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Pass/NR Not the Only Problem

Undoubtedly, many students and faculty are now considering the recommendation from a Committee on the Undergraduate Program subcommittee to abolish the Pass/No Record grading system during the spring term of freshman year. But we believe that it is myopic to focus solely on the freshman grading system without evaluating the rest of the freshman experience at the Institute. It is time that MIT consider making several fundamental changes to freshman advising and course selection to accompany the coming change in grading policy.

The Tech believes that freshmen should hold two academic goals for their first year at MIT. First, they should explore those majors which interest them, learn about the offerings and opportunities of different departments, and make an educated choice of major. Second, they should strive to complete their coursework to the best of their ability. Reducing Pass/No Record to one semester may discourage slacking among the freshmen, but it does nothing to encourage freshmen who have not yet chosen their major to sample classes from different courses.

The greatest flaw in MIT’s freshman program is its woeful advising system. Too many advisers show too little interest in a student’s personal desires and instead push students to fill freshman year solely with required courses such as 5.11 and 7.012, which may have no relevance to a student’s major. The Tech sees no reason why students who are inclined to take a course such as 6.001 freshman year, and who have completed the prerequisites, should not be able to do so. Advisers must be instructed that students should be encouraged to sample MIT’s varied course offerings their first year and not be trapped into a rigid, inflexible schedule of basic requirements. While many in the administration and student government have long argued that advisers must be more than MIT employees who sign registration forms for students, the reality is that today’s advisers are just that.

The interaction between MIT freshmen and professors must also be improved from its current sorry status for MIT’s freshman program to be successful. There is a dangerous disconnect between the faculty and freshmen which harms the freshman experience. Professors active in the lives of freshmen can be encouraging mentors, exciting students about research and classes, and, in turn, the Institute as a whole. Unfortunately, the current wall of separation between freshmen and their professors prevents this from happening.

One potential idea which may foster exploration of different majors, and make a wider variety of classes more available to freshmen, is to designate one course in each major as a freshman introductory class, and allow freshmen to take that class on Pass/No Record their spring semester. This system would allow first-year students to explore different majors in a less-pressured environment, while ensuring that freshmen choosing to take more advanced classes in their spring semester must do so on grades. The CUP should either consider this proposal, or create a similar structure, to guarantee that freshmen who feel the need to explore different majors may do so their freshmen year.

As the proposal to eliminate spring Pass/No Record grades comes before the CUP, committee members must acknowledge more serious flaws that exist in the freshmen program and attempt to correct these. Before acting on grades, the CUP must correct the major flaws in the advising system, and ensure opportunities for freshmen to learn about different majors.