The preceptorial system has long been a hallmark of the Princeton education. Precepts are supposed to encourage in-depth exploration and discussion of previously taught materials to ensure that students have a fuller understanding of the course material. However, there are many flaws with the current system, particularly with respect to how graduate students are assigned to precepts and how they are trained and prepared to teach them.
Across departments, the first step in assigning graduate students to courses requires graduate students to rank the courses they would like to precept. Additionally, professors choose graduate students with whom they would like to work. However, how graduate students are assigned to precept courses after the initial ranking varies by department. In departments with heavy teaching requirements, seniority plays a significant role in the assignment. Senior graduate students needing to complete their teaching requirements have priority in selecting courses to precept.
This process is problematic for several reasons. First, despite ranking their choices, there are graduate students who are assigned to classes that are outside of their field. The first step in solving this problem is to give less weight to seniority. Graduate students should be required to plan when they complete their teaching requirement so that departments are able to place them in courses where they have the necessary knowledge to effectively teach.
Another issue with the process is the training of preceptors. The current system is too general. It consists of a two-day class at the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. The class focuses on how to structure precepts, how to manage material and how to use different teaching strategies. Graduate students are divided into broad groups such as humanities or natural sciences preceptors. As such, the training offers little to no tailoring to specific needs.
Another consequence of the current training system is that much is left up to professors to provide specific course knowledge and training. The problem with giving professors this responsibility is that only some have the time and make the effort to meet with preceptors on a regular basis and conduct training sessions. The result is inequity across courses. Departments must do more to ensure that professors regularly interact with their preceptors and ensure a high caliber of precept instruction.
Though the McGraw Center offers improvement sessions throughout the year and even offers individualized feedback, very few preceptors take advantage of these opportunities. Professors should encourage their preceptors to attend the improvement sessions and departments should monitor preceptors to ensure their teaching is high quality. If there is a problem with their teaching, preceptors should be required to attend these sessions.
If Princeton cannot make the commitment to train preceptors effectively, then the University must reconsider its policy requiring graduate students to teach. Many peer institutions do not make teaching mandatory for graduate students. Granted, peers such as Harvard and Yale have more graduate students, allowing them more flexibility, but the fact remains that at these schools, only those who wish to put effort into teaching actually teach. Precepts are an integral part of a Princeton education, and as such, must be held to the high standards that characterize the University.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/05/04/30888/