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Dean's Office to Survey Seniors

By Jeremy Hylton

The Undergraduate Academic Affairs office will distribute a survey to seniors next week asking them to comment on their experiences at MIT, ranging from their impressions of student life to satisfaction with their majors.

"We're looking also for people to finish off their experience by leaving something behind -- a message that others can use to change, improve, build on, innovate," explained Norma G. McGavern, director of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

The 10-page survey is MIT's first attempt to collect feedback from every member of a graduating class. "There are all kinds of ways that MIT gets input about the process ... but there's never been a comprehensive survey," said Travis R. Merritt, dean for undergraduate academic affairs.

The survey asks dozens of very specific questions, and the UAA plans to use the answers to those questions to consider specific changes. "We'll do our very best to make sure that the places they've commented about will use this information to fix, change, add to, or not to change, according to comments they hear," Merritt said. "We want this to be very pragmatic."

The survey's results will be provided to academic departments, Institute committees, and administrative offices. Tech Talk will also provide an Institute-wide summary of the complete survey data.

McGavern and Merritt hope for a strong response from students. "We hope everybody will do it, because if we don't get a large sample the value of the results are skewed," Merritt said.

Survey on Athena

In an effort to get more responses, the survey will also be made available through the Athena Computing Environment. From any Athena workstation, a user will be able to fill out an electronic form. The survey can be saved in a user's home directory and worked on during more than one session before it is submitted, McGavern said.

The Athena version of the survey will be available from the day the survey is delivered to students until the end of April, McGavern said.

Instructions for using the Athena version will be distributed with the paper survey. Questions about the electronic survey and about the survey in general can be sent by electronic mail to

Respondents' surveys will remain confidential, McGavern said. Each student was assigned a code number that will be used to link survey responses with other records about students.

Only the Registrar will know which name goes with a code number, but the Registrar will not receive survey data, according to the survey instructions.

The survey is divided into six major sections and asks many short-answer questions, ranking statements on a scale of one to five, and a few more open-ended questions. "Some test marketing [suggested] it can be finished comfortably in a half-hour," Merritt said.

"We're conscious of the fact that this is the end of term and that seniors are feeling all kinds of pressure. We're hoping they can salvage a half-hour to do this," Merritt said.

Stanford provides model

Stanford University has performed senior surveys for many years and their survey served as a model for the MIT survey, Merritt said.

Merritt was particularly pleased to note that Stanford's survey has resulted in concrete changes being made. "The data they have gathered from the senior surveys has prompted substantial changes in curriculum and instructional style within several of their academic departments," Merritt said.

The survey was developed by the Educational Studies Working Group and the Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs. The ESWG includes administrators from the Admissions Office, the Registrar, Information Systems, the Planning Office, Career Services, and the Dean's Office.

The first section of the MIT survey is about experiences in students' majors. It asks 22 short-answer questions about how satisfied students were with specific areas of their department -- and how important that area was. The survey asks about the quality of instruction, advising, laboratory facilities, and many other areas.

"One question asks about the age-old chestnut pace and pressure," Merritt said. "It asks, first of all, what about this pace and pressure? Was it real? Was it good for you or bad for you?"

"Some students expect the pressure and thrive on it. Others are destroyed by it. Then the second part [of the question] was, what was the cause of this pressure?" Merritt continued.

Many of the questions asked about departmental programs are repeated in the second section, which is on the freshman year. Questions are asked about the quality of instruction, students' enjoyment of subjects, and the amount of contact with instructors outside of the classroom.

There are also questions specific to the freshman program. The survey asks about Residence and Orientation Week, the freshman credit limit, and pass/no record grading.

Other sections of the survey cover:

1/3 student life, including questions about living groups, student activities, and jobs during the semester,

1/3 financing an undergraduate education, including questions about how students paid for their education and how much debt they accumulated,

1/3 student's future plans, including a question about which people knew you well enough to write a letter of recommendation.

A section of general questions concludes the survey.

Past efforts informal

Past efforts to collect graduating students' reactions were more informal. Several departments conducted their own surveys and Associate Provost for Institute Life Samuel J. Keyser asked students to write him letters about their experiences.

Keyser stopped asking for letters a few years ago, when the number of responses declined.

Keyser "got a lot of very picturesque and sometimes inflamed language. There was no way you could get a representative view of the class," Merritt said.

It has been difficult to draw general conclusions about students' reactions from past efforts. "If we don't know the real feelings of students, we are relating anecdotes, impressions, and things we think most students are feeling or saying, but that we don't really have any evidence for," McGavern said.

There are no definite plans to conduct another senior survey in the future. But if the response for this year's survey is strong, the Dean's Office may consider doing periodic surveys of graduating classes, or it may conduct a survey of this years class several years from now to find out if graduates feel differently about their experience at MIT.