Support Graduate Pass/D/Fail

The MIT Mission states: “The Institute is committed to generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and to working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges.” Many of the challenges facing the world today, ranging from curing diseases to tackling energy issues, from harnessing information technology to understanding brain and mind, require solutions that span multiple disciplines. As a result, scientists and engineers increasingly face the need to be versatile in their knowledge, and also the need to work with colleagues from different backgrounds.

On February 20th, the MIT faculty considered a motion to allow graduate students to take subjects beyond their degree requirements on a Pass/D/Fail (P/D/F) basis, similar to the option currently available to undergraduate juniors and seniors. Having this option would not only enhance interdisciplinary research in the various departments and labs around the Institute but would also improve graduate student education and professional development. We urge the faculty to support this proposal.

As fields are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, there has been a rise in demand on students to have a breadth of knowledge. Students interested in exploring other fields may not have all the background needed to do well in a subject that would seem rather foreign to them, but they would still benefit immensely from a concerted effort to learn the material. However, it is not uncommon for students to receive C grades in undergraduate subjects, and graduate students who embark on this venture may jeopardize their fellowship status as a result. While graduate subjects carry less risk in terms of grading, they assume a greater amount of background knowledge, meaning that simply keeping up with the material may require onerous levels of time and effort. A P/D/F option would lower the barrier to this type of exploration to gain fundamentals in other fields that may benefit graduate research.

Furthermore, P/D/F would promote more effective learning in the classroom. Students could focus on distilling the core concepts of a subject rather than on grades. Students would be less prone to dropping non-required subjects, which inevitably happens as the semester goes on. Since subjects are designed assuming that students will complete the course, dropping out halfway can result in learning much less than half of the material. A P/D/F option would result in more accurate and consistent teaching resource allocations for students, including assigning the correct number of TAs and graders.

The most common remark given by students and faculty alike is that P/D/F is unnecessary because students can already take optional subjects at their own leisure on listener status, where they can attend class without the pressure of doing homework, taking exams, or grades. Although the listener option addresses some of these issues, it does not cover all concerns for a student seeking further enrichment nor does it provide sufficient motivation. Human nature being as it is, motivation in listener courses wanes as the semester progresses, and many students eventually stop attending class when other activities push listener subjects to the back burner. Moreover, even if a student does register as a listener, the teaching staff has no obligation to grade problems sets and exams nor to devote time for listeners in office hours, which can be a valuable educational resource. Furthermore, since taking a subject as a registered listener does not appear on a student’s official MIT transcript, many students do not bother to register and instead simply attend the lectures. Transcript records may be important for some students when they apply for jobs, an issue especially emphasized by students seeking international employment. In contrast, P/D/F subjects would appear on the transcript and thus boost a student’s desire to register.

Departmental officers and administrators have provided valuable insights on how graduate P/D/F might affect their students and faculty. One reservation that some departments expressed was a concern that additional coursework would take time away from research. The other reservation was that popular subjects would become over-subscribed. We emphasize that graduate officers and advisors are the gatekeepers the use of P/D/F and that instructors can control enrollment in their subjects, as is always the case. The proposed policy leaves a considerable amount of discretion in the hands of departments and instructors. For example, a department may choose to allow doctoral students to exercise the P/D/F option only after they have taken all the required coursework and passed the qualifying exams.

According to data from the Registrar’s Office from the past two years, more than 15% of graduate students take at least one subject on listener status in any given term (not counting unregistered listeners). Of these subjects, more than 40% are outside the students’ home departments. This conservative estimate suggests substantial interest by graduate students in additional coursework for their own intellectual development. Finally, many of our peer institutions, including Stanford University, UC Berkeley, Caltech and Harvard University, have options that are similar to P/D/F for their graduate students.

The proposal for creating a graduate P/D/F option has been presented on separate occasions to the Graduate Student Council, the Committee on Graduate Programs, and the Faculty Policy Committee. They have all unanimously voted to endorse the proposal. These bodies, encompassing students, faculty and administrators, have deliberated the proposal and concluded that it would benefit both the students and the Institute as a whole. When the faculty discuss the proposal at their March meeting, we know that they will carefully consider the benefits, drawbacks, and ways to mitigate the drawbacks that we have presented here. We hope that they will likewise conclude in favor of the proposal and vote in support of a graduate P/D/F option.

For more information about the graduate Pass/D/Fail proposal, visit: http://gsc.mit.edu/sgco/

Emily Fox and Stephen Hou are graduate students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Cheston Tan is a graduate student in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.