Undergraduate Student Blog, Speaking of Princeton

Undergraduate Student Blog

Author: Melissa Yin ’16

Nanjing, China • Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs View Profile

Listening In, Speaking Out

An insider's look at precepts

There are two kinds of classes at Princeton—lectures and seminars. Seminars are small classes with lots of professor-student interaction. For example, I’m taking a Woodrow Wilson School seminar on federal and state budgeting, and in class I always feel free to raise my hand whenever I have a question or wish the professor to further elaborate on something. In lectures, however, professors have a set amount of materials that they wish to cover, so they typically don’t answer questions during class. Students are encouraged to ask questions after class or go to office hours, and to enhance interactive learning, for every lecture class at Princeton students also enroll in a precept. Precepts are small discussion groups led by either a professor or a graduate student and are capped at 15 students.

Last semester I took "Practical Ethics" with renowned Australian philosopher Peter Singer, and the class had about 450 students—one of the largest classes at Princeton. As you could imagine, the professor rarely took questions in a class of this size. However, my preceptor, a Rhodes scholar who also did his undergraduate studies at Princeton, did an excellent job integrating lecture materials into our precept. For every precept, we had one student do a five-minute presentation on that week’s readings, and the student would also throw out a few questions to get the discussion started. We would then debate back and forth, voicing our own opinions and commenting on others’ with regard to the lectures and the readings.

In my precept we had a good mix of junior and senior philosophy majors (intimidating!) and underclassmen who knew nothing about philosophy before that class (a.k.a. me). Also, because this class was about contemporary ethical issues, such as abortion and euthanasia, it was controversial in nature. But regardless of our backgrounds and personal inclinations, everyone was respectful, open-minded and inquisitive during the discussions. Our preceptor acted more as a panel moderator than as a lecturer, as he let us direct the flow of the discussion, but pulled us back on track when we got too bogged down in details. Speaking out in the precept really helped me gain a deeper understanding of the materials in a way that I never could by just attending lectures.