Best Practices in CS Education – Part – V: Care and challenge in the first year experience at some top Universities

Posted on April 9, 2012


Author:   Sanjay Goel,


First year is perhaps the most important and difficult year for college students.  Important – because it lays the required foundation for the university education.  Difficult – because students experience a very high level of cognitive dissonance during this period.  The difficulty is because of multidimensional developmental experiences of the students – physical, cognitive, social, emotional, aesthetic, ethical, and spiritual. They transit from school to college, start living away from parents,  change the cities, experience much higher freedom, start exploring a new world of relationships, face the misconceptions about college life, start learning newer domains of knowledge,  face the deficiency of older  learning habits,  start seeing and questioning the relevance of their classroom  in the social context,  become sceptical about the choice of their discipline, and so on.  

In order to respond to the special challenges and needs of freshmen, many good universities have introduced many interesting approaches in the freshman’s program.  These include a variety of experiences like deferred choice of major, orientation programs for freshman and families, faculty advisors, seminar courses, learning communities, freshman representative body, psychological and relationship counselling service, freshman dinners, engagement in project work, etc.  MIT’s learning communities and special grading scheme for freshman, CMU’s focus on project based learning in introductory engineering courses, large variety of seminar courses at Stanford are some interesting features in the design of their first year experience.   From these observations,  it is clear that in most of our Indian universities, we still have to do a lot more in order to view and manage the first year more carefully.  Here, I give a brief overview of some interesting approaches at few top universities.  

1.   MIT:   

  1. All students begin with an undeclared major. They are required to declare their major during the spring term of their first year. Many MIT students follow very different paths as compared to their initial anticipation.
  2. The freshman work for completing their General Institute Requirements (GIRs).  Typically, the 1st year students complete most of their Science/Math core, two courses in Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences course, and some Physical Education requirements.
  3. Freshmen at MIT are graded differently. MIT does not award letter grades to freshmen. They are not pressurised to accumulate GPA until second term. Students are awarded internal “hidden” grades of A, B, or C. Hidden grades are neither accumulated into a GPA nor usable for any purpose other than advising. External transcript only shows a P grade for all subjects passed. Subjects not passed do not show up on the external transcript.
  4. All freshmen participate in one of the four learning communities where they closely interact with faculty and seniors. Some communities offer alternate subjects for the science/maths core, while some other offer seminars and other special courses, e.g., Solving Complex Problems, or specialised recitation sessions for core courses.
  5. Every MIT freshman is allocated an advisor and mostly also an associate advisor (a senior student). The advisors typically have to advise 4-9 students through weekly seminars (for credits), occasional seminars, or residency based advising.

 2.    Stanford:

  1. Students can declare their choice of the major by the end of their second year.
  2. A large variety of freshman seminar courses is offered on non-traditional topics.
  3. Every freshman is allocated a pre-major advisor and Academic Director. The central role of advisors is to help students create their unique path through their undergraduate studies.
  4. An elected body of approximately 50 freshmen, Frosh council, meets every week to provide link between university and students and also plan special events for freshmen.
  5. Professors are encouraged to accept students’ invitations to join them on dinner at student’s residence or dorms.

3.    CMU:

  1. Students admitted to college of technology at CMU declare their major at the end of their first year.   Whereas in the science school, first year students are directly admitted in BS (CS) program. All BS (CS) also need to complete a minor in another field of their choice.
  2. A weeklong orientation program is organised for all freshman. The family members of first year students also participate on the first day of this program.
  3. At Carnegie Institute of Technology, CMU, 20 elected students act as the interface between first year students and the administration. First year dinner club facilitates interaction of first year students with seniors and faculty.
  4. Several of the “Introduction to engineering” courses (offered by different engineering departments) are taught with a project based approach. Each student of college of technology is required to take two such courses in their first year. “Introduction to Electrical & Computer Engineering” introduces basic concepts in electrical and computer engineering in an integrated manner in the context of real applications through analysis, construction, and testing of an electromechanical system, e.g., robot.
  5. A 1 unit pass/fail course, Freshman Immigration Course is designed to familiarise the first year BS(CS) students with different aspects of the computing and the department. In this course, the weekly sessions are conducted by different faculty members.
  6. A 3 unit pass/fail course, Computing @Carnegie Mellon familiarizes the freshman with the specific computing tools and technologies at CMU.
  7. All first year BS (CS) students take two programming courses in the first year. Students with and without computer programming background are offered different programming courses.
  8.  All first year BS (CS)  students take a course, “Great ideas in Theoretical Computer Science.”

4.  UC Berkeley:  

  1. Engineering students must select their major at the time of admission.  However, after one semester, a student of good academic standing can apply for change of major.  This application can be submitted a minimum of two semesters prior to anticipated date of graduation. Students enrolled in the Engineering–Undeclared program can declare a major after completing one semesters. They must do so by the end of their fourth semester.
  2. An orientation program is organised for all freshman. The parents and guests of first year students can participate in an especially designed two day program.
  3. Each freshman is assigned a faculty advisor from the major department.
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