status, neglecting individual improvement. We find the idea of education as a competitive game repugnant. Without grades, a student should be able to concentrate her efforts on learning what is appropriate for her. When grades are introduced, students must knock themselves out to secure a good grade, which of course makes it harder for all other students to excel.

Many people would state that on an absolute scale, a grade should tell a student how well he is doing. This is a tenuous position, considering that all possible achievement levels are quantified into an artificial five levels. Furthermore, there is the problem that one student's B does not mean the same as another's B, since different abilities, represented by different patterns of correct and incorrect responses to test questions, can achieve the same B grade.

At best, a grade tells a student merely her level of achievement. It does not tell the student how she arrived at that level of achievement. Worst of all, it does not tell the student how to improve. The grade is used as a substitute for positive and negative feedback from the teacher to the student.

On the other hand, during MIT's freshman pass/fail faculty are required to evaluate students with sentences full of subjects, verbs, and adjectives. This is a more reasonable method of communication than vague grades. Better yet would be regularly scheduled required visits between students and professors or recitation instructors. Only with close contact between student and teacher can the process of education, which is why we are all here in the first place, succeed. Without contact, we would achieve the same educational result by reading a book.

Students at MIT pay immense tuition and fees, and we have a right to be educated in the most effective and understanding way. Until faculty stop hiding behind grades in order to avoid communicating with students, we cannot say we are being educated. We are being lectured at.

We ask that the administration and faculty of MIT consider abolishing the grade system at MIT and adopt a more humane, student-oriented method of education.

Scott Garland '90->

Michael Smith '90->