Faculty discuss Flexible P/NR policy

Policy aims to reduce academic stress by extending a ‘safety net across all four years’

The Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) has proposed a new grading policy where students can retroactively designate up to 48 units as Pass/No Record after their first semester. The Tech spoke with faculty members on the motivations driving the proposal. 

Any subject, regardless of which requirements it fulfills, is eligible under “Flexible P/NR.”

Students utilizing this option would need to designate the subject as P/NR after the grade is finalized and before Add Date of the following semester. Students in their final term must designate the subject as P/NR before the Committee on Academic Performance’s degree candidates meeting. 

First-year grading would remain the same, with classes graded P/NR first semester and ABC/NR second semester. Credit limits are still under discussion. 

Sophomore Exploratory and Junior-Senior P/D/F would be eliminated under this policy, since Flexible P/NR is intended to replace these options.

There are no restrictions on how many of the 48 units can be applied in a given semester.

If remote electronic voting is made possible in light of COVID-19, Arthur Bahr, chair of the CUP, wrote in an email to The Tech that he intends for the proposal to be formally presented at the April faculty meeting and voted on at the May meeting. 

Flexible P/NR would take effect starting with the incoming Class of 2024 if approved by the faculty. The CUP would then study the policy’s impact over five years.

The policy aims to reduce students’ academic stress by extending a “safety net across all four years,” Bahr said in a phone interview with The Tech

Bahr said that he hopes a retroactive P/NR policy will also mitigate “perverse incentives” inherent to the current system, where some students may aim for only a C in subjects that they know at the start of the semester will be graded P/NR.

Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, who described himself as a “strong supporter” of the proposal, said in an interview with The Tech that he likes that “students can choose to use it after they see how they perform,” because the policy “encourages learning throughout the entire class.” 

“This is a safety net for if things go wrong. You shouldn’t be starting the semester planning to use it,” Bahr said. 

One reason for the policy’s flexibility is that “the more rules and exceptions included in a system, the greater the potential for unintended consequences and ‘game-ification’ of that system,” Bahr wrote. 

For example, Bahr said that preventing students from using the option for classes in their major may lead to problematic scenarios if a student designates a subject as P/NR and later switches to that department. Then, the student may need to convert the “Pass” back into a letter grade, which would further complicate the situation by resulting in differing versions of the student’s transcript. 

“Every class at MIT is important in some way, and you don’t always know which one is going to be important to which student when. The idea was to make this uniform, so that it can be applied to anything,” Waitz said. “There is a natural incentive in the system for people to really try and work hard in the classes that are most important to them.”

The Flexible P/NR proposal was briefly discussed at a faculty meeting held over Zoom March 18. 

Professor Edmund Bertschinger wrote in the meeting chat that students “might be tempted to take more units/difficult subjects, knowing they can eliminate the grade later,” thus leading to higher stress. 

Bahr said in the interview that while this may indeed be a negative effect of the policy, these situations could be avoided through strong, active advising. 

“I think a lot of that stress is due to a relentless drive to do more when I feel sometimes we should be doing less,” Bertschinger wrote in an email to The Tech. “What if we work toward a culture of mutual care more than individual transcripts?”

“There are schools that let students take anything, anytime P/NR. Those students do reasonably well. Some are faculty members at MIT. Many go to professional schools. Enabling only 48 units spread over 7 semesters seems to me to be quite reasonable,” Professor Alan Grossman wrote in the meeting chat. Grossman attended Brown University, which is well-known for its open curriculum and flexible grading policies. 

The Classes of 2022 and 2023 are currently partaking in a first-year experiment spearheaded by the CUP and the Office of the Vice Chancellor where, among other provisions, they can designate three science core General Institute Requirements as P/NR after their first semester. The results from this experiment have helped to inform the Flexible P/NR proposal. 

A primary goal of the experiments was to increase exploration in the first year by encouraging students to “put off” one science core GIR until a later semester, Bahr said. From the survey data, the CUP observed that a “very positive side effect” was reduced stress. 

“When we were trying to come up with a new proposal that would be permanent, we wanted to make stress reduction a feature rather than just a side effect,” Bahr said. 

Flexible P/NR “also redress[es] a problem that a lot of faculty felt afflicted the current experiment, whereby one set of GIRs, the science core, were singled out for disparate and arguably disfavored treatment in the form of this set of grading options that was only available for those classes,” Bahr said.  

Jesse Thaler, a physics professor and member of the Committee on Curricula (CoC), conceived the idea for Flexible P/NR.

Thaler wrote in an email to The Tech that he made an “off-hand suggestion” at a curriculum workshop in June 2018 that MIT “could treat class grades the analogous way we often treat problem sets in Physics classes: drop the lowest grades at the time of graduation.” 

In Fall 2019, Thaler mentioned his idea to Jacob White ’80, chair of the CoC, which led Thaler, White, and Bahr to discuss the possibility of a new grading policy over coffee. 

“Our goal was to come up with a grading policy that was simple, flexible, and discipline agnostic, with mechanisms to ensure that students would always be incentivized to engage in all of their classes,” Thaler wrote. 

Their initial proposal replaced all existing grading options, including first-semester P/NR, with seven Flexible P/NR designations, but they eventually arrived at the proposal in its current form after discussions with students, faculty, and staff, according to Thaler. 

“We brainstormed together. We got a lot of input from different groups. We iterated. Regardless of whether the proposal passes or not, I’m happy that the faculty came together … and crafted something that we think is an improvement over the current system,” Bahr said.