News feature

Evolution of the first-year academic experience

A history of the changes in curriculum, policy, and programs affecting the first year at MIT

This year, freshmen can designate up to three Science, Mathematics, and Engineering (SME) General Institute Requirements to be graded on a Pass/No Record basis after their first term. This experiment marks a bold initiative to reevaluate the curriculum of the first year and the broader first-year experience, and a continuation of MIT’s increasing encouragement of freshman exploration. In light of the experiment, it is timely to reflect on the history of the first-year academic experience at MIT.

The early years

MIT’s first class, in 1865, consisted of only 32 freshmen. The required courses were mathematics, mechanical drawing, free hand drawing, elementary mechanics, chemistry, English language and literature, modern languages, and military tactics. All freshmen took these classes together.

Mathematics included algebra, plane trigonometry, solid geometry, and spherical trigonometry. Elementary Mechanics included the “general doctrine of motions and forces,” mechanics of solids, mechanics of liquids and gases, and “phenomena and laws of sound.” Chemistry included “chemistry of the non-metallic elements” and “chemistry of the metals.” The “modern languages” requirement consisted of learning French and German.

Dr. Deborah Douglas, Director of Collections and Curator of Science and Technology at the MIT Museum, wrote in an email to The Tech that learning French and German was necessary because they were the language of most science and technology papers and textbooks. She also explained that drawing was a requirement because in the 19th century, engineering was centered around drawing machines. With the onset of the 20th century, mathematical analyses took precedence, and so the mechanical and free hand drawing classes were gradually phased out.

In addition to classes, all students were required to do drills and receive instruction in military science in the MIT Corps of Cadets. The U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Act in 1862 to provide states with federal lands that could be sold to fund colleges. The Massachusetts legislature’s decision to provide funds to MIT included a requirement to “provide instruction in military tactics.” Each week, first and second year students trained with each other for an hour and a half, albeit with poor equipment and limited resources.

Beginning in 1908, all first-year students were required to take lectures in personal training and hygiene, exercise two hours a week with an instructor, and complete physical exams at the beginning and end of the school year.

The Lewis Report: Foundations of MIT’s HASS system

In 1947, MIT commissioned the Committee on Educational Survey, chaired by Warren K. Lewis. In 1949, the committee published The Report of the Committee on Educational Survey, known as the Lewis Report. This report examined MIT’s principles of education and provided recommendations for the MIT curriculum that became the foundations of the current MIT academic experience.

At this time, MIT had risen to increased prominence as a result of WWII. In addition, the number of public universities was increasing, bringing into question the value of private higher education. As a result, the committee grappled to establish MIT’s institutional purpose.

The committee decided that MIT must “provide a kind of education that cannot be obtained elsewhere” and could only do so by “improv[ing] the education that we now offer and to extend[ing] it into new and promising areas hitherto undeveloped.” The report argued that MIT should create the Committee on Undergraduate Policy in order to “provide a means for concentrated and unified effort toward achieving the distinction in undergraduate education to which the Institute should aspire.”

Furthermore, Douglas wrote, at the time there was an “existential issue regarding the real and perceived threat of fascism.” Faculty found that course curricula were similar to that of a Soviet university and that “the kind of student MIT was educating was being trained to conceive, design, operate, and manage large technological systems that had the same centralizing tendencies as did communist governing systems.” As such, there was an increased emphasis on the preservation of democracy through civics and the humanities.

Thus, during the course of the study, an auxiliary committee, the Committee on General Education, was commissioned in order to focus specifically on providing undergraduates with “broader and more effective cultural training.” Their recommendation focused on “strengthening and broadening the facilities for education in the social sciences and the humanities at the Institute” and recommended extending the HASS GIR requirement from 8 subjects to 10 subjects and including HASS subject sequences.

As a result of these recommendations, MIT created the Committee on Undergraduate Policy — now the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) — which provided a central body to oversee the undergraduate educational program, and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

In 1951, the HASS requirement was changed from two terms of composition and six terms of humanities to a four HASS-subject sequence in the first two years, a three-subject concentration in years 3–4, and one elective.

In 1948, the swim test was instated, after a recommendation from the Athletics Association Study Committee. There are many false rumors about the origins of the swim test, including one that posits, “The son of prominent alum X drowns, prompting the alum to donate in the son’s name … under the stipulation that a swim test be required in order to receive a diploma.” Years after, the PE requirement was increased to six points, and then to eight points.

The Zacharias Report: Foundations of MIT’s science core and distribution requirements

In 1962, MIT commissioned a faculty committee, chaired by Jerrold Zacharias, to review the undergraduate curriculum, particularly the science requirement. The committee report, published in 1964 — referred to as the the Zacharias Report — tackled many issues that are still pertinent today, including whether or not students should begin by learning the pure sciences, “whether emphasizing reading- and lecture-based science subjects undermined the ‘resourcefulness’ and efficacy of students,” and the tension between training students for their professions versus enriching them for their broader lives. Ultimately, the report recommended a more diverse and flexible Science Requirement.

Faculty voted to approve the report’s recommendations. The science core was changed from four semesters of physics, four semesters of math, and two semesters of chemistry to two semesters of physics, two semesters of math, one semester of chemistry, three elective classes, and one elective laboratory subject from a list of Science Distribution subjects.

The Science Distribution classes included subjects like Thermodynamics, Organic Chemistry, Crystallography, and Differential Equations. The Science Distribution laboratory requirement included subjects like Design of Experiment, Engineering Design and Manufacture, and Experimental Electronics.

The elective laboratory was not to teach about a specific subject matter or field, but rather was to “give the students some real idea as to what laboratories are and what is meant by solving experimental problems in science and engineering.” The other three electives were meant to be  a balance between exposing students to a common core of fundamental science subjects and a recognition of the diversity of students.

The HASS system (developed as a result of the Lewis report) and the science core and science distribution requirements (developed as a result of the Zacharias report) form the basis of the HASS GIR and SME GIR requirements that we have today.

Later changes to the GIRs

In 1974, the HASS requirements were changed to an eight-subject Hum-D distribution requirement, of which students had to take at least three subjects in three separate fields, and a three-subject concentration requirement in a single field, in order to “achieve some degree of depth” in that field.

In 1988, under recommendation from an Institute-wide committee chaired by the late Professor of American History Pauline Maier, the Hum-D distribution requirement was changed to a HASS-D distribution requirement. The change imposed more structure and restricted class selection for the requirement in order to “ensure that students receive a broad and cohesive exposure to the humanities, arts, and social sciences.”

In 1990, biology was added to the science core, and the science distribution was replaced with a restricted elective in science and technology and decreased by one subject.

In 2000, the writing requirement was replaced with the communication requirement.

In 2001, the first TEAL class, 8.02T, was instated and deemed a success by faculty. One study found that TEAL doubled student learning gains. However, student reviews were more mixed. In a column in The Tech, one student complained that the computers froze during presentations, the slides had typos, and that the problem set questions were vague. These problems were eventually fixed, and, by 2005, almost all physics classes were taught in a TEAL format.

In 2010, the HASS-D distribution requirement was removed and replaced with the current HASS requirement of three distribution components of one HASS-A (arts), one HASS-H (humanities), and one HASS-S (social sciences); three or four subjects in a concentration; and one or two electives.

In 2012, edX was launched and first used by ESG and Concourse for 8.01.

Pass/No Record

In 1968, Pass/Fail was enacted as a four-year experiment for the freshman class in order to ease student anxiety, to help students compensate for differences in secondary school education, to give students more freedom in choosing classes, and to improve instructor-student relationships. In addition, a credit limit of 60 units in the fall and and 63 units in the spring was implemented. Students received feedback through twice-a-term Freshman Evaluation Forms.

Reviews of the unit limit were mixed. Some felt that the limit was good for preventing students from overburdening themselves, but others felt that the limit change was counterproductive to Pass/Fail’s purpose of furthering freshman exploration. On the other hand, students were very “overwhelmingly supportive” of Pass/Fail, according to a study done by sociologist Charles L. Stannard in the Spring of 1971. One student wrote a letter published in The Tech saying, “If it had not been for pass/fail [sic], I would have drowned.”

As thus, Pass/Fail was not ended after four years. Instead, in 1973, it was made permanent and changed to Pass/No Record in order to encourage freshmen to further explore classes.

Faculty were concerned about the lack of ability to give students feedback, and so in 1982, formal “hidden grades” were added in the spring.

In 1988, the Committee on the First Year Program, chaired by Kenneth Manning (referred to as the Manning Committee), recommended a more “flexible” first-year program that included ending Pass/No Record in the second semester and changing the minimum “Pass” grade from a C to a D.

Based on the Manning Committee’s recommendations, faculty chose to change the minimum “Pass” grade to a C, but did not end Pass/No Record. In addition, they lowered the unit limits to 54 in the fall and 57 in the spring.

In 1995, the Freshmen Evaluation Forms were eliminated and were replaced with formal “hidden grades” for both the fall and spring semesters, as well as a “Fifth Week Flag” that notified students after their fifth week if they were failing a class.

In September 2000, a subcommittee of CUP recommended that freshmen in their spring term be graded on A/B/C/NR instead of Pass/No Record. The change was originally suggested by Professor of Literature Travis R. Merritt and Professor of Anthropology Arthur Steinberg. Steinberg felt that Pass/No Record was leaving students unprepared for their sophomore year. Students, however, strongly preferred Pass/No Record.

The change was approved in 2002. It reduced the number of students who received Ds and Fs in their classes, but sophomore grades did not improve.

This year, in order to foster “a more exploration-focused experience,” freshmen can designate up to three SME General Institute Requirements as Pass/No Record after their first term. The Office of the Vice Chancellor recommends that students take one exploratory course their freshman year. This year’s policy is an experiment in part resulting from the Designing the First Year, a class targeted at enhancing the first-year experience at MIT. The Class of 2021 will serve as the control group.

Freshman Orientation and Advising

Prior to 1969, All first-years were advised by faculty in a traditional model. By 1975, much fewer faculty were advising students, and 50 percent of advisors were non-faculty and 35 percent were graduate students. Briefly, from 1977–1979, the Office of Freshman Advising was faculty run.

In 1984, the Freshman Advising Seminar began. In 1992, traditional advising was eliminated. 80 percent of students participated in one of 112 seminars, and the other 20 percent were not advised. At this time, unlike today, most Freshman Advising Seminars were not faculty led.

The earliest evidence of Early Sophomore Standing is in a reference to the Profile of the Freshman Class in 1985. Early Sophomore Standing allows freshman students to become sophomores in their spring semester. Students are graded, advised, and credit-limited as sophomores.

In 1995, the current advising model began. Freshmen were either enrolled in a seminar or traditionally advised.

The first Freshman Pre-Orientation Program (FPOP), “Freshman Leadership Program,” debuted in 1996. Around the same time, “Discover Ocean Engineering” (DOE), the first academic exploratory program, debuted. There are now over 25 FPOPs.

Freshman orientation in its modern form began in 1997. Prior to this, orientation activities were “integrated” with fraternity rush and referred to as R/O.

In the 2000s, Residence Based Advising (RBA) was introduced in McCormick Hall, with modified versions in Random Hall, Chocolate City, German House, and Spanish House. Upperclassmen Residence Associate Advisors would work with a faculty/staff advisor to advise a group of 8–10 freshmen. In addition, they would work with Residence Life Associates (RLAs), who would guide the RBA program and provide dormwide events. RLAs eventually evolved into the current Residential Life Area Directors. Initial reviews of RBA were mixed. Some students felt that they could help “build community” in their residences, but others felt that it would deprive students of the ability to join freshman advising seminars and feared that it was endemic of increasing administrative control.

Freshman Learning Communities

Freshman Learning Communities provide students the opportunity to learn in small, interactive classes within a community-based program and set physical space, and include first-year advising and social activities.

The Experimental Study Group (ESG) began in the fall of 1969 as an educational experiment founded by the Edwin Land Foundation in order to encourage independent work, interpersonal communication, and active student involvement. There were originally no classes (although students could choose to attend regular MIT classes) and students could choose their own topics to study. Students were not required to read from MIT course textbooks or complete assignments. In 1980, ESG was formally given status under the School of Science. ESG offers classes that cover all of the SME GIRs, as well as several HASS classes and seminar options.

Concourse was founded the year after by Professors Louis Bucciarelli and David Oliver of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and sponsored by the Commission on MIT Education in order to establish a cooperative curriculum between the sciences, the humanities, and engineering. Concourse offers classes that cover the mathematics, chemistry, and physics GIRs. Freshmen are required to take CC.110: Becoming Human: Ancient Greek Perspectives on the Best Life in the fall semester and attend Friday seminars in both terms.

The Integrated Studies Program (ISP) began in 1989 and integrated coursework in the humanities, sciences, and engineering. Students enrolled in SP.353: Technologies and Cultures, and SP.354: Technologies in Historical perspective. Students could also attend a special ISP only 8.01X recitation section. In 2002, ISP was replaced with Terrascope.

Media Arts and Sciences’s (MAS) first-year program was founded in 1999 to introduce students to university research, the Media Lab community, and “intersection of technology and communication/expression.” Students take MAS.110: Fundamentals of Computational Media Design in the fall and MAS.111: Introduction to Doing Research in Media Arts and Sciences in the spring. MAS offers recitation sections for chemistry and physics GIRs and a variety of seminars.

Terrascope was founded in 2002 by Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Sallie “Penny” Chisholm and Professor of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Kip Hodges as the educational arm of the Earth System Initiative (ESI) (not to be confused with the current Earth Science Initiative). ESI, also formed in 2002, was developed to “foster and facilitate multidisciplinary research and education efforts in earth and environmental sciences.” Terrascope grew out of 12.000: Solving Complex Problems, a class created by Hodges in 2000; the class continues to be the cornerstone of the program. The class gives freshmen the opportunity to take charge of their own work by putting them in charge of tackling a “Mission,” a complex earth systems problem. Originally, during the spring semester, students took 1.016: "Design for Complex Environmental Issues," in which they designed and built museum exhibits. In the current version of the class, now listed as 2.00C[J]/1.016[J]/EC.746[J], students design and prototype specific solutions to aspects of the year's Mission. Students also have the option of taking SP.360, Terrascope Radio, in which they develop a radio program, and going on a spring break trip to investigate their Mission first-hand. Terrascope does not offer GIR classes.