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Feedback is crucial to student success. Let’s start treating it that way.

robertson 2 Angel Kuo.JPG
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

Last semester, I took on the daunting task of writing my first junior paper (JP). This was an incredibly significant moment in my academic career, not only for its importance within the Princeton community, but also due to its grueling nature. Despite the demanding process — or maybe because of it — I found the depth of exploration I achieved to be rewarding, as I ultimately proved to myself that I was capable of such intense work. What was not rewarding, however, was the meager feedback I received, revealing the inadequacies of Princeton's systems for giving students feedback and how they fail to promote student learning.

After dedicating hours on end to my JP, the feedback I received was disappointing. After reaching out to my JP advisor, I received a document with a total of three comments, which, while helpful, insufficiently responded to my 24-page paper. Moreover, this feedback inadequately prepared me for my second JP this spring: with only three comments, I felt ill-equipped to identify areas for improvement in my future independent work. Thus, I set up a meeting with my advisor to further discuss the paper and the comments he had left. This meeting provided me greater clarity on where the paper fell short and what I should focus on improving for my next one.

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Although this meeting was helpful, I was frustrated that it was left up to me to seek out feedback. In speaking to some of my peers, I learned that they received no comments at all, just a grade for their papers on TigerHub. While professors may be perfectly amenable to providing feedback when prompted, it seems that the status quo is to simply evaluate JPs with a grade rather than to provide substantive feedback. It is not the individual professors’ fault that their students are not getting adequate feedback on their independent work, but rather the fault of a system that does not set an adequate standard for the transmission of feedback. Given that independent work is such an integral part of academic life at Princeton, why are the structures for providing feedback on independent work so lacking?

While grades are an indicator of quality with which Princeton students are certainly familiar, they are not enough to allow students to thoroughly comprehend the strengths and weaknesses of their independent work. Princeton should put more comprehensive structures in place that promote the provision of feedback when it comes to independent work; the onus should not be entirely on students to pursue qualitative evaluations of their work. Further, professors should want to give feedback so that students can become stronger researchers and writers — learning from both their successes and failures. At the very least, I believe there should be a requirement in place for professors to provide their students with written comments on all independent work. However, in the future it could be valuable to put additional structures in place, such as a required independent work review session where — similar to academic advising meetings — it would be required for professors and their students to meet and discuss their independent work after it’s submitted. This way, students would thoroughly understand which elements of their paper were successful and where there is still room for improvement.

Since departments create assessment tactics that are not uniform across the University, students may be left in the dark about the significance of their grades from class to class. B’s, for example, vary in meaning across disciplines, often leaving many students unaware of how well they performed and where their performance was lacking.

Comprehensive and constructive feedback is necessary across departments for Princeton to truly promote growth and learning among students. However, more than making grading standards uniform so that evaluation across professors is compatible, Princeton should require comments from all graders. At my high school, in addition to grades, we received a narrative report from each of our teachers that went into detail about our performance in class, identifying both our strengths and weaknesses. In the professional world, many employers conduct employee performance reviews that serve a similar purpose. Perhaps an analogous evaluation of Princeton students could help us learn and evolve; in courses where providing such evaluations may be burdensome for professors, perhaps preceptors could contribute. Through robust feedback structures of this kind, students will be able to truly learn, grow, and fulfill their potential.

Ava Milberg is a junior from New York City majoring in the School of Public and International Affairs. She can be reached at amilberg@princeton.edu.

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