A student resource for overcoming academic speed bumps

Penn students are known for being exceptionally talented, ambitious, and above all, smart.

But with the University’s rigorous courses, brilliant faculty, and competitive exams, sometimes, the smartest thing a student can do is realize when it’s time to seek campus resources.

Whether for students seeking as little as an hour of guidance to those who need help navigating academia with a disability, the Weingarten Learning Resources Center serves as a home to dedicated staff and cutting-edge resources.

“Penn has a population of students who are very bright, and because they’re so bright, the students will often say, ‘I never had to study.’ They’ve never really struggled in a course,” says Myrna Cohen, executive director of the Weingarten Center. “So when students are encouraged to go beyond their comfort zone—take harder courses or something outside their major—they’ll sometimes hit a little road block or speed bump. The Weingarten Center is a place where they can go for help.”

The staff at the Center, tucked away just off of Woodland Walk in Stouffer Commons, work to provide academic support services and programs for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students at Penn through two collaborative offices under the same roof: the Office of Learning Resources (OLR) and the Office of Student Disabilities Services (SDS).

“Students benefit greatly with both offices housed in the same suite. The staff works closely to make effective cross referrals and to support the specific needs of our students,” says Susan Shapiro, director of SDS.

The OLR provides professional instruction in academic strategies such as reading, writing, study strategies, and time management—offerings you’d expect from a typical learning center, Cohen says, but with a different angle.

“We work authentically. Instead of giving students worksheets or books to read about how to study, we embed the instruction within the courses they’re already taking,” Cohen says.

The SDS provides comprehensive, professional services and programs for students who self-identify with disabilities—whether learning, physical, or temporary—to ensure equal academic opportunities and participation in University-sponsored programs. The Center’s services are free and confidential.

“Students with disabilities are accepted to the University with the same standards as any other student. They’re just as qualified, so their accommodations are to provide access—not an unfair advantage,” Shapiro says. “We work very hard to find the right balance between  academic integrity and access.”

Each year, the Center helps bring issues facing students with disabilities to light at the Disability Symposium, a day of workshops and discussions that draw faculty, staff, and students from Penn and from more than 60 peer colleges and universities.

The Center also hosts more than 200 smaller scale programs for students across campus, working closely with instruction-related programs across disciplines.

“Ultimately we want to help students to begin to own the responsibility of self-advocating, understanding what their strengths are, what their needs are, and how to use resources to their advantage to capitalize their strengths,” Shapiro says. “Our goal really is to help students be as independent as possible while giving them the resources to be in control because the skills they learn from both offices are really skills they’re going to use for the rest of their life.”

One issue that Cohen says affects students is the need to reduce distractions in study environments—a feat that’s become increasingly difficult as study materials shift from hard copies to digital.

“So many more of their books are available online, but some of the traditional study skills they’ve been taught through high school don’t adapt readily to the screen,” Cohen says. “We’ve traditionally told students to avoid the television in order to concentrate, but it’s hard to get away from things like Facebook and other social media when it’s on the same computer or device you’re trying to study on.”

To combat digital distractions, the Center’s staff has vetted several apps geared to help students with aspects such as reading, note-taking, website blocking, and time management.

In fact, the Center has fully embraced technology, connecting students with devices such as smart pens that capture lectures while note-taking, and programs that are capable of translating mathematical functions and tables to audio. A staff member at the Center was even able to configure a program that interprets musical scores in braille.

“By helping students maximize their abilities, we’re contributing to the classroom experience for those students, their classmates, and their professors,” Cohen says. “And when students are in control of their learning, they have time to balance it with extracurricular activities that really contribute to the University. We’re helping students graduate and go on to be Penn alums who do really amazing work in the world.”

Weingarten Center