I was talking to a senior friend at dinner last week who said that he’d learned more in high school than he had at Princeton. Needless to say this claim came as somewhat of a shock to me. As I was about to protest, another person at the table said that he had probably internalized maybe an eighth of what he’d been taught since enrolling, and that that was optimistic. The obvious explanation when students aren’t learning is that they’re just lazy or apathetic. But here, that is simply not the case. Princeton students are notorious for being among the least lazy people in the entire world. It is not the fault of the students that they are not grasping their course material, but rather, a critical flaw in the way classes are taught at Princeton: There is often just too much information. Too much material is presented without enough indication of, or emphasis on, the critical elements of a course.
Currently, students in many courses are overwhelmed by a cascade of sometimes dense reading and radically difficult problem sets. The raw amount of mental effort required to parse the vast stores of information contained in much of our assigned work makes it almost impossible to engage with it all at a meaningful level. Just yesterday I was talking to a pair of students bemoaning the pace at which their classics course was moving. They were saying that they would find it easier to make a more intimate connection with their coursework if they were allowed to spend more time thinking and talking about it. In the rush of the hundreds of pages a week they often felt like they were grasping at straws, trying to distill the meaningful information on their own. Their plight is mirrored in the lives of thousands of Princeton students, struggling to internalize a flood of information.
Excessive amounts of information can discourage student reflection on the subject at hand. Often students must focus so much on figuring out what’s going on in their reading that they don’t have the opportunity to think about what it means to them. In order to develop an intellectual and emotional connection to a literary work or scientific concept, one needs more time than is often given in a course. One of my best experiences at Princeton was my freshman seminar “A Survey of Plato’s ‘Republic,’ ” in which we spent the entire semester discussing one book, chapter by chapter. Not only could we read the book infinitely more closely than we would otherwise have been able to, but class participation was much better, and more thoughtful. For many courses, less is more.
Moreover, when you have such a large volume of material, not all of it will be either relevant or important for students to know. At the level at which many undergraduates at Princeton are engaging in subjects, often for the first time in their lives, they need a foundation. I’ve spoken with former linear algebra students who couldn’t explain to me what an eigenvector is and former moral philosophy students who couldn’t explain what deontology is. This is not to say that these people are dumb or have bad memories, they are simply subjected to so much information that they can’t distinguish the important from the merely interesting. Not only can superfluous amounts of information be frustrating to students, it can also obfuscate the important concepts with noise and numbers.
The obvious counterargument to what I’m saying is that by slowing down and limiting information, one is “teaching to the bottom of the class” and leaving some students bored. There are several problems with this way of thinking. To begin with, the “bottom of the class” at Princeton has some of the finest thinkers in the world and going less in depth would still be incredibly rigorous. Furthermore, students who feel like a class is below them can easily take a more difficult class or learn more about the subject in their free time — those students who are being crushed by the pace of a class are helpless.
There are simple measures which can be taken to solve this problem. Professors should assign specific sections of books rather than entire works. Class discussion should follow directly from these readings and assignments so that the themes and topics they explore become clarified and contextualized. Students respond best to very clear “here’s what you need to know” approaches to teaching. And I don’t mean “here’s what you need to know for the test.” I mean “here’s what you need to know to claim that you have learned about subject X and its applications at this specific level.”
This isn’t a message for students, staff or alumni. This is a direct message to the instructing professors of this university and their departments. They are the ones with control over the content of Princeton courses and they are the ones who should reduce and distill the knowledge which they attempt to impart on their students. Because if they don’t, those attempts might remain just attempts.
Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.