For a majority of the class of 2015, the math diagnostic was the first academic hurdle to conquer at MIT. On Aug. 29, 700 freshmen sat for the two-hour exam, used to suggest class placement for their Physics I GIR course.
About 430 freshmen, having received a 5 on both Physics C Advanced Placement exams, were exempt from the math diagnostic — a policy enacted for the first time this year. Because stronger students tended to earn the exemption — not because the diagnostic was any harder — this year’s exams scores were lower, says Course 8 Academic Administrator Catherine Modica.
Following the exam, freshmen and their advisors received messages recommending a particular “flavor” of introductory mechanics: 8.01, the standard TEAL-based class; 8.01L, a slower-paced class which extends through January but covers all the same material; or 8.012, a more problem-intensive version of 8.01. Three cutoffs were marked on the grading curve, at 46, 71, and 76 points out of 100. The students in the lower and upper scoring ranges were encouraged to take 8.01L and 8.012, respectively; students scoring between 71 and 76 points were permitted to take 8.012 but were given a precautionary note. “In the past we’ve seen that these students have the potential to succeed, but also to struggle a great deal,” says Modica.
As of Wednesday, enrollment figures in 8.01, 8.01L, and 8.012 were 600, 109, and 86 students, respectively.
Unlike in previous years, 8.012 does not have a waitlist this year. The physics department adopted a strict policy of denying enrollment in 8.012 to any student even one point below the cutoff score. Modica agrees with this change, having long disliked the implications the waitlist had for students on it. “I really feel for that student who is hoping, waiting, and worrying about being behind if they get in the class. … [Missing] one week can be major, and two weeks can mean the difference between success and failure,” she remarked.
Some students place less emphasis on the math diagnostic’s recommendations, recognizing that the exam has inherent flaws — like being at the end of a long summer. “Had I taken [the diagnostic] this week, after actually doing calculus [in class] … I would have done significantly better than I did,” noted Eli B. Davis ’15.
“While [8.01] is hard, it’s not necessarily the math that makes it hard,” said Nina Yang ’15, who was recommended for 8.01L but opted for 8.01.
For other students, being told that they are not eligible for 8.012 can come as a blow. “Many freshmen were the best student in their high schools,” Modica recognizes. “But it’s better … [to focus on] starting off your learning on the right track.”
Modica underscored that the physics department understands how stressful it can be to arrive on campus and be required to take a math test but tries not to make the exam feel that way. “The professors care a lot — these are the students they will be working with this term, and maybe in the future, after all,” she says.
“Everyone is going to get an intense physics experience in classical mechanics. I’ve never heard anyone go home over Thanksgiving and complain that their physics class, at MIT, was not challenging enough,” she added.