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A Pilot Curriculum Evaluation Committee, chaired by Professor Paul Allison, is engaged in ongoing evaluation of the Pilot Curriculum and will be issuing a formal report of its findings to the faculty of the School of Arts and Sciences as the end of this educational experiment draws near, some three years from now. The observations that appear here represent only my informal impressions of what we have learned in the two years since the SAS faculty authorized the launching of the experiment. --Richard R. Beeman

The Pilot Curriculum: Some Early Observations

Nearly two years have passed since the faculty of the School of Arts and Sciences, after several months of discussion and, occasionally, controversy, approved the implementation of an experimental curriculum for a cohort of 200 entering freshmen in each of the next five years. The Pilot Curriculum, as it came to be called, consists of the following elements:

  • a four-course general education requirement spread among four categories:
  • Structure and Value in Human Societies
  • Science, Culture and Society
  • Earth, Space, and Life
  • Imagination Representation, and Reality

Unlike the College's present 10 course General Requirement, the aim of the Pilot General Requirement is not to define for students "essential" categories of knowledge, but, rather, to open students' minds to modes of inquiry and subject areas which they could then pursue in a more thoroughgoing manner later in their undergraduate careers.

  • the creation of a new set of courses for the Pilot General Requirement--all of them interdisciplinary and for the most part team-taught.
  • Pilot Curriculum Students are expected to satisfy the same language, writing, and quantitative skills requirements as other College students.
  • an increased emphasis on improving oral communications skills.
  • a requirement that all pilot students have a meaningful research experience, most often within their major, prior to graduation.
  • a requirement that all pilot students, in their sophomore year and in close consultation with their academic advisers, draw up a well-articulated written plan discussing their intended field or fields of concentration, as well as their intentions about how they will use their electives.

The essential idea underlying the Pilot Curriculum, perhaps more important than any of its specific features, was that the faculty of SAS, by engaging in a set of carefully-conceived experiments with our general education requirements over a five-year period, and by carefully assessing the educational experiences both of students enrolled in the Pilot Curriculum and of those in our present general education curriculum, would find ourselves in a better position to engage in informed discussion and decision-making when we finally turn to the task of revising our curriculum for all of our students. In that sense, it is important to emphasize that the Pilot Curriculum was not intended so much as a blueprint for the next general education curriculum for the College as it was a means by which our faculty could find the proper pathway toward an improved curriculum in the future. Indeed, many of the members of the College Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) who crafted the Pilot Curriculum proposal chose some of the specifics of their proposal--the compact and explicitly inter-disciplinary character of the four course requirement and the emphasis on a thoughtful and self-conscious choice of electives--not out of a certainty that those features were inherently preferable to those of our present General Requirement but because they believed that the sharpness of the contrast between the Pilot Curriculum and our standard curriculum would be a distinct aid as we evaluated the virtues and deficiencies of each curriculum.

Speaking now only for myself, I have always believed that the Pilot Curriculum, being much more about the process of curricular experimentation than about any one particular set of experiments, should be subject not only to review, but also to revision along the way. It is in that spirit that I would like to offer my own informal impressions of what has transpired thus far.

When the members of the Freshman Class of 2004 received their initial mailing prior to pre-registration, they received with that mailing a letter from me and a brochure, "Choose Your Curriculum," explaining the differences between our present General Requirement and the Pilot Curriculum and asking the students to decide whether they wished to enroll in our regular curriculum or volunteer to be among the pool of students from which the 200 Pilot Curriculum students would be randomly selected. Among the members of the Class of 2004, some 300 students volunteered to be pilot students; among the members of the Class of

2005, slightly over 400 students volunteered. In each case, we had a sufficient number of students who volunteered but who were not selected, to constitute a control group for purposes of evaluation.

Interdisciplinary Courses

By far the greatest effort thus far has been devoted to the creation of the interdisciplinary courses, which our pilot students are taking to fulfill their four-course pilot general education requirement. By the time the first class of pilot students appeared on campus in September, 2000, we had been successful in creating seven interdisciplinary courses, all but one of them taught by teams of three faculty members. As of November, 2001, we had created an additional eight, spread across the four course categories as follows:

Category I: Structure and Value in Human Societies

  • The Principles and Practice of Freedom
  • Good Government, East and West
  • Globalization and Its Historical Significance
  • War, Violence and Political Vision
  • Race and Society

 

Category II: Science, Culture and Society

  • Cognitive Neuroscience: Philosophical, Scientific and Social Perspectives on Mind and Brain
  • Biology, Language and Culture
  • Origins and Meaning of Quantum Theory

 

Category III: Earth, Space and Life

  • Life in the Universe
  • Humans and Their Environment
  • Energy and the Environment

 

Category IV: Imagination, Representation and Reality

  • The Self-Portrait
  • Representations of the Holocaust
  • Making Space: The Built Environment in History
  • Metamorphoses
  • Representing Medieval Florence: Space, Sound and Text in the Age of Dante
  • Transatlantic Traffic: Philadelphia, London and the World, 1666-1876
  • Emergence of the Individual

I believe that we have ample reason to be pleased with and proud of the breadth of intellectual vision that those eighteen courses represent, but I must also confess that the task of creating these new courses has been more formidable than I had anticipated. The principal impediment has not been a shortage of faculty willing to step forward to create new courses, but, rather, the constraints within their departments that have made it difficult for them to free themselves up to develop and teach such courses. No one is more mindful than I of the limits to which our very hard-working faculty can be stretched; we are constantly asking for more--more freshman seminars, more writing courses, more research experiences for undergraduates--and the demand on departments for still more from their faculty has strained the resources--and sometimes the patience--of many department chairs. The only response that I have been able to give to those who argue that we are asking for too much from our departments is that a thoughtful and energetic investment on the part of our faculty in the development of exciting, new general education courses will be of lasting benefit to our undergraduates well into the future, no matter what the structure of our curriculum might eventually be.

We have already learned a good deal about these new pilot courses by hearing informally from the pilot students themselves. In addition, the Pilot Curriculum Evaluation Committee has informed me from time to time about what it is learning through its more systematic investigations. In addition to the usual course evaluation forms, the committee has developed supplemental course evaluation questionnaires, conducted focus groups with randomly-selected pilot students and post-mortem interviews with instructors of pilot courses, held an informal symposium with all of the pilot instructors, and debriefed pilot curriculum advisors, who have been in an excellent position not only to listen to student expressions of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, but also to probe more deeply into our students' perceptions about what they have learned. These means of evaluation represent only a beginning, and Paul Allison and his evaluation committee intend to devise other measures as well.

Student dissatisfaction with the courses thus far has tended to be concentrated in two areas. Many students have complained that the work load in many of the courses was excessive and, indeed, many of those teaching the initial versions of the pilot courses have acknowledged that they may have succumbed to one of the natural tendencies in a team-taught course, namely, for each instructor to overload the syllabus with what he/she believes to be "crucially important" material in his or her field, with the result being an excessive workload for the students. Nearly all of the teams teaching in the Pilot Curriculum this year are carefully reassessing their expectations about student workload.

Team-Teaching and Interdisciplinarity

By far the most interesting, but also most complex, sets of student comments have come on the related, but nevertheless separable, issues of team-teaching and inter-disciplinary teaching. One of the explicitly stated assumptions in CUE's proposal for the Pilot was that "the highly motivated and highly selected students who choose to study. . . at Penn have already used their secondary education to develop distinctive interests and numerous competencies, and are ready to enjoy the freedom both to develop their existing interests as well as to explore new areas." In particular, members of CUE assumed that our entering students were sufficiently prepared in those basic disciplines that are part of a high school curriculum to be ready to approach important areas of knowledge through an interdisciplinary approach. While a significant majority of the pilot students have expressed satisfaction with this interdisciplinary approach, some have quite plainly felt uncomfortable and insecure within those courses. In at least some cases the faculty teaching the courses have assumed too much with respect to the knowledge that our entering freshmen bring with them, and therefore have jumped into interdisciplinary conversations with one another before all of the students in the course were ready for it. In other cases, however, it has appeared that at least some students, at least initially, simply don't like the experience of uncertainty, of the frank acknowledgement by the faculty teaching the courses that they didn't "have all the answers."

Two courses that give us particular insight into these matters--both in terms of the positive and negative reactions from the students--were those on "Cognitive Neuroscience" and on "Biology, Language, and Culture." These courses (each of which is being offered again this year) were among the most ambitious not only in putting faculty from different disciplines together, but also for tackling subject matter in which the state of knowledge is rapidly changing. Many students were genuinely excited by the intellectual challenges posed by those courses, but some felt some combination of terror, intimidation, and incomprehension. In sorting out the sources of student discomfort (bearing in mind that student discomfort is not inherently a bad thing), it has sometimes been difficult to disentangle issues relating to the challenges of team-teaching from those relating to interdisciplinary teaching. It does seem clear, however, that bringing together teams of faculty across disciplines who have not taught together before has made issues of intellectual integration particularly pressing ones. In general, both the instructors in those courses and those of us who have observed those courses have concluded that simply bringing faculty from disciplines together and having them talk to one another about their disciplines, leaving the task of integration to the students, is not sufficient. It is becoming clear that it is important that faculty teams take some significant (though perhaps not sole) responsibility for bringing about that integration themselves.

It is perhaps not an accident that two of the courses that have received some of the most positive initial reactions from students were taught by single instructors--David Koerner's "Life in the Universe" and Dan Janzen's "Humans and the Environment." A great deal of the success of those courses owes to the fact that David and Dan are terrific teachers, but it may also be the case that interdisciplinary courses taught by a single instructor are by their very nature ones in which integration of material from different disciplines is achieved more readily. Similarly, the course on "The Built Environment," taught by David Brownlee and David DeLong, two faculty members who have collaborated in the past, appeared also to avoid problems of insufficient integration of material.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that an excessive reliance onteam-teaching may not be either efficacious or sustainable. In addition to the pedagogical issues of coordination and integration, the logistics (and the financial costs) of freeing up faculty to participate on a regular basis as members of teaching teams are extremely daunting. Simply put, team-teaching is resource-intensive and the maintenance costs are very high.

But we should not be too hasty in abandoning team-teaching in all circumstances. The subject matter of some of the courses--"Cognitive Neuroscience" and "Biology, Language, and Culture" are once again particularly good examples--is sufficiently complex and sufficiently novel that it is difficult to imagine a single faculty member having the command of the material to be comfortable teaching the course unassisted. Moreover, if there is a single initial "outcome" from our early efforts in the Pilot Curriculum that we have been able to identify thus far, it is the extremely high level of satisfaction among faculty teaching the pilot courses. Both in the transcript of the forum conducted by the Pilot Curriculum Evaluation Committee and in the committee's summary of individual interviews with faculty teaching pilot curriculum courses, I have been struck by the high level of commitment and enthusiasm of the faculty who have volunteered to teach courses the first time around. If nothing else, the Pilot Curriculum experiment has generated impressive enthusiasm among some of our faculty for interdisciplinary teaching.

Additional Observations

As the first semester of the second year of the Pilot Curriculum draws to a close, there are some additional--and very hopeful--observations that we can now add to these initial ones. First, as some of our team-taught courses are being taught for a second time, the faculty involved in those courses are in fact learning from their previous experiences. Student response to the Cognitive Neuroscience course during this current semester has been more consistently positive than it was a year ago, and through my discussions with the instructors in the courses on "Globalization" and on "Biology, Language and Culture," it has become apparent that they are enthusiastic about changes in their courses for the coming semester. Perhaps even more encouraging, have been the comments that we have heard from second-year pilot students in our focus groups. Significant numbers of them, looking back on the pilot courses they took last year, recognize that some of their initial negative reactions to the courses were founded in uncertainty and insecurity; from their perspective as College sophomores, many of them have given us testimony on the way in which some of their experiences in those courses opened up intellectual pathways subsequent to taking the course, that they had not recognized while they were taking the courses. These are at this stage impressions only, but they reinforce for us the importance not only of conducting customer satisfaction surveys about students' immediate reactions to the curriculum, but also of devising some serious outcomes evaluation measures at subsequent points in our students' careers.

During our New Student Orientation for freshmen in the Class of 2005 this past fall, we embarked on another important experiment in evaluation in the area of "science literacy." We have from the beginning been aware that the subject of teaching science to students not intending to major in science is one of the most vexing and controverted of all of those that we are addressing in the Pilot Curriculum. As one way of evaluating the interdisciplinary approach we are taking in the Pilot Curriculum science courses, we administered a "Science Survey" to all members of this year's entering freshman class. In fact, it was not a survey, but, rather, a test of basic knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and issues. There was a good deal of moaning and groaning among the freshmen as they completed their "surveys," and, though we have not yet fully analyzed the results, we are hopeful that they will provide a benchmark from which we can measure subsequent progress in the matter of general education in science. Although it is difficult to predict what we will discover in subsequent surveys, I am at the very least hopeful that our analysis of this particular survey will enable us to make more accurate generalizations about the state of scientific knowledge of our entering students.

Some of the most important aspects of the Pilot Curriculum experiment will only be tested further down the road. Pilot student advisers are now beginning to have discussions with their second year advisees about the research requirement, and, as pilot students move into their majors (and, not insignificantly, into new advising relationships with faculty within their majors), we will need to devise the means by which to assure that pilot students will have both opportunity and appropriate training to enable them to engage in a meaningful research experience before they graduate. This, like everything else in the Pilot, is an experiment, and, in all candor, it remains to be seen whether we will be able to assure that all pilot students are able to have experiences doing research that measure up to our faculty's definition of "meaningful."

Similarly, the most important assumption underlying the experiment--the proposition that pilot students will use the increased freedom that a reduced course requirement gives them to develop imaginative and coherent educational programs that will make the total of their courses taken at Penn equal more than the sum of its parts--is by no means self-evidently true. We are just now reaching the point at which second-year pilot students, in consultation with their advisers, are drawing up their academic plans. When I discussed this task with first-year pilot students last year, most of them had no comprehension of what that task might entail. In my early conversations with those same students this year, there is some encouraging evidence that they are beginning to look at their careers at Penn holistically, that they really are trying to approach their remaining years at Penn with seriousness of purpose and self-consciousness. We will, however, need to assess that matter carefully after all of the evidence is in.

Finally, although the evidence on this topic has not been collected systematically, I have pretty strong impressions that those faculty serving as freshman and sophomore advisers to Pilot Curriculum students are finding that the combination of the reduced general education course requirement and the emphasis on student responsibility in curriculum planning has made advising sessions with students more creative and productive. Whether this is a consequence of the structure and philosophy of the Pilot Curriculum itself or whether it is more closely related to our overhaul of the advising system throughout the College as a whole is difficult to say, and I know that the Pilot Curriculum Evaluation Committee plans to do a more systematic study of the experiences of Pilot Curriculum Advisers. Indeed, those advisers may be our very best source of evidence on the strengths and weaknesses of the experiments, which we are undertaking.

Challenges

Looking back at our accomplishments thus far and at the challenges that lie ahead, I would note a few other important challenges that we will need to confront. The first relates to innovations in pedagogy and in student learning. When the Pilot Curriculum was first being discussed, many of us believed that the experimental curriculum would offer a wonderful opportunity for experiments with new methods of pedagogy (particularly, but not exclusively, in adapting new technologies to the classroom) and in encouraging faculty teaching in the Pilot to be more self-conscious about the learning objectives for their courses as they constructed them. Although some of the pilot courses do indeed make extensive use of web-based technology ("Humans and the Environment" and the course on Florence being particularly good examples), it cannot truly be said that our progress in the pilot courses is any more striking than it is in many of our existing courses within our regular curriculum. This is perhaps not an outcome to be lamented, for one could argue that we are as a faculty doing a very good job of incorporating new technologies into our pedagogy and that to expect the pilot courses, which already bear a considerable burden of innovation in areas of course content, to lead the way in incorporating new technologies may be unnecessary and even unwise. That said, we have set aside substantial resources for technological support for the pilot courses, and for the most part faculty teaching the courses have chosen not to "push the envelope" in this area.

Much the same can be said about our success in getting faculty teaching pilot courses to think more self-consciously about "learning objectives." Given the fact that some of the philosophy underlying the pilot general education courses is somewhat different from that shaping our introductory, discipline-based courses, it would seem important for faculty to proceed in the construction of those courses with a clear and self-consciously articulated view of the learning objectives for the courses. In fact though, those faculty who have volunteered to teach the pilot courses--nearly all of them experienced teachers with records of excellence in teaching--are understandably resistant to instructions from deans or other administrators about how to structure their courses. I am still hoping that we can in the future make more of an effort to engage faculty in conversations about learning objectives for their courses, but, as in the area of technology and teaching, we need to be sensitive about and respectful of individual styles of teaching.

Perhaps the single greatest challenge facing us as we move forward with this experimental curriculum is that of addressing the question of whether or not the sorts of courses that are being taught in the Pilot Curriculum are scaleable and sustainable when ramped up to serve our entire student body. I have frequently noted that I do not have strong preferences with respect to whether our eventual general education requirement consists of four courses, six courses, eight courses, or ten courses so long as the courses in our general requirement open up in exciting ways for entering students the world of knowledge in the twenty-first century and inspire them to pursue particular pathways toward deeper knowledge in their subsequent studies. I am becoming more and more optimistic that the sorts of courses we are developing within the Pilot Curriculum are doing just that. But it is nevertheless clear that the task of creating enough courses of that character to serve our entire student body is very, very daunting. Particularly daunting, I think, because the culture of "choice" among Penn students is very strong. While I think we would be making a serious mistake to move to recreate a general education requirement with the degree of choice exhibited by our present General Requirement, with its more than 300 courses, I do think that, however many course categories we agree upon, we will need to offer a reasonable range of choice within those categories. My own guess is that we will need at least 50 courses, although that number would almost certainly vary depending on the size (e.g., 4 courses? 6 courses?) of our next general requirement.

At present, our Pilot Curriculum is running parallel to our regular curriculum. Indeed, we have promised to departments that the pilot courses are "extra" courses which will not cut into their ability to offer the full range of existing courses that they have normally offered. Although this course of action is labor and resource intensive, we can probably manage it for another few years. But unless we are able to increase the size of our standing faculty significantly, the task of creating not eighteen, but 50 or more "extra courses," all of them taught by standing faculty and some of them team-taught, is formidable indeed. The single greatest challenge facing us, I believe, is to engage in serious conversation with departments about ways in which we can create a single curriculum in which the needs of general education, introductory discipline-based education, and education in the major for undergraduates are rationalized and harmonized. I believe that this can be done. Moreover, I am hopeful that we might be able to use the fact of our commitment to innovation in the field of general education as a means of increasing at least modestly the size of our standing faculty, an increase that would relieve at least some of the strain already being felt by our faculty. But to be successful--to meet the challenge of providing the best liberal arts education available at any research university in the nation--we will need to be willing to open our minds to new and better ways of constructing our curriculum.

In November of this year, as part or our federally-funded grant from the Department of Education, we held a "Pilot Curriculum Symposium" at which more than 50 of our own faculty and five distinguished educators from outside of Penn came together to discuss our progress in the Pilot Curriculum thus far and to chart our plans for the future. In the course of that symposium, Robert Thompson, undergraduate Dean at Duke University, asked us if we had conducted a "self-study" before embarking on our experiment in general education. Although CUE considered informally a number of strengths and weakness of our current curriculum, its proposal for a Pilot Curriculum was not prefaced by a self-study. Rather, the Pilot Curriculum is our self-study. It is the means by which we will take stock of what we are already doing well, of those things that we need to do better, and of those new things we need to do if we are to do better in the future. And, perhaps most important, it is the means by which we as a faculty can generate within ourselves the enthusiasm and commitment not only to devise, but also to implement a curriculum in which we sincerely believe.

-- Richard R. Beeman, Dean of the College


Almanac, Vol. 48, No. 29, April 9, 2002

ISSUE HIGHLIGHTS:

Tuesday,
April 9, 2002
Volume 48 Number 29
www.upenn.edu/almanac/

It's once again time to recognize excellence in teaching at Penn, with the Lindback and Provost's Awards. And the recipients are….

A political science professor is appointed to a term chair.

Four of Penn's schools make the grade on the top ten list of U.S. News graduate schools.
Observations on the experimental SAS Pilot Curriculum, including insights, accomplishments and challenges.
An graphic report on the University's FY 2002 Budget, as reported to Council.
Research Roundup: a few of the many Penn projects and studies shed light on interventions, risk-reductions, treatment strategies and post-traumatic stress.