Undergraduate Education

Our goal in the School of Arts and Sciences is to offer our undergraduates the best liberal arts education available at any research university in the world. Our undergraduate programs in the College of Arts and Sciences (“the College”) and the College of Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS) have the distinct challenge and opportunity to define and frame the core mission and value of liberal arts education in the 21st century, both for our own students and for those of the pre-professional schools that surround us. 

While the specific content of the liberal arts has evolved over the centuries and will continue to do so, our fundamental approach will remain consistent: deep, sustained, and active engagement with the most profound ideas of a specific area of study, complemented by a breadth of experience and encounter across ways of thinking. Working from these foundations, our students should then join the process of creating new knowledge and of active, impactful participation in solving problems at the local, national and global level.  In the coming decades, our students will see opportunities and challenges of increasing complexity in their lives and their professions. As the pace of change increases, the liberal arts will become increasingly valuable for what they have always done particularly well: instill an ability to adapt to change, or even to catalyze it. By focusing on innovative thinking, deepened empathy, clarity of expression, and fundamental critical thinking, the liberal arts make minds nimble and actions impactful.

Curriculum, Advising, and Assessment

The College’s current curriculum, comprising the General Education Requirements in effect since 2006 and the major, continues to serve our students well. The curriculum introduces students to the intellectual perspectives and traditions of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences and examines how they interact to facilitate understanding of complex phenomena and improve the human condition. Its foundational approaches provide and strengthen core communication, analytical, and cultural competencies our students will need to thrive in the contemporary global landscape.  But as the liberal arts evolve for the 21st century, the curriculum of the College will adapt to our students’ changing needs.  We will develop courses as well as research and internship opportunities for College students to gain computer programming skills and experience. We will also develop targeted courses and opportunities for students to learn and practice appropriate data and statistical analysis methods. A primary goal of these efforts will be to enable our undergraduates to participate more fully in the academic opportunities described in the next part of this strategic plan, such as digital humanities, policy, or scientific programming in support of the Energy, Sustainability, and Environment and Mapping the Mind initiatives.

Invested with a strong foundation in the liberal arts and the deeper study of their major field, many of our students seek to explore the applications of what they have learned and how it pertains to specific vocations. We will continue to develop structured opportunities and programs to enable students to take advantage of the professional schools that surround the College (and the School’s own professional master’s programs), through minors, sub-matriculation, and other kinds of structures. While doing so, we will work to overcome administrative and financial practices that unnecessarily obstruct the vigorous development and implementation of such programs.

Building on the model of the Integrated Studies Program for freshmen, we will encourage our faculty to develop courses and programs that enable our students to marshal multi-disciplinary perspectives to solve theoretical and practical problems. These efforts can reach across disciplines within the Arts and Sciences, or beyond into Penn’s other schools. They can also occur at many stages during a student’s career, from new offerings in our freshman seminar program taught by SAS faculty or faculty from other schools to integrative capstone experiences that culminate in research, community action, or policy projects.

Undergraduates in the College and LPS are expected to make informed decisions about their education, assume responsibility for those decisions, and recognize that their choices must resonate with the faculty’s vision for their education as articulated in the curriculum.  Our academic advising systems are organized with this expectation in mind.  The academic advising team – composed of the College and LPS advising staffs, SAS faculty, and University partners such as College Houses and Academic Services, Career Services, Learning Resources, and Counseling and Psychological Services – provides support and challenge to students as they craft their Penn education and supports faculty in their educational and advising responsibilities. We will continue to ensure that our advising is informed by the best practices in the field, ongoing evaluations of performance, and a deep understanding of the changing demographic characteristics of our student population. We will pay particular attention to the advising and support students receive after they have declared their majors.

Our work in support of our students’ success begins even before they arrive on campus. Indeed, it begins with the process of admitting each year’s class. The School remains deeply committed to working with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to increase the diversity of our applicant pool and admitted classes in every dimension, because our community is stronger when it can celebrate its diversity in terms of race, gender, nationality, and socioeconomic status. In this context, it is ever more imperative to ensure that a Penn education is fully accessible to and supportive of the most promising students, regardless of their background or ability to pay tuition. We must also build stronger networks of faculty, alumni, and campus groups, and our partners in University Life to provide mentoring and other support for these students where appropriate. Beyond tuition, we must provide the means for students to take full advantage of the richness of the educational environment, including opportunities to take non- or low-paying internships, to do research, and to study abroad. In addition, the changing demographics of higher education have brought a national audience to the LPS B.A.  Maintaining opportunities for talented students who pursue a different path to their B.A. without compromising academic excellence is an important dimension of the School’s inclusion strategy.

In recent years the College and its programs have made explicit the learning goals and outcomes of majors as well as those of the general education curriculum.  We have also made great progress in assessing the effectiveness of our programs in achieving these goals, and we have begun to use the results of assessment to make improvements. The College will maintain and enhance its assessment activities, helping departments sustain these efforts and realize the benefits of longer-term assessment and evidence-based improvement.


In the classroom students come face to face with things that are complex and real, as they are placed in direct contact with a variety of people, texts, phenomena, artifacts, and places. We should cultivate the intimacy, presence, and materiality of the classroom as a distinctive contribution of undergraduate teaching at Penn that is both profound and irreplaceable. At the same time, we will continue to develop our expertise at using the Internet to bring ourselves to the world and the world into our classrooms, and to take advantage of our experiences with online teaching to enhance the experience of students in College classes, both through the for-credit courses offered through LPS as well as in massive open online courses (MOOCs).

The College is justifiably proud of the care and attention that its faculty pays to the teaching mission and will support efforts to improve the classroom experience as follows:

  1. The College will maintain and strengthen its collaboration with the Center for Teaching and Learning in offering programs and resources to all faculty for the improvement of classroom instruction, including additional outreach to new junior faculty.
  2. The College will support departments and individual faculty in ongoing experimentation with teaching methods and course designs that engage students more actively in learning. We will continue our investment of resources and faculty effort to exploit the educational benefits of online teaching and instructional technology more generally:  blended courses, flipped classrooms, engaging non-resident communities of learners, and other approaches we have not imagined yet. We will continue to support and expand the Structured Active In-class Learning efforts of the natural science departments and the expansion of these efforts to other interested departments such as Economics and Political Science. Many of the new approaches to teaching require classrooms that are configured differently from the traditional lecture halls and seminar rooms we have now.
  3. The College will support faculty in developing flexible approaches to teaching that enable students with varying preferred modes of learning to succeed. Anticipating the demographic shift implied by more inclusive admissions policies, we will support faculty efforts in teaching introductory courses using methodologies that encourage success and persistence for students from groups underrepresented in specific disciplines.

Research and Engagement

Opportunities to participate in advanced research in SAS or in Penn’s professional schools make a liberal arts education in the College distinctive. Involvement in this work, whether in humanistic scholarship, creative expression, social science analysis, public policy, or scientific investigation, should be a hallmark of every student’s education in the College. To the extent possible, no student should graduate from the College without having experienced at least some aspect of the process of creating and disseminating new knowledge or independent creative work, whether on their own, in a course, or in an “apprenticeship” relationship or contribution to a mentor’s research, writing, civic, or curatorial project. We intend to support this goal by taking the following steps:

  1. Students should begin to develop their capability to do research as soon as possible in their Penn careers.  Where they do not already have them, departments and programs will be encouraged and supported to develop courses or workshops on research methods for undergraduates.
  2. The College will provide support for undergraduate research, particularly connected with the emerging academic opportunities described elsewhere in this plan.  Additionally, building on the model of programs such as the Humanities Internships and Community Service grants, as well as science research programs, we will seek to provide funding to enable students to work with mentors in schools and organizations both at and outside of Penn, for example, through Penn in Washington and in New York through the Program in Opinion Research and Election Studies (PORES).
  3. We will take greater advantage of the opportunities that are presented by the laboratories of SAS natural sciences departments and Penn’s health schools; local schools, organizations, and government institutions; the University’s and Philadelphia’s extensive libraries and cultural institutions; and the other graduate and professional schools at Penn as sites where undergraduates can acquire research experience.
  4. We will increase resources for mentors, both at Penn and in the surrounding community, who supervise undergraduate research projects.

Additionally, we will work to create a structure for recognizing students’ efforts to put theory into practice through a new kind of credit on the transcript, distinct from academic credit. These efforts include research, work/internship experience, or community engagement. The College will explore instituting a requirement that students amass several such credits for graduation.