Students attending the Penn State College of Medicine find humanities principles and content throughout the curriculum. With the oldest Humanities Department in a college of medicine in the country, humanism has been built into our history and woven into the fabric of our curriculum from our inception. From the moment our students start in the Profession of Medicine Course through to the last day of the fourth year, our goal is to produce compassionate, sophisticated physicians.

One student framed it this way:

The Penn State College of Medicine has been transforming passionate medical students into compassionate physicians since 1967!

In the first two years, Humanities courses meet every Tuesday morning for two hours. Typically, the first hour is a large group session, and the second hour is a faculty-facilitated small group session. First-year courses include:

Medical Humanities

The doctor-patient relationship is the domain and essence of Medical Humanities. This course focuses on two people: the patient and the professional caregiver. Each brings his or her unique perspective, history, belief system, strength and weakness to the doctor-patient relationship. Medical Humanities explores topics such as empathy, suffering and resilience, death and dying, and the culture of medicine and medical education.

Science of Mind-Body

The goal of this course is for students to gain an understanding of and respect for the impact of the mind on the body, and of the body on the mind. The course explores that connection by taking up topics such as meditation and mindfulness, trauma and defense mechanisms, and the physiology of stress.

Critical Thinking

The goal of the course is to introduce an accessible approach to thinking and problem solving that will benefit students in the classroom, on clinical services, in the research lab, and in life outside of medicine. We approach critical thinking as a decision-making process that 1) incorporates a mindful interrogation of one’s own thinking, 2) takes into account the pitfalls and strengths of prior experience, and 3) balances humility, intuition, skepticism, open-mindedness, and curiosity.

Patients as Teachers Project (PAT)

Embedded into the first year of the curriculum is the experiential Patients as Teachers Project, where students visit a patient in their home and learn about the lived experience of illness. Some students make documentary films about their patients, and Screen them in a project called “Short-form Storytelling.”

Medical Ethics and Professionalism

Simply being a kind person does not inoculate physicians from the complex bio-ethical challenges they face in practice. The main goal of MEP is to introduce learners to a variety of issues involving ethics and professionalism that arise in the practice of medicine, and to help prepare learners to deal effectively with such issues. MEP addresses topics such as autonomy and informed consent, advance care planning, and medical mistakes and truth telling.


One broad course goal is to take the theoretical aspects of communication and enact them in a concrete and experiential way, through an exploration of the assumptions and biases that impact communication and communicating in dyads, teams, and larger systems. This course focuses on exploring: 1) assumptions and biases that impact communication 2) self-reflection and feedback as critical communication skills and 3) the value of interdisciplinary teams. Concrete topics the course takes up include nonverbal communication, empathetic statements, and open-ended questions.

During their third year, students participate in recurring small group sessions where they reflect on clinical experiences and explore how formal learning in Humanities can be challenged and reshaped by clinical realities.

In the fourth year of medical school, our students must choose one of 12 to 14 “Selectives.” These are intensive, one-month courses designed to delve more deeply into topics that integrate clinical knowledge and experience with humanities perspectives.

Jazz and the Art of Medicine

A course that uses improvisation as a vehicle for understanding and practicing physician-patient communication.

Graphic Storytelling (Comics) and Medical Narratives

A course that reveals how graphics and text can be used effectively to communicate complex medical stories, and that requires students to depict their own stories in graphic form.

Time Slips

A creative, group-based storytelling project for persons with dementia, facilitated by students.

Photography and Medicine

A course that enables students to critically explore and create visual imagery.

There are also selectives focused on death and dying, writing and literature, advanced ethics, and many others.