College evaluates History and Tradition sector requirement


The Arts and Letters sector will undergo similar scrutiny next year.




As midterm season tumbles along, the College of Arts and Sciences is undergoing its own evaluation.

The school is in the process of assessing the effectiveness of the History and Tradition sector requirement through the use of focus groups, as part of an ongoing examination of each sector requirement, Associate Dean of the College and Director of Academic Affairs Kent Peterman said. Last year, focus groups met to examine the Society sector.

The Arts and Letters sector will come under scrutiny next year.

“We went into this knowing there is no such thing as a final exam for our curriculum,” Peterman said. Due to the broad nature of the sector requirements that allows students from different levels of background knowledge to find a course to meet their skill levels within the sector, there is no finite standard upon which to evaluate these requirements, he added.

The panel in charge of assessing the humanities sector requirements recruited two groups of freshmen who have yet to take courses in this sector, three groups of freshmen and sophomores who have recently completed a course in the sector and three groups of seniors who have completed the requirement well in advance of the focus groups to participate, Assistant Dean and Associate Director for Academic Affairs Eric Schneider said.

The focus groups last an hour and a half and are led by a graduate student. Participants discuss the objectives of the sector and are asked to write about a historical document they presumably have not been exposed to previously. Underclassmen are chosen at random from class lists of related courses. The seniors chosen to participate in these groups are in majors that do not overlap History and Tradition courses.

These sessions are recorded so that the audio can be transcribed and dialogue can be allocated to anonymous speakers. Once this is done, a faculty committee from the related panel, which meets regularly to focus on the four humanities sectors, reviews and assesses the information provided.

Even after the extensive evaluation process, the administration cannot say with certainty that the results are tied to the sector courses they took at Penn.

“It’s a really squishy thing because we don’t know where [the students] acquired [their knowledge],” Peterman said. Ultimately, he added, it is about asking, “Are we satisfied that our seniors are leaving with this disposition?”

Last year, the College enlisted its first round of focus groups to evaluate the performance of students who complete the Society sector. They found that students tended to be unclear on the objectives of the requirement. This fall, the administration brought the information to professors who teach courses that fulfill this sector and asked them to be more explicit on the aims of the class in their syllabi.

Peterman does not anticipate a similar assessment of Foundational Approaches. He said that the courses, such as the writing seminars, have built-in systems of evaluation.

The current system of general education requirements was fully enacted in 2006 after a pilot program where students could opt to take the new curriculum.

The previous set of requirements mandated 10 courses, two in each field. This was cut down to one course in each of seven fields, and interdisciplinary requirements were added as a way of, “trying to bring faculty together from different parts of the curriculum,” Schneider said.

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