A Visit from the DUE Visiting Committee

Dennis Freeman, Dean for Undergraduate Education

On May 12 and 13, we hosted the DUE Visiting Committee (VC) for their biennial visit.  Visiting Committees are a well-established system of external feedback coordinated by the MIT Corporation.  The 19-member DUE VC includes senior leadership from our peers (Stanford, Princeton, CalTech, Harvard, Columbia), members of the MIT Corporation, as well as MIT alumni nominated by the Corporation.  Their visit is an opportunity for DUE to gain independent, outside, expert critique and comment on what we do.  At the same time, in reporting their findings to the Corporation and MIT senior administration, the VC articulates and advocates for the priorities they feel are most critical to undergraduate education.

The two-day visit began with Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart talking to the 14 VC members in attendance about “The Opportunity for Educational Change.”  With this context, I then shared an overview of DUE and what I see as our priorities:

Enhancing the educational experience of undergraduates:

  • Strengthening the freshman year.
  • Expanding experiential learning.
  • Promoting global experiences.
  • Supporting educational innovation.

Reducing barriers to help students succeed academically and personally:

  • Improving advising and mentoring.
  • Creating a supportive environment.
  • Addressing student stress.

The Committee was interested in hearing more about new approaches to education. I talked extensively about my experience in 6.01 (Introduction to EECS I), which uses a flipped classroom.  Most classroom time is focused on students working (with a partner) on projects based on a mobile robot.  What surprised the VC was that we are able to teach 6.01 to about 600 students per year. The Committee wanted to understand how we were able to fund and sustain such a subject. This provided an opportunity to describe our unique model of shared teaching and mentoring roles among the faculty, graduate TA’s, undergraduate TA’s, and undergraduate lab assistants. Mentoring was also a topic of keen interest and we had a productive dialogue about how we could create more mentoring opportunities for students. Finally, there was significant discussion around student stress and the emphasis on grades, by both students and faculty. We talked about the fact that grades are both a motivator and a stressor but should not be the only measure of success.

The remaining day and half focused on three important topics:

  • Enhancing students’ educational experiences in the freshman year
  • Admissions: a view into the selection process
  • DUE opportunities vis a vis recommendations of the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education

Enhancing students’ educational experiences in the freshman year

During my overview discussion, I noted that enhancing the freshman year was one of my highest priorities. I would like to see hands-on, educational experiences become a fundamental part of the first year.  I also want to find ways to ensure freshman are getting the support they need and making important faculty connections early-on. We want to create a foundation for success. 

To provide context for our discussion, the VC members shared lunch with 23 first-year students. During the private lunch, they were able to hear candid accounts about the first-year student experience.  After lunch, they heard about three emerging themes:

  • Julie Norman, Senior Associate Dean and Director of UAAP, talked about establishing a solid foundation for students to build upon by:
    • Continuing key conversations initiated during Orientation including:
      • Academic opportunities
      • Critical and timely topics
      • Resources to support academic and personal challenges
    • Facilitating student-faculty engagement for first-year students.
  • Kim Vandiver, Dean for Undergraduate Research and Director of Office of Experiential Learning, talked about providing more hands-on, motivating work in the freshman year and the idea of a new freshman learning community with a “maker theme.”
  • Lori Breslow, Senior Lecturer and Director of TLL, talked about value of peer teaching and providing more opportunities for undergraduates to teach.

Julie, Kim and Lori then led brainstorming sessions around these concepts, which resulted in numerous ideas for us to consider.

Admissions: a view into the selection process

Based on a request by the Visiting Committee Chair, Barrie Zesiger, Dean of Admissions Stu Schmill reviewed the Admissions selections process.  Stu talked about:

  • Admissions goals
  • How we meet our goals
  • Feedback loops
  • Incorporating feedback
  • Monitoring outcomes

The Committee was particularly interested in understanding more about feedback loops and the traits we consider as we select students who we believe will be successful at MIT.

The Future of Education at MIT

The last topic focused on the ideas of the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education.  Anne McCants, Professor and Director of Concourse, and I both served on the Task Force and led this discussion.  We talked about three areas of opportunity for DUE:

  • Introduce greater modularity into the undergraduate curriculum.
  • Enhance ethical and contextual education, and facilitate better communication skills.
  • Evolve learning spaces to support and build upon future direction in residential education.

What seemed to resonate most with the VC was the need for strong communications skills and the importance of incorporating moral and ethical issues into the educational experience, both inside and outside the classroom.

Next steps…

I was pleased with the Committee members’ reception to the ideas shared, the quality of DUE presentations, and the high level of interactively during the sessions.  I look forward to receiving the Committee’s report within the next few weeks. DUE will then develop a response to the Committee’s observations, concerns and recommendations.  In the fall, I will share more on the VC’s recommendations as well as our response.