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The Evolution of MIT’s Pass/No Record System

By W.S. Wang and Nancy Keuss

The Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) recently recommended that freshmen be subject to an A/B/C/No Record policy in their spring term rather than the current Pass/No Record system. If enacted as policy, this change would simply be yet another adjustment in the dynamic history of the freshman grading system.

The MIT Pass/Fail policy was initially an experiment, as MIT sought to offer students more freedom in choosing classes and less emphasis on grades. The growing academic strength of admitted MIT classes, coupled with the general spirit of non-conformity in the 1960s era, led to changes in academic policy. Partly to ease pressures on students, MIT voted in 1968 to eliminate letter grades for all freshmen and to impose a credit limit.

Originally intended to end after four years, the program has lasted over three decades but has not progressed without change. One seemingly subtle change to the policy was the switch from Pass/Fail to Pass/No Record in 1973. While this made no actual difference in grading standards, it further encouraged freshman exploration of classes.

A study done by sociologist Charles L. Stannard in the spring term of 1971 describes “the overwhelming support for Pass/Fail among those students who have experienced it.” This extensive survey also suggested that “it is likely that any drastic reduction in the status of Pass/Fail would not be well-received by the student body and might even be interpreted as an act of bad faith on the part of the administration and faculty.”

Although the program did reduce the amount of competition for grades, it did very little in alleviating the anxieties and pressures about academic progress, according to the Stannard study.

However, most students still shared the view of Daniel E. Geer, Jr. ’72 who wrote a letter published in The Tech in 1989 [“Pass/fail critics lose sight of positive effects,” March 10, 1989]. “I was a freshman the first year that pass/fail was used for freshmen. I came South to North, rural to urban, social isolation to compression, from licking the dew from rocks to drinking from a fire hose,” Geer said. “If it had not been for pass/fail, I would have drowned.”

Geer’s letter came in response to a 1988 rush of recommendations for changes to promote a “more flexible” first year program. They included an elimination of Pass/No Record in the spring semester, a passing grade to be C or higher, one subject per semester after the first semester on Pass/No Record, and the elimination of the junior/senior pass/fail option. These recommendations were met with heated debate, but an eventual compromise was reached, and what remains is the freshmen grading policy today.

Now, in 2000, the Subcommittee of the CUP once again proposes the elimination of Pass/No Record for the spring term. Dean of Undergraduate Education Robert P. Redwine notes that “ten years of experience has shown that it is not a good idea to allow students to take classes that they cannot handle.” Whether or not this new recommendation passes, the forgiving and dynamic freshmen grading system remains a relatively unique aspect of the Institute.