Fifth week flags, the annual warnings from instructors that a student is failing or in danger of failing a class, were sent out over a 10-day period beginning Oct. 12. 249 flags were given this year to 215 students, roughly 19 percent of the freshman class — about the average proportion of students flagged every year. Thirty-one students were given two flags, and two students were given three flags.
Most flags were given in the math and science core with a minority given in HASS classes, said Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Julie B. Norman, who also directs the office of Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming (UAAP). She also commented that many flags were given in 7.012 (Introductory Biology) due to the increased number of students in the class this year.
The flags are emails, CCd to a student’s adviser and the UAAP. Most flags are specific to individual students, and can include observations by the instructor like, “I noticed you didn’t do well on the last exam,” or “you haven’t been to recitation lately,” said Norman. Most flags also involve a follow-up from the UAAP with information on resources and suggestions on how to improve performance. Norman said that flags are intended to be something like, “Let’s pause. Where do you stand right now, and what do you need to do to be more successful?”
All flags are forwarded to housemasters and varsity coaches, and students with multiple flags get more attention from the UAAP. They also get an email from the dean of undergraduate education on how students can get support, particularly when it comes to personal problems.
Each student with multiple flags is expected to develop a “recovery plan” with the help of their adviser and Donna Friedman, associate dean for advising and academic programming. The UAAP also encourages these students to sign up for Seminar XL: Limited Edition — a not-for-credit version of Seminar XL — which matches 4–6 students with a TA for two 1.5-hour sessions every week to review material and do practice problems.
Norman said many flags result from the inability of students to manage their time and other aspects of adjusting to college learning. “You can’t coast here like you did in high school,” she said, “sometimes you end up digging a hole that you can’t get out of.”
Norman said that students sometimes “need assistance finding the trees in the forest … they need help directly going to resources.” She added that some issues affecting student performance may be more personal, in which case students should go to S^3 to seek help with managing academics in their lives.
However, Norman said that the success of a student is entirely dependent on their reaction to the flag, adding that most students she hears from react very positively and tend to be proactive, though she emphasized the importance of setting realistic goals.
“The first response of some students is, ‘I’ll dedicate 10 additional hours [to the class], I’ll go to the library, and I’ll go to every office hour,’ but these are unrealistic plans and they set themselves up for failure,” Norman said. “They need to be more thoughtful about accessing resources.”
“It was a wake-up call,” said Francisco X. Pena ’15, who got a flag in biology.
“It made me realize that I’m doing too many extracurriculars and that I should probably start paying more attention both to and in bio. … I am going to get a tutor,” he said. “I think [the flags are] necessary.”
Onyekwere “Kere” Eke ’15, flagged in 7.012, had a more negative reaction initially. “It made me feel dumb,” she said, “I was like, ‘Kere, why are you here at MIT?’ It made me feel like someone stabbed me — it was also the way the instructor wrote it, it was very harsh. I guess they thought it was necessary for them to word it that way so that you know you need to get shit done.”
But the flag motivated her to change her habits. “When I read it, I thought ‘clearly, you’re doing something wrong,’ and so I sat down and mapped out the rest of the semester. … I’ve never been so productive in my time here at MIT. I make time for reading now and, since I do the reading before the lecture, I have a better understanding of the lecture. Without the fifth week flag I would be doing nothing right now. I’m actually kind of glad I got it. It was useful, helpful.”
Emma E. Feshbach ’15 saw the flags as needing some improvement. “I knew I would get one because I failed the first test, [and] it was not very specific in offering resources besides my adviser,” she said, adding that it would be helpful if the email could offer more direct resources such as tutors, or if the email came from the department. “I think if someone didn’t know what their status was in a class it could be helpful. It just seems sort of weird sending out an email saying ‘by the way, you’re failing.’”
Last year, the flagged recovery rate — defined by a student passing a flagged class, as opposed to dropping or failing — was 81.5 percent, higher than past averages of 68–70 percent. The UAAP expects it to remain that high.
The recovery rate, said Norman, was “a direct result of student initiative — tutors, Seminar XL:LE, study sessions, meetings, etc.”