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ALTA recommends option to rescind pass/D/fail

Released a month and a half after the committee’s presentation of its preliminary findings to the Council of the Princeton University Community in late March, the report examines the data from the 90-question ALTA survey to which 2,567 undergraduates, about half of the student body, responded in January. Also included are nine profiles of undergraduate academic lifes representing a cross-section of the University’s campus. The full survey results and profiles were not available as part of the original CPUC presentation.

After receiving feedback on the presentation from Dean of the College Valerie Smith, Deputy Dean of the College Clayton Marsh '85 and other members of the seven-person faculty advisory board, the committee made the details of the recommendations more concrete and realistic but did not significantly alter them, according to ALTA Chair and former USG president Michael Yaroshefsky ’12.

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“We are expecting that the faculty and administrators will support discussion about all of our recommendations and will help us to implement many of [them],” ALTA committee member Steven Rosen ’13 said in an email.

The survey results are divided into three chronological sections: analysis and recommendations for initial course selection, mid-semester activities such as precepts and work collaboration and end-of-the semester practices such as grading and examinations.

In the report’s introduction, Yaroshefsky and former USG vice president Catherine Ettman ’13 identified the current transitional period for Smith as an “ideal time” to brief her Office on and improve the current state of academics in a way that the USG’s own initiatives had “chronically underserved” in the past.

Smith and Marsh did not respond to a request for comment.

“[The report’s] long-term success will be determined by whether our recommendations appeal to everyone around the table,” Yaroshefksy said. “Therefore, our goal is for everyone — students, faculty and administrators — to take ownership of this report.”

Among the report’s most high-profile recommendations is a proposal to allow students to rescind a P/D/F during a three-week window after seeing a final grade “to encourage student involvement and effort in courses” and promote “academic exploration.” Such a policy would prevent students from electing to use a P/D/F after seeing a final grade and rescinding the option would count for a student’s total of four.

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With about 88 percent of survey respondents in favor of such a policy, the ALTA report says that students currently “have a disincentive to stay fully involved” in a P/D/F course and professors are sometimes able to identify which students “check out” mid-semester. Such a situation is unfortunate, ALTA says, especially because survey results show that many students elect P/D/F as “method of exploration” in new disciplines, not necessarily as a “grade management tool.”

“We have been particularly thorough when considering the P/D/F policy,” Yaroshefky said. “However, I think this change would significantly improve the experience for professors with more engaged students and for students with a real incentive to earn good grades even in P/D/F classes.”

While ALTA does not call for a rescinding of grade deflation, it proposes that the University discourage professors from justifying lower grades by citing the University’s current grading policy. In this way, students would receive more substantive feedback, and professors would be better able to show students how work did not meet expectations.

The survey found that 46 percent of all students had at least one experience where a professor justified a grade by citing grading policy. The report says that such rationalization is a “concerning” misapplication of grading policy, which states that a professor should give a student the grade he deserves, even if the number of A grades in a course exceeds the 35 percent target.

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ALTA also sought to improve the independent work process, a major component of upperclassmen’s departmental experience, citing mixed feeling about junior year preparedness. While 52 percent of respondents felt somewhat or very prepared for independent work in their junior year, 22 percent of students — a significant minority — felt unprepared or extremely unprepared.

To improve student experience with independent work, ALTA suggests that more departments create an “Adviser Database,” which would enable students to more effectively identify professors’ specific area of research and catalogue past students’ experiences. Some departments, such as the Wilson School and computer science, already offer this service.

ALTA also offers several recommendations that would improve the availability of information from course evaluations to allow students to make more informed decisions during the course selection process.

According to the survey results, undergraduates considered the opinions of their peers the most important source of information, whether from the USG student course guide, the registrar’s official evaluations or informal advice. Moreover, according to the survey, 72.9 percent of students indicated that they would appreciate more time during the first two weeks of add/drop time of a semester to decide whether or not to take a class. More relevant information before those two weeks would minimize stress at the beginning of the school year, the report argues.

The report additionally suggests that SCORE make evaluations available by professor as well as by class and also recommends that the University improve the site’s navigation capabilities for comparing classes. Furthermore, SCORE could offer responses to more than the one question currently displayed: “What advice would you give other students taking this class?”

More innovative methods of publishing information could include posting video introductions or a professor’s sample lectures online, as well as improving course description pages to potentially include syllabi.

As 2012 USG academics chair, Rosen said he will most likely create and chair an implementation committee — “an ALTA committee 2.0” — that will continue discussions with faculty, staff and administrators.

“At this point, it is hard to tell which policy changes will be passed since policy changes have to go through a lengthy approval process and several committees,” Rosen said.

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