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Credit: Quinn Robinson

With the flexibility of asynchronous classes and reduced club commitments due to the loss of in-person gatherings, some students are piling on course credits to take advantage of this online semester.

Students who have previously only taken four or five courses are now enrolled in up to seven courses due to the increased flexibility of online learning and Penn’s decision to extend the spring’s pass/fail grading option. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has led to heavier workloads for some students, namely those taking STEM classes, the flexibility of taking online classes has allowed some to take more classes than they would in a normal, in-person semester.

College junior Abigail Norwillo, an athlete on the women’s track and field team, decided to pick up an extra class because she had more time after her sports season was canceled. With campus fitness facilities closed, she said track athletes are working out on their own time and have more flexibility in their schedule this semester.

Norwillo is taking seven classes, one more than she initially planned to take. She said she received approval from her pre-major advisor to add an elective class, ANTH 180: From Ayahuasca to Zoloft: Anthropological Approaches to Drugs and Drug Use, based on her GPA and successful completion of 5.5 credits last semester.

“When I realized that everything was virtual, I decided to try to fit in a class that specifically interested me,” Norwillo said. “The plan was to potentially drop one in these first few weeks, but I like all the classes I’m in so I don’t see myself dropping anything in the future.”

Center for Teaching and Learning Executive Director Bruce Lenthall wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that some advisors reported more student requests for maximum credit extensions this semester.

College students can enroll in a maximum of 4.5 credits in their first semester and can then enroll in up to 5.5 credits for the rest of their time at Penn. Wharton students and Engineering students may not take more than 5.5 credits during their first semester at Penn and must be approved to take more credits in following semesters. The maximum course load for Nursing students is 5.5 credits, which can be increased to up to 7.5 credits with approval of their faculty advisor.

College of Arts and Sciences Dean of First-Year Students and Director of Academic Advising Janet Tighe, however, said that while some students are finding themselves with extra time and adding classes to their schedules, the College has not seen a noticeable uptick in the number of students requesting to take more classes.  

“It’s an individual kind of conversation,” Tighe said. “Every semester is different. The combination of courses you have is different.” 

College sophomore Michelle Mahecha Perez is taking six classes this semester, after taking four classes her previous semesters at Penn. Because her club activities — tour guiding Kite and Key Society, dance team Quaker Girls, and The Walk magazine — depended on in-person meetings or events, Mahecha Perez said she had some extra time to add two classes and a remote marketing internship at a startup called Attentive. 

“I’m somebody who loves being busy and being involved,” Mahecha Perez said. “My biggest struggle this semester was figuring out how [to] balance six classes, an internship that I hope will be extended to next semester, and trying to do well in all of them.” 

Engineering sophomore William Li, who previously planned to take four or five classes this semester, decided to take six classes following Penn's decision not to invite students back on campus. Li said he felt that he could take on a heavier workload this semester, because he is not on campus and has fewer responsibilities in clubs that traditionally require in-person interaction like the Chess team and service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega.

“My mentality was, since we can pass/fail our classes and swap classes, I decided I want to push myself a little bit, like jumpstarting me since I had a really lazy summer,” Li said. 

Li said he will most likely stay enrolled in all of his classes, although he may not take them all for a grade.

Tighe said many of the students who virtually visit the College advising office want to discuss the continuation of the pass/fail grading system and how to learn in an online environment. Her advice for students navigating the online semester is not only to consider their current course load but to consider other commitments like internships and their learning environment ahead of the Oct. 12 drop deadline.

"No one should underestimate their ability to rise to the occasion, but [online learning] has been a challenge for all of us," Tighe said.