The false-beginner problem at Princeton: Leveling the in-class playing field

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Nov 13 16:04:18 UTC 2008

Leveling the in-class playing field
By Daily Princetonian Editorial Board

   Published: Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

The plethora of language, math and science courses offered at
Princeton is a boon for the student body. There is, however, a major
flaw in how students are placed into these courses. Currently, the
University allows students to enroll in language, math and science
courses that these students could have tested out of based on their
scores on AP or placement exams. This policy often results in a
diminished learning experience for both these students and their

Students who take courses that are too easy for them often harm the
experience of other students in the class. First, students who already
know the course content skew curves in classes, an effect that is made
worse by Princeton's grade deflation policy. This is unfair to
students who genuinely want to learn another language or take an
introductory math or science class and may discourage students from
taking the course. Students coming from high schools without AP or IB
programs are especially put at a disadvantage, and it may impact
future decisions on course selection for students who have a bad
experience freshman year.

The University should take steps to ensure that students who have
achieved above a certain score on an AP, IB or placement exam do not
enter lower-level classes that are intended for those with less
knowledge. Students who wish to obtain an exemption from this rule
should be required to meet with departmental representatives or
faculty advisers in ther residential colleges to make their case.
Furthermore, professors should be given instructions for how to
identify students for whom courses are ill-suited and reassign them

Additionally, more classes like ECO 200: Advanced Principles of
Economics, SPA 103: Intensive Beginner's or Intermediate Spanish or
PHY 103: General Physics I that are designed for students with some
knowledge of the subject, but not a comprehensive understanding,
should be created across departments. Such courses will help students
who have a background in a subject but are not confident that they
have the skills to begin study at Princeton at an advanced level find
the right class. If departments are not big enough to form such
classes, then they should allow students with background in their
subjects to audit lower-level classes. This will get them ready for
the next level without putting other students in the class at a

Princeton professors and administrators often encourage students to
explore subjects unconnected to their majors, certificates or
distribution requirements. This is a good thing, and seeing students
taking such courses is heartening. The current policy is a
disincentive for such behavior, however. Students will be reluctant to
go out on a limb and try something new if they feel they are precluded
from learning the material and getting a good grade because of their
classmates' prior knowledge. With a slight change in policies, this
kind of exploration, which is at the heart of the liberal arts
experience, can become more the norm for students.

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