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Students fault CFYP at forum

By Irene C. Kuo

Students continued to express reservations about the proposed elimination of second-term freshman pass/no-credit grading at the third in a series of educational reform forums, held at McCormick Hall on Sunday night.

Professor Claude R. Canizares, a member of the Committee on the Freshman-Year Program, presented the reasoning behind the proposal, which would replace second-term pass/no-credit with a system whereby students would be allowed to take one credit/no-credit subject per term beginning in the second term of the freshman year. Some of the participants in the forum, however, insisted that less drastic alternatives were available.

Anu Vedantham '89, for example, wondered if all of second term could be kept as pass/no-credit and one credit/no-credit subject per term be allowed after that, but Canizares said the political reality was such that there was no way of increasing credit/no-credit without decreasing freshman pass/no-credit. He added that a small number of faculty favored getting rid of pass/no-credit grading altogether and that some of his colleagues were hopeful that he, as a member of the committee, would be able to do so.

This anecdote prompted one student to question what fraction of the faculty, who will be voting on the proposal in April, have actual experience with undergraduates.

Professor Graham C. Walker, housemaster at McCormick Hall, suggested a "voucher" system, whereby second-term freshmen would receive vouchers of 55 credit/no-credit units which they could use at their discretion -- using all of them second term if they wanted. Only one Institute requirement, however, could be taken on credit/no-credit. Walker felt that the voucher system might "sell politically," since it would not increase the number of pass/fail subjects.

Canizares said that he might not oppose the voucher system if a grade of D or better would constitute credit (under the CFYP proposal, credit would be given for "C" work or better). He added that the CUP is examining the criterion.

Canizares opposed one student's proposal that freshmen who take less than a certain number of units be required to take all on pass/no-credit, and that freshmen who take more units be required to go on grades. "The trigger mechanism would involve some administrative difficulties, with students switching from one to the other. Also, MIT has a "strong ethic against two-tier systems."

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Increasing flexibility

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Canizares said that one reason for the proposal was to maximize flexibility for students and to introduce some accountability. "Flexibility without accountability is unrealistic. You have minimum accountability now; people are failing."

Vedantham feared that under the proposed system, many students would start departmental requirements in their first term and thus abuse the flexibility the CFYP claimed the system would bestow.

Canizares, however, believed that most students would "do what [was] done now, and said that departmental requirements were set up so that any student should be able to switch majors in their junior year.

Students in their second term at MIT currently "overload and fail to underload," he said, qualifying the two as different concepts.

Sixteen percent of freshmen, three percent of sophomores take more than 60 units; one percent of juniors, and two percent of seniors take more than 60 units, according to Canizares.

On the other hand, five percent of freshmen, 21 percent of sophomores, 42 percent of juniors, 58 percent of seniors take fewer than 42 units, he said. All figures were compiled after drop date.

Susmitha Bellam '89 accused the CFYP of focusing on the 16 percent of freshmen who take more than 60 units, but Canizares explained that he was more worried about the current system's inflexibility, than about the incidence of overloading. He hoped students would take fewer subjects and explore other areas as well and added that the term "undesignated sophomore" should be changed.

"The term implies a confused student, but actually [what such a student is doing] should be encouraged. The Undergraduate Academic Support Office should be more gentle," he said, referring to forms that request a student's major.

Responding to concern for the student who takes who takes 45 to 48 units the first term and still doesn't do well, Canizares said, "I don't think that pass/fail is the cure. The student's problem may be in preparation or study habits. He may be in the wrong place -- either taking the wrong mix of classes or in the wrong school. The earlier the signal that the student is not doing well is heard, the better. There's a lot less trauma in failing or getting low grades [earlier in one's academic career]."

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Changing perceptions at MIT

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A lot of the courses freshmen now take are pre-requisites for upperdivision classes, and students who take them at a later time would be behind their peers, Anthia Chen '91 said.

Canizares said that students may have indeed taken a subject, but not learned it well. All departments are more flexible than they appear, he noted, repeating that first-term juniors should be able to switch into any of them. He was aware, however, that it might be difficult for the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Orit Ariel '90 claimed that her educational adviser told her that the purpose of pass/no-credit was to put students at an equal level after they have all taken the same freshman classes.

Canizares criticized the use of the term "freshman classes," emphasizing that students should feel free to take "core classes" at any time. "I don't put much stock in the starting gate theory because I don't think it works that well," he said. "There is no such thing as equal. Everybody is going off in different directions."

"Everyone agrees that there is a hard adjustment in the first term. But then there is a hard adjustment at many universities where there is no pass/fail," he said. So many breakups occur in an MIT student's second year now, Canizares added. "The student has to adjust to being on grades and to belonging to a department."

David Atkinson '90 claimed that few students would actually take subjects on pass/no-credit because they would be concerned about the impressions on employers and graduate school, but Canizares said that these impressions would change as more students took advantage of the system.