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Freshman Year Policies Need Revision

Column by Brett Altschul

I haven't liked everything about my first year at MIT. That's pretty natural. Now, as my period as a freshman wends to a close, Iwant to air some of my grievances with MIT's educational policies.

My most serious complaint regards the freshman grading system. Students at other colleges get along quite nicely without such a system. More important, MIT freshmen managed without the Pass/No Record policy for decades.

The special freshman grading hurts two large groups of freshman. Some students, like myself, work diligently during the first year, and really have nothing to show for it at the beginning of the sophomore year. I personally feel cheated that I don't get any official recognition for my labors.

Even worse, the system creates a significant group of students who choose not to work particularly hard for their first year. These students don't learn the basic concepts presented in the freshman classes very well, and this hurts them later on. Moreover, they never establish the study skills necessary for the more difficult courses they will take in later years.

At the root of this policy of reduced accountability is an attitude that I've noticed among many MIT students. Especially among freshmen, there seems a strong tendency to dismiss the students who do well as "better prepared" rather than more intelligent. Certainly, some students have problems because of insufficient preparation, but the stellar performers aren't just products of better high schools.

Of course, this attitude is very understandable. Ninety-ninth percentile students who come here suddenly find themselves in the middle of the pack. It can be difficult to admit that they're no longer the brightest ones around, so they attribute everyone's levels of success to the quality of their prior education rather than their innate learning abilities.

The attitude doesn't really bother me among new students. What bothers me is that the MITadministration also believes the bogus preparedness argument. That line of reasoning provides the primary justification for the special freshman grading system.

It also seems that the MIT administrators lack a basic understanding of probability and statistics in many cases. The most obvious examples are the programs to assist students from underrepresented minorities, like Interphase, the summer program to assist incoming freshmen.

The administration's logic justifying such programs runs roughly as follows: minority students are more likely to have had poor prior educations; people with a poor prior education need extra help to get started; we need a special program to help minority students.

To me, this sort of reasoning begs the question of why we can't just have a program for people with poor educational backgrounds. There are terrible schools in essentially all-areas of the United States, yet most students get no opportunities to make up for their lacking high school experience.

Meanwhile, minority students get such an opportunity whether they need it or not. After all, not all underrepresented minority students came from lousy schools. The administrators here just can't seem to comprehend the difference between correlation and cause.

MIT's system of delayed major declaration also causes some problems. Several majors essentially require that a student begin taking classes toward their degree during the freshman year. Students who think they can safely delay their choice of major until after two full semesters are either excluded from these departments, or they end up with a great deal more work than the students who began taking classes for their major during their freshman year.

Those students who do tacitly begin their majors during the freshman year also suffer under this system, because they don't have a contact in their chosen department. I had a great deal of difficulty choosing math classes with a geologist for my adviser. Many freshmen who think they can get an early start toward their degree end up in much deeper water than they expected, because their freshman advisers didn't know anything about the courses the students were choosing.

None of the situations I've addressed are likely to change in the near future, and I fear that many more freshmen will suffer the same difficulties that I have encountered this year. The fact that these systems are so entrenched and unthinkingly accepted may be the greatest problem of all.