Wharton Undergrad Core - W. B. Allen

Talk About Teaching


How the Undergraduate Core _Could_ Be Run at Wharton


by W. Bruce Allen

   Many changes have occurred in the 26 years I've been at Penn.  

When I was hired, my teaching load was discussed-my teaching 

ability/desire was not.  My understanding, and certainly the culture at 

the time, dictated that I produce "quality research."  If it turned out 

that I could teach a class well, that would be a bonus-but certainly not 

the reason that I was hired.

   Today, much more consideration is given in the hiring process to 

teaching aptitude.  We look for "triple threats" in new faculty:  an 

excellent research potential, collegiality, and teaching ability.  Can 

this person teach?  Will they fit into the teaching mode required for a 

top business school?  These are questions now asked when a department 

contemplates extending a job offer.  The consideration of all three 

continues through the yearly salary review process, and most importantly 

through the tenure process at Wharton.

   Teaching became a serious issue at Wharton about eight years ago 

when the first Business Week MBA ranking gave Wharton a "D" in teaching.  

(Actually, students were never asked to give A to F ratings; they were 

sur-veyed on a semantic scale from 1 to 10, where we came out "good to 

very good." Business Week's translation to a D was analogous to giving a 

student who received an 80 in your class a D because others had received 

85s and 90s).  We also knew that the Business Week D was not a true 

rating because we had our own internal, end-of-semester ratings. 

However, we had a potential public relations disaster on our hands, and 

it forced us to evaluate the quality of our teaching.

   On the MBA level, we had a set of core courses. They received 

lower teaching quality ratings than elective courses. On reflection, 

this is not surprising-students predisposed to a course are likely to be 

happy, especially if they can drop the course when they do not find the 

instructor/course to their liking.  No such option exists for an MBA 

core course.

Taking Ownership

   The first major area to be addressed then, was the core.  Faculty 

convened to discuss how they felt the quality of the core courses could 

be improved.  As a result, while core courses still maintained 

departmental designations and instructors, the school/faculty took a 

more active ownership role in these courses. In two cases (Managerial 

Economics on the MBA level and Wharton 101-Leadership Skills-on the 

undergraduate level), the School took ownership of the course.  The Vice 

Dean now has an active planning role in the core, and staffing has 

become a consultation between the Department Chairs and the Vice Dean.  

Course offering times (down to the day and hour) were decided by the 

Vice Dean's office.  As part of this overall process, faculty 

compensation became tied to teaching.  In addition, teaching became more 

important in the hiring, renewal, and tenure process.

   It is not just the individual courses that are now managed more 

directly.  The entire core curriculum is also under tighter guidelines.  

With the old model, departments allocated faculty to courses, and the 

faculty member decided what to teach in the course; and when he/she 

wished to teach it, scheduling time and day.  They planned their course 

and course assignments without regard to whether the material was 

sequenced so as to be useful to other courses, and whether total 

workload (spread over five courses) was humanly (or humanely) possible.

   To handle this organized core curriculum, two types of teaching 

teams have been developed. One team is horizontal, generally made up of 

four faculty, each of whom teaches three sections (cohorts) of the 

course.  One of the four faculty is the course head. This faculty "team" 

meets before the course is offered to plan and organize the course 

material (given knowledge of past integrative needs of the other core 

courses and, as experts in the field, on the base materials in the field 

to be covered).  They continue to meet during the teaching semester to 

manage the daily issues of the class.  Some teams meet weekly via 

telephone or e-mail, while others meet physically.  Some hold focus 

groups/quality circles with students.

   The second teaching team is vertical.  Cohorts are aggregated into 

clusters (three cohorts equal one cluster, 12 cohorts thus form four 

clusters).  The vertical teaching team exists to facilitate a given set 

of instructors teaching a given set of students.  The vertical teaching 

team will teach the cluster its five courses during a teaching/learning 

period. While each instructor teaches in his/her discipline, some cross-

disciplinary events are developing that include cases common to 

different courses (but seen from a different perspective) and instances 

of Professor A from discipline X showing up in Professor B's (of 

discipline Y) class have been reported!

   The vertical teaching teams meet a minimum of four times per year.  

Three of those meetings are within a relatively short period of time, 

just before a six-week teaching period begins, halfway through a 

teaching period, and just after the teaching period ends.  The 

additional meeting is a general planning session held about three months 

prior to the teaching period.  A cluster head manages each cluster and 

performs that role over all teaching periods.  All cluster heads teach 

at least one core course within the cluster.  A lunch with the Vice 

Dean, the cluster faculty, and the students is held on a cohort basis 

each semester.

   Last is a monthly meeting of a core implementation committee.  

This committee oversees the general curriculum over the whole year, now 

effectively five teaching times, (August pre-term, Fall I, Fall II, 

Spring I, and Spring II).  One role of the core implementation committee 

is to bring the course heads together before their teaching time and 

begin an iterative process of load planning to make student assignments 

and examinations more manageable and less peaked. Within this vein, 

negotiation on feedership and integration of common materials and time 

sequencing is also undertaken.  The result of this oversight is a group 

of concurrent courses integrated in terms of content and student 

workload. The committee then works to implement course head discussions 

across teaching periods so that nonconcurrent courses are integrated and 

intellectual feedership is facilitated. Meetings with the student 

representatives of the cohorts are held every semester.

   While we are not there yet, the result is a core curriculum that 

is becoming an integrated, cross-disciplinary educational experience 

with a much more collective faculty ownership experience than previously 

existed. The Vice Dean's office took responsibility for the overall 

provision of teaching in the core, with the resultant extension of 

responsibility to the faculty.  While the Vice Dean's office was the 

catalyst, the faculty are the implementers and the overseers.  

   The outcome:  The new curriculum is one of the reasons for the 

Business Week number one rating for the Wharton School in the fall of 




   So, why has the Undergraduate Vice Dean spent so much time talking 

about the MBA core teaching experience?  

   The answer is simple:  it's the model for how the undergraduate 

Wharton core could be run. Students would be taught their Wharton core 

courses primarily in their sophomore year.  They would be in cohorts.  

Cohorts, in turn, would be aggregations of student learning teams 

(groups of students who perform some-but not all-of their assignments as 

part of a team, contributing to peer learning).  Cohorts would be 

grouped into clusters and taught by teaching teams who have both the 

vertical and horizontal forms.

   Already, focus groups of undergraduates have told us that they 

would like to see cohorts and an increased use of learning teams. 

Organizing the undergraduate core along the model of the graduate will 

allow for the integration of course material across disciplines and 

better planning of work loads.  My experience as both a course head and 

a cluster head in the MBA program has convinced me that this is a 

workable model for the delivery of high quality teaching/education on 

the undergraduate level as well.  We will engage our stakeholders-

faculty, students, alumni, employment recruiters, Wharton Undergraduate 

Board-in a dialogue to determine how we will proceed with undergraduate 

Wharton education.

This article is the seventh in a series developed by the Lindback 

Society and the College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Allen is Vice Dean and 

Director of the Wharton Undergraduate Division as well as Professor of 

Public Policy and Management, and of Transportation, at the Wharton 



Volume 41, Number 28
April 11, 1995

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