Your courses, deconstructed

Academics may not be the only reason students come to Penn, but it certainly plays a big role. The Daily Pennsylvanian was able to gain access to all available Penn Course Review data, which contains an enormous number of student evaluations of their classes going back over a decade. Through data analysis, we've been able to address some of the most simple and complex questions students might wonder about their academics: Are STEM classes really harder than humanities classes? Who are Penn's top teachers of all time? What are the biases in the evaluation data?

Through graphics, "top 30" lists and in-depth articles, here we present our answers to those questions and more.

Departments SAIL
The Rate
Sectors Writing

Undergraduate Schools

Course Quality Difficulty Instructor Quality Work Required

How do Wharton, the College, Engineering and Nursing stack up? Students in each undergraduate school exchange some friendly fire over the difficulty and breadth of their course load. Students in Engineering and Nursing report that their classes require more work and are more difficult than Wharton and College classes. But College and Nursing students report high course quality and instructor quality scores - students taking Wharton and Engineering classes report that they have lower quality and poorer instructors, on average.

Course Difficulty

Yes, it's true - humanities classes heavily populate the list of Penn's easiest courses, and STEM classes (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) monopolize the list of hardest courses, based on course difficulty ratings. Half-credit music ensembles and film seminars are among the easiest classes Penn has to offer. Meanwhile, 23 of the top 30 most difficult classes Penn offers fall under the STEM umbrella. Design and architecture classes also frequent the list of Penn's difficult course offerings.


Since Spring 2009, Penn has consistently taught courses in about 110 departments. Twenty-one of the top 25 departments ranked by instructor quality are language departments, including both popular language departments like Spanish and uncommon - sometimes unheard of - language departments like Sanskrit. Language classes also receive favorable ratings in reports of course quality and amount of work required. STEM, on the other hand, occupies the lowest rung of departments based on difficulty and instructor quality ratings, with students ranking chemistry as the single hardest department.

Difficulty Course Quality Amount Learned Instructor Quality

Size represents selected metric.

SAIL Courses

Structured active in-class learning (or SAIL) courses are a new and growing phenomenon at Penn. The university does not label which classes qualify as SAIL, but by contacting departments and professors, the DP was able to identify at least 17 courses taught that fit the SAIL model. To the surprise of the bulk of Penn students who groan when they hear the words "active learning," students tend to rate SAIL courses more favorable than the average course in their departments. But when comparing classes before and after they transitioned to the SAIL model, the data indicates that at least for some courses, students still prefer traditional classroom learning methods. For "Constitutional Law" and "Oceanography," course quality and instructor quality dropped when instructors switched to SAIL.


Course Quality Difficulty Instructor Quality Work Required

Though many classes qualify to meet the seven general education requirements known as "sectors," many more of them don't. The "Natural Sciences & Mathematics" and "Physical World" sectors - which have relatively few courses that fulfill them - are consistently ranked the lowest of the sectors based on course quality. They are also ranked well below the average non-sector course. These results corroborates other data showing that students rate STEM courses more poorly than other courses across all variables. The "Arts & Letters" and "Humanities" sectors are ranked the highest of the sectors, with ratings that match the average non-sector course.

Writing Seminar

Penn Course Review data supports the student anecdotes suggesting they don't like their writing seminars - the only course that all undergraduates must take. Though writing seminar faculty have consistently tried to improve the curriculum over the years, the evaluation data shows steady results each year: Writing seminars have an average course quality significantly lower than that of other Penn classes. Students also report that writing seminars require more work than other courses, but they rate the course difficulty and quality of their instructors similar to the average Penn class. Data is not yet available to examine whether the overhaul of the writing seminar curriculum that began last summer will change the sentiment on student evaluations.

Professor Quality

Six of the top 30 professors ranked by instructor quality are not currently teaching: one is on sabbatical, one has joined the administration and the rest have left the university. Thirteen of those top 30 professors teach language classes. University Chaplain Chaz Howard and renowned author and Wharton professor Adam Grant make the list. Most of Penn's high profile professors - including Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and writing program director Valerie Ross - fare well, scoring above the average professor quality score of 3.11.

Class Size

Some introductory classes contain over 100 students, but small seminars can have as few as two. Penn's smallest classes have higher course quality ratings than medium-sized classes, which in turn are rated higher than large classes. The cognitive science department has the most students enrolled per class, followed by biology and then chemistry. The language classes Turkish, Sanskrit and Urdu have the smallest class sizes of any departments.

The Rate Depression

Everything faculty had come to expect in their Penn Course Review evaluations went out the window in Spring 2009, when the average scores on nearly every variable dropped significantly. This was the semester that the university switched from pencil and paper to online course evaluations, which somehow led to much lower average ratings of courses, professors and departments. Work required and course difficulty are the only variables that appeared to stay flat. In order to avoid skewing the results, we have restricted all of our other analyses to ratings from Spring 2009 onward.


"Your courses, deconstructed" is the culmination of over a year of data analysis and research, which led to a long spring semester of reporting, writing and editing, along with the production of an unprecedented number of graphics - both static and interactive.

Editors and staff members belonging to nearly every Daily Pennsylvanian department were involved in the cultivation of this project. Our news editors wrote in-depth stories exploring every facet of the Penn Course Review data. Copy editors worked hectically to keep up with all the text accompanying the project. Staffers in the online graphics department each took on an assignment, ready and eager to contribute.

Of course, this could not have been done without Harry Cooperman, who has been enthusiastic about open data since I met him way back when we were fellow crime beat reporters. Harry took on the brunt of the work of analyzing the absurd amount of data we were able to gain access to. He was always on call to answer any questions, and he even found time to write a couple of articles for the project.

I owe special thanks to Penn's Executive Director for Education and Academic Planning Rob Nelson for putting up with our team's endless questions and requests. He showed excitement for our project from the beginning, regardless how it turned out.

Also, I have to thank Lauren Feiner for letting me run around this semester acting like I'm still important.

-Jill Castellano, former DP Editor-in-Chief

This project was created and published by The Daily Pennsylvanian, Spring 2016. All rights reserved.
Read about our methodology.

Project Manager

Jill Castellano

Data Analysis

Harry Cooperman, Luke Chen

Web Engineering

Andrew Fischer, Mikael Mantis

Creative Director

Joyce Varma

Interactive Graphics

Andrew Fischer

Video Producer

Susanna Jaramillo

Static Graphics

Kate Jeon (coordinator,) Jenny Lu, Beidi Hu, Camille Rapay, Jill Castellano, Kalikolehuaaka Zabala-Moore, Megan Paik, Rong Xiang, Shun Sakai, Matt Mantica


Jill Castellano, Jessica McDowell, Harry Cooperman, Caroline Simon, Ellie Schroeder

Article Editors

Jill Castellano, Lauren Feiner

Copy Editors

Lucien Wang, Sunny Chen

Opinion Editor

Isabel Kim