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First-Year Committee to Look At Grading, Community Issues

By May K. Tse
News Editor

The Committee on the First-Year Program, led by Professor of Physics Thomas J. Greytak '62, will be spending this semester delving into matters surrounding the freshman experience at the Institute.

The subcommittee of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program will grapple with issues of pass/no record grading, residence and orientation week, and waning student enthusiasm.

"The idea behind the CFYP is to provide the CUP - and ultimately the faculty as a whole - with better insights into how the freshman year is functioning and how it might be improved," said Associate Professor of Political Science Charles Stewart III, last year's CUP chair.

"Academically, a crummy first year experience has bad down-stream effects,"Stewart said. "Socially and culturally, the first year, and some would say, the first two weeks of the first year, sets a tone that guides how students live out their four years."

"I think the freshman year at MIT needs to be seriously evaluated; I think things can always be improved and sometimes improved a lot," said Associate Professor of Biology Paul T. Matsudaira, a CFYP member.

Pass/no record to be evaluated

One long-term focus of the CFYP is to examine the current system of pass/no record grading in the freshman year. "Often faculty say that the problem is pass/no record, that freshmen would work harder, pay more attention to classes, etc. Even if there isn't a problem, what it does is block their willingness to consider what the other problems are," Greytak said.

Pass/no record grading might be a problem "for a small fraction of freshmen,"Greytak said. "Students try to take professional courses in the freshman year to get them out of the way under pass/no record grading, such as 6.001 or 5.60."Some of the students taking advanced classes would be better off by taking them later, after taking more prerequisites, he said.

Greytak mentioned that one alternative the CFYP will be looking into is attaching pass/no record grading to only the General Institute Requirements, and not the entire freshman year. "So 8.01, 8.02, etc. would be on pass/no record, but if you took 6.001 or 5.60 as a freshman it would be on grades," he said.

If any proposal goes to the full faculty for discussion, it probably would not be until the fall of next year, Greytak said. "We're in no hurry; the system isn't broken - it works well for most of the students already - we just want to fine-tune it, and make it better for some of the other students."

Community, residence are issues

Greytak also indicated that the committee will look into Residence and Orientation Week, student enthusiasm, and other residence issues.

The goal is to form "a community of faculty and students working together to help students get through." This is not achieved by the current system, Greytak said.

Currently "we lose the opportunity to develop a sense of community. During the early weeks of the term, you're focused on R/O, competing on places to live, etc. Other universities devote their orientation to academic orientation," Greytak said.

In comparing MIT to about thirteen other top colleges, only MIT and the University of California at Berkeley had a large portion of their freshman students living off campus, with 10 percent at Berkeley and more than 40 percent at MIT, mostly in fraternities, sororities, and independent livinggroups. "This colors the experience that freshmen have," he said.

The second focus will be on why students appear to "lose enthusiasm, especially in the freshman year." Greytak described possible explanations that the CFYP will look into, including the lack of community and not enough small, hands-on classes.

"I think MIT students sell themselves short, they focus on the next problem set and don't think about the entire intellectual environment: how great MIT is, the resources and opportunities here. They don't realize they are smart and can have a real impact," Greytak said.

He continued, "They should be more engaged in a cooperative endeavor with faculty, we're trying to help them and they should take advantage of them, instead of having a them versus us attitude.'"

Advising, prereqs to be discussed

Other smaller, short-term issues that the CFYP will address include freshman advising seminars, the freshman handbook, a flag system for noting course prerequisites, gender issues, and an experimental program with the Alumni Office and Provost Joel Moses PhD '67 to arrange for MIT alumni/alumnae to help freshmen land summer jobs.