How do classes at Princeton work?

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Writing Seminar - Teacher and Students

Now that you’ve spent some time browsing the fall semester “Course Offerings” or the “Undergraduate Announcement,” you’re probably wondering: what are these courses really like? The answer, of course, is—they can all be somewhat different. The university only sets a basic standard for “teaching hours,” but leaves it up to each course instructor (and academic department) to decide the structure of the course, the homework or reading assignments, and which components make up the final grade you’ll earn in the course. (Note: unlike other schools that attach different “credit hours” to different courses, Princeton considers each course to count the same—approximately four credit hours.)

The key is to choose courses you are genuinely interested in. The things to consider: the required course readings, the course’s size, its meeting times, the instructor’s reputation, and the types of graded assignments or tests. (The Registrar’s online “Course Offerings” offers an abbreviated list of readings and a link to required books for the course.) Note that Princeton’s courses vary from small seminars (e.g. Freshman Seminars and Writing Seminars, usually limited to 12-15 students), to medium-sized lecture courses with an extra weekly discussion session (a “precept”), to large lecture courses (sometimes up to 200-300 students), again with a precept. One of Woodrow Wilson’s seminal contributions to Princeton, while its president, was to inaugurate the idea of small-format “precepts” –it is a unique Princeton term–attached to larger lecture classes. The standard class meeting time will thus be 3-4 hours per week, but some natural science or engineering courses also have an additional weekly lab session (normally 3 hrs.), on top of the weekly lectures and precept or class discussion of problem sets.

The course syllabus can be viewed as the official “contract” between the instructor and students in the class, so be sure to check it out carefully! What do the final assignments for the semester look like? Do all my courses require a term paper, or do some have a final exam, a final “project” or even a “take-home exam” (that can feel half-way like a paper)? Note any additional requirements, such as class attendance or participation, or a fixed limit on the number of “unexcused absences” permitted, etc. It can be a good idea to have a mixture of different types of final assignments in a given semester, so that you don’t face the task of completing four term papers (all due at the end of Reading Period – the so-called Dean’s Date). Midterm and final exam periods can naturally seem stressful, of course; but legions of Princeton students have risen to the task and succeeded quite well at it!

Author Profile

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Steven Lestition
Dean of Mathey College

I came to Princeton in 1993 after teaching European history and interdisciplinary social sciences at schools such as the University of Chicago, University of California-San Diego, and Smith College. I've served as both the director of studies (1993-2001) and now dean of one of Princeton's residential colleges, Mathey College. One of the great elements of my job—apart from getting to know the enormous range of talented students coming to Princeton—has been the opportunity to teach here: Freshmen Seminars (on the history of Berlin), Writing Seminars (on the exercise of imagination in poetry, philosophy and history), and precepting upperlevel survey courses in European history. Outside the office, I enjoy attending operas and classical music concerts with my wife, cooking and gardening, travel and a regular exercise routine (jogging, swimming, working out in the gym). I’m also an Academic Fellow for Princeton’s men’s varsity soccer team.

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