On lectures and tutorials – the Princetonian
In 2018, one of my fellow columnists argued that the conferencing system that dominates Princeton’s educational experience isn’t working – and, more importantly, can’t. While the author suggested that there are at least ways to improve them, these improvements were corrective measures at best.
When I first read the article, I was skeptical. Certainly, I thought, the best university in the country must know what it’s doing. While there were statistics to show otherwise, perhaps these statistics simply did not apply to Princeton. Having spent time at another university, I now admit that I was wrong.
The conferencing system is certainly not the best way to learn and, strikingly for many who believe in the doctrine of princely exceptionalism, the conferencing system does not work here either. Even so, getting rid of lectures altogether would push the argument too far, because going in the completely opposite direction without careful consideration presents multiple dangers.
I spent the spring of my first year at the University of Oxford, where the teaching method is very different from that used in most American universities. The most important salient feature: Lectures are essentially non-compulsory.
This is because the primary form of teaching is the tutorial: a small group, usually a tutor with one student, but sometimes two or three, meets periodically to discuss the paper that was written for this week’s tutorial. This meant that instead of spending my time in class, as many of us do now, I spent most of my time reading and writing articles (one to two per week) for the tutorials.
The biggest benefit this system provided me with was the ability to process large amounts of information effectively and efficiently. I also learned to think quickly. As we went through my tutorial article, my tutor would raise objections that I had not addressed and ask me questions that had not occurred to me. I had to answer immediately. I haven’t had a chance to sit down with a good cup of coffee and think long and hard about the matter.
The tutoring system has made me a more effective critical thinker – which I believe is the goal of education, as I have argued previously. The University should move towards this system, or something similar.
That being said, the tutorials put a lot of stress on the students. Suppose we don’t make the full transition to the Oxford system, as full adoption would mean the majority or all of our GPAs would be determined by final year departmental comprehensive exams. With partial adoption, we wouldn’t have as much stress at the end of our undergraduate careers as our peers across the pond.
A tutoring system – to be effective, I think – always requires students to meet and discuss their essays with a faculty member about once a week. This would result in something like eight to 10 articles per class. This in itself would require a significant restructuring of the way the University organizes its academic life, so that students are not completely overwhelmed by the amount of writing required.
None of this is to say that the University should not rethink the way it teaches students. The University prides itself on having a strong undergraduate focus, and part of that is to strive to provide the best education for its students. Smaller class sizes, more direct engagement with students, and – perhaps controversially – more writing would go a long way in making us an even better university than we already are. But all of this should be done with caution. Overcorrection can turn out to do more harm than good.
Sebastian Quiroz is a senior from Deltona, Florida. He can be contacted at [email protected].edu.