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Rethinking the First-Year Program

The Committee on the First-Year Requirement, chaired by Professor of Physics Thomas J. Greytak '62, has just begun work examining possible changes in MIT's unique first-year program. The current system of pass/no record and General Institute Requirements is near to the heart of almost every undergraduate, and certainly every freshman. The first-year program is the closest thing MIT has to an academic core; the committee should take the greatest possible care in examining the issue and soliciting a broad range of student input.

The current system of freshman pass/no record developed as a way to bring students of diverse high school backgrounds up to speed with MIT's pace and pressure. Pass/no record serves other important purposes. For many freshmen, pass/no record helps reduce stress to a more manageable, less unhealthy level. Pass/no record also enables freshmen to spend time becoming involved in their community, joining activities, and making friends. Community activities are an important part of an MIT education, and pass/no record help make them possible.

Pass/no record has come under criticism recently because many freshmen use the system to load up on difficult subjects that are intended for sophomores. Many fear that students who take upper-level subjects on pass/no record do not learn the material adequately. Pass/no record was certainly never intended to be used in this way.

One solution to this problem would be for faculty advisers to simply prevent students from taking advanced subjects during their freshmen year. Yet any solution that relies on disciplined or informed advisers seems destined to fail from the outset. Suggestions that the Registrar's Office manage a "flag" system that would perform a similar function seem equally far-fetched.

The crux of the matter, it seems, is that some classes are appropriate for freshmen to take on pass/no record, and others are not. The logical solution which has been suggested elsewhere would be to apply pass/no record to the classes themselves, rather than to the year. For example, the subjects in the Science Core should remain pass/no record for freshmen. In addition, the departments could be asked to designate subjects that may be taken on freshman pass/no record. In order to enforce some uniformity among the different major programs, the departments could be required to designate a certain number of subjects as appropriate for freshmen - three, for example.

Organizing pass/no record on a class-by-class basis would open up a host of other issues. For example, would pass/no record still be restricted to the freshman year? Opening it up might give students more flexibility, enabling them to take subjects relevant for summer jobs earlier. Having students on grades earlier, however, might increase first-year stress levels and discourage participation in the community. These issues deserve more consideration than they have received thus far.

The current design of the freshman year makes a valuable contribution to the educational product MIT provides. If changes are to be made in the first-year program, they need to conserve the positive contribution of pass/no record.