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Senior survey shows overall satisfaction with academics, life

By Angela Liao

Few would dispute the anecdotal evidence about the Institute - that the pace is fast and the pressure high, that people like their living groups, that the freshman year is less than nurturing - but the first-ever Senior Survey, conducted last year, produced some hard evidence to back up the conventional wisdom.

The 10-page long survey, mailed to members of the Class of 1994 in April, showed that about three-quarters of the seniors were satisfied with their undergraduate education. On the other hand, 70 percent of the respondents said they were not satisfied with the most important parts of their freshman year.

The initial results of the senior survey also showed that over 80 percent of the respondents were satisfied with their living group experience.

Another section of the survey measured the perceived importance of several kinds of knowledge and skills versus how well MIT educated students in these areas. The survey showed that more than 90 percent of the students thought problem solving skills were important, and almost the same amount said they were satisfied with their education in this area.

In other areas, the difference between importance and the quality of education was great: Nearly 90 percent of the students said self-esteem was important, but only about 35 percent of the respondents said MIT helped their self-esteem. The difference for academic self-confidence was 80 percent to almost 50 percent and for writing skills it was 75 percent to 40 percent.

Other questions covered by the survey include future plans, pressure, financial aid, and the extent to which students felt their MIT experience helped them in a variety of areas, from analytic skills to self-esteem.

The Educational Studies Working Group sponsored the survey in conjunction with the Undergraduate Academic Affairs Office, according to Alberta G. Lipson, assistant dean for undergraduate academic affairs.

More than 40 percent of the senior class, 461 people, responded. "The response rate was very substantial," Lipson said. The survey responses also matched fairly well with the make-up of the senior class demographically, Lipson added.

Freshman experience rated low

While 52 percent of the respondents said they were satisfied with their freshman academic experience, some of the major components of freshman year - quality of instruction, enjoyment of subjects, intellectual excitement, and the quality of freshman advising - all took a beating in the survey results. Seventy percent of the respondents reported that they were not satisfied.

Only fewer than 20 percent of the students were satisfied with opportunities for class discussion and out of class contacts with their instructors.

"One suggestion was to have a sophomore survey to focus on dissatisfaction in freshman year," said Arthur C. Smith, dean for undergraduate education and student affairs. Still, it is too early to tell what actions will result from the survey or how or when they will be carried out, he said.

"I cannot take a whole lot of comfort in seniors' recollection of freshman year," said Travis R. Merritt, dean for undergraduate academic affairs.

Both Merritt and Smith address that the dissatisfaction with freshman year is an issue that needs to be looked at in more detail.

"I hope the results of the survey will energize departments and the institution as a whole to talk to students a lot more," Smith said. "The real question is: Now we have the data, what are we going to do with it."

"I hope we will get a lot of student and faculty reaction to the survey that will help us know where to go next," Smith said.

Pressure high, but not bad

The pace and pressure of MIT were rated high by over 90 percent of the respondents. But 50 percent of the respondents also said that the pressure was good for them.

The survey revealed that the sources of pressure included trying to maintain a decent grade point average and living up to high standards demanded by the faculty and subjects. For 71 percent of the students, the pressure was mostly self-imposed. Fewer than 30 percent said peer pressure and competition created much pressure.

Commenting on individual departments and courses, students were most satisfied with academic computing resources, research opportunities, intellectual excitement, and their department's undergraduate academic office.

Students indicated that they were least satisfied with the quality of advising, personal contacts with instructors, availability of tutoring, and opportunities for class discussion.