“Overwhelming” and “stressful” were both words students used to describe the general requirements in the College of Arts and Sciences.
However the requirements — which are divided into seven sectors and six foundational approaches — were created to “help [students] navigate a research university,” according to Janet Tighe, dean of freshmen and director of academic advising in the College.
The Sectors attempt to “divide all of knowledge into seven meaningful categories,” Tighe said. They encourage students to explore new fields and possible majors. The Foundational Approaches, on the other hand, provide methods and tools for learning, according to Tighe.
Creating the List of Classes
The 13 requirements focus on what College Dean Dennis DeTurck termed “content breadth and a methodological breadth.” For example, the classes that fulfill the “History and Tradition” sector teach not only historical facts, but also the way historians approach history.
The Committee for Undergraduate Education — comprised of both students and faculty members — solicits ideas from faculty in order to determine the requirement list. To ensure high quality of the courses, the Committee reviews each class on the list every five years.
Certain classes do not fulfill requirements not because of what they teach but because of how they are taught.
Furthermore, the Committee does not put courses intended for majors on the list because that would make it harder for majors to get into the classes they need, according to Tighe.
When determining the list, the Committee also takes into account the ‘life-expectancy’ of each course. According to DeTurck, they want to choose classes that will be offered every year. At the same time, the Committee wants the list to be short enough to easily review it every five years.
The General Requirements
Thirty years ago, Penn had a straight distribution system, meaning that all of the courses offered in the College were assigned to categories, like Humanities or Social Science, and students were required to take a certain number of courses in each category.
But in the 1980s the faculty decided to move away from that system because it did not accurately reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the University, according to Associate Dean of the College and Director Academic Affairs Kent Peterman.
By the early 1990s, the faculty had established a curriculum with ten Sector requirements, a writing seminar and a four-semester language requirement.
In 1998, the Committee on Undergraduate Education decided to create an experimental curriculum. This ‘Pilot Curriculum’ ran for five years and was completed by 200 students in each class. The Pilot increased overall freedom in class choice with only four Sectors, but narrowed down the number of classes that fulfilled each requirement.
The result of the experiment, according to Peterman, was that students in the Pilot curriculum tended to take the same classes as their peers following the standard curriculum.
The outcome of the Pilot Curriculum is the set of 13 Sector and Foundational requirements that the College has today.
While many students acknowledge the benefits of a requirement system, some feel that the College requirements are in need of serious revision.
Students complained about the small number of classes that fulfill each requirement. For example, this semester only nine classes fulfill Living World.
College sophomore Katie Wynbrandt pointed out that many of the classes that fulfill requirements are rated poorly on Penn Course Review — a student-run publication that lists student rankings of courses — leading her to wonder whether University administrators accurately review the courses.
The White Paper on Undergraduate Education — published earlier this month by the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education — concluded that the philosophy behind the College requirements is sound, but “in practice, these requirements fail to meet their stated missions.”
The main suggestions outlined in the paper were to expand the number of science seminars for non-majors, allow a small number of requirements to be taken pass fail and improve the course review and appeal process.
While students recognize the potential for improving the requirements, many also feel that the guidelines encourage exploration in different fields.
College sophomore Aaseesh Polavarapu took a course in the Science, Technology & Society Department in order to fulfill a requirement and is now considering minoring in the field
“I never would have ventured into it without the requirement,” he said.
At Harvard University, administrators recently developed a new Program in General Education, in which students in the College are required to take classes from eight different areas similar to Penn’s seven sectors.
The Harvard Program “tries to connect what a student learns in the classroom to the life they are going to lead when they leave college,” according to Anne Marie Calareso, associate director of the new Program in General Education.
Unlike Penn’s requirements, the system at Harvard aims not to teach students to think like historians, but focuses more on teaching students to relate history to contemporary topics.
Since the 1960s, students at Brown have had an Open Curriculum. The system is based on the idea that students should “author their own learning,” said Brown junior Kelly Schryver, who is at Penn for the semester as a national exchange student.
According to Schryver, one of the major advantages of a system like Brown’s is that no student is forced to take a certain class, which “lends itself to wonderful discussion and a great learning environment,” she said.
In order to ensure that students do not leave all of their requirements for the last minute, some colleges like Yale University, require students to fulfill a certain number of requirements each year. While Penn has no such system, the College office does audit students’ records during the summer between their junior and senior years to make sure they are on track to graduate, according to Tighe.
Columbia University is relatively unique within the Ivy League for having a Core Curriculum of specific classes that all students must take.
According to DeTurck, Penn’s curriculum responds to two notions that not all other curricula focus on: an interdisciplinary approach to problems and an awareness of diversity of culture in the world and the U.S.
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