Penn Ends Curricular 'Experiment'

The University of Pennsylvania has wrapped up its grand experiment in curricular reform.

January 20, 2005

The University of Pennsylvania has wrapped up its grand experiment in curricular reform.

Penn won praise for scientifically testing potential changes in its general education requirements and offerings, by comparing students' experiences with an alternative curriculum against another set of students' experiences in the original curriculum. After putting four classes of students through the test, the university has carefully analyzed the results and concluded, as Dean of the College Dennis DeTurck puts it, "that whether they were in the pilot or not did not seem to make a whole lot of differences" in their academic choices.

If that makes it sound like the experiment was a waste of time, far from it. Penn officials learned a great deal about what their students (and professors) want (and don't want) in a curriculum, and how entrenched some aspects of the university's academic culture are. So as Penn's faculty considers another set of changes to the curriculum this spring, it will have comparative data to help guide its decisions -- as opposed to the typical hypothetical-laden approach to curricular reform.

So how did Penn's system work, and what exactly did it reveal?

Because of some dissatisfaction with the existing general education curriculum, Penn decided that for the classes of 2004 to 2008, it would put 200 entering students a year into a pilot curriculum that had four required courses instead of 10, more electives, more intensive advising, and a required major "research experience." They would be compared against a somewhat smaller cohort each year taking the traditional curriculum.

The hope, at least among some observers, was that the changes would encourage students to experiment more, perhaps nudging more students into science and math (and maybe a few fewer in history and premed), involve undergraduates more in research, and increase students' overall satisfaction with their intellectual experience at Penn.

This fall, as it reviewed the results, Penn officials found many more similarities than differences between students in the two curricula. Course choices were generally the same; there were "no consistent significant differences" in, for example, the proportions of students earning double majors or studying abroad, according to the final report of the committee evaluating the pilot curriculum.

And importantly, officials hoping that imposing fewer requirements and allowing more electives would lead more students into science courses found the opposite. Students in the pilot project took very few science courses. "We learned humanities students won't take science and math courses unless they have to," says DeTurck. "If we really think math and science are important, we're going to have to require people to take them."

The requirement of a major research product in the pilot curriculum produced some interesting results. Nervousness that students wouldn't have good ideas for research projects and that professors wouldn't have time to work with the students quickly faded, and "people realized there was much more capacity among the faculty, and students realized, 'Yes, we can do this, and it's really interesting and good,' " says DeTurck. Even students not in the pilot program ended up doing more research projects once they found out such opportunities were available, he notes.

The bottom line, according to the report of the evaluation committee, was that "despite substantial differences between the requirements of the Pilot Curriculum and the Regular Curriculum, and despite our extensive evaluation of multiple sources of information on outcomes, we have found little difference in outcomes for Pilot vs. non-Pilot students. The only consistent, significant differences reflected direct effects of requirements: more of the Pilot students participated in research, and more of them took very low numbers of science and math courses."

DeTurck says that the experiment has driven home to university officials that "Penn has a culture, and that there is an entrenched notion of what Penn students do," that introducing more freedom and opportunity into the system alone won't change.

That finding is likely to influence the faculty as it crafts another round of curricular proposals this spring, shaped heavily by the grand experiment of the last five years.


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