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ALTA findings released at community meeting

Highlights of the report include the recommendation for students to have the ability to withdraw a P/D/F option after learning their final grade, scrambled student opinions on the University’s grading policy and the USG’s endorsement that professors limit assigned homework during midterm week.

The presentation was based on responses from 2,567 students — about half the student body — to a voluntary 90-question survey conducted this winter. This special committee was launched in February 2011 by then-USG President and ALTA chair Michael Yaroshefsky ’12 to assess high-priority academic issues like the class selection process, midterm and final exam schedule procedures and course feedback to professors during and after the semester.


“Our goal in the analysis and recommendations was not necessarily to be original for its own sake, but to be rigorous,” Yarsoshefky said, emphasizing the importance of hard data that is vetted and discussed substantively with faculty and administrators.

Motivated by its finding that Princeton students spend over 40 hours a week — “like a real job” — on academics between classes and homework, ALTA organized its recommendations around the beginning, middle and end of the 12-week semester.

One recommendation that the committee deemed both practical and beneficial to all is the possibility of allowing students to rescind a P/D/F option after learning their final grade. In that case, students could accept the letter grade if they so desire, but the course would still count as one of the four P/D/F options students are allotted during their undergraduate years. 89 percent of survey respondents favored this recommendation.

USG Academics Chair and ALTA committee member Steven Rosen ’13 said there is a disincentive for students to put forth their best effort in a P/D/F class because they know they will be getting a ‘P’ regardless of whether their work merits an A or a C. He said ALTA believes this recommended policy change would incentivize students to continue to put in effort and allow professors to teach more actively engaged students, while not burdening the administration.

“This is the coveted triple-win situation,” Rosen said.

Since about 80 percent of surveyed students felt that the grading policy had “strong or some” psychological impact on them, Rosen said that ALTA takes grading very seriously. However, he said mixed survey results about the approval of the University’s grade deflation policy did not warrant a student mandate for a specific recommendation for a policy change. About 56 percent of the respondents “oppose” or “strongly oppose” the grade deflation policy, while 27.5 percent “support” or “strongly support” it.


Instead, ALTA recommended more direct feedback from faculty members about course performance. According to the survey, 46 percent of students said a professor justified a lower grade by citing grade deflation.

“Students are looking for more substantive reasons why they had not met the professor’s expectations,” Rosen said. “It would be more useful for them to find out how they could improve the quality of their work.”

Other important recommendations included a focus on fostering better dialogue between professors and students through more readily available course information and more opportunities for feedback throughout the semester.

Since about three-quarters of survey respondents said they want more information about courses during the first two weeks of the semester,  ALTA recommended that the administration improve student access to course evaluations conducted by the Registrar. Students currently evaluate peer recommendations as the top source of information when deciding classes and overwhelmingly rely on the USG’s Student Course Guide online application, even though it is not regularly updated and has questionable reliability.

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Instead of the current complex online navigation process, committee member John McNamara ’14 said, evaluations should be searchable by course number and display responses to more questions asked on the Registrar’s end-of-term survey.

Additionally, ALTA proposed two major policies to address the scheduling concern raised by overlapping class times, which 90 percent of students surveyed said limited their ability to shop classes. First, it suggested well-advertised, uniform deadlines for application-based classes to reduce the incidences of missed opportunities. Secondly, the committee suggested a common break time halfway through three-hour afternoon seminars to allow students to leave and explore other classes without disruption.

Investigating student work habits during the semester, ALTA found that students complete on average 64 percent of the reading assigned. But, as committee member Emily Levy ’13 said, the completion percentage jumps significantly to 79 percent when students are assigned less than four hours of reading and drops to 53 percent when more than four hours of work are assigned.

In particular, according to the report, 90 percent of students said that reading and other work during midterm week had an “extremely or somewhat negative impact” on their performance. ALTA recommended professors limit their assigned homework during midterm week, whether they are holding an examination that week or not.

Yaroshefsky said ALTA does not want to seem “bossy” or “pushy” and mandate specific policies in the final report. But in letters distributed to the faculty through the office of the Dean of the College, the committee expressed hope that informing the faculty about student concerns regarding workload structuring could make a difference.

Faculty will also be informed of the ALTA finding that 71 percent of students said they learned “much or somewhat better” in classes with frequent quizzes or multiple exams. To promote greater dialogue in the middle of the semester, ALTA also recommended midterm evaluations administered by the USG to deliver anonymous feedback from students to professors. Currently, professors can administer midterm evaluations at their discretion.

“[Having the USG administer the evaluations] is convenient for professors because it arrives on their doorstep,” Yaroshefsky said. “This will be productive feedback about course material, not rants about teaching style.”

ALTA also said that improving coordination between students and professors on a department-by-department basis can help prepare upperclassmen for independent research such as junior papers and senior theses. Over 50 percent of students responded that research is the highest priority skill they want to improve and 24 percent of respondents felt “extremely or somewhat unprepared” for independent work.

According to former USG vice president Catherine Ettman ’13, departments should be encouraged to help students more easily find the research advisers most suitable for their area of focus and to offer more methods to hone research skills.

ALTA hopes to publish its final report by the end of the school year and will continue to discuss its findings with key administrators and faculty. At a later point, ALTA and USG will assemble a committee for implementation.  

Committee member Rebecca Scharfstein ’12 said that any future committees will be guided by students’ abilities to implement change as opposed to giving more work to administrators and faculty.

“We’re all stakeholders in academics here, and we need to find solutions that are common ground for all of us,” Yaroshefksy said.