Struggling through sectors

Penn Course Review data suggests negative experience of College sector requirements


College and Wharton senior Michael Sklar has forced the College of Arts and Sciences into a game of chicken.

Sklar, who will graduate in May, is currently enrolled in BIBB-585, Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience, and hopes to use the class to satisfy the Living World sector for his College degree. Without it, he will technically only graduate from Wharton.

"It remains to be seen whether they will approve that," he said. "I'm going to put the decision to them as to whether or not they will choose to deny me my College degree over this."

Sklar is just one of many students who have offered criticism of the College sector system. Across the board, Penn Course Review data shows that students rate sector courses with lower course quality and instructor quality and higher difficulty than the average College course.

Assistant Dean of the College Kent Peterman attributed these lower reviews of the sectors to a "cognitive dissonance" that occurs when students fill out their course evaluations, meaning that students are naturally inclined to rate sectors as lower quality because they had to take the classes to fill requirements rather than choosing to take it as an elective or for a major.

Regardless of the reasons for these lower scores, the trend is well documented. Since 2009, only the average "course quality" rating for Arts and Letters in a single semester has outscored the average of all College classes. Courses that fulfill Physical World and Natural Sciences and Mathematics, the two lowest-rated sectors, received scores that were consistently between 0.4 and 0.8 points below the College average on a 4.0 scale.



Professors reflect on sectors

In addition to the difficulties students face in filling requirements, professors have their own challenges. Geology professor Lauren Sallan, who teaches GEOL-125 Earth Through Time, said that the course requires her to "go back to building blocks."

"You can't assume that any students in the class have any prior knowledge, so in addition to getting through the basic curriculum, you also have to deconstruct things to another level," she said.

For professors who teach sector courses, the evaluations can have detrimental effects. Course evaluations, while not personnel records for the University, are taken into consideration by the University when considering things like which faculty will get tenure.

For Sallan, teaching an introductory course has negatively impacted the reviews she gets. "It's really tough to get up there and lecture for an hour and half and teach to a class where people in the audience are just unresponsive and unengaged," she said. "People are really mean in the comments."

In addition to encouraging students to take courses in a variety of departments, the sector system promotes what Peterman described as "educational breadth." That is, classes not only teach about specific subjects, but also expose students to larger questions in their field.

In order for a course to satisfy a sector requirement, courses must not have prerequisites and must expose students to a variety of methods and studies across their department. Once the syllabi for these courses are designed, departments must propose them to a committee that approves all requests.

The origin of sectors

The sector system, which started in 1987, requires students to take courses in a variety of departments to satisfy requirements across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

In its original incarnation, the system divided every course offered by the college into one of the three categories and simply required students to take two classes in each category.

The system gave students an "overwhelming array of choices," according to Peterman. Instead of finding good and interesting ways of filling these courses, students created a "de facto core."

Comparing the Sectors

Course Quality Difficulty Instructor Quality Work Required

"They couldn't make those decisions, so they said to their friends, "well, what did you take?' And it had the effect of kind of clustering attention on a small number of courses," Peterman said. "You would think that freedom would mean more freedom and more diversity and more independence, but it had just the opposite effect."

Peterman also believes the system "rewarded professors for teaching courses that were not especially challenging." At the time, Peterman said that the College had a greater problem of courses not being challenging enough to fit the "growing profile of the University" and challenging the more talented students Penn was admitting.

Sklar, however, did not see Peterman's assessment of the old system as an issue.

"And what about that is a downside? I see that as actually an extremely efficient system," Sklar said. "The important thing is that students have the ability to intellectually challenge themselves if they choose to do so."

"I think the sector system should not have a prescribed list of courses - perhaps you could even just say a prescribed list of departments," Sklar added. "Or they should open it up so that all courses - or most courses - within a department will satisfy the sector."

As a result of attitudes like Peterman's, in the fall of 1987, the College chose to alter the sector system, creating instead a pre-approved list of courses that would satisfy each of the five newly defined sectors: Society, History and Tradition, Arts and Letters, Living World and Physical World. The system was defined even further in 2006 when Humanities and Social Sciences and Natural Sciences and Mathematics were added as interdisciplinary sector requirements.

Peterman said that the College and the committee that approves sector classes is currently in the process of reviewing Sector VII, Natural Sciences and Mathematics - one of the two lowest-rating sectors on Penn Course Review.

"I think we're pretty happy with the way the first four sectors are working. Five and six, pretty happy with those as well," Peterman said. "Sector VII has always been kind of not well understood either by faculty or by students."

Sklar, a statistics concentration in Wharton and a math major in the College, found himself in LING 001 to satisfy Sector VII the spring of his junior year. "It is extremely annoying when the system tries to tell me that I don't know natural sciences and mathematics," Sklar said.

While Peterman did not know when the changes to the sector would be made, he said that he was confident that there was a "strong commitment" that the sector remain a science course.

Sklar hopes for broader changes to the entire sector system which would allow students more flexibility to take classes in their interest areas. "It's a bit of a slap in the face to students who want to challenge themselves and who want to take one course that is more difficult than just the baseline."