But at other schools with formal shopping periods, the add/drop period is significantly longer and provides students with an opportunity to sample classes more freely. Based on student survey results, the USG is recommending that Princeton take steps to move in that direction.
Last spring’s results of the USG’s Academic Life Total Assessment — a report based on a comprehensive survey completed by 49 percent of the undergraduate student body — suggests that students think the University has to do more to give students a chance to make informed decisions about course selections in a non-pressured environment.
According to the ALTA survey, only 21.6 percent of students agree that the first two weeks of a course “definitely” provide enough information to make a decision about whether to take it. By contrast, 42.8 percent agree that although they are able to get enough information about a course during the first two weeks to make a decision, “it would be nice to have more time,” while 30.1 percent do not think the two-week interval is enough time to make an informed decision.
The survey also found that students heavily depend on peer course evaluations when making decisions about whether to add or drop courses. Over 80 percent of respondents judged the evaluation as “somewhat” or “very” important. Among the biggest hindrances to efficient shopping periods were overlapping class times — a problem for over 90 percent of students — and accidentally missing course application deadlines because they were inconsistent across departments and sometimes even within the same department.
In response to this feedback on shopping period, ALTA recommended providing more published information on classes, improving access to SCORE course evaluations, establishing a universal deadline for course applications and creating a 10-minute break in the middle of three-hour seminars so that students who were shopping other classes could leave without causing a disturbance.
The ALTA Implementation Committee, whose appointments were finalized in Sunday night’s USG Senate meeting, plans to meet over the next few weeks to discuss implementation priorities and to schedule meetings with faculty and administrators. Meanwhile, the USG is undertaking a separate project to work with department heads and better coordinate the scheduling of popular classes to broaden students’ shopping options during the first two weeks of classes.
Committee cochair Steven Rosen ’13, who sat on the ALTA Committee last year, described the report as an “unprecedented” effort.
“We have really solid recommendations backed by a really good student survey that received a strong response, so we have more of a student mandate than we had in the past for implementing things from student initiatives,” he said. He added that because the committee had worked with administrators and faculty throughout the process and had taken their input into consideration, its recommendations were more likely to be passed than previous efforts.
Fellow cochair John McNamara ’14, who also sat on the ALTA Committee last year, said that although shopping period was “helpful to some extent,” it was also limited.
“You can get a pretty good perception of the professor’s teaching style as well as the general atmosphere of the class, but it’s hard to gauge what kind of work you’re actually going to be doing and what sort of thought processes you’ll develop throughout the class,” he said. McNamara explained that with more extensive SCORE evaluations, “we can get a much better idea of what classes are like before we can begin.”
Other students, like U-Councilor Lily Alberts ’13, and faculty praised ALTA but noted that a unified perception of the definition of a shopping period is necessary before structural changes are made.
“Just from being a liaison here between students and the Registrar’s office, which is in charge of scheduling courses, I think there is a very big gap, especially semantically, between the way students view the two-week add/drop period and the way the Registrar views the two-week period in that we, at least colloquially, call it ‘shopping period,’ ” said Alberts, who headed a committee to open Blackboard course syllabi to. “We think of it as a time that we can sign up for as many courses as we want, and we don’t really have to commit yet.”
“I think the first step is to create a sense of a shopping period in which if students choose to leave in the middle of a class, that’s not going to be awkward; that’s going to be something that the professor acknowledges in the beginning,” she added.
Classics professor Emmanuel Bourbouhakis also sensed a gap between students and professors’ views of shopping period and admitted that the two groups had different aims.
“I think we should be a lot more sympathetic to why shopping period is such an important time for students,” he said. “There is this pervasive and I think largely unfair view that not all, but many, students have frivolous reasons for their indecision, that they are fickle or that they are trying to avoid classes where there is a lot of reading ... I think a lot of it is prompted by anxiety and, increasingly, parental anxiety about what students are doing with their undergraduate degrees,” he explained.
He also conceded that professors were often frustrated when they were not able to communicate effectively with students about upcoming courses.
Bourbouhakis explained that the space allotted for fulfilling a description of his courses on the Registrar frustrated many faculty because it is too small to give students a comprehensive understanding of the course.
“When I have to put in the description on the catalog for the course, it gives me a little box and it says ‘650 characters with spaces,’ ” he said. “So these kinds of things are very, very telling that the templates for how we communicate with you about what our courses are, what the readings are, are so fixed, even though these days, with web-based stuff, we should be able to do anything.”
At Harvard, a different approach
The role and legitimacy of a student shopping period has long been a source of contention for the University, which has trailed behind its peer institutions in offering a true shopping system for the past 60 years.
In 1949, the Registrar applied fees to student course changes to discourage students from widely altering their schedules. By 1987, the University was making $70,000 annually from the $10 fee required to change courses, courses’ grading designations or courses’ designations as departmentals during the first two weeks of class. After the first two weeks, students were charged a $20 fee.
Students complained that the system was “ridiculous” and wondered why the University could not adopt a system like that of Harvard or Yale, which had abolished preregistration in 1971. In 1989, the University added a two-week add/drop period in which students could alter course selections without fees, although in subsequent years, debate centered on whether to shorten add/drop period by an additional three days.
Today, the University still does not say that it has a “shopping system.” University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua said that students have “ample opportunity” to sample courses during the advising period.
“We do not have a shopping policy,” Mbugua said on behalf of the University Registrar. “Our expectation is that students are prepared to start on the first day of classes, not several days after.”
Mbugua added that comparisons between Princeton and other schools — such as Harvard, which does have a shopping period — were “not constructive.”
Harvard seniors Danny Bicknell and Pratyusha Yalamanchi, the respective president and vice president of the Harvard student government, said that Harvard students undergo a period of “pre-term planning.” During “PTP,” students use an online tool to send the names of the four or five classes that they intend to take to their Registrar, which uses the information to determine how to best distribute classrooms and hire teaching fellows based on estimated class sizes.
However, unlike preregistration at Princeton, students’ course selections during the pre-term phase are non-binding. Students have a one-week shopping period in which they sample courses and at the end of the week, their advisers fill out a study card approving their course selections, which they then submit to the Registrar. When more students shop a course than can be admitted, the professor holds a lottery in which students are either selected for enrollment randomly or based on certain factors such as class year or concentration.
Yalamanchi acknowledged that there were disadvantages to Harvard’s system.
“Pre-term planning numbers are by no means a clear indication of the number of people who go shop the class,” Yalamanchi said. “I don’t know if having students sign up this semester has really helped professors [gauge] interest in the course.”
Pre-term planning often fails to estimate the number of students who will show up to shop a course. Sometimes, these misestimates are exacerbated by the fact that Harvard has a large number of students for a small number of classrooms and not much space left for further on-campus construction. Moreover, the course lotteries can be arbitrary, Bickwell explained, because some professors decide which factors receive a greater weight in the random lottery.
However, having advisers approve course selections at the end of shopping period ensures that Harvard students and their advisors end up on the same page each term.
At Princeton, departmental and freshman and sophomore advisers approve courses during preregistration. Students are able to change these courses once the semester begins, and do not have to consult advisers. In addition, Princeton, students who enroll in a course first on SCORE during preregistration have priority over students who enroll later and are then put on a waiting list or must wait for enrollment to fall below the enrollment cap.
This practice may encourage students to make decisions about their courses fairly early, though ALTA results indicate that students know rather little about them during preregistration.
As the ALTA Implementation Committee prepares to meet, its members are open to additional suggestions in addition to those outlined in the report, according to McNamara.
“We have a lot of great data in the report and we did a lot of data analysis there, but we also recognize that we were able to take one snapshot of academic life at Princeton and the academic atmosphere is going to change over time,” McNamara said. “So if we see the need to take it in a different direction, we find new student concerns arising, we’re certainly going to take that to heart.”
English and African American Studies professor Anne Cheng said that while she thought it was vital for faculty, students and administrators to engage in a conversation about shopping period, students should not fret about it in the meantime.
“Princeton is a very small place, so I feel that there is ... a sort of humane flexibility that works around and mitigates the more restrictive aspects of the bureaucratic system of enrollment,” she said. “I think that oftentimes, students can get into the classes that they want. But you have to be proactive about your own education.”