Removing Pass/NR Improved Freshman Grades, CUP Reports

1155 cupreport dsfs
The percentage of D’s and F’s received by freshmen has generally dropped in the past few years, while the percentage received by sophomores has stayed constant. In 2003, grading for freshmen during the spring term changed from pass/no record to A/B/C/no record.
Source: Committee on the Undergraduate Program January 2008 Report

Freshman grades have improved since the change from pass/no record grading to A/B/C/no record grading in the spring term, according to a report released last month by the Committee on the Undergraduate Program. But sophomore grade point averages for both fall and spring terms have remained constant since the change.

The report, which will be presented at tomorrow’s faculty meeting, recommends that the sophomore exploratory option be made permanent and that the system which flags poor academic performance during the fifth-week of the freshman terms be expanded to include upperclass students.

The change to A/B/C/no record grading and the addition of the sophomore exploratory option “have provided a gradual transition from pass/no record in a student’s first term at MIT to full grades in the junior year, and this gradual transition has worked to the benefit of the majority of our students,” Professor Dennis M. Freeman PhD ’86, chair of the CUP, said in an e-mail.

The report is available to the MIT community at

Freshman grades improve with A/B/C/no record in spring

The change to A/B/C/no record from pass/no record grading for the freshman spring term began in academic years 2002–03. In September 2000, a subcommittee of CUP released a report that said pass/no record grading relieved the anxiety and pressure associated with the first year and let students explore extracurricular activities. The committee proposed A/B/C/no record grading for the spring term to help prepare students to receive grades in the sophomore year.

The new grading system was controversial. Some community members worried that the end of spring term pass/no record would not provide students adequate time to adjust to the academic rigor of MIT and would hurt participation in student activities.

While the 2008 CUP report says that the change to A/B/C/no record grading has reduced failing performance (D’s or F’s) for freshmen in both semesters (see graphic on page 11), the cause of the improvement is unclear.

Freshmen may be doing better because they anticipate spring term A/B/C/no record grading. The change may also be linked to other changes in the freshman experience — most notably, the requirement since fall 2001 that freshmen live in dormitories.

While freshman grades have improved, sophomore GPAs have remained constant at around 4.2. The report says that the A/B/C/no record change has helped accomplished their original goal of helping students to transition into the sophomore year.

In an e-mail, Freeman said he was concerned about some of his committee’s numerical results appearing in a newspaper article. “MIT never releases information about grades (such as average GPAs) for audiences outside MIT,” Freeman said. “The reasons for this are obvious: MIT grades are not comparable and should not be compared to grades at other institutions. The CUP report is intended for the MIT community and access to its report is restricted to the MIT community.”

The change in grading policy not only affected students’ GPAs but also the classes freshmen took in the spring. The 2000 CUP subcommittee found that freshmen were eager to take academic subjects for which they lacked qualifications, in particular Thermodynamics & Kinetics (5.60), Structure & Interpretation of Computer Programs (6.001), Circuits & Electronics (6.002), and Mechanics and Materials I (2.001).

According to the 2008 report, fewer freshmen have enrolled in 6.002 and 5.60 since the change to A/B/C/no record. “It is the sense of the Chemistry faculty that the changes to freshman grading are the main reason that freshman enrollment in 5.60 has declined, and they view this as a largely positive change,” the report says.

Although fewer freshmen are taking some difficult courses, more students are choosing to leave behind their “freshman” status altogether; the number of students electing sophomore standing has increased dramatically since the change to A/B/C/no record grading. According to the report, between 15 and 26 students elected sophomore standing before the grading change; an average of 107 students elected sophomore standing after the change.

Letter grades for MIT freshmen were first eliminated and a pass/fail policy adopted as an experiment in 1968. This policy was changed to pass/no record and made permanent by the faculty in 1973.

CUP recommends permanent exploratory option

The sophomore exploratory option, a five-year experiment of the CUP, began the year after A/B/C/no record was adopted. Sophomores can declare one subject per semester “exploratory” and change its status to “listener” — effectively hiding their grade in the subject — any time before the next semester.

The committee recommends that the sophomore exploratory experiment be made a permanent option beginning in fall 2008.

According to the report, 25–30 percent of sophomores designated a subject as exploratory each semester between fall 2003 and spring 2007. This figure rose only slightly to 35 percent in fall 2008.

“The Sophomore Exploratory Option is well used and valued as a means to try ambitious subjects (both in the major and in potential minors and new majors) without having to worry about possible negative effects on grades,” Freeman said in an e-mail.

According to a survey conducted by the Teaching and Learning Laboratory in March 2005, 65 percent of surveyed students did choose to designate a subject as exploratory because it would not hurt their GPA if they did poorly; however, 75 percent of respondents would have still taken the subject had it not been exploratory. Moreover, only 36 percent felt it was related to their interest in a minor or second degree, and only 11 percent went on to change their major between sophomore and junior years.

Declaring a subject exploratory costs nothing and can only help one’s academic record. So why do two-thirds of undergraduates not bother to do it? The CUP report suggests that one answer is poor communication among students and advisers about their options. Another possibility is that students feel they must immerse themselves in their major early on so they do not fall behind other students.

Students who declare a subject exploratory tend to have higher grades. In fall 2007, the average unit load for all sophomores was 53 units and the average GPA was 4.2; the average unit load for students that designated an exploratory subject was 57.5 units and the average GPA 4.4.

CUP recommends midterm flags for upperclassmen

The report recommends that MIT expand its fifth-week flag system to include upperclass students “as part of a robust and holistic advising system.” The system, first presented to the faculty in spring 1995, is meant to identify poor academic performance early in the semester so that freshmen can successfully seek help early in the term.

The Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education is working on a plan to expand the system through MIT’s Student Information Systems, according to Freeman.

The fifth-week flag system is currently administered for freshmen by the Office of Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming. Since 2000, the UAAP has built a database to keep track of flags and has followed up more aggressively with flagged freshmen, according to the CUP report.

The report says that these changes have led to more flagged students recovering their grades. The average recovery rate for academic year 2000–01 was 53.5 percent; the recovery rate for 2005–06 was 71.55 percent.