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USG to assess academic experience

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The USG announced on Monday that it will launch the Academic Life Total Assessment project with the aims of gathering information and recommending ways to improve the educational experience of undergraduate students at the University.

ALTA will most likely examine issues that have been overshadowed by students’ frustration with grade deflation, such as additional guidance for students interested in studying abroad and the availability of information regarding course selection, USG president Michael Yaroshefsky ’12 said. The committee will approach these topics in a variety of unconventional ways, ranging from reading posts on the website PrincetonFML to going through articles published in The Daily Princetonian.

“There’s nothing that I know of that’s been close to this in magnitude in terms of USG projects looking at academic life,” Yaroshefsky added.

The project committee is expected to include Yaroshefsky, USG academics chair Steven Rosen ’13 and two to four undergraduates selected by application, USG vice president Catherine Ettman ’13 said. Its structure will be largely based on the model used by the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership that was formed last November, Ettman added.

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“A month or two ago, when [Yaroshefsky] and I were looking at what we wanted to do for the semester, we decided that academics should be our number one priority," she said. “We want to look holistically at the Princeton academic experience.”

The USG statement said that the group is scheduled to be formed by early March and that the committee will identify the main issues to be explored in the same month. It will then collect information through May, focusing on the input of students, faculty, alumni and the administration, and the report will be written over the summer.

A major motivation for the project was the scheduled appointment of English professor Valerie Smith as the new dean of the college in July, the statement said. ALTA is slated to produce a report by September.

“The fact that Dean [of the College Nancy] Malkiel is stepping down and that Dean Smith will be taking office soon was perhaps the primary reason that we decided to take on this project,” Yaroshefsky said.

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Malkiel said in an e-mail that she “[knew] nothing about ALTA" and declined to comment further.

Smith declined to comment.

Yaroshefsky said that an incoming dean is likely to spend a significant period of time gathering information before making changes and a project like ALTA might be helpful in facilitating that process.

He added that a primary benefit of establishing a committee that will produce a credible report is its potential for successfully directing the attention of the administration at important issues.

“What we’ve discovered is that this is the best way to reach administrators,” Yaroshefsky said. “It makes sense to follow the model that they’re already endorsing and to speak their language.”

Yaroshefsky noted that the issue of increasing access to information about courses was a major concern for students.

The USG Student Course Guide is the most popular of the USG’s many websites, including Point, and information about professors ranked very highly in the USG’s recent “Which one do you want more?” survey, he added.

Ettman emphasized the importance of the committee in sparking meaningful discourse on campus about how to improve the educational experience of undergraduate students at the University.

“I think the academic dialogue on campus has been so focused on grade deflation that we’ve really been neglecting other aspects of academic life,” Ettman said. “I wouldn’t say that we’re avoiding grade deflation, but we’re steering the conversation to more alleys. We’re trying to have a more dynamic conversation about academics.”

Ettman said that potential topics for consideration include ways to improve the academic advising experience, the possibility of a flexible exam schedule and a more transparent and accountable form of grading. She emphasized that the committee would try to be "mindful" of the concerns of not only students but professors and administrators as well.

"ALTA will serve as the vehicle for gauging student and faculty opinion, collecting information on academic policy issues from other sources, like the Prince archives and alumni interviews, and presenting the informed recommendations of the USG in a compelling manner," Rosen said. 

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