Class of 2022 may designate three additional science and math GIRs as P/NR

Experimental policy is intended to promote major exploration, proposal says

As part of an experiment to foster “a more exploration-focused experience,” undergraduates entering in Fall 2018 will be able to designate up to three Science, Mathematics, and Engineering (SME) General Institute Requirements as Pass or No Record after their first term, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz announced in an email Aug. 3.

Existing policies remain in place: the first semester will continue to be graded on P/NR, and the second semester on ABC/NR. There are no changes for current students.

The final proposal was submitted to the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) July 26, who voted unanimously to approve it, Waitz said in an interview with The Tech.

The SME GIRs are defined to include the classes that fulfill the chemistry, physics, mathematics, and biology requirements: 3.091 or 5.11x; 8.01x; 8.02x; 18.01x; 18.02x; and 7.01x.

Similar to the deadline for Sophomore Exploratory and Junior P/D/F, students must designate classes to be graded P/NR by Add Date, according to the CUP guidelines outlining the policy.

First-year students who earn a grade of NR may elect it as one of their three P/NR options in later terms; upper-level students who earn a grade of NR may retake the class as many times as needed without using up additional opportunities, the guidelines explained.

Upper-level students may also choose to uncover a grade of D, which does not qualify as passing under P/NR but does under regular grading.

As before, Advanced Standing Exams may not be taken under P/NR after the first semester, in order to discourage students from using the experimental policy to attempt ASEs with limited preparation in the hopes of “getting lucky,” the proposal said.

Policies governing credit limits and early sophomore standing eligibility are unaffected as well.  

Noah McDaniel ’20, an undergraduate representative in the CUP, emphasized that this experimental policy was not a pilot program.

“The ‘old’ policy is the policy. The experiment is just an exception to the rule for this one year,” McDaniel said in an interview with The Tech. “That being said, this experiment will be used to inform future decisions to change the policy. Over the school year, the CUP will discuss possibilities ... for the Class of 2023.”

The hypothesis is that “increased flexibility to enable major exploration will lead to increased confidence in the initial choice of a major and increased satisfaction with the ultimate major,” as well as perhaps greater overall satisfaction with the undergraduate experience, improved academic performance, and reduced stress, the proposal explained.  

To observe what happens, administrative data will be collected throughout the process.

This may include information on which departments, programs, and fields students choose to explore; which GIRs students choose to take on P/NR versus on regular grading, and their timelines for completing the requirements; their grades, especially in GIRs and subjects for which GIRs are prerequisites; and S3 and mental health data, the proposal continued.  

“The ideal impact would be, from my perspective, that students would take one or two fewer GIRs in their first year, and use that time instead to explore interests, whether that’s majors, minors, or courses that they just really want to take,” Waitz said.

Under the experimental policy, the recommended model for the first-year fall schedule is two SME GIRs, one HASS (not necessarily a CI-H), and 12 units of academic exploration, according to an FAQ article published by the Office of the Vice Chancellor.

This new advice is in significant contrast to current trends: 80 percent of students take three or four SME GIRs in their first semester, the proposal said.

The proposal also cited several figures from the 2018 Perceptions of Majors Survey. Twenty-seven percent of undergraduate respondents said that they did not feel prepared to choose their major, and 30 percent have changed their major since starting college.

Waitz hopes to track how different policies affect these statistics. He is also interested in studying potential shifts in the broader trajectory of students’ intended majors over time, from what they indicated on their high school applications through their eventual decision.

Parallel to the experimental policy changes to P/NR grading, departments are also being encouraged to add exploratory, low-unit classes that have minimal barriers for entry and clarify (or create) roadmaps for their majors.

Reactions from interviewed students in the Class of 2022 have been largely positive, with a few misgivings.

“I am definitely a fan of the CUP experiment,” Julia Wang ’22 wrote in an email to The Tech. Wang was originally planning to take the chemistry and biology GIRs in the fall, but she may now push them a semester or a year.

“This policy will allow me to explore more subjects outside my comfort zone and to take advanced math and computer science courses early on,” Wang wrote. She hopes having the freedom to take classes in the courses she is interested in will “help [her] make a confident major declaration” by the end of the year.

“Having the freedom to spread out my GIRs over multiple semesters and still take three of them P/NR after the first semester is quite relieving,” Wang continued. “On the other hand, I don’t want to have too many ‘P’s on my transcript as opposed to letter grades.”

Katya Bezugla ’22 expressed a similar concern.

“Since they made the P/NR optional, I am unsure on how choosing to make a class P/NR will affect my transcript in the eyes of future employers,” Bezugla wrote in an email to The Tech. “Will they look at it and think I made a class P/NR because I doubted I could handle it? There is a lot of uncertainty in this, and so … I am not sure whether I will use this option.”

For Kelly Wu ’22, the policy has prompted her to consider pushing the biology GIR and take 6.0001 to learn programming or a class in Course 10 to explore her intended major instead.

“I think the change is overall positive, because it allows freshmen to plan a course schedule based more around exploring what majors we're interested in,” Wu wrote in an email to The Tech.

However, Wu is also worried that the policy may “cause us to blow off GIR[s] more and not fully learn the fundamental subjects,” which may have a negative impact down the road.

“It's hard to find a job that is precisely tailored to your major in college, so some of the skills and content learned in GIRs might end up being helpful at wherever we end up. And I think P/NR takes away some benefits,” Wu explained.

Comments from numerous department heads, faculty, administrators, and other members of the MIT community were also collected as part of the proposal.

These included letters of support from President L. Rafael Reif, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88, Provost Martin Schmidt PhD ’88, and UA President and Vice President Alexa Martin ’19 and Kathryn Jiang ’20.

Most of the criticisms articulated in the other letters were in response to specific aspects of the initial proposal, which was submitted to the CUP July 9.

This earlier version allowed students in the Class of 2022 to choose between two options. Option A was to take SME GIRs on P/NR at any time; Option B was to participate in 12 units of exploration from two or more departments in lieu of one of the SME GIRs.

“Speaking on behalf of the department heads in the School of Science, I strongly and enthusiastically endorse the spirit of the proposal to conduct experiments to improve the undergraduate education experience, specifically around modifications to the GIRs,” Dean Michael Sipser wrote in a letter to the CUP.

“However, to varying degrees, everyone I've heard from is concerned about the short timeframe available for preparing exploratory subjects, a key element of this proposal,” Sipser continued. “I agree with these concerns, and would add my own feeling that inadequate time for preparing this experiment may lead to large-scale confusion and frustration among students, faculty and staff.”

This initiative is “extremely unusual,” Waitz acknowledged.

“First, we don’t do a lot of curricular experiments to start with, and rarely do we do things this large,” Waitz said. “I’m not aware of any time that we’ve moved so quickly to do something, especially over the summer.”

But Waitz “saw an opportunity” after the conclusion of the Designing the First Year class in Spring 2018. Upon attending a faculty retreat in June, Waitz realized there was also a lot of support for doing experiments, especially related to altering P/NR.

The timing was also aided by the fact that the Class of 2021 was already in a good position to serve as a control group, as their experiences in selecting a major had already been studied extensively by the CUP through a series of survey- and interview-based self-assessments conducted last year.

The final proposal restructured the experiment so that it aligned with Sipser’s recommendations to adapt a version of Option A for the Class of 2022 and plan to implement a different variant, possibly Option B, for the Class of 2023.

Amy Shim contributed reporting.