Skip to main content

Enhancing the First Year at MIT

CUP Experiment – Phase 1

In August of 2018 the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) agreed to move forward with an experiment to investigate ways to promote greater exploration in the first-year undergraduate experience.

The proposal was made possible through a marvelous collaboration between students, faculty, staff and administrators over the last year and incorporates some specific recommendations from the Designing the First Year at MIT course (spring FYE ’18).

Aspects of the experiment – Phase 1

  • Control Group (Class of 2021)
  • Test Group (Class of 2022)
    • Up to 3 Science Core GIRs may be taken P/NR after first semester (declare by ADD date)
    • New messaging: first-year is for exploration
  • Improved roadmaps for majors
  • Development of more exploratory options
    • Initial list from departments had 190 subjects
    • Also identified first-year UROP coordinators for departments and other opportunities

Key Insights

Registration data from Spring 2019 indicates that students are actively taking advantage of the P/NR grading option.

Registration data from Spring 2019 indicates that students are actively taking advantage of the P/NR grading option.

Preliminary results suggest that the experiment is enabling students to explore more broadly. At the same time, many continue to take science core GIR subjects early in their time at MIT. Students who do so cite reasons such as catching up to their peers, satisfying prerequisites for majors of interest, or using certain GIRs (typically chemistry or biology) as exploration opportunities.

  • Compared to last year, there were 538 fewer first-year enrollments in science core GIRs this fall (about one fewer science core GIR for every other student).
  • Students used the freed-up units in a variety of ways: taking 14% more unique subjects (which increased from 280 to 318) in the fall. Seventy-five percent of these were subjects specifically designated by departments as being good for exploration.
  • We are still in the process of collecting and analyzing spring registration data as this data is considered preliminary until after Add Date, but initial data suggest that these trends have continued to a lesser extend in the spring. As of the end of the first week of classes, there were roughly 200 fewer science core GIRs registrations by first-year students as compared to last year. Taken as a whole, on average, this means that about three quarters of the students registered for one fewer science core GIR in the first year. There was also a slight increase in the number of unique subjects, with 4% more compared to last year (an increase from 403 to 420).

We have an early sense of the different ways students are taking advantage of the increased flexibility to explore majors, minors, and concentrations.

  • The students who are exploring fall roughly equally into three categories (based on the work of the prior CUP Study Group on Undergraduate Majors Exploration):
    • Focused: they are firm about their desired major upon entry to MIT and seek to engage and explore within that major.
    • Focused/open: they have 2-4 different majors in mind and seek to explore to choose among them.
    • Open: they have no idea what their major will be and seek to explore to discover their major interest.

We have not seen a reduction in student performance (fall hidden GPA) in science core GIR or non-science core GIR subjects.

The number of unique majors selected by students electing early sophomore standing has increased from 17 to 19.

  • There is a reduction in the percentage of early sophomores declaring Course 6, although it is too early to tell if this will correlate with ultimate major declarations for the full class.

To augment the experiment, the Office of the Vice Chancellor (OVC) offered support to departments for developing subjects to aid students in major exploration.

Important open questions remain about the experiment’s current and longer-term impacts that we are committed to answering.

  • How does taking classes on P/NR (either in the first semester or thereafter) impact performance in those classes and in subsequent classes that rely on that material?
  • Does taking science core GIRs on P/NR impact reported levels of academic stress?
  • How does the policy affect student confidence in their choice of major? How does it affect satisfaction with the major after graduation?

We are also committed to continuing to experiment.

  • The CUP has approved an experiment for the Class of 2023.
    • Our initial findings from the current experiment indicate a need to encourage more low-unit discovery of majors, minors, and topics in addition to enabling more traditional student practices of exploring majors through introductory subjects. The Phase Two experiment is designed to balance these two approaches.
  • Advising pilot for the Class of 2023
    • Another important need expressed by students and faculty throughout our efforts is the need to improve our advising system in the first year and beyond. The pilot divides advising functions among a small network including faculty, staff, and peers rather than concentrating the many functions in a single faculty member.
  • Testing “blue-sky ideas” in first-year learning communities
    • Building on student ideas from the two Designing the First-Year Experience offerings (Spring 2018 and IAP 2019) as well as ideas from faculty and instructors, we intend to leverage the flexible and personalized nature of the First-Year Learning Communities to try out new approaches to foster curiosity in the first year.

Additional information: and