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Pass/No Record Is Vital To Learning, Not Grades

Guest Column by Douglas S. J. De Couto

I am writing in response to Brett Altschul's column ["Freshman Year Policies Need Revision," May 14]. I am dismayed with Altschul's feelings about freshman year Pass/No Record, and I feel that his reasoning reflects what I consider to be the wrong attitude towards a university education. He complains of receiving no "official recognition" for his hard work during freshman year, and is also worried that Pass/No Record encourages many students to not learn the basic concepts well enough.

I feel that the Pass/No Record system is one of the best parts of MIT. The students who come to MIT are unique in their ability to concentrate and focus intensely on problems. They have worked extremely hard to get to MIT, and if they came to MIT and were immediately faced with grades, they would work just as hard to maintain the sort of grades that they had before they came to MIT. But this is just not possible for most, MIT being what it is. I feel that MIT attracts individuals with a certain intensity; the pressure of trying to achieve the sort of GPA that they had in high school at MIT is not necessary because of this intensity.

As to Altschul's statement that "students at other colleges get along quite nicely without such a system," I would point out that MIT is not just another college. You will most likely never be as challenged anywhere else as you are here at MIT. So the fact that Pass/No Record is not necessary at other schools is not relevant to MIT. Also, the fact that Pass/No Record was not always part of freshman year does not mean that it is not an improvement to the freshman year experience.

The primary reason for being at MIT is to learn. It is possible to learn without grades; in fact, worrying about grades and tooling for those extra few points can get in the way of learning. So the Pass/No Record system is part of trying to get students into a mode of learning, as opposed to simply getting high grades. Also, without the pressure of grades, freshman are able to get more out of the university experience. There is a little more time for getting involved in activities, playing a sport, or even socializing. These dimensions of university life are just as important as the academic dimension, and are easily overlooked at MIT. The time spent getting involved freshman year often determines our interests and activities until we graduate. Without Pass/No Record, I feel that more people would be uninvolved, withdrawn, and unnecessarily stressed.

I see no reason why the university is obliged to give recognition to us for being willing to work hard and learn. We should come to university to learn, which requires hard work. But what we learn or get out of our experience at university cannot be expressed in a grade. I am sorry that Altschul does not feel that he has anything to show for his hard work without a grade. Hard work has its own reward: knowledge. Why do we need any external recognition?

As for the idea that Pass/No Record encourages laziness in learning basic concepts, Altschul may be right. But if you are lazy freshman year and do not learn the necessary material, you will pay the price yourself. In the end, only you can be held responsible for your education. In university, you must take initiative if you wish to learn; the university provides the resources for you take advantage of.

Although grades are an important part of university, they are not the only part. That is why I think that there is no reason abolish Pass/No Record freshman year.