Pass/No Record falls short
A modified ABC/No Record system could work instead
As we remember it, the classic freshman year walk of shame was a 3 a.m. shuffle back home from the 18.03 pset box after a night of frantic last-minute psetting — and some amount of aimless chatting — in a group of five friends. As we turned back, we saw another group of disheveled freshmen approaching the same box. In other words, we had all failed spectacularly to shake the unfortunate study habits that we had absorbed the prior semester, during Pass/No Record.
How did we, and our friends, end up there? Like many others, we were swayed by a widespread freshman culture — and, as we will argue, a damaging one — that emphasizes social activity and fun. At the core of this culture is P/NR, a policy designed to relieve academic pressure by striking all letter grades from freshman fall transcripts. While P/NR may appear a saving grace from God (or the administration, rather), many MIT students find that it results in a certain “freshmanitis” — a lack of motivation, paired with a disregard for consequences—to the point that “P/NR” is used frequently as a substitute for “YOLO.”
The P/NR culture has recognizable signatures. When we were freshmen, upperclassmen in our dorms would often quip, “You’re on P/NR. Why are you studying?” While we avoided heeding the infamous advice, “You’re not doing P/NR right unless you get all Cs,” the attitude underlying that type of statement inevitably began to seep into our subconscious, undercutting our motivation to focus on school. The P/NR culture affected our behavior, especially because we were eager to make new friends upon starting college, and thus more vulnerable to social pressure than at most other times in our lives. We know that this freshman culture may not exist to the same degree in every sub-community at MIT, but it is undeniably pervasive and influential.
The culture surrounding P/NR has two major consequences. The first is that it undermines freshmen's ability to develop good study habits and time management skills. The P/NR mentality makes it difficult for freshmen to be purposeful about establishing their approaches to academics. This occurs in-part because being a good student critically relies on creating a clear distinction between social life and academic life. This distinction is blurred by a culture in which everything is expected to be social. For example, during our freshman fall, it seemed perfectly normal to spend portions of lecture time chatting with friends. In the P/NR context, it was a given that psetting was a social experience. As a result, we too regularly got distracted while psetting, and we often did not attempt problems on our own before working with others, making it difficult to actually learn from those problems.
In our experience, it is important that students develop good academic habits early on in their college careers because it is more difficult to undo bad habits than to establish good ones in the first place. In order to fully benefit from later classes, we had to intentionally resist and change habits we acquired freshman fall. Until we did so, the habits that we first fell into affected our ability not only to earn good grades, but also to learn as much as possible from our classes.
The second consequence of P/NR culture is that, by fostering and excusing “freshmanitis,” it encourages underperformance in GIRs. Once freshmen realize that they are comfortably on-track to pass their first term classes, the effort that they put into those classes tends to dramatically decline. Later, these students realize that they have missed out on fully understanding key foundational concepts — and then have to scramble to learn that material for their coursework.
As proponents of Pass/No Record contend, some freshmen begin MIT less prepared than others, in terms of knowledge and study skills, and P/NR provides a safety net for those freshmen. The policy we are proposing to replace P/NR aims to support underprepared freshmen with a more moderate safety net, while restoring incentives to develop good study habits and learn from classes.
We propose that freshmen should receive fall term grades according to the ABC/No Record system, with one key addition: students should have the option to retrospectively “no record” a single class of their choosing, after final grades are posted. Our suggested policy would cultivate a more positive and productive culture than the one created by P/NR, because the policy presents some consequences (grades) for carelessness towards school. As a result, we would see improvement in freshmen’s ability to develop study skills and learn GIR material.
Furthermore, each student who earns a low grade in the fall would be faced with a decision: retain the grade or drop the grade and retake the corresponding class (assuming the class is required). Students who opt to retake courses would thus have a second chance to properly learn useful material.
In addition, our sense is that this policy would most benefit those who begin MIT with the least preparation. Students who are not very well-equipped to tackle MIT academics upon starting freshman year are especially likely to earn Cs. The option to drop a passing grade would thus provide these students with some peace of mind, and the opportunity for a GPA boost. Also, often times, the least prepared students particularly need to develop good study skills, and our policy would help create an environment conducive to their doing so. We understand that many view P/NR as an effective way to help less prepared students acclimate to MIT. However, more data is needed to clearly confirm or deny our impression that our policy would be at least as beneficial for those students as P/NR. We would recommend more research be done on the subject .
One possible concern regarding our proposal is that, without P/NR, extracurricular involvement and social life at MIT would be stunted. However, student life at MIT is already set up to encourage socializing and exploring hobbies. Freshmen are expected to collaborate on problem sets and to engage with some living group or other community — both activities that make mingling and forming friendships highly convenient. Moreover, many students stay on campus during IAP and the summer, times they can use for personal exploration.
Some might also claim that P/NR helps to lessen the level of depression and anxiety among freshmen at MIT. While we cannot speak here to the myriad ways that grades might affect mental health, in our experience, a major source of mental strain at MIT is students’ tendency to compare themselves with others. Unfortunately, freshmen do this even when final grades are not reported (we know we did), since students fixate on and compare a number of academic metrics beyond transcripts — such as course-load and individual exam scores.
The freshman culture created by P/NR replaces another culture, one focused on academics, research, creativity and innovation — in short, all the great things that MIT has to offer. People choose to come here because they enjoy STEM (and sometimes HASS!) and want to have meaningful experiences through classes and research. Pass/No Record warps the way we see academics, making it uncool to be passionate about school. The policy change we recommend would help build upon freshmen’s eagerness to get the most out of MIT and foster their engagement with the Institute’s broader community.
 This research could address the question, “To what degree do freshmen who really struggle in the fall improve by the spring?” (The 2008 Committee on the Undergraduate Program Review of P/NR provides some insight into this.) Another relevant question is, “To what extent do those freshmen seek out relevant resources during the fall, as opposed to getting help later on?” The research could also investigate the potential effect of expanding advising for underprepared students, to help them develop necessary study skills and find valuable resources.
Talia Weiss and Samantha Russman are members of the MIT Class of 2018.